I never thought I would be making a comparison between my dogs and Homeland Security, but here I am. Never say never. This is just my opinion, and granted the U.S. has just abandoned its color-coded security alert system, but it seemed to me that Orange Alert kind of stopped meaning anything after a while. We were ALWAYS on Orange Alert. It started to be normal. Here is where my dogs come in.
So my Great Dane, my St. Bernard, and my Boxer (yes, I have a good psychiatrist) all have one alert level only, and it is RED ALERT WE ARE UNDER IMMEDIATE AND IMMINENT THREAT OF DEVASTATING DESTRUCTION! OH THE HUMANITY, AND CANINE-ITY, EVERYONE THIS IS REALLY, REALLY BAD!
Around our house it is not uncommon to be sitting quietly, sipping coffee and reading the newspaper, low alert level, and then to be launched in one nanosecond to RED ALERT complete with barking, howling, hurling of dog mass into nice picture window, running to and fro to back door, skidding over kitchen tile, flying of fur and gnashing of teeth. The offending party? Three small girls on their little bicycles.
My dogs have no threat assessment expertise whatsoever. To them a wee little girl on a tricycle represents about the same threat to our safety as a ten megaton nuclear warhead headed in the general direction of our backyard. They are cute, my doggies, but a bit primitive in the “homeland security” department. Now I will say this, it serves the purpose of scaring away the really bad guys, but it is a bit of overkill and ends up making my home kind of chaotic and stressful at times. That is, if you consider being knocked over by a three hundred pound stampede of frothing, charging dogs stressful. Five or six times a day.
What is my point here, you ask? My point is that when we are in the midst of the stress of divorce and co-parenting, it is easy to become subject to the same black and white manner of reacting to stress. When we are operating on Red Alert all the time, having our ex return the kids ten minutes late can stir up the same kind of emotional reaction as getting a note made of letters cut-out from various magazines, saying “We have your children, don’t call the police.” Does this ring a bell?
When we let ourselves get into this condition, we lose our ability to look at a situation, think meaningfully about what the consequences could be, assess the level of potential harm, if any, and make a plan to reduce any harm effectively. In addition, we make ourselves and everyone around us completely miserable, notably our children.
So here are a few tips for making realistic threat assessments and learning to respond thoughtfully to situations instead of reacting, well, doggily.
Objectify the Situation
Pretend this is happening to someone else. Take yourself, and your own ex, out of the picture and put in a couple of random strangers. What would you tell them to do if their ex was ten minutes late? Call out the National Guard? Pace nervously in the front yard? Call the ex screaming about how irresponsible he or she is, only to find out they were late because your daughter forgot her homework and he/she returned to let them fetch it?
Or would you say, “You know, Random Stranger, there is very likely a reasonable explanation for this, and even if not, is this worth getting worked into a tizzy over? Not to mention, if you are this way when they get here, you are likely to start a scene in front of the kids and end up embarrassing yourself, right?” Get some emotional distance from what is happening by stepping out of your self for a moment.
Remind Yourself of all the Times Things Worked Out Fine
When we catastrophize situations, we forget about every single other time we were worried sick, convinced something bad was happening, and we were completely wrong. We begin to imagine worst-case scenarios and we go straight to “just knowing” this is what is going on instead of reminding ourselves that this worst-case scenario came from our overactive imagination and is in no way reality based. Yes, you will have to keep reminding yourself of this, but after a while it will reduce the flight into fear in the first place. I absolutely know this works. The evidence of that is that I keep getting on airplanes despite the amount of times I have imagined myself in a fiery crash. See?
Remind Yourself that your Ex Loves His/Her Children Too
And his/her children also happen to be your children! That’s a happy coincidence, isn’t it? So unless your ex is a psychopathic serial killer (and if he/she is, please please please don’t email me about it!) then you are probably safe in assuming that they are taking the best care of their children that they know how.
Now granted, if the issue is something like not paying child support, this can be a highly emotionally charged issue, but remember that getting on RED ALERT about it won’t bring the payments in, won’t make your ex any more likely to make the payments, and certainly won’t be setting a calm, coping example for your children. Not to mention it won’t be making you too happy either. RED ALERT does have it’s place, but it should really be saved for issues like THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE or MY AORTA JUST RUPTURED. Or maybe MAN, THIS IS A REALLY BAD HOME PERM. But not a lot else.
Get a ‘Reality Check’ Partner. Or Two. Or Three Just in Case
Find two or three people who will agree to be brutally honest ‘reality check’ partners for you to call when you feel yourself going into RED ALERT. Get them to agree to give you an honest appraisal of their take on the situation you present to them, and then LISTEN. Why is this important? Because if the only voice in your head is the one telling yourself that your ex has just absconded to Canada with your children, you’re going to end up believing it. Get some other, more, shall we say SANE voices going in there so you have some additional data to consider.
Remember that You Are Modeling How to Respond to Stress to Your Children
Whatever you say to your kids during stressful situations, they are going to learn from how you act. It’s really best if your actions match your words as well — that not only teaches them, it shows them, and builds your credibility with them. They will be able to trust what you say about other things because they will see you ‘walking the talk.’
Children really need to know their parents are in control and able to cope with whatever comes along. That is what ultimately gives children a sense of the world being a generally okay place to be. If you can model having a positive, coping attitude when the chips are down, you are going to have children who are able to look at situations calmly, assess things realistically, and plan a constructive strategy to deal with them.
Practice these techniques, and I do mean practice, practice, practice. It will seem artificial at first, but I can guarantee that if you stick with it your RED ALERT responses will diminish over time and you will be much more able to deal with the every day challenges every parent faces with inner, and outer, calm. Now if you don’t mind, I have to go tend to my dogs; either a fleet of alien spaceships have just landed in my front yard or the mail came.
Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC, is a therapist who specializes in individual, family, and couples and marriage counseling in Denver, CO. She provides services through Maria Droste Counseling Center.