Emotions are Contagious

Excerpt from Don't Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High Conflict Divorce

© 2010 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

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Brain researchers indicate that implicit prejudice comes from many unconscious “cultural factors” like jokes, catchphrases, overheard taunts, and so forth, from peers, parents and the media. It is not hard to imagine an angry parent making off-hand comments and making gestures about the other parent in the presence of the child, without consciously being aware of it. It’s not hard to imagine the child absorbing all of this without being consciously aware of it as well.

In alienation cases, the problem is very similar. Most family courts have a standard court order that says something like this: “Neither parent shall make disparaging remarks about the other parent while in the presence of the child, nor shall a parent allow others to do so.” This is a good court order to address explicit alienating behavior.

I think the problem isn’t explicit alienation – the problem seems to be implicit alienation. They can’t see it and we need to understand that, rather than lecturing them on their bad behavior, as though they know why they act badly and chose all of their behavior carefully.

Implicit attitudes, beliefs and non-verbal behaviors about the other parent are much harder to recognize. In most cases, parents and professionals are not even aware of their own implicit biases and how they pass them on to the children. This seems to fit the old song about prejudice from the musical South Pacific, about World War II:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,

You’ve got to be taught from year to year,

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear –

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a different shade –

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate –

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Few people are consciously aware of being taught this. Before you are six or seven or eight, learning appears to be mostly non-verbal, emotional messages absorbed by your right brain from your family and culture – relatives, friends and the media. The brain research is helping us understand how subtle this can be.

How could a court make an order against implicit disparaging emotions? Perhaps parents and professionals should be required to learn about how emotions are contagious and this unconscious implicit bias. Then, parents could be required to state how they are going to protect the children from their upset emotions during the divorce process, and professionals could berequired to state how they are going to protect their clients from their upset emotions. I explain more about this in Chapter Twelve.