Dear Dr. Brian

02/09/2016

Dear Dr. Brian,

I’ve been watching the presidential candidates from both parties participate in the recent televised debates, and I’ve heard candidates who’ve been governors say that a president needs executive-branch experience, which candidates who’ve been senators don’t have. Then I’ve heard candidates who’ve been senators say that a president needs foreign-policy experience, which candidates who’ve been governors don’t have. And then I’ve heard candidates who’ve been business people say that a president needs private-sector experience, which candidates who’ve been primarily in public office don’t have. So what do you look for in a President?

Novice in New Hampshire

Dear Novice in New Hampshire,

I think that experience in all of those areas helps. That said, there’s nobody (not even someone who’s already been President for four years) who can have every kind of experience and know everything that’d be helpful for a president to have and know. Just as no psychologist or lawyer has experience with every possible problem that a patient/client might present, nobody knows everything there is to know about healthcare and also about the military. Nobody knows everything there is to know about finance and also about diplomacy. And nobody knows all of the ins and outs of running a large organization and also all of the ins and outs of shepherding legislation through Congress.

What I look for primarily, then, (in their words and deeds) are the core values which will guide the individual’s decisions, from policy decisions to appointments of Cabinet secretaries and other public officials. So what core values do I look for in particular? I start with two: individual liberty and personal responsibility. These two values necessarily go hand-in-hand because they’re the fundamentals essential to your achieving the fullness of your productive potential in life without infringing upon my achieving the fullness of my productive potential in life. As I see it, the overarching mission of our government, and of the president who heads it, then, should be to uphold and effectuate these two overriding values.

A person who places a supreme value on individual liberty is a person who’s unlikely to be corrupted by the prospect of exercising power over others. Likewise, a person who places a supreme value on personal responsibility is a person who’s likely to operate with integrity, with both a sense of obligation to make his or her best contribution to the nation and a sense of accountability for his or her behaviors and decisions and for keeping his or her word. And from those two fundamental values—individual liberty and personal responsibility—descend guiding principles such as: the sanctity of life, the rule of law, the exceptionality of America, and the privacy of property.

Then from those values and principles descend public-policy priorities such as: democracy and small government, secure borders and a strong national defense, self-defense rights and toughness on crime, capitalism and free markets with low taxes and minimal regulations, school choice and local control of education, and respect for traditional American values. (The latter includes reluctance to read beyond the plain text of our Constitution, reluctance to redefine the nuclear family—man, woman, and child—that’s the fundamental unit of both human propagation and society, and reluctance to infringe upon citizens’ religious beliefs, even if someone’s feelings are hurt because, for example, he or she didn’t get a benefit or didn’t get his or her first-choice provider of some service because the would-be provider of the benefit or service declined on religious grounds.)

[Before I go on with what I look for in a president, notice what’s not on the foregoing list of policy priorities: forcing productive Americans to help less-productive Americans by seizing and redistributing the productive Americans’ productivity. That’s collective responsibility. Helping members of our society who are incapable—mentally, physically, or both—of helping themselves is an important and noble objective, but I think it should be a personal-policy priority (i.e. something done voluntarily by compassionate individuals acting alone or in concert), not a public-policy priority (when it’s a public-policy priority, it never works well, and it destroys the nobility of the objective because the element of compassion-driven sacrifice is replaced with compulsion-driven sacrifice). It’s funny to me, in a sad way, how some Americans can’t seem to wait to vote for whoever promises them the most freebies (“free” college, “free” healthcare, “free” cell phones, …), as if goods and services are ever really “free” on a societal scale. The value of a good or service is created by someone seeking out raw materials, procuring them, manipulating them, combining them, converting them into something more than they were originally, etc., and/or by someone doing an activity that makes others’ lives easier or better in some way. And all of those efforts begin in the minds of individuals who choose to think about what they can do that’s of value to others. It’s astounding to me when people—voting adults—seem to actually believe that others are going to continue to put in the same level of thought and put forth the same level of effort and put out the same level of productivity when, instead of being compensated, those things are being confiscated. It’s also funny to me, again in a sad way, how some Americans keep voting, election after election, for those who promise them things despite how those promises, even when kept, end up providing them, at best, subsistence-level lifestyles that carry with them the obligation to continue voting for the providers thereof. To me, those who seek to acquire power by promoting dependence upon themselves rather than by promoting independence not only violate the values of individual liberty and personal responsibility but effectively seek to shackle the very people whom they purport to want to help. Every election, I wonder how many more elections, how many more generations, it’s going to take before the recipients of all that so-called “help” wake up and realize that the “help,” on balance, really hasn’t been helpful. Collective responsibility is simply incompatible with individual liberty—no matter how much a collectivist politician claims to want to maximize your liberty, if you decline to be an individualist and instead abdicate responsibility for yourself to the government, the government will impose restriction after restriction upon your liberty, all predicated upon its “responsibility” for you. But I digress.]

Then in addition to the core values that I look for in a president, I look for intelligence, of both the traditional variety and the emotional variety, which again go hand-in-hand in an optimal president. Traditional intelligence—IQ—enables the individual to acquire, assimilate, and analyze voluminous and complex information and come to logically-sound conclusions about which policy priorities best effectuate his or her core values and principles. Emotional intelligence enables the individual to identify what information and/or influence he or she lacks that’s necessary to implement his or her policy priorities, to identify who has it, and to then work effectively with them to implement the priorities. Emotional intelligence also enables the individual to effectively articulate and explain his or her core values, principles, and policy priorities (it’s critical to sustained effective leadership that everyone involved in implementing a leader’s policy priorities understands the values and principles from which they descend) and to motivate people to effectuate those values and principles by formulating and carrying out specific policies.

So there you have it, basically what I look for in a president. I hope it helps you to think about what you want to look for in this pivotal election year. If you’d like to know more about what I look for—and what I don’t look for—and why, I explain my beliefs about what’s best for America in much greater detail in my book Stop Moaning, Start Owning: How Entitlement Is Ruining America and How Personal Responsibility Can Fix It.

Thanks for your question,

Dr. Brian

(“Dear Dr. Brian” is published for public-interest and entertainment purposes only – it does not establish doctor-patient or attorney-client relationships, and it should not be used as a substitute for psychological, legal, or financial advice from a licensed professional in your area.)


Dear Dr. Brian

11/19/2015

Hey Dr. Russell,

I currently live in New York and after the recent Paris attacks and the ISIS video that was just released (which insinuates NYC as its next target) are making me very uneasy. In other words, I’m worried that these violent, erratic attacks will come to New York. I wanted your input on this. How concerned should I actually be? How do you think Obama and the US should respond? Please let me know your thoughts.

Nervous in New York

Dear Nervous,

Under the circumstances, I can’t tell you I wouldn’t be somewhat nervous, too. I’ve been saying for years that the kind of street-level terrorism—suicide bombers, rampage shooters, Paris-style attacks—that our Israeli friends have faced for decades would start happening here in America. It’s already happened, with incidents including the Boston Marathon bombings, the Ft. Hood shooting rampage, and others, and I predict it will happen again and with increasing frequency.

While not every individual or small group of individuals who want(s) to do harm to Americans can be preempted, we’ve been relatively fortunate so far—sometimes thanks to dumb luck but often thanks to overworked, understaffed, tirelessly dedicated, and largely unsung homeland security and law enforcement officers and agents. But if we, as a society, wanted to really maximize their effectiveness, we’d look to our Israeli friends and take some key additional steps.

In jihadist strongholds overseas, we wouldn’t just be bombing sporadically and “droning” an occasional leader who can be replaced instantly. We’d be projecting overwhelming force against any serious threat to America emanating from those areas—planes in the air, ships at sea, and yes, boots on the ground if needed, whatever it took to neutralize the threat. If we’ll end up doing it anyway, better to do it before an enemy has a chance to dig in, train, swell its ranks, gather innocent “human shields” around it, etc. “Collateral damage”? That’s the enemy’s fault, not ours (it’s not ours to fix either—you saw how well “nation-building” worked in Iraq).

Here at home, we wouldn’t be weakening our Patriot Act legislation, which enables our national security apparatus to intercept communications between jihadists and their material supporters. Yes, that entails a minor compromise of freedom (e.g., the freedom to make calls even to known ISIS operatives’ phones without attracting the attention of the government to ourselves), but as I explain in my book, Stop Moaning, Start Owning: How Entitlement Is Ruining America and How Personal Responsibility Can Fix It, choosing to live in a society always entails that, and we actually end up freer because of it (and I have yet to hear of a single innocent American who’s been demonstrably, practically—as opposed to theoretically—harmed by this legislation).

We wouldn’t be admitting refugees from jihadist strongholds when we have no good way to vet exactly who they are and why they want to be here and no good way to track them effectively if they choose to disappear into the shadows once here. We can still care about refugees (e.g. help set up “safe zones” in their homelands or, better yet, get their wealthy neighbors to help them), but we should care about Americans more. Yes, that’s essentially “profiling,” and as politically incorrect as it may be, it works. It’s insane to scrutinize a 20-year-old Syrian male no differently than we scrutinize a 70-year-old Irish female.

If, for example, we didn’t allow any young men from countries with significant jihadist subcultures to enter the U.S. for any reason, or at least not any more than we could fully vet and then effectively track in real time, we likely wouldn’t have had 9/11. Yes, we would also have excluded many well-intentioned young men who’ve truly just wanted to study and/or work here—disappointing foreign students is unfortunate, but risking Americans’ lives is worse. Our government’s first duty is to defend us, and here again, “collateral damage” is our enemies’ fault, not ours.

We wouldn’t be releasing people whom we know wish us harm from our Guantanamo Bay facility in Cuba (certainly not in exchange for an American deserter like Bowe Bergdahl). Instead we’d be adding occupants to that facility and resuming active interrogations of those detainees. We’d be sealing our borders so those who wish us harm could no longer simply walk in here at will. We’d be tracking down anyone from any nation with a significant jihadist subculture who’s overstayed a visa and disappeared. We’d be deporting people who commit even low-level crimes as guests in our country (after they serve jail/prison sentences here), and we’d be passing an even more stringent version of Kate’s Law (severely punishing any deportee who returns).

We’d be getting the government out of a lot of things in which it never should’ve been involved—e.g. healthcare—which distract its attention and resources from its first duty, defending Americans from attack (internationally, that means the military and intelligence services, and internally, it means law enforcement, courts, and correctional facilities). If our government fails in its first duty, the others don’t matter much, and it has to be 100% effective, while our enemies have to be effective just once, so, in multiples senses of the word, we can’t afford not to focus on fundamentals.

We’d be educating our citizens about the danger we face and enlisting their help in combatting it. For starters we’d all be calling it what it is—jihadism or militant/radical Islam. We’d be training all citizens to say something if they see something and assuring citizens, employers, and law enforcement officers alike of no penalties for good-faith mistakes in that regard. And recognizing government’s not, nor should it be, omnipresent, we’d be affirming competent adults’ rights to have defensive weapons in all states/cities.

Sadly, we won’t do any of the above with the current Administration in office, and depending on whom we elect in 2016, maybe not even after that. To make matters worse, in NYC, your mayor has made you even less safe. He’s banned the NYPD from infiltrating mosques, and he’s made it clear that if a cop makes an honest mistake in stopping a suspected jihadist who turns out to be innocent, the cop won’t get the benefit of the doubt—that makes cops hesitant when we need them most to be decisive.

And, gun rights are severely limited in NYC—unconstitutionally so in my opinion—so an attack in NYC would likely go down much like it did in Paris: the jihadists would be the only ones armed on the scene, and they’d be able to shoot Americans at will until the cops arrived or until enough brave Americans charged them through a hail of bullets (jihadists are generally cowards who flee or commit suicide when faced with counterforce, so they attack where they expect no counterforce to be).

Now, NYC is clearly a prime target for jihadists. They’ve hit it before, and I predict they’ll hit it again. It’s a big place though. Unless you happen to live on top of a particularly-attractive target site, I imagine the statistical chances of you being near an attack remain relatively low, however, there certainly are lower-risk places to live/work. That said, I generally hate to see people feeling driven by fear to make major life changes. So, people have to decide for themselves whether to stay there or not.

If it were me, and I chose to stay, I wouldn’t live my life consumed by fear, but if I could arm myself (without endangering myself, legally or physically, or others), I would. I’d increase my situational awareness, i.e. my vigilance level. If ever I saw something, I’d say something immediately. In the open or in a crowd, I’d have my wits about me (i.e. be 100% sober), and I’d take note of both escape routes and places to take cover if needed.

And I’d have a plan in mind for the worst case scenario. If caught up in the midst of an attack like the one in Paris, I’d plan to escape if possible; if not, to take cover if possible; and if not, to fight, even if that meant rushing the attacker(s)—I’d never permit myself to be transported anywhere, lined up for execution, etc. (that’s, I think, a positive legacy of 9/11—jihadists, and really all mass murderers, count on victims to be paralyzed by panic and are often ill-prepared for resistance).

I’m unsure whether any of this has been helpful—I don’t really give highly-individualized advice, particularly clinical advice, e.g. about anxiety reduction, in this format, but I’ve tried to give you some general principles that maybe you can at least use as a starting point to think and talk about what’s best for you as an individual (which might include seeking input from a law-enforcement, legal, and/or mental health professional there in NYC who’s closer both to you and to your specific circumstances).

Thanks for your question,

Dr. Brian

(“Dear Dr. Brian” is published for public-interest and entertainment purposes only – it does not establish doctor-patient or attorney-client relationships, and it should not be used as a substitute for psychological, legal, or financial advice from a licensed professional in your area.)


What’s scarier than Halloween?

10/30/2015

Entitlement! Earlier this month, parents of students in Milford, CT’s public schools learned that district officials had canceled the schools’ traditional Halloween festivities to prevent any students who don’t celebrate Halloween (e.g. for religious or cultural reasons) from feeling excluded. I write about just such misguided moves by educators—essentially excluding everyone in the name of inclusion—in my new book, Stop Moaning, Start Owning: How Entitlement is Ruining America and How Personal Responsibility Can Fix it.

They’re akin to not keeping score and/or awarding trophies to every participant in youth sports to prevent smaller or less coordinated participants (of which I was one!) from feeling excluded or canceling honors ceremonies to prevent lower-achieving or less motivated students from feeling excluded. As in most such athletic and academic cases, I believe that the intentions of the school officials in Milford probably were good, but they were misguided for two key reasons:

1) They were fostering a sense of entitlement among kids to be protected by others from ever feeling left out of anything. That’s misguided because, in America, we all have the right to go through life without being forced to embrace anyone else’s traditions, but no one has the right to go through life without being exposed to, or even feeling offended by, others’ traditions.

2) They were depriving kids of crucial opportunities to learn to tolerate feelings of exclusion. That’s misguided because we’re all excluded from some things in life—we can’t each be every religion, do every job, etc. Being exposed to things that others enjoy in which we can’t fully participate isn’t necessarily oppressive; it can promote awareness, tolerance, and admiration of others’ experiences.

I believe most Americans intuitively understand the misguidedness of trying to shield kids from ever feeling excluded or offended, which was affirmed by the overwhelming positive public response to a Kia commercial shown during Sunday Night Football within days of the Milford schools’ Halloween decision which points out the folly in treating lesser-achieving competitors the same as champions. Unfortunately, for many Americans, understanding the misguidedness of such things doesn’t necessarily translate into standing up to them.

And parents’ failures to stand up to them allow kids to grow into college students who don’t mind “speech codes” on campus, intended to prevent students from ever feeling excluded or offended by anyone’s words. Even President Obama has decried such free-speech restrictions in the name of inclusiveness, seeming to agree with me that young Americans feeling excluded or offended may be bad, but young Americans not minding the loss of their First Amendment rights is worse! (And what comes next may not scare the President, but it scares me: those college students grow into professionals who don’t mind having their incomes “equalized” by the government!)

I was heartened, then, to hear recently that the Milford public schools have reinstated this year’s Halloween festivities in response to pressure from parents who apparently understand that nobody—young, old, or in between—is entitled not to experience uncomfortable feelings, and when one does experience such feelings, figuring out how to tolerate and deal with those feelings constructively is part of growing into a personally-responsible individual. So, if the parents in Milford are representative of parents across America, there’s reason for optimism (at least until someone proposes singing a Christmas carol at a “winter” choir concert in December!) that parents are awakening to the many ways in which schools have been fostering entitlement when fostering personal responsibility would serve their kids much better.

For more on entitlement vs. personal responsibility in kids and schools, Stop Moaning, Start Owning: How Entitlement Is Ruining America and How Personal Responsibility Can Fix It, is available everywhere NOW from HCI Books, and SIGNED copies are available on my website.


More Lessons from Fatal Vows, Season 3!

09/22/2015

As we gear up for Season 4 of Fatal Vows on Investigation Discovery (season premiere announcement coming soon!) it’s a good time to take a look back at some lessons learned in past seasons of Fatal Vows!

In my previous post, I took readers through “Fatal Vows 101”–an ongoing crash course in how NOT to get murdered by your spouse! If you haven’t read that post, or even if you have (it never hurts to review), or if you know someone who hasn’t, here’s a direct link to it: Fatal Vows 101.

Once you’ve enrolled in Fatal Vows 101 and mastered lessons 1-15, drawn from Seasons 1 and 2 of Fatal Vows, you’re ready for lessons 16-17, drawn from Season 3. And…here they are:

16. BEWARE THE DATING PARTNER WHOSE PREVIOUS SPOUSE DIED MYSTERIOUSLY – If you’re thinking of dating a widow or widower whose previous spouse died under mysterious circumstances, think VERY carefully. Can you be CERTAIN that the person whom you’re thinking of dating had NOTHING to do with the prior spouse’s departure from the planet? If not, I wouldn’t risk being next!

17. LISTEN TO YOUR GUT – If you EVER have even an INKLING that your spouse might seriously want you dead, don’t just tell a friend or family member to suspect your spouse if you die and then wait to see what happens. GET OUT, get yourself (and any minor children of yours) to a safe place, and give some serious thought to whether you can and should stay in the marriage. Getting angry with one another from time to time is normal, but you should never feel physically unsafe in a normal marriage, so if you ever do (feel unsafe), that feeling’s highly abnormal and not to be ignored. It’s possible that you’re having paranoid delusions, in which case your spouse may be normal and YOU may need some clinical attention, but if I were you, I’d be CERTAIN of that before I went back and ate, slept, etc. in the presence of someone who I thought might want to murder me!

Okay, now you’re prepared for further study in Season 4! Will you spot people who’d be alive today had they learned these lessons? (Definitely!) And can you spot a new lesson for me to include in a post like this next year? If so, suggest it, either in a comment here or via Facebook or Twitter!


Dr. Brian’s Top 15 Lessons from Seasons 1 & 2 of “Fatal Vows”

04/09/2014

FatalVows101DrBrianRussell3CAUTION: These are my (not necessarily my co-host Stacy’s or the network’s or the production company’s) current “Top 15” lessons for viewers to learn from “Fatal Vows” based on the recurring themes in the deadly divorces that we’ve chronicled on the show in Seasons 1 & 2. They’re not the only lessons that viewers can learn from the show, nor will learning them guarantee viewers happy, healthy marriages (which involve a lot more work than just learning these lessons). Learning – and living – these lessons should, however, reduce the chances of viewers’ marriages ending in murder!

LESSON 1: AIM HIGH – When you’re a grown woman (or man) and your significant other isn’t in school, isn’t a stay-at-home parent/homemaker, and is still doing the same job that he (or she) did in high school, still spending significant numbers of hours playing video games, etc., it’s time to ask yourself whether you’ve aimed high enough in life (and ladies, ask yourself that before you get pregnant).

LESSON 2: SHOOT FOR MENTAL HEALTH AND STABILITY – It’s sad when someone else has been through horrendous things in life, but sometimes, through no fault of their own, they’re simply not equipped or inclined to be great partners, and you don’t have to feel guilty for passing on them (but you should feel guilty if you make a child with someone who’s clearly likely to be an unhealthy and potentially unsafe parent).

LESSON 3: BEWARE THE “BAD BOY” – The “bad boy” (or girl) who parties excessively, lives recklessly, is selfish, self-entitled, unreliable, impulsive, has a criminal record, etc., no matter how “exciting” he (or she) may seem initially, is probably just that, BAD, both for you and for any kids you’d make with that person (and “bad” people usually don’t change much, so forget about trying to “tame” one).

LESSON 4: BEWARE THE PSYCHOPATH – Anyone who seems to take pleasure in the suffering of others (or animals), especially others about whom he or she is supposed to care, is a DANGEROUS person from whom you and your kids should get away, right away.

LESSON 5: BEWARE THE HOVERER – Obsessive possessiveness, even if it seems flattering initially, is a precursor to obsessive abusiveness (obsessively possessive people tend to objectify human beings and eventually treat them like inanimate things).

LESSON 6: BEWARE THE PARENT OF MINOR CHILDREN – Step-parenting minors is a minefield that you’re probably not going to navigate unscathed and, more often than not, isn’t a net benefit to the minors involved (and making new kids when one or both parties already have minor kids selfishly marginalizes existing kids who’ve been through enough already).

LESSON 7: NEVER HAVE AN EXTRAMARITAL AFFAIR WITH/WHILE A MARRIED PERSON – Cheating on a spouse is spousal abuse, cheating on a spouse with children is child abuse, and while the married person in that situation is the abuser, an affair partner is an accomplice (this is the #1 precursor of murder on “Fatal Vows”).

LESSON 8: LISTEN TO YOUR LOVED ONES’ CONCERNS ABOUT YOUR SIGNIFICANT OTHER – They may be more objective than you are at the moment, and marriages that don’t have the support of one or both spouses’ family(ies) are less likely to succeed (And to the loved ones: If you see signs that someone you love is being abused, SAY SOMETHING).

LESSON 9: WAIT! – Wait to get married until you’ve been an adult for a while and spent SUBSTANTIAL time with the other person IN PERSON (not on the Internet), AS ADULTS (you need to see the other person handle all kinds of different situations and demands so that you can assess his or her maturity, compassion, ethics, morals, work ethic, integrity, intelligence, emotional intelligence, reliability, etc., which takes time, and if it’s really right, there’s no rush), and WAIT to make a baby until you’re married.

LESSON 10: IT TAKES TWO – If you’re having to compete with someone else for your spouse’s romantic attention, something’s wrong, and competing isn’t likely to solve it, nor is inviting a third party into your relationship (the ONLY sustainably-stable romantic relationship structure is a dyad – two people, period).

LESSON 11: YOUR SPOUSE’S AFFAIR PARTNER KNOWS – Affair partners almost ALWAYS know about the spouse and kids and they DON’T CARE, so there’s probably no point in “confronting” a third-party home-wrecker.

LESSON 12: ADDICTION IS ABUSIVE – It’s not a disease, and it isn’t a “Please get help” situation; it’s a “You’re out of here and you’re not coming back, at least until you’ve gotten help and established a sustained pattern of clean, sober, sane, safe, responsible living” situation (and NEVER start a relationship with/while a person in “rehab”).

LESSON 13: NOBODY SNAPS – Lethal violence is virtually always the conscious culmination of an escalating pattern of deliberate violence, so you need to get yourself and any minor children involved away from a violent person at the FIRST signs of domestic violence (which is child abuse even if it’s “just” spouse-on-spouse in the presence of children), period.

LESSON 14: GET LEGAL ADVICE FROM A LAWYER – If an abusive spouse threatens to take custody of your kids in court if you file for divorce or separation, go see a lawyer and learn your rights; it’s often an empty threat (and if you find your spouse “embezzling” family funds for personal fun, take steps to protect your assets, as well as your kids and yourself, so that you and the kids don’t end up homeless, or worse).

LESSON 15: PANIC IN PUBLIC – Your chances of surviving an assault are probably going to be lower if you let the attacker take you from a public place to a private place, so I’d never let myself be taken from a public place, if I could help it (I’d make a scene, draw attention to myself, and make the attacker have to choose to either do the crime right there in front of whoever may be looking or listening or filming, OR, flee the scene and, if caught, just face an “attempt” charge; my money says they’ll usually flee instead of following through in public).

Stay tuned for more lessons in Season 3, premiering this fall on Investigation Discovery!


Dear Dr. Brian

04/06/2014

Dear Dr. Brian,

Why do you seem so sour on step-parenting on your show?

Thanks,

Second-Time Step

Dear Second-Time Step,

Thank you for your question, and please allow me to preface my answer by saying that I can’t give an opinion about any viewer’s or reader’s specific step-family in a forum like this (such an opinion would require a thorough evaluation of all parties involved) — I can only give a summation of my general personal and professional beliefs about step-parenting. That said, I’m not sour on all step-parenting, just the majority of step-parenting of minors, and here’s why:

Rarely do I see single parents’ remarriages as net benefits to their minor children. In my opinion, the role of a stepparent is probably the most difficult interpersonal role that a human being can play, and the vast majority of people who play it play it badly — even highly-intelligent, highly-emotionally-intelligent (intelligence and emotional intelligence aren’t the same thing and don’t necessarily correlate positively) people tend to have a lot of difficulty with it. That’s a big part of why the divorce rate for marriages in which one or both parties has/have existing minor children is estimated to be upward of 70%. Keep in mind, virtually all minor children of single parents are children who’ve already been through something traumatic — sometimes the death of a parent, but more often, abandonment or divorce. In my opinion, in the vast majority of cases, single parents’ attention thereafter ought to be focused on “damage-control” — minimizing the damage done to their children by whatever traumatic events split up their families, which I believe is a “full-time job” — as long as those children are minors.

When single parents of minor children focus attention on their own love lives and on meeting their own romantic/sexual needs, it diverts attention from those minor children’s many needs, and when single parents try to enmesh their love lives with their minor children’s lives, it can be extremely selfish and damaging to those minor children in my opinion. Given the incredibly low success rate of such romances (the vast majority of which don’t result in marriage) and marriages (the vast majority of which end in divorce), exposing minor children to them exposes those children, at the very least, to high chances of enduring additional emotional trauma(s) (and less often — but still far too often — single parents who get overly focused on their own love lives rush into romances, cohabitation, and remarriage, don’t do nearly enough “due diligence” in evaluating their new spouses’ suitability to be stepparents, and end up negligently exposing their children not only to emotional abuse and trauma but also to physical/sexual abuse and trauma at the stepparents’ hands).

On a day-to-day practical level, just imagine, for instance, how a 12-year-old girl feels when she has to get fully dressed in the morning before leaving her bedroom for some cereal because there might be an unrelated male (a stepfather and/or stepbrother) in the family kitchen. Uncomfortable adjustments like that are enough to breed plenty of justifiable resentment, both toward the step-parent and toward the parent, but that often pales in comparison to the resentment bred by discipline/behavior issues in the household. Stepparents tend to have huge problems figuring out where the lines are between their rights as co-owners/lessees of the homes in which their stepchildren reside and the realities that they (the stepparents) are not those children’s parents. When children say to stepparents, “You’re not my mom/dad; you can’t tell me what to do!” they’re substantially correct, and while that doesn’t mean that those children can’t or shouldn’t be expected to behave reasonably respectfully, conflict between children and stepparents tops the list of issues that sink marriages involving preexisting minor children. And perhaps the greatest and most justifiable resentment breeder of all is when parents and stepparents marginalize existing children by making new children together. All of the above is compounded exponentially, by the way, when a parent’s relationship with a stepparent began while that parent was still married to the child(ren)’s other parent, i.e. when it started with an extramarital affair, in which case the parent’s child(ren) will likely and justifiably resent the stepparent, if not also the parent, as a home-wrecker worthy of little-to-no respect.

For such reasons, then, I believe that in most cases (acknowledging some exceptions), putting minor children into step-parenting situations is more harmful than helpful to those children. And those children are always my — as they should be everyone’s — priority (hence the eye rolls that you’ve probably seen on television when I’m discussing minor children whose last names are, for example, Johnson and Robertson, with a mother, stepfather, and step-siblings whose last name is Jones — because I know what those children likely have been put through so that Mrs. Jones can be “happy” for a while). Once one makes a child, the adult’s mission in life is to get that child to adulthood as physically, intellectually, emotionally, socially, and morally healthy as possible. It’s no longer about the adult — it’s all about the child; every major life decision made by that adult ought to be guided by that child’s best interests as long as that child’s a minor (I know, some single parents who wish to focus attention on their own love lives may rationalize that their romantic happiness is somehow a prerequisite to their children’s happiness, but it’s not). I believe, therefore, that any parent of a minor who’s contemplating dating, let alone having an extramarital affair, let alone introducing a love interest to his/her minor child(ren), let alone remarrying, let alone making a new child, ought to ask him/herself, “How is this helpful to my [and, if applicable, to my partner’s] minor child(ren)?” and if they’re honest with themselves, I believe that the answer, on balance, most often, is “It’s probably not.”

Again, I can’t give an opinion about any viewer’s or reader’s specific step-family situation in this forum, and yes, I do know of instances in which having a stepparent has been more helpful than harmful to specific minor children. Given, however, the vast majority of cases in which I’ve been involved as a lawyer, psychologist, child-custody expert, national television news analyst, and host of a national television show about divorces-turned-deadly, I retain great admiration for single parents who essentially put their love lives on hold (at least in the presence of their children) and focus their interpersonal attention and energy on identifying and meeting their children’s needs while those children are minors (and by the way, I also retain great admiration for single would-be stepparents who say to single parents of minors, “Focus on your children right now, and when the time’s right, you’ll have someone waiting for you”).

Thanks again for your question,

Dr. Brian

(“Dear Dr. Brian” is published for public-interest and entertainment purposes only – it does not establish doctor-patient or attorney-client relationships, and it should not be used as a substitute for psychological, legal, or financial advice from a licensed professional in your area.)

Dear Dr. Brian

09/09/2013

Dear Dr. Brian,

Can you provide any backup for a mom who’s trying to explain why a 15-year-old boy shouldn’t date a 12-year-old girl? What is this world coming to?

Thanks,

Mortified Mom

Dear Mortified Mom,

The fact that a 15-year-old boy finds a 12-year-old girl attractive doesn’t necessarily mean that the boy is developmentally abnormal — boys’ hormones are raging at that age, and given variations in maturation rates, there’s also variation in how much younger a 12-year-old girl might actually appear, both physically and socially. But regardless, I think your instincts are absolutely correct that allowing them to date would be inappropriate, despite the fact that American culture seems to be portraying romantic and sexual behavior at younger and younger ages as “normal.” Three years is a lot bigger difference at 15 and 12 than it will be in another 10 years when they’re 25 and 22. Right now, it’s 20% of his entire life and 25% of hers. Despite any differences in maturation rates, they still ought to be at different places developmentally (psychologically, emotionally, physically) and in different peer groups (with which neither child’s peer bonding would be helped, in my opinion, by focusing a lot of his or her attention on a non-peer social relationship). There are also potential serious legal ramifications, for the boy particularly, if things were to get (or even to be alleged to have gotten) out of hand.

Here’s my overriding principle, though: At ages 12 and 15, neither one of them really ought to be “dating” anyone at all (in the sense of spending significant time with an opposite-sex friend absent any group context, adult supervision, etc.), age difference or not. I often talk about a power-responsibility continuum, along which children begin with 0% of the responsibility for their lives, and thus, 0% of the decision-making power over their lives. At age 18, though, those children will become adults — legally speaking at least — and then they’ll have both 100% of the responsibility and 100% of the decision-making power. So, rather than having them go from 0-100% without any practice taking responsibility and exercising decision-making power, I think that the ideal is for them to gradually, over time, throughout childhood and particularly adolescence, demonstrate progressive responsibility and be allowed to practice exercising commensurately-progressive decision-making power, while their parents are around to actively observe, guide, and as necessary, regulate the pace with which responsibility and power are passed from parents to child (because until a child reaches 18, the parents remain ultimately responsible for his or her physical, psychological, emotional, academic, and moral health).

One of the many specific areas in which I think adolescents need to gain some experience and practice exercising responsibility and power is whether, when, and how to spend time with members of the opposite sex, but again, I think that ought to be something that happens slowly, as track records of responsible decision-making are established, beginning in non-dating contexts, over the course of adolescence. I don’t think, for instance, that having sex is a responsible choice for a minor to make at any point (I don’t think that anybody who’s not prepared, if necessary, to meet all of the needs — financial, physical, psychological, emotional, moral, etc. — of a child ought to be having sex), but I think that dating (appropriate individuals, at appropriate ages, with appropriate parental guidance, after establishing track records of appropriate decision-making) can be done responsibly. I generally don’t think, however, that a 15-year-old could have established enough of a track record of responsible choices (particularly if he’s focusing his attention on a 12-year-old) to even be dating yet (other than, for example, attending a school-sponsored dance with a close-aged peer “date” with other peers and adult supervision present). Good instincts, Mortified Mom, and you can tell the 15-year-old I said so. He may not be happy now, but if he arrives at college without a criminal record, without an STD, without any dependents, and with a well-developed ability to make responsible choices where girls are concerned, he ought to look back and be glad.

Dr. Brian

(“Dear Dr. Brian” is published for public-interest and entertainment purposes only – it does not establish doctor-patient or attorney-client relationships, and it should not be used as a substitute for psychological, legal, or financial advice from a licensed professional in your area.)

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