Parental alienation, or one way to screw up your kids following divorce

I’ve been working a lot in the family law arena lately — divorces and child custody cases. Thus, I’ve been thinking a lot about how and why divorces can lead to negative outcomes for kids. One major factor I’ve seen a lot of lately is the issue of parental alienation.

Parental alienation is loosely defined to describe when one parent’s behavior interferes with a child’s relationship or attachment to the other parent. At its extreme, parental alienation can cause the child to come to believe that a loving parent is the cause of all the child’s problems, is the “enemy,” or is to be hated or avoided at all costs. (As an aside, I am not talking here about cases where the alienated parent engaged in actual psychological or physical abuse of the child. I am also not talking about the somewhat controversial “diagnosis” of Parental Alienation Syndrome. I am merely talking about a group of behaviors that can be damaging to a child or children in a divorced family.)

Parental alienation behaviors fall into several primary categories. One such category includes behaviors that suggest to the child that the other parent is dangerous, untrustworthy, unduly strict, or otherwise a less desirable parent. This includes behaviors such as the following:

  • speaking negatively of the other parent;
  • refusing to allow the child to take his or her belongings along for a visit to the other parent’s house;
  • enthusiastically encouraging the child’s natural anger at, frustration with, or fear of the other parent, no matter how minor;
  • telling the child he or she can come “home” right away if he or she gets scared at the other parent’s house;
  • cutting off the other parent’s ability to obtain medical or education records without court intervention; and
  • physically or psychologically “rescuing” the child when there is no legitimate threat to the child’s safety or well-being.

Another category includes behaviors that suggest to the child that visitation with the other parent is not particularly important. This category includes behaviors such as these:

  • interfering with the other parent’s visitation time, such as by being chronically or intentionally late;
  • arranging temptations (friends, pets, toys) that interfere with the other parent’s visitation;
  • offering to pick up the child if he or she does not want to stay with the other parent;
  • giving the child the option to stay home from visitation with the other parent; and
  • helping the child justify not “wanting” to visit with the other parent by making excuses such as illness or fatigue.

A third major category includes behaviors that seek to emotionally manipulate the situation to make the child spend more time with the alienating parent, such as by making the child feel guilty or putting the other parent in the position of having to disappoint the child or give in to the alienating parent. Examples of this category including the following:

  • promising the child that the other parent will agree to activities or changes in the visitation schedule without first consulting the other parent;
  • requesting changes in the custody schedule from the other parent with the child present;
  • responding with hurt or anger when the child reports having a fun time with the other parent; and
  • asking the child which parent he or she would rather spend time with.

The problems with these behaviors are plentiful. First, the child may genuinely come to believe that the other parent is abusive, manipulative, or otherwise a despicable person. Not only can that belief result in the child cutting off a relationship with a loving parent for no good reason, but the child can also struggle with his or her own identity as the offspring of such an awful jerk.

Next, the child may decide that the other parent is not worthy of respect, since the alienating parent clearly does not respect the other parent. This can manifest in the child having a marked increase in acting out and negative behaviors while with the other parent. This in turn can result in the alienating parent using the child’s behavior to “confirm” the alienating parent’s opinion that the other parent is a problem parent.

Third, the child may feel emotionally cut off from both parents. The child can feel guilty about having a good time with the other parent. The child can also feel that he or she is not allowed to be honest with the alienating parent in discussing visitation or the child’s time spent with the other parent. The child ends up communicating what he or she perceives the alienating parent wants to hear, namely all the negative things that happened during visits with the other parent, while omitting all the positives. This can again “confirm” for the alienating parent that the other parent is a problem.

If you have divorced with children, it is vital that you check your own behavior to see whether you engage in any of the types of behavior I’ve described. If so, ask yourself why you do those behaviors. If the answer is your own insecurity, your own desire to win over your ex, or your own joy at perceiving that your child loves you more than anyone else, you may indeed be alienating your child from their other parent in a harmful way. Meanwhile, if your ex is engaging in these behaviors, it is important for you to use the means available to you, through counseling or perhaps the legal process, to put a stop to such behaviors as urgently as possible.

A child’s mental health and emotional well-being depends on the adults in his or her life (including for most kids both parents) providing love, support, and space for the child to be himself or herself. Part of that process includes giving that child the opportunity and freedom to explore his or her relationship with the other parent without fear of the consequences of doing so. By avoiding (or stopping) alienating behaviors, children can form strong bonds with both parents, leading generally to better outcomes for all involved.

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