PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME
When a couple with children makes the decision to end their relationship, the effect on their children can be profound. How the parents manage this major life change can determine the difference between a positive outcome for the children, or years of prolonged struggle.
Parental Alienation Syndrome refers to an active campaign to turn a child against the other parent. I have heard it termed brainwashing – it is damaging to everyone involved. In my work with families, I have rarely seen behavior this extreme. But I have seen families struggle with negative feelings between the parents spilling over onto the children – even without meaning to.
In cases of divorce or breakup, there can be animosity between the ex-partners. Even when they start out committed to remaining friends or ensuring that the children are untouched by the breakdown of their relationship, this is not always easy to accomplish. Ideally, when a relationship ends, the children’s interests are put first. When the parents move on, even remarry, it is possible for this new, expanded family system to be a thriving and healthy environment for the children. I have seen it in my practice in working with families. It takes effort and commitment on everyone’s part, and sadly, it doesn’t always work out this way, especially in the first years following a breakup.
Issues like custody, visitation, and child support can become very heated. The ages and maturity of the kids plays an important part, as well as the type of home each parent can offer. By home, I don’t mean luxury or extravagance, I mean that the child knows that he or she has a welcome spot in each parent’s home, and in their life, and that they are cherished, understood, and cared for. They need to know they matter, and that they can trust their parent to still be a parent.
Children were probably witnesses to the breakdown of the parents’ relationship, and they may have developed a sense of who was at fault. As parents, it is not our role to trash talk the other parent, or attempt to turn the child against them. What we can do is try our best to separate marital issues from parenting. If a “good guy/bad guy” scenario exists for the child, both parents have to first become aware of their behavior, their words, and even their body language. Notice if there are any ways they are contributing to parental alienation. Even if your partner was a lousy wife or husband, they may still be a great parent to the kids, and again, this is what matters most.
So, what if a parent is not such a great mom or dad to the kids? When is it parental alienation and when is the child’s reluctance to be with a parent justified? In his extensive work on Parental Alienation, Dr. Richard Gardner states that if “true parental abuse and / or neglect is present” and the child’s animosity is justified, Parental Alienation Syndrome would not be an appropriate explanation for the children’s feelings. In other words, if the child has feelings of animosity toward a parent who is abusive or neglectful, those feelings may be justified. Even then there is hope for repairing the parent-child relationship, if the parent who lacks parenting skills or has emotional issues is committed to getting help. If not, again, the child’s welfare is what matters.
Divorced parents need to understand that loving both parents is important whenever possible, even if they have ceased to love their ex-spouse or ex-partner. When one parent repeatedly belittles the other parent, or consistently brings the child into discussions of their faults or the reasons for the relationship breakdown, this can be called Parental Alienation Syndrome. Even if the faults are true, this is not appropriate for our children. Any behavior which is intended to disrupt the relationship between child and parent may be considered alienation. As I mentioned earlier, if there is neglect or abuse, this is an entirely different issue – if the child is frightened, unsafe, ignored, or subjected to harmful behavior, then custody and visitation may need to be adjusted for the child’s well-being. Being a parent is a privilege, and we owe our children our very best parenting regardless of how we feel about our ex-partner.
I hope this very brief overview of Parental Alienation gives you an idea of what it is, and what it isn’t. If this is an issue in your life, I encourage you to explore parental alienation and reach out for support for yourself and your children, if needed.
Video on Parental Alienation Syndrome is here: http://youtu.be/aGkJ5l0Z82s