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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:

Communication, Family Ties, Intimacy, Parenting, Relationships, Toolkit

Reboot Your Relationship (part I of the Reboot Your Life series)

I am starting off my series called Reboot Your Life with a blog post and video about Rebooting Your Relationship.

First, what is a REBOOT? Well, with a computer, you know how things can start to run slow and get bogged down? Shutting it down then allowing it to start fresh can help it run better. So applying the idea of a fresh start to your life, your work, and your relationships is designed to help you feel happier, energized, and more content with the life you are living.

This series will address how you can apply the Reboot philosophy to every part of your life – relationships, health, work, and brain. We’re not going to give you a list of what NOT to do. You probably know that. We’re going to focus on the positive things you CAN do to make each part of your life better.

So first, let’s talk about relationships.  This is assuming you have a significant other, but if you don’t, the concepts still apply. Friendships and family relationships need TLC, too, so no matter what your circumstances, you’ll find some helpful advice. So if I mention “partner” and you don’t have one, that’s okay. Think about what interpersonal relationship in your life these tips might improve!


Your relationship is not going to run on automatic. Scratch that – it may run, but it won’t thrive. So first and foremost, decide – “This person is worth my best effort. I am going to give this a try for thirty days and see what happens.” Then go for it! If you want to reboot your relationship, you’ve got to be ready to commit to consistent, simple, small changes.


If you have the same kind of life most of us have, you work, have kids, take care of the pets and the laundry and the car, and on and on. You go until your head hits the pillow at night. Your relationship gets pushed aside again and again. A relationship is like a plant – you have to water it to see it grow and flower. That means making time for one another. At least once a week, I want you to plan…something. It can be fancy but sometimes the times that make the best connection are spent taking a walk, sharing a cup of coffee, or giving each other a backrub. All that matters is that it is the two of you, that talk of babysitters and work and bills goes out the window for an hour, and that you focus on one another.  Take turns planning what you will do together. If you have to literally schedule this time in your calendar, do it.


I have noticed that it is sort of second nature to be polite to acquaintances and strangers, but we sometimes let common courtesy go when it comes to the people closest to us. I’m all for being comfortable with one another, but saying Please and Thank you, bringing your partner a snack when you make one for yourself, or just being thoughtful– these things make closeness and intimacy feel good. Don’t only save your best for others in your life – share the very best self you can be with your partner.


Listening is an art, and anyone can learn good listening skills. It feels good to be listened to! Try this. The next time you and your partner have a conversation, turn toward them. Make eye contact. Nod, and use your facial expression and body language to show that you are open and connected with what they are saying. Instead of offering advice, ask questions or paraphrase to make sure you get what they were telling you. This is all called active listening, and it not only increases intimacy and good will between people, it works with friends, co-workers, kids, and just about anyone you’d like to communicate with. Give it a consistent try, once a day, about any topic at all. It doesn’t have to be something heavy.


Finally, make time for fun in your lives together. Make each other laugh, put a silly note in her lunchbag, write I love you in the steam on the bathroom mirror after your shower.  Sometimes couples don’t have the same idea of what fun means. For example, sometimes I see couples where one loves to tease. And tease. And the other feels put off by that. So find out your mutual idea of fun – go searching for it if you need to. It will be worth it.

Rebooting your relationship means making room for new ideas and behaviors designed to make you closer, happier, and more intimate. Give it a try! Thank you for visiting my blog, and please add your own Relationship Reboot ideas below!

Link to the video on YouTube:


10 Fingers and 10 Toes

10 Fingers and 10 Toes

“Are you hoping for a boy or a girl?”
“I don’t care, as long as the baby’s healthy. I will love him or her no matter what.”

Most parents-to-be experience the above dialogue during pregnancy. It is an exciting time and everyone wants to talk about your little one, soon to be born. You may have a secret preference for a little boy or girl, but chances are you know that you’ll be happy counting fingers and toes in the hospital room and loving your newborn unconditionally.

One of the wonders of children is how early they begin to demonstrate their individuality, with personalities, preferences, likes and dislikes. It starts as young as noticing that one particular toy holds your infant daughter’s gaze longer than any other, or that your little boy will happily eat strained carrots every day, but spinach? Forget it. With each passing year your child develops more into a person of his/her own. They have a favorite color, movie, best friend. No longer infants, they grow, explore, and hone their identities through the years.

It is virtually guaranteed that your growing child will begin to show traits that may be very different from your own. Maybe even develop in ways that go against your beliefs, your traditions, and your culture. I was standing in the grocery store last weekend and a mother and daughter were behind me in line, perusing the array of items set out on the way to the cash register. Next to the People magazines and breath mints was a small assortment of incense. The daughter, probably around the age of 16, took a stick of incense, glanced at her mother, and said “I need this. For my Wiccan practices.” Her mom snatched the incense out of her hand and slammed it back into the display. “Wiccan practices!? You are not Wiccan!! And if you think you are, I will smack you into next week!” Noticing the attention of others in line, the girl’s mother fell silent, pressing her lips together in fury and glaring at her child.

When does our approach to our children change? When are ten fingers, ten toes and a bill of health no longer enough to allow us to love unconditionally? (For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that the kids we are talking about are not criminals or abusing drugs or alcohol, are reasonably respectful, attend school, etc. That is the subject of an upcoming blog post and a much different situation – when a child is genuinely in danger, red flags are a good thing. ) In this case, however, teen or adult children may be expressing themselves in ways which make their parents uncomfortable. They could be exploring lifestyles that don’t fit with the vision the family has held and nurtured all through their childhood years. Your child may have decided that Judaism is worth learning about, and your family is Lutheran. Your child may be drawn to a career which you don’t feel holds much promise. Your child may be gay or lesbian.

What impacts you is the difference from you, your family, your ideals. “How do I know my child will be happy with this life? Is this my fault? I don’t understand.” All of these are thoughts some parents experience when a child grows up to a life which includes beliefs, people, activities, and commitments which are not your own. It is a fearful, uncomfortable feeling.

The good news is not only is your grown child probably okay, but you are as well. Fear often comes from lack of understanding and knowledge. When you feel fearful about your offspring and their wellbeing, primal instincts of protection, anger, and even running from the perceived “danger” are not unusual. Most parents will agree that there is not much more horrible than your child suffering.

But what if they are not suffering? What if they are just not like us in some significant ways?

Differences are not inherently bad. Lack of knowledge can make them seem so. Take a moment to open your heart to your son or daughter. “I want to know what your life is like, who you are. Can you help me understand you better?” Put fear aside and listen. You don’t have to embrace or even accept just yet…just listen calmly and appreciate the moment if your child is willing to be open with you. Openness breeds openness. Keep trying. Be there. Focus on what you have in common. Connect.

If your child has grown in ways that you feel you can’t understand or accept, please take the leap of openness and allow them to tell you about themselves – what they love, what they believe, how they live. Listen with an open heart. Give them the same respect you would give any other adult (or almost-adult, in the case of teens). By being there for them, you allow both of you to grow closer and to learn about the other. You can share your feelings of discomfort and still remain in a positive, supportive place together.

Hopes and dreams and visions of your child’s future filled your heart when you became a parent. 10 fingers and 10 toes – whether they are tiny and new or painted Goth black. Getting to know and accept your child as s/he grows into an independent person can enrich your life beyond measure. A 20-year-old is just as worthy of celebration as a newborn – rejoin the party of your child’s life!

Posted on July 17, 2010 in celebration of Pride, love, and equality.