Parents bicker sometimes and, occasionally, we do it in front of our children. Derogatory statements about the other parent happen in most marriages. Expressions such as, “Well it was Mom’s job to do it” or, “Your Dad is useless at that” are recognizable to many of us, and while they might not be our proudest moments, they are part and parcel of most parents’ experience.
The same is true for many divorced parents. When a marriage ends, it can take time for wounds to heal and it is hard to resist the temptation to say something derogatory about the other parent. While it would be ideal to think that we are all above such outbursts, the truth is that it happens often and while not helpful to children, the damage is often limited as the children witness the ebb and flow of the parents’ relationship.
In contrast to these occasional uncontrolled outbursts, in recent years, there has been more recognition of a condition known as parental alienation. Parental alienation, once known as parental alienation syndrome (PAS), is where one parent deliberately programs the child against the other parent. This can take many forms such as bad-mouthing the other parent to an extent where the other parent becomes a person to whom the child does not want any contact. It can mean limiting the time that the child spends with the other parent or using guilt to stop the child from meeting or communicating with the other parent. The result is that the child is emotionally disconnected from one of his/her parents. The effects on the children as adults are said to be far-reaching, ranging from depression to difficulties forming healthy relationships.
The alienated parent may experience loss, pain and a huge amount of frustration as they try to connect to their child. In addition to their loss, the alienated parent may also have to deal with the perception of others who may draw their own (erroneous) conclusions as to why they have no contact with their child. Some alienated parents, after a protracted struggle and with limited funds to seek justice through the courts, “give up,” reinforcing the child’s negative view of the parent. Dr. Warshak, a psychologist and the author of Divorce Poison warns that alienated parents should “not wave the white flag of surrender too soon.”
Alienation is not just directed at the other parent, but can also include the extended family of the alienated parent, with children being manipulated to distrust, hate and fear their grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. Conversely, extended family may be part of the problem, encouraging the child not to have any connection with the alienated parent or his/her family.
THERE ARE a lot of theories about what causes parents to act in such a damaging way to their children. Some have linked parental alienation to an extension of a narcissistic personality disorder, where the alienating parent needs to control the child and have the child’s focus on them. In addition to the control aspect, the perceived rejection of the other parent is validation for the breakdown of the relationship. In some cases, the alienating parent sees the child as an extension of themselves and when they have been hurt at the breakdown of the relationship, they transfer their feeling of hurt to the child that they wish to protect. Other alienating parents believe that the other parent does not “deserve” to have contact with their child, as the alienated parent has behaved badly toward the spouse.
It is important to note that parents may have legitimate reasons to limit or refuse contact between their children and the other parent. It may be one parent suffered abuse at the hands of the other and/or believes that the children are not in a safe environment or are exposed to dangerous people or experiences when they are with the other parent. Such reasons need to be objectively examined to see whether the child would be negatively affected by contact with that parent. Where the parent’s reason for keeping the child away from the other parent are grounded, then the label of “parental alienation” does not apply.
There has been much discussion about how courts should address the issue and what the best treatment and remedy are for children who have been alienated from a parent. One difficulty is that the child who is alienated usually believes that they are in control of their choices. As Amy J. L. Baker, the author of Co-parenting with a Toxic Ex, What to Do When Your Ex-Spouse Tries to Turn the Kids Against You says, “The child victims of parental alienation are not aware that they are being mistreated and often cling vehemently to the favored parent.” She explains, “The truth is, despite strongly held positions of alignment, inside, many alienated children want nothing more than to be given permission and freedom to love and be loved by both parents.”
Advocates of this school of thought believe that in drastic cases the only real remedy is for the custody of the child to be transferred to the alienated parent. One less extreme approach would be to force the child to have contact with the other parent, penalizing the alienating parent if the child does not co-operate.
IN ISRAEL, parental alienation is known as nikor horim, and the courts have been taking it seriously. In family cases, the welfare of the child is always paramount and previously where the child was settled with one parent, even where there had been parental alienation, the court was reluctant to act. The reluctance came from the thought that the upheaval of forcing the child to see the alienated parent was too unsettling and therefore, while unfair to the alienated parent, the child’s welfare came first.
This has changed, as the courts have recognized the long-term effects that parental alienation can have on children. Recently, there have been changes to the procedures in the courts in Tel Aviv where, when a case of parental alienation is recognized, it is expedited to avoid the deepening the rift between the child and the alienated parent. In one recent ruling, a judge ordered the renewal of a relationship between a 10-year-old boy and his father after nine years of separation.
The courts are also making their views known by imposing fines on parents who defy orders to cooperate. In one instance, a hefty fine was placed on the mother as compensation for the lack of relationship the child had with his father. Judge Erez Shani went as far to say that active parental alienation is not simply an act of civil wrongdoing, but would fall under the criminal justice rules.
Despite the ideas of parental alienation becoming more accepted, there are critics of the concept who argue there is little empirical evidence to support the idea of parental alienation and many are using the parental alienation as a defense against allegations of abuse of their children. Critics point out that abusers can use parental alienation to silence abuse claims which may be hard to prove (while alienation claims are easier to prove). There are also critics who point out that parental alienation may be a gender-based issue as the majority of those who claim parental alienation are men. Prof. Liz Trinder, from the University of Exeter, warns that there is a need to be very careful around this issue.
“The problem with the alienation concept is that if your premise is the child has been brainwashed, it means you can’t trust what the child is saying to the court,” she explained. “So if you make an accusation of alienation it almost automatically casts suspicion on anything the child might say.” June Ventes, a family law specialist in the UK, was clear that “the need for a fact-finding hearing to take place in cases of significant allegations of parental alienation is both necessary and urgent.”
However you look at it, where couples are in high-conflict divorce, the risks of a child being alienated are high. Very few people set out to damage their children and most only want the best for them. With more understanding about how having both parents in the child’s life is beneficial, and the long-term detrimental effects of parental alienation, parents can stop the alienation before it reaches a critical point.The writer qualified as a lawyer in the UK and then retrained as a licensed mediator both in England and in Israel. She currently resides in Jerusalem, where she has a mediation practice specializing in mediation for English speakers. www.mediationinisrael.com; email@example.com
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