What children want and need while their parents are going through a divorce is to maintain healthy and strong relationships with BOTH of their parents. They need to be shielded from their parents’ conflicts. Some parents, however, create an expectation that children choose sides and this expectation is commonly referred to a parental alienation syndrome.
Parental Alienation can be defined as the deliberate attempt by one parent to distance a child from the other parent. Examples of this would be: badmouthing the other parent to the child, limiting contact with the other parent, creating the impression that the other parent is dangerous, limiting contact with the extended family of the alienated parent, withholding affection or punishing the child for not taking sides. In extreme cases they even foster hate for the other parent in their children. Recent thinking also includes the idea that one parent can alienate a child from the other parent by focusing solely on the faults of the other parent.
The reasons why parents indulge in this kind of destructive behaviour are numerous. It could for example be a form of revenge for the pain that they have experienced or that the alienating parent may suffer from a mental illness and is unable to put his/her child’s best interests before his /her own. Despite their reasons for the alienating behaviour, the effects of such behaviour remain the same.
SOME OF THE EFFECTS OF PARENTAL ALIENATION ON CHILDREN
- low self-esteem
- lack of trust
- problems maintaining healthy relationships
There is now scholarly consensus that severe alienation is abusive to children (Fidler and Bala, 2010), and it is a largely overlooked form of CHILD ABUSE (Bernet et al, 2010). Every child has a fundamental right and need for an unthreatened and loving relationship with BOTH parents, and to be denied that right by one parent, without sufficient justification such as abuse or neglect, is in itself a form of child abuse.
It is further important to mention that a child’s rejection of a parent may not necessarily be as a result of parental alienation, it could simply be a case of separation anxiety, children manipulating parents or perhaps the child feels responsible for the wellbeing of a parent.
Parental alienation should also not be confused with parental estrangement, parental alienation is the result of one parent actively causing hard feelings between a child and his/her other parent, estrangement on the other hand results from one parent behaving badly towards his child, this bad behavior of the parent causes the child to cut contact with the parent. It is not uncommon for an estranged parent to accuse the other parent of parental alienation.
COMMON BEHAVIOURS OF THE ALIENATED PARENT:
- will continue to pursue a relationship with the child
- will attempt to communicate with the child often and on a regular basis
- will use the court system to fight the alienating parent
- will do everything possible to retain his/her legal rights to a relationship with their child
- will not give up/in
COMMON BEHAVIOURS OF THE ESTRANGED PARENT:
- has a wait and see attitude
- they don’t pursue a relationship with the child because in their mind the child is responsible for mending the relationship
- will find it hard to view the situation from the child’s point of view
- they don’t see their own behavior as playing a role in the problem
Parental alienation is dangerous to the emotional wellbeing of the children and the continued bond with the alienated parent. It is too often used as an excuse by bad parents to justify their own hurtful behavior against their children.
In both situations the children suffer due to the parents inability to put the needs of their children first.
How can one defuse this situation? Apart from family therapy a good start would be for the parents to have a Parenting Plan put in place. The Parenting Plan can be made an order of court and non-compliance would be contempt of court.
BENEFITS OF A PARENTING PLAN
- conflict between the parents will be reduced drastically
- parents agree that they will not speak badly of each other to the children or around the children
- negotiations between the parents are minimized
- the children will be less anxious and will have a routine and structure without the fear of ongoing eruptions that will inevitably take place when the parents see each other
- children will have certainty of consistent contact with the non – residential parent
- parents will have some certainty about their children’s daily routine
- future conflict will be resolved by mediation and approaching the court will not be the first point of departure
- parents who create their own parenting plans are generally more committed to it
A parenting plan must be extremely detailed in order for the parents not to have to negotiate any issues on a daily basis, such daily negotiations can only be a breeding ground for conflict.
CONSEQUENCES OF NOT HAVING A PARENTING PLAN IN PLACE:
continued conflict between the parents, to which the children are often exposed
- applications for protection orders
- police involvement
- damage to parent-child relationships
- psychological problems
Nicki Macartney, Qualified Attorney, Divorce & Family Mediator in Randburg