Is your child rejecting one parent? In divorce or separation, 10% to 15% of children expressed strong resistance to spending time with one of their parents, and this may be increasing in our society. It may be the father or mother. It may be the parent the child visits, or the parent where the child lives. Is this the result of abuse by the rejecting parent? Or is this the result of alienation by the favored parent? The idea that one parent can alienate a child against the other has been a big controversy in Family Court over the past 20 years, with the conclusion that there are many possible causes for this resistance. Most courts take reports of alienation very seriously and want to know if this is the result of abuse for alienating behavior. Resistance to spending time with the parent is always a serious problem. This needs to be investigated, fully understood, and treated with counseling in many cases. Otherwise, the child’s future relationship may be much more difficult.
Is this the result of abuse? The first concern of the courts is protecting the children. If there are reports of child abuse as the cause of the child alienated behavior, the judge may make a protective order restraining contact with the rejected parent, such as a temporary order for supervised visitation. If you are the rejected parent you may feel that the supervised visitation is unnecessary or insulting. Yet this may be your biggest help, as someone neutral can observe the child’s behavior and your relationship. Often the judge will say that he or she will not make any assumptions and wants more information before understanding the cause.
Is this the result of parental alienation syndrome? It is important to know that the courts across the country have not adopted the idea that there is such a syndrome. A syndrome requires a generally accepted cause-and-effect and there are many possible causes of the chill of child’s alienated behavior, up abuse by parent, alienating behavior by parent, lack of emotional boundaries by rejected parent, lack of emotional boundaries by a favored parent, developmental stage, outside influences, etc. Also, despite alienating behavior by some parents, many children are not resistant to spending time with the other parent. So it is not accepted as a syndrome. However the courts generally recognized that some children are alienated, they just don’t know the reason automatically and often want more information.
What are the signs of an alienated child? Children were not abused, but are alienated have emotionally intense feelings but vague or mirror reasons for them. A child might say, I won’t go to see my father. Yet she might struggle to find a reason he doesn’t help me with my homework. Or he dresses sloppy. Or he just makes me angry all the time. The child might say, I hate my mother yet again the reasons are vague or superficial she is too controlling she doesn’t understand my dad these children complain that they are afraid of the other parent, yet behavior shows just the opposite space–space they feel confident in blaming or rejecting a parent without any fear remorse. Some of them speak negatively of the rejected parent to others, then relaxed when they are with the rejected parent. Others run away, rather than spend time with the rejected parent. All these behaviors are generally different from those of truly abused children, who are often extra careful not to offend an abusive parent, are often hesitant to disclose abuse and often recant even though it’s true.
Why do alienated children feel so strongly? Alienated children generally show intensely negative emotions and absence of ambivalence. New search on the brain suggests that this may be the result of the unconscious and nonverbal transference of negative emotions from parent child. The parents intense angry outbursts, even if they are rare, intense sadness and intensely negative statements about the other parent may be absorbed unconsciously by the child’s brain, without the child even realizing it. The child then develops intensely negative emotions towards the other parent, or anyone the upset parent dislikes, but doesn’t consciously know why. This may explain the vague or minor reasons given by alienated children for intensely rejecting a good parent. This spilling over of negative emotions from upset parent the child may have begun years before the divorce, so the child is very tuned into the upset parent, and automatically and instantly absorbs their motions and point of view.
Does custody make a difference? If one parent has almost all the parenting time, then the child will not have his or her own experiences with the other parent to know that he or she is not bad. Most states expect children to have substantial time with both parents except in the cases of abuse. Ironically, the amount of time is generally not the biggest factor. The biggest factor is if one parent is constantly spilling over intensely negative emotions to the child about the other parent, while the other parent is following court orders and not addressing these issues at all. For this reason, children can become alienated against either a noncustodial parent or custodial parent. This can be either the father or the mother. It’s like a bad political campaign, with one side campaigning hard and the other side not campaigning at all.
How can you prevent alienation? You might be alienating your child against the other parent or against yourself, without even being conscious of it, especially during a divorce. Here are seven suggestions:
1. Positive comments: regularly point out positive qualities of the other parent your child
2. Repairing comments: all parents’ magnetic negative comments about the other parent at times. If you realize you made such a comment, follow up with a repairing comment. I just spoke negatively about your father. I don’t really mean to be so negative. He has many positive qualities and I really value your friendship with him. I’m just upset and my feelings are my responsibility not his and not yours.
3. Avoid reinforcing negative comments: healthy children say all kinds of things, positive and negative, about their parents, even about abusive parents. If there is abuse, have it investigated by reversals. If not, be careful that you’re not paying undue attention to the negative comments and ignoring their positive comments.
4. Teach problem-solving strategies: if your child complains about the other parent’s behavior, unless it is abusive, suggest strategies for coping: honey, tell your father something nice before you ask for something difficult. Show your mother the project you did again, she might’ve been busy the first time. If you are upset, maybe you can just go to your room and try not to listen and draw a picture instead.
5. Avoid excessive intimacy: children naturally become more independent and self aware as they grow up. Be careful not to excessively intimate with your child for the child’s age, as this may increase an unhealthy dependency on you. Examples include having the child regularly sleep with you in your bed beyond infancy, sharing adult information and decisions, and excessive sadness at exchanges or how you miss the child when he or she is at the other parents house.
6. Avoid excessive comparisons: when you emphasize the skill or characteristic that you have, don’t place it in comparison to weakness of the other parent. You each have different skills and qualities that are important to your child. By comparing yourself positively and the other parent negatively you can inadvertently influence your child. Remember that your child is a combination of both of you, and thinking negatively of one parent to the child may think negatively about half of him or herself.
7. Get support or counseling for yourself: it is impossible to go through a divorce without getting upset some time. Protect your child from as much as possible by sharing your upset feelings with adult friends and family, away from your child. Get counseling to cope with the stress you are under.
Article Author: Bill Eddy, JD, LCSW, and Mediator
Article Author: Bill Eddy, JD, LCSW, and Mediator