Dr. Robyn’s Powerful Parenting Blog welcomes guest blogger, colleague and children of divorce expert, Christina McGhee This is part 1 of a two article series.
Making Sense of Parent Alienation
By: Christina McGhee
“I have a very special piece of jewelry that was given to me by my grandmother on my father’s side. I wear it almost everyday. Even though my grandmother died several years ago, whenever my mother sees me wearing it, she makes some kind of derogatory or negative comment about her…It’s like saying half of you is okay and half of you isn’t.” –Jane, adult survivor of PAS
A couple of months ago I received a call from a distressed and angry Mom who was obviously very bitter about her experience with the Family Court system. During our brief conversation, it became clear that she did not view parental alienation as a real or valid issue.
From her perspective it was merely a courtroom tactic designed to give abusive fathers access to children and to further exploit mothers who were trying to protect children. She also did not hesitate to share her opinion of professionals who supported the existence of parent alienation. Luckily, I have a thick skin and some experience in dealing with angry parents. Still I must admit the conversation left me feeling somewhat unsettled.
The issue of parent alienation usually invokes lots of strong opinions and feelings on both sides. In some ways, this mother’s attitude is an example of the all or nothing attitude regarding parental alienation that is embraced by many. While awareness has increased over the past several years, alienation has been and still is a hot bed of controversy in many professional circles and family court jurisdictions.
As a professional, I have had an opportunity to stand on both sides of the fence. I have seen cases where the family court system has not protected the needs of children by either minimizing the need for safety or by creating unwarranted obstacles for parents desperately trying to maintain a relationship with their children. Unfortunately in many of these cases more energy has been given to the “he said, she said” debate than to the needs of the child.
When parents, professionals and family courts get mired down in the supporting the extremes, it is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Parental alienation is a real problem for many separating and divorcing families. While children’s safety must be a top priority, we cannot and must not forget we have a responsibility to protect children’s relationships with both Mom and Dad.
Jane’s story, Living with PAS
Even though she was a young adult when her parents finally divorced, the alienation was no less intense. She remembers her parents having problems long before their separation and describes her family life as living in a constant state of either or. Her mother insisted the children choose this family or that one, Mom’s side or Dad’s side, a problem she still struggles with today. The stress generated for her growing up was so strong that she remembers feeling anxious most of the time, having lots of stomach aches, shedding many tears and feeling very isolated.
Looking back Jane says the difficult thing about living with PAS was, “That it is so subtle and so insidious that you don’t realize what is happening. You just think this is the way your family is”. Almost a decade later, through counseling and with encouragement from her husband, Jane was eventually able to reestablish a relationship with her father.
The damage of the alienation by Jane’s mother also created a rift between her and her younger sister. Feeling a strong need to take their mother’s side, her younger sister was not able to accept Jane’s’ need for a relationship with their father and has since disconnected herself from Jane’s life. Even though Jane understands the dynamics of her situation, she still struggles with feelings of guilt and loyalty conflicts to this day. Through maintaining boundaries and letting go of unrealistic expectations Jane is learning how to manage her relationship with her mother.
Misconceptions about Parent Alienation
1. It either is or isn’t. Parent Alienation, also known as PAS, is often viewed as a black or white issue. It has been my experience that alienation exists on a continuum and often falls in shades of gray. It can range from mild, which includes consistent derogatory remarks, subtly placing children in situations where they are asked to take sides or scheduling activities during the other parent’s scheduled time with a child, to very severe, which involves parents blatantly interfering with contact, rewarding a child’s rejection of the other parent, making abuse allegations or insisting that the other parent is bad, evil or someone to be feared. If PAS is suspected intervention needs to be guided by the assessment of a qualified experienced professional.
2. If children do not want to see a parent then the other parent must be guilty of alienation. There are actually many reasons why children may be reluctant to spend time with one of their parents. In some cases, a parent may alienate themselves from a child by withdrawing from their lives, trying to discredit the other parent or by engaging in harmful, abusive or destructive behavior. When a parent does not take responsibility for their part, children may choose to distance themselves. If your child does not want to spend time with you, think through how you may have added to the problem. Unfortunately, some parents jump to the conclusion that the other parent is responsible for the situation without first considering other possibilities.
Again, this is where a comprehensive evaluation by a court ordered professional can be helpful.
3. If children do not want to see a parent, that parent should respect the children’s wishes. While forcing your children to spend time with you is not recommended, neither is taking a passive stance. If your child is stating they do not want to spend time with you, it is okay to let them know you are disappointed. Support their feelings by offering possible alternatives, like spending an afternoon together versus the entire weekend. Maintain your focus on continued positive contact with your child. Shorter consistent periods of time that enhance your relationship are better than no time at all. Over time, you can work on gradually increasing the amount of time you and your children spend together.
4. Alienating behaviors of a parent always results in rejection by children. Actually, there are some circumstances where parents can take steps to actively protect their relationship with children and minimize the impact of alienation. Often timing and intervention make a significant difference. The sooner parents and children have access to support and information the less likely they are to fall victim to the negative and destructive aspects of separation and divorce.
5. If children do not reject a parent then alienation is not occurring. In an article about how to detect PAS, researchers J. Michael Bone and Michael Walsh coin the term “attempted PAS”, which refers to situations where the dynamics and characteristics of PAS are present but children have not been successfully alienated. Although alienation may not appear to be successful it is important to realize the effects are still very toxic to children and therefore the relationship between the target parent and the child still requires protection.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this article, “What Parents Can do about Parent Alienation” coming this week.