The Scourge of Parental Alienation
I have been having a number of conversations both professionally and personally with devastated fathers who are having access to their children restricted by their ex-partners and mothers of their children. The stories are harrowing as many of these men want to be included in the lives of their children even though they do not have any romantic attachments to the woman who gave birth to these children. They worry about functioning within a patriarchal legal system which favours the mother as a “natural caregiver” and appears to view fathers as potential “dead beats” long before they actually abandon their children.
As saddened as I am every time I talk to them about this issue, I am also heartened by their determination to continue to find ways to connect with their children. Often, they have no idea what legal and social protections are available to them and that this form of emotional abuse they are experiencing has a name. The term for this intentional isolation and undermining of the parent-child relationship is called “parental alienation”. It is my hope to briefly outline what it is, and to help these non-custodial parents to figure out what their rights are and how to enforce them.
This post makes a distinction between parental alienation and protection of a child by one parent from abusive or neglectful behaviour or exposure to danger by the other parent. In such situations, there is a legal process which involves protection orders for the child in question as well as the involvement of local child welfare services. Parental alienation is not part of this. It is essential to also clarify that there is a distinct difference between “parental alienation” and “parental estrangement”. Estrangement occurs as a result of a child deciding that for their own reasons, they no longer want a relationship with one of their parents. This means that the child is taking this decision despite attempts by both parents to foster opportunities for connection. Parental alienation is NOT this as it entails the active participation of the other parent who is influencing the child to turn against the one parent.
Parental alienation is usually carried out by custodial parents after a split with the other parent. As the legal system, for completely patriarchal reasons, tends to favour the mother of a child over the father because of the mistaken belief in the inherent nurturing capacity of women, the victims of this insidious and diabolical behaviour tend to be fathers more often than mothers. This kind of behaviour is a form of intimate partner violence (IPV). In order for this to be clear, it is essential that we have a distinct idea of how this behaviour falls under the definition of intimate partner violence.
The definition of IPV is very complex as there are many facets to the issue. Guo and Harstall (2008) say it includes physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, social and financial abuse. IPV is not limited to those who were former legal or common-law marriages or cohabitation arrangements but includes those in dating relationships, separated couples, divorced person and also extends to ex-partners of victims. Given this lens, it is clear that the emotional warfare and attempts at domination inherent in turning a child against their other parent can reasonably be considered a form of emotional violence. Put another way, it is domestic violence by proxy.
Signs of parental alienation involve at least one alienating party and one targeted party. The targeted party’s relationship with the child is actively undermined by the alienating party in a number of ways including but definitely not limited to trash-talking the targeted parent, limiting contact with the other parent for no legally sound reasons, acting as an intermediary in communication between the child and the targeted parent, leading the child to believe that the targeted parent is dangerous, throwing away gifts, photos and mementos from the targeted parent, rewarding the child for engaging in alienating the targeted parent and of course, coercing the child to abandon a relationship with the target. It is also not uncommon for the alienating party to withhold medical, academic, social, mental health and other pertinent information about the child from the other parent. For a more detailed list and explanation, see here and here. Ultimately, the alienating party does not have actual grounds to suspect child endangerment, abuse or neglect and is simply attempting to manipulate their ex in order to meet their own emotional need for control.
In my work as a therapist and in my personal life with friends and relatives, I have seen how this insidious form of abuse can damage all parties concerned but especially the children. Children need structure, stability and emotional safety to thrive. Not because a child is compliant in the abuse of the targeted parent means that the child does not miss or long for a relationship with them. It simply means that the longer-term effects of this short-sighted and damaging behaviour by a bitter and immature adult with power over a child will be reflected across years in emotional problems and issues of trust.
The legal system is aware that this happens and there are numerous family lawyers who specialize in parental alienation cases. In Vancouver, Canada one of the better known law firms who specializes in this area can be found here with helpful tips on how to handle this issue using the legal process. If you are in a situation where you believe that your relationship with your child is being actively undermined by your ex, it would be a good idea to seek legal counsel as a strong response is needed to this illegal behaviour.
Counselling to repair the relationship between you and your child is essential. The process of alienation causes damage to the attachment between parent and child in ways that manifest later in life. There are therapists who specialize in this particular type of work, (family reconciliation), and are able to help you to iron out misunderstandings and rebuild the loss of trust, undeserved resentment etc. There will be sessions with the targeted parent and child together and separately as the therapist teases out exactly what has happened and comes up with a strategy for how to best nurture the relationship between the parties. It is important to understand that therapists may give suggestions on how to alter one’s parenting style to better suit the needs of your child. Please do not feel that you are being judged or criticized because therapists’ job is to listen without judgement and help you develop the best parenting skills for your child.
Therapists who do this kind of work should also remember the heartbreaking reality that not everyone can access therapy as the cost is often prohibitive if one is not attached to a community agency. It is my hope that my colleagues will start to think about what they can do to provide group support to those who need the help but cannot afford it. For those of us who write, it is important to start preparing material for families facing this issue so that they have access to psychoeducational literature to help them make sense of what they are facing.
There is a saying that “the family is the basic unit of society” which, we cannot deny is true. Those of us in the field of psychotherapy should be paying much more attention to this issue to help those made to suffer for simply loving their child and not their ex. It is something that I feel the need to actively call out as we are not serving people who are not our direct clients. This goes against Principle Four of our Code of Ethics which states that we have a Social Responsibility to the wider society.
It is important to know that engaging in parental alienation is wrong on every level. It is abuse of both the child and one’s ex and there are serious consequences for doing it. Judges have the capacity in such situations to reverse the custodial arrangements to award custody to the targeted parent while allowing the alienating parent supervised visitation. There is also the possibility of fining the alienating parent and/or jailing them for breaching a court ordered agreement where there is one. Judges can also rule that the targeted parent be given the chance to make up all the parenting time that has been lost and can order the whole family system, (including the alienating parent), into counselling.
As difficult a decision as it may be to pursue such strong action, it is actually very important to try. Remember that children do not remain children forever. Eventually, as they are wont to do, your child will ask for your side of the story and, if you have a huge pile of evidence of what you did to try to have access to them, the child will have a well needed explanation for your absence from their life. That means that they won’t have to question whether they were “lovable enough” or “good enough” for you to have stuck around.
Parental alienation is a painful, isolating and debilitating form of abuse. It is more often found in situations where a couple has split and one party carries resentment over it. The pain and confusion you feel while this is happening to you is perfectly normal and expected. Attempts to minimize your pain or turn the blame onto you are the tactics of a skilled manipulator meant to make you second guess what you intuitively know to be true. This is gaslighting. Often, your pain is made worse by the alienating parent encouraging the child to tell you it is their choice not to see you or communicate with you. Minors do not have this capacity legally so please do not believe that you have to abide by any such statement from the child. Although older children do have some say in court, unless there is some court order of protection in place to stop you from seeing your child, any refusal to allow you access to the child is illegal.
As hopeless as this situation feels, it is never too late to repair the relationship you once had with your child. However, it will be emotionally and financially costly for you to go through this alone. If you can, I would encourage you to reach out to a family counsellor to help you process your feelings of betrayal and grief and to a lawyer to help you assert your legal rights. You owe it to yourself and your child to do all you can to foster a healthy relationship despite the efforts of your angry ex.