by Amy Weitzel I’m fully aware that this blog may ruffle a few feathers and, in all honesty, I may have responded negatively to this blog just a year ago. But within that time, I’ve become aware of an epidemic that is affecting divorced parents. It’s called Parental Alienation. I used to think that this was just a problem with deadbeat dads – you know, those men who rarely see their kids, shirk their financial responsibilities and live a life of freedom while the mothers slave away raising the children. Then it happened – I saw firsthand the manipulation of a mother attempting to remove the father from the child’s life. Before I continue, I want to acknowledge that there are, in fact, parents — both moms and dads — who walk away from their parental duties. But this article does not address these parents. Instead, my goal is to raise awareness about parents out there who purposefully manipulate friends, family, children and even the court system to pull children out of the arms and lives of loving parents vs. what we consider a deadbeat dad. I have the unfortunate privilege of witnessing the full effects of Parental Alienation in my partner’s experience that moved him a thousand miles away from his children five years prior. As time went on, I grew to admire the way he loved his niece and nephews. I saw his apartment walls adorned with pictures of his children pulled from Facebook or taken before he left. I heard the pain and, ultimately, the resignation in his voice when he spoke of his children. I knew this wasn’t a deadbeat dad but rather a man who deeply loved his children and has been trapped by a court system stacked against him. Parental Alienation is the “programming” of one parent in a divorce to force the child to choose sides, alienate, or in extreme cases, to even hate the other parent, according to a 2013 Psychology Today article by David Kruk. Psychiatrist Richard Gardner developed the concept more than 20 years ago, defining it as “…a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent’s indoctrinations and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent.” Dr. Amy J.L. Baker points out that cults offer a useful heuristic for understanding parental alienation syndrome in a 2008 Sociology Today article saying, “Alienating parents appear to use many emotional manipulations and thought reform strategies that cult leaders use.” Overwhelmingly, experts point to the parent’s inability to separate out the marital conflict from parenting and what is in the best interest of the children. The perpetrator has convinced themselves that the target parent is a bad parent based on real or perceived wrongs stemming from marital conflict. The perpetrator then uses a variety of techniques to further their goal of alienation: badmouthing the other parent; limiting contact; removal of pictures of the other parent from the home; forbidding discussion about the other parent; instigating false abuse charges to give the impression the other parent is a danger or threat; subtle or overt threats of withdrawal of affection; and removal of the target parent’s extended family from the child’s life. Social media movements are attempting to shed light on Parental Alienation, which mental health professionals are regarding as a form of child abuse. Kruk states, “Every child has a fundamental right and need for an unthreatened and loving relationship with both parents. To be denied that right by one parent, without sufficient justification such as abuse or neglect, is itself a form of child abuse.” It’s easy to blame men who leave their families as just being a “deadbeat dad.” But after witnessing Parental Alienation for myself, I wonder how many dads are systematically erased from their children’s lives. And it’s not just fathers, but mothers too, although it seems that this is rarer in my experience. My partner’s children are missing out on a wonderful man who loves them deeply. He walked away from the chaos of the custody battle knowing it was destroying his mental well-being and, ultimately, was unhealthy for his kids. He’d lost his daughter completely and was slowly losing his son. He’d lost his career after false abuse charges (all came back unfounded). His mother had just died. So he moved a thousand miles away and cried every night for a year for his children. With the assistance of social media movements and men and women standing up against Parental Alienation, our society must take a stand to protect the welfare of the children. Here’s how:
- Recognize that a bad partner does not necessarily mean a bad parent. Divorce and breakups happen for a variety of reasons, but typically the issues are between the two spouses. Separating out the relationship problems from parenting is crucial. If there is no neglect or abuse, then allow parents to be involved in the lives of their children.
- Always keep in mind what is in the best interest of the child. Having two parents – unless there are substantiated claims of abuse or neglect – is always better for the child. Kruk points out in his article that there are well-documented and often long-term effects of children who experience Parental Alienation including depression, low self-esteem and self-hatred, substance abuse and lack of trust.
- Understand that Parental Alienation is a form of abuse. Abuse is often characterized in the physical sense, but abuse (the cruel treatment of someone) is also emotional and psychological regardless of the intentions of the perpetrator. In the case of Parental Alienation, the alienating parent is attempting to inflict emotional injury on the target parent. The victim here is not only the target parent but also the child who is being manipulated. Strategies used for manipulating alienation include constant badmouthing, emotional manipulation to choose one parent over the other, lying, and the threat to withhold affection.
- Legislators, judges, social workers, and psychologists need to start advocating for shared parenting. In Michigan, State Representative Jim Runestad introduced the Shared Parenting Act (HB 4691), which replaces laws from the 1970s and gives two loving parents shared parenting time. Judges, social workers, and psychologists need to become more aware of Parental Alienation, its signs, and symptoms, and actively work to keep both parents in the child’s life. By becoming more aware of the deceptive techniques such as false claims of abuse, withheld visitation, and manipulation of children, these professionals can make a profound impact in the lives of families torn apart by Parental Alienation.
- Parental Alienation is everyone’s business. It’s time people started speaking up. Divorce and the breakup of families can be destructive and painful. However, Parental Alienation is about the systematic removal of one parent from the life of a child. Friends and family need to do what is the best interest of the child or children involved, and that is to speak up. There are mild cases of Parental Alienation when the alienating parent is unable to separate out the pain of the breakup from what is in the best interest of the child. There can also be a moderate case where the parent is actively looking for ways to hurt the target parent, which includes damaging their own children in the process. Caring adults need to take a stand and advocate for the best interest of the child. For more information about Parental Alienation, click on these links: https://www.facebook.com/timetoputkidsfirst/ orhttps://www.facebook.com/Fathers4kids/.