Parental alienation occurs when one parent hinders or disrupts, even poisons the relationship between the child and the other (usually non-custodial) parent. It occurs when a parent (or both parents) disparages the other parent or prevents contact between the child and the other parent.
Its most vernacular form is in comments made in the child’s presence, derogating the other parent. It could be ridiculing the other parent’s contribution to financially supporting the child or attacking any behavior or trait of the non-present parent.
Legally, you have an affirmative obligation to support and foster the relationship between your child and the other parent. If you deliberately destroy that relationship, you could lose custody of your child.
What’s the difference between parental alienation and telling the truth?
“Hold on,” you may be thinking, “obviously you haven’t met my ex. Why can’t I speak freely with my own child? My ex is horrendous, and my child should know who I’m dealing with. I’m not saying anything that isn’t true.”
- Why shouldn’t I let my kids know that I am the only one paying for college?
- Why shouldn’t they know that their dad would rather be on a sailing trip than at their recital?
- Why shouldn’t they know that the reason for our divorce is their mother’s infidelity?
- Isn’t honesty the best policy and don’t I owe my children the benefit of the truth?
While your indignation is righteous and may be hard-earned, it doesn’t serve your children. A wise friend once told me that honesty without compassion is tantamount to abuse. Just as you would not approve the viewing of movies with complex, adult content by young children, nor should you sanction children’s exposure to derisive remarks regarding their parents. Believe me, even without your intervention, your children will see for themselves the shortcomings and humanness of both of their parents before long. That’s what adolescence is for.
What’s the harm?
Parental alienation sabotages the secure, positive attachments which are in your child’s best interest. The child is entitled to encouragement and protection to develop and maintain relationships with his parents. (See Object Relations Theory of Development.)
Parental alienation introduces an insurmountable conflict (and there are plenty of natural and healthy conflicts development requires).
A child might want to demonstrate loyalty to one parent, but that is at the considerable cost of professing hate for the other parent. In order to have one parent’s love and protection, the child has to turn against the other parent with whom the child may have a deep connection and attachment.
The child is forced to negate a part of herself or otherwise choose between the two most important people with whom she identifies and upon whom she depends. When there has been such alienation that a child refuses to have visitation with a parent, or refuses to have contact with the parent, it is often the result of the other parent, usually the primary parent, making it impossible for the child.
When one parent disparages the other, the child may also feel diminished. Depending upon the child’s development, he may not have fully distinguished himself and his value from that of his parents. Putting one of his parents down can be indistinct from a personal attack.
Parental alienation is simply egregious. It harms the target, but the collateral damage can be devastating. The child’s relationship with the other parent may be harmed irreparably, as may the child’s:
- ability to attach to others meaningfully, or
- sense of stability and safety.
Finally, parental alienation can ricochet. The harm aimed at the other parent can come right back on the perpetrator as the child may resent vitriol being the constant currency. It is nearly impossible to spew venom without getting it on yourself.
One of a parent’s most significant teaching tools is modeling the behaviors she wishes her child to adopt. A parent who has an imbecile for an ex and chooses to respond with reason and grace demonstrates that, regardless of others’ conduct, we are each in charge of how we respond and who we are.
What’s the alternative?
Protect and allow your child to grow into her own truth and define her own narrative. While it is true that human beings commit atrocities and that harm could befall anyone at any time, good parenting dictates that we do not introduce these “truths” to our children. This is particularly so when our reasons for regaling our children with this information is really motivated by our own needs (for validation, acknowledgment, to be right).
You don’t need to be a child psychologist to know that introducing certain concepts into immature minds can be damaging. This is part of the fundamental reasoning behind protecting your child from other “truths” about a parent. Negative implications made by one parent about another adds a level of conflict and threat to the child’s relationship with both parents—the disparaged and the disparaging.
If, instead, the child can witness you being protective of the parent who is not there, the child not only bears witness to good behavior, he receives a gift—he can remain allied with you and love his other parent. That message shows the child that he is safe and in good hands. Yours.
Alexander Mediation Group
119 West Valley Brook Rd
Califon, NJ 07830