Children torn by divorce
Children of divorce can often be caught in the middle of a dispute between parents.
Editor’s note: Parental alienation is a complex emotional and legal issue and while these articles cannot cover every aspect, they are intended for awareness and general information only. People in this situation should seek legal and counseling advice as each situation varies. Part one of a continuing series.
Most people would agree with the old saying that family breakdown is hardest on the children. Now the phenomenon has a new name, parental alienation or alienation of the child, and families and professionals are trying to agree on how to make things better.
Parental alienation or alienation of the child — the experts disagree on a name — means that one parent will do anything within their power to make the child or children hate the other parent, including telling lies, denying access or even abduction. This goes far beyond the normal negative words spoken in moments of anger and frustration to the alienating parent consistently putting their own feelings ahead of the good of the children.
Dr. Gordon Davidson is a registered psychologist who works with families and children, including doing court-ordered family evaluations. He looks at parental alienation not as a psychological or psychiatric diagnosis but as an interpersonal process within a family. It may happen in intact families as well, with one parent intentionally or unintentionally seeking to align a child or children with themselves, thereby diminishing the role of the other parent in the child’s life.
“Any existing parental alienation may escalate at the time of a divorce or parental alienation may begin then,” said Davidson.
In mild cases, it may go no further than a parent slipping up and saying things they later regret. In moderate cases there is more of a conscious attempt on the part of one parent — this can be either the mother or father — to draw the child in to the conflict, causing the child to be confused and anxious with a dilemma of loyalties. This usually resolves when decisions are made and time passes.
Severe parental alienation happens when one parent makes a deliberate and on-going attempt to withhold contact with the other parent and cause the child to fear or hate the other parent. This can cause the child to reject the targeted parent without really understanding why and to be depressed, have behaviour and learning disorders.
“The parent doing the alienation is acting in anger and retaliation while the parent who is rejected will be angry and have a sense of loss,” said Davidson.
His concern as a counselor is that parents who are acting out of revenge or struggling for power will not be able to focus on the best interests of the child.
“Any adversarial methods of solution can increase the level of acrimony and increase levels of alienation behaviour. I like to see alternate methods of dispute resolution, like mediation and collaborative family law with professionals acting in the interests of the children, if possible,” he said.
He sometimes does the court-ordered Custody and Access Evaluations used to help courts make decisions. In this case, each parent is assessed as to their mental health and parenting capacity and the child/children are also assessed. This can lead to solutions like supervised visitation.
Davidson sees two outcomes to parental alienation. One, that the alienating parent’s attempts to have the child reject the other parent do not succeed and the child retains loyalty to the other parent. The alienating parent may achieve what they call success in alienating the child by threats or rewards, subtle or exaggerated. Severe cases can lead to a child, or later adult, having a variety of social and mental disorders, including instability in their own relationships and perpetuating parental alienation in their own families.
Davidson said prevention, with parents educating themselves and being willing to talk before, during and after divorce, and early intervention are the best ways to help the children.
“You’re playing with such a fundamental thing, the foundation of a child’s life is their loyalty and bonding with their parents. Parental alienation affects not only the family but spreads to a multi-family level with grandparents, other family members and community members affected,” said Davidson.
His advice to parents who feel they are the targets of parental alienation is to not respond in kind, thereby sending contradicting messages to the child and causing them to lose respect for both parents. This can make children feel they have lost both parents.
“The outcomes are difficult to reverse, so early intervention and professional assistance are critical,” said Davidson, adding that children who do the best post-divorce have parents who have cordial, respectful communication.
Registered clinical counselor Barb Belfie said parental alienation happens during a hostile divorce when one parent makes a conscious, deliberate and long-term attempt to turn the child against the other parent, sometimes called the target parent.
“This is more than the odd negative comment, it’s the goal, the conscious violation of the rights of parenthood,” she said.
In extreme cases there is complete denial of access or communication and may include false accusations and using every opportunity to make the absent parent look irresponsible or even evil, telling the child that the custodial parent is the one who really loves the child.
Belfie noted that it is the parent who was left who is more likely to be bitter and make attempts at alienation, including bribery and coercion or telling the children they need to choose between the parents. The alienating parent can push things to the point where it is easier for the child and/or target parent to give up and not try to see each other.
“If the parent and child have a happy and established relationship, that does not easily erode and while the divorce is a huge change, children need to know that they are still allowed to love both parents,” she said. “When I counsel children, I reinforce to them that their parents love them and they do have a voice and you can tell your parents what you want.”
Belfie’s advice to parents is not to talk about adult things in the presence of the children, even when they think they are not listening or sleeping; to develop a business-like relationship with the other parent and make decisions that put the children first, including practical things like where to go to school; and not to ask them to make adult decisions.
“Say to them something like, ‘We loved each other but it didn’t work out. It’s not your fault. We will still take care of you.’ Children need security,” she said.
Some of the warning signs that a child may be in an alienating situation are: lowered performance at school, acting out behaviour, loss of interest in former activities, sleeplessness, and developing various forms of illness which do not seem to have a physical cause.
“Parental alienation can be subtle and gradual and can draw in other people and is something people should consider when they or family members are divorcing,” said Belfie. “A healthy, normal person will want their children to have a good relationship with both parents.”
lawyer said the best time for parents to think about what is best for the children and their own rights and obligations is the moment they even start talking about the possibility of separation or divorce.
“In my experience, most parents try to do the best for their children but parental alienation, is very much real in the family court system. These cases are usually drawn out and require legal assistance with numerous court appearances over months or years,” he said. He added that true parental alienation is rare and may occur in about two of the 300 cases he deals with each year.
Divorce settlements specify custody, visitation and maintenance issues and the trouble starts when one parent violates the orders.
“They will try to deprive the other parent of contact with the children and manifest hatred for the other parent, based on their own belief and fear that the other parent will cause disruption and disturbance for the children,” said Clarke, who speaks to schools, clubs and community groups about family law.
He noted that even when a parent has been abusive to a spouse, it does not necessarily follow that parent will be abusive to the children.
The parent who is the target of alienation has to live with it or hire a lawyer to regain and retain their visitation and any other rights.
“The law is a slow procedure for getting these issues dealt with and parents who make false accusations may end up losing custody to the person they accuse,” said Clarke.
Cases may have involvement by the Ministry of Family and Child Development, the police in cases of alleged sexual misconduct or of counselors.
“It is rare to settle without court. It is so deep-seated in someone’s mind that the other party is completely to blame that they will go forward recklessly. If anyone has any questions about how their children are being treated, they should seek legal advice and find out what their rights are,” said Clarke.
He suggest that anyone with any concerns about access or other issues not wait too long before seeking advice and to try to solve problems out of court because the court procedure is damaging to the children.
Most people will abide by the court decision with 89 per cent ending at the hearing stage and 20 per cent coming back to court within six months.
“People are people and they will continue to act on emotion and everyone when they are in the middle of a situation will lose some objectivity. This happens in every part of society and change is slow.”
He hopes that awareness of the issue of parental alienation will help parents keep the interests of the child first with custody and visitation agreements.
No parents currently involved in a parental alienation situation were available for interviews.
Parent of Grown-up Children
Sylvia (not her real name) was divorced in the early 1970s and raised her two daughters alone.
“Not as many people got divorced then so it was a real stigma and my first reaction was that I was going to make him pay for doing this to me and the children,” she said. “There was nowhere to turn for advice about how to handle things and no one wanted to talk about it.”
She found the answers to the questions she couldn’t ask in a wise older woman, who had been divorced 20 years before that and brought up her son by herself.
“She told me not to try to keep the children from their father because I would regret it later if they accused me of not letting them get to know him, that they might hate me for it. That was tough advice to swallow when he had left me with a baby a few weeks old and a two-year-old and we were living in poverty and while he and his girlfriends were living the good life.”
Sylvia forced herself to agreed to generous visitation rights and what she still remembers as inadequate maintenance for the children. Slowly, she built a new life, found work she liked and made new friends. When the children were older, she was careful to explain to them that it was not their fault that their father did not live with them and to let them visit their father as agreed.
“Sometimes, I’d cry and cry after they went with him because I didn’t know what kind of situation he was taking them into. I didn’t know anything about parental alienation then but I think I was guilty of doing it sometimes. I’d make remarks about him being too busy and important, in a sarcastic way, when he would miss a visit, or I’d complain about money. I’m sure they picked up that I didn’t think much of him,” she said.
The visits became less frequent but the girls kept in touch with their father, got to know their grandparents and their cousins on that side of the family, and later on, their half-sister.
“Their father always made a big deal of doing expensive things for them, like clothes and trips when they were in their teens and he didn’t see them much. I don’t know if I could have, or would have, done anything different but they never accused me of keeping them from their father,” she said.
“I suppose it was the right thing to do even though it seems like I did all the work and made the sacrifices and he took all the credit for them. He died in an accident when they were in their 20s but they did know him and he saw that they were married and he saw his grandchildren. It’s a pretty impossible situation and I sure don’t envy anyone who has to be in it.”
Grandparents get left out when parents are in a custody battle.
“We feel helpless, we don’t know what to do. We love the children but now we are not allowed to see them,” said Carole (not her real name).
“We always had a good time together but now they’re lost to us. They’re not even allowed to see their cousins. There’s no way to communicate, even to phone or email. It seems like so many people are losing so much.”
While the access to the children for the non-custodial parent is part of a court order, the order is repeatedly disobeyed and there are no consequences. The non-custodial parent must take the custodial parent to court which may take months since family court is held for only three hours every two weeks and there are many cases to be heard. Family court may also be put aside for criminal cases, giving even less opportunity for issues to be resolved.
“The whole situation is so sad. It seems like the children are just pawns,” said Carole.
“The failure of the marriage doesn’t have to mean that the children are alienated from one parent and all that side of the family.”
She is concerned about what it will be like for the children when they are older and may have a low self-image because they have been told that one parent is all bad, implying that they are bad as well. She thinks it will also be difficult for the children to re-establish relationships if they want to when they are older and can make that decision for themselves.
“We see other grandparents out with their grandchildren and we really envy them,” said Carole.
“I don’t know what will happen. We bought the children T-shirts while we were on holiday but we haven’t seen them for so long that we don’t know if they will fit now. We might never see the children again. We try not to even think about that.”
Like most people, Jen and Trevor (not their real names), know families where the parents are divorced.
What they didn’t realize was how much another family’s issues could affect their own children.
“We were casually acquainted with the parents of our son’s friend, through school activities and sports, and we knew that one of the parents had custody and the other visited,” said Jen.
“Then one day our son’s friend didn’t show up for hockey practice and then for school and nobody had any idea what had happened or where he went.”
It later came out that the custodial parent was not allowing the non-custodial parent any access to the child, to the point of removing him from school. When the boy did come back to school, he was not allowed to play with his friends because the custodial parent seemed to fear that he might pass on information to the non-cusotidal parent. The couple found it difficult to explain to their son what was happening to his friend because his parents couldn’t agree on visiting.
“It was cruel, but we had to tell our son to make new friends, that this was an adult issue and something he couldn’t do anything about,” said Jen.
She and Trevor don’t know many of the details of the situation but they assume it is what is called parental alienation or alienation of the child. They recalled a time when some friends were in a similar situation.
“He spent almost $100,000 with going to court and fighting false accusations. It hurts the children because they love both parents and want to see them. We hate to see it but we have to be careful about getting involved. We have to think of our own children,” said Trevor.
“It seems like the parents want to punish each other through the children and are only thinking of themselves. The poor kids, it causes a lot of stress for them and they carry the burden. Hopefully the children are smart enough to figure out what is going on later on.”
He recalled other friends who were able to put the child first when they divorced and work out custody and visiting arrangements that were the best possible for everyone even though things were difficult at first.v2