When a family breaks up, it’s not always peaceful. The pain of an ending relationship and the circumstances around the failure can be overwhelming. Fear and anger can override good judgment. When it comes to parenting, it’s easy to slip into behaviors that may not be in the kids’ best interest.
You don’t have to be divorced to experience parental alienation. It’s a growing problem, and three parents reported it to me in the past week. Even the courts have recognized the need to intervene. And with a 50% divorce rate and a high number of non-marital parents, it must stop if we want a healthy future generation.
Parental alienation occurs when a parent (consciously or unconsciously) attempts to turn a child against the other parent. This scenario never turns out well. Unfortunately, the child is always the victim, far more than the targeted parent.
Co-parenting requires putting the child’s needs first – safety and trust. The following are behaviors that can corrode and undermine these essential needs.
#1 Openly Blaming the other parent – Bad-mouthing a parent or comments like “We’d all be together if your father hadn’t run off with that other woman,” or “If your mother didn’t choose alcohol over us, she’d still be here,” or “If your father cared about us, he wouldn’t have chosen to leave,” or “Your mother will never be able to do her part in a relationship, and that’s why we got a divorce,” can leave permanent scars on the psychic of children.
Every child knows they are a creation of both parents. If one is good and one is terrible, the child concludes, “If my mom or dad is bad, I must be bad.” Children who hear negative things about a parent are destined to feel confused and can internalize those messages. When a child asks specific questions, a loving parent will be honest but in a way that doesn’t entirely devalue the other parent. Comments like, “We indeed made mistakes. Some were doozies. Parents aren’t perfect. Your mom (dad) is going through something, and it isn’t easy. But we both love you very much.”
#2 Kids are used as a support system – There are times and situations like illness or death in a family when it’s healthy to have the kids partake in the support process. But when it comes to separation or divorce, children should be free to enjoy their childhoods. They will be as well adjusted to a family breakup as their parent’s stability. Parents are support systems for their kids, not the other way around. Parents need to use friends or therapists for emotional and social support, never their kids.
Young children are unequipped to practice psychology, and teens and older kids aren’t supposed to be social outlets for parents. Though it’s hard to start a new life when the family is the central focus of one’s life, it’s not impossible. A well-adjusted parent will utilize appropriate resources to work through the pain and use the experience as an opportunity for growth. Support groups are abundant for anything from therapy to any particular interest. There’s a world of difference between watching a parent enjoy friends and hobbies and witnessing a depressed, angry, isolated parent who leans on their kids.
#3 Sabotaging trust and contact – Some parents do everything to prevent contact between a parent and a child. Blocking calls and text messages and not showing up for scheduled visits are a few of the ways parents are stopped from seeing their kids. Sometimes, they even blame the other parent for not showing up after sabotaging the visit. In addition, some people use money to manipulate a child away from a parent.
Accepting an imperfect parent is better than a missing parent. Even parents who suffer from mental illness or substance abuse should have access. This can be done via supervised calls, visits, or internet meetings. Unless a parent is too impaired, the parent should explain the illness to the child and say, “This has nothing to do with you. Your (mom/dad) loves you, but they suffer from an illness….” Interfering with visitation prevents a child from a balanced family. It also causes a child to experience feelings of abandonment and rejection. Every child needs reassurance that they are loved and cared for by both parents – even if it’s not the case. If not, feelings of unworthiness instilled by parental absenteeism or turning a child against a parent could lead to psychological problems and even addiction later on.
If you are a parent who has been alienated from your children, don’t give up. Your children need you. Instead of succumbing to guilt or intimidation, get help and do whatever it takes to maintain contact. Seek therapy or a support group to work through any guilt or fears that have caused you to play a part in the dynamics. Learn the most effective ways to communicate productively with the co-parent and your kids. If necessary, seek legal help, not for yourself but for your child. Then, if you look ten to twenty years down the road, you will feel better having fought for the right of your child to know who you are and to have those good memories. Together or not, parents can be just as effective if they stay focused on what’s best for the kids.
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Dr. Donna Marks has been an author, consultant, public speaker, and psychotherapist for over thirty years. She was licensed as a Mental Health Counselor in 1987 and then certified in Addiction, Gestalt Therapy, Hypnosis, Sex Therapy, and Psychoanalysis. She currently has a concierge psychotherapy practice in Palm Beach, Florida.
She has appeared on numerous podcasts and local television. She is the author of two books, Learn Grow Forgive – A Path to Spiritual Success, and Exit the Maze: One Addiction, One Cause, One Solution (revised), and winner of multiple book awards. Her next book, The Healing Moment: Seven Keys to Turn Messes into Miracles, will be released in 2023.
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