Other Voices: The damage of parental alienation not always obvious
By Nicholas Browning, MD
Over the past year, I have witnessed a process where a child’s previously loving relationship with a parent is irrevocably damaged by parental alienation. Parental alienation usually occurs in the setting of a divorce or separation, where children unjustifiably reject a parent.
The process is complex, and there is often a dynamic where one parent encourages the children to take sides against the other parent.
The message given is “it is no longer safe to love the other parent, and you must choose sides.” It is emotional abuse, and should be regarded as child abuse by society and the court.
There is a lot of unnecessary debate in the medical and legal fields about the terminology.
The real issues are the conduct of parents and the response from the child. Whether it is called estrangement, alignment, or alienation does not matter — the focus should properly be placed on the behavior. The degree of official response should be tailored to the degree of behavior.
Badmouthing that does not result in estrangement requires less official response than cases where children do start to reject a parent.
A terrible tragedy occurs when parents tell children that the other parent is bad, untrustworthy, or evil. These messages go directly to the child’s sense of self, as they are half of their mother and father.
Depriving a child of a previously loving relationship with a parent profoundly affects their sense of security. The alienating parent may “win” by getting the child to side with them, but the child loses one of the pillars of self-esteem.
In the adversarial court system, some parents lose focus on the welfare of their children in favor of “winning.”
Unfortunately, Family Court is ill-equipped to deal with such cases. Often, the official response is to allow the child to stay with the alienating parent with the hope that time will heal the relationship with the estranged parent.
Meaningful consequences are rarely applied.
Addressing this process requires urgency, as the longer it goes on, the more difficult it is to treat and the more the child is hurt. Left unchecked, some parents eventually have no option other than to disengage from their child to reduce the conflict.
The standard orders in court include language instructing parents not to denigrate the other parent, but enforcement is difficult and many parents realize the court will rarely do anything substantive about it.
There appears to be a tacit acceptance that parents will badmouth each other, although it is clearly child abuse. Physical abuse is addressed quickly, but emotional abuse goes unchecked until the situation becomes egregious.
Judges and other law professionals require more training and societal support to deal with this issue. The essential question to ask is “has the relationship changed between the parent and child?”
A previously loving relationship that turns into rejection from the child should be quickly investigated to determine the reason.
If alienation is determined to be taking place, swift action such as fines, jail time, or drastic alterations in visitation should be utilized. Simply telling parents to “not do that again” has little effect in the emotional time of a divorce where clear thinking is difficult for anyone.
Behavior is altered best with consequences, not lectures. Society should support courts when action is taken.
Family Court is reluctant to quickly address these complex cases, but it is necessary. The primary duty of Family Court should be to keep children safe. Emotional abuse is far more difficult to see than physical abuse, but the effects are long-lasting, just as real and the wounds may never heal.
Encouraging a child to think badly or reject either parent is child abuse — period. It destroys security and self-esteem. Healthy development can become impossible. Allowing it to take place in Family Court, results in a failure of that primary duty.
If you are a parent in a divorce, don’t say bad things about the other parent – it will hurt your child more than the other parent.
If you are grandparents in a divorce, be a positive influence on your children and help them to realize that taking sides with grandchildren damages them.
If you are a judge or other law professional, pay the same attention to parental alienation as you would physical abuse — and have the courage to take action when needed.
Please do not tolerate such behavior. Children need to feel safe loving both parents.
Nicholas Browning, MD, lives in Grass Valley.