© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
Several years ago I wrote an article on Calming the Alienation Debate, which later evolved into my book titled Don’t Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High Conflict Divorce. Now, it seems that the debate is just about over. Child alienation, also known as Parental Alienation or Parental Alienation Syndrome, estrangement or visitation refusal, has become widely accepted as a real problem – especially as it seems to be happening to mothers just as much as fathers these days. When a child resists or refuses contact with one of his or her parents during and after the separation/divorce, there is a serious problem. The debate for the past 25 years has focused on: Who is to blame for this abnormal behavior? Families often get caught up for months or years in a legal battle over who has been “alienating” the child and how to pry the child away from this bad (but “favored”) parent. In the process, children become even more alienated and most professionals and parents eventually give up trying to change the child’s rigid thinking. It seems pretty clear now that the “cure” of evaluations and litigation to determine who is the better parent and who is the bad parent often makes things worse.
After analyzing this problem as a social worker and as a family law attorney, I am as convinced as ever of several things:
Alienation is not a gender issue now, if it ever was. It affects mothers almost as much as fathers.
It is often a reflection of one or both parents with a personality disorder, which includes a lot of all-or-nothing thinking, such as believing that one parent is “all-good” and the other is “all-bad.”
Resistance to contact with a parent is not a typical symptom of abuse – in fact, most abused children love their abusive parent and are also afraid to resist them.
Healthy parents should not give up and accept a child’s resistance helplessly. While it may be appropriate to back off at times, it is important for the child to know that this is an unhealthy behavior and that the healthy parent wants to help the child learn healthy ways of dealing with relationship problems.
One of the best things that a “rejected” parent can do, if this parent still has regular contact, is to teach their child lessons for life – including flexible thinking, managed emotions and moderate behaviors. These lessons can be taught in casual conversations about movies, friends, neighbors and other family members. There is no need to single out the other parent as acting inappropriately – instead teach the lessons of appropriate behavior and let the child make the connection that the other parent is acting inappropriately. This avoids bad-mouthing the other parent – and reinforces life lessons the child really needs to learn to succeed.
Courts need to take stronger action earlier in cases to insist that both parents will be involved with the child, although protective orders can still be made when necessary – while not taking a blaming approach, but more of an educational approach.
Now, the question is: What can be done? This is a healthier question than who is to blame. Ideally, the family will be treated as a family and have one or more therapists involved who take the same approach and do not focus on blame or “reunification” between the alienated parent and the child. Any treatment must involve both parents and require the parents to support each other’s relationship with the child, even if the other parent has engaged in some bad behavior. There can be protections built in rather than eliminating one parent (which only teaches “all-or-nothing” solutions to the child, rather than learning any skills).
This is a huge subject and one that is finally getting some progress as the debate subsides. For a more thorough review of this issue, see the comprehensive article titled: Parental Alienation and Children Exhibiting Visitation Refusal Behaviour, by Joseph Goldberg at the website of the Canadian Symposium for Parental Alienation Syndrome: www.CSPAS.ca. While I prefer not to use the term “syndrome” in defining this problem, I believe this article is very helpful in taking a problem-solving focus.
For therapists who want to work with such families, I encourage them to read Steve Carter’s book: Family Restructuring Therapy (Unhooked Books, 2011). And of course, for professionals and parents there is our New Ways for Families method and website www.NewWays4Families.com. The problem of alienated children will grow until we all understand it and reinforce teaching children lessons of cooperation, instead of blame, and teaching more effective conflict resolution skills for parents instead of simply criticizing them or labeling them.
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.