By Eileen Sherman PhD, MBA, BS, RN
My experience as a certified life coach and divorce coach has equipped me with the tools needed to navigate and assist families battling parental alienation and tumultuous familial relationships. In this article I highlight my work with a father with the goal of repairing and regenerating the parental-child relationship.
Understanding the Family Dynamics
Dad and I have been working together for almost a year (10 months) on various different topics and issues around the guidelines set for him in his Partial Marital Settlement Agreement (PMSA). Important to our work together was the item in the PMSA that stipulated that he would need to work closely with a life and divorce coach assisting him to reintegrate with two children in a healthy, positive, productive manner.
To this end, we have been working monthly (twice a month at least) on this since our professional relationship began. After familiarizing myself with this case and while I have never actually met or had discussion with the Mom directly, I have read through over 650 pages of email exchanges between Mom and Dad over the past 10 months and continue to do so almost daily.
In my professional opinion there is a distinct pattern of numerous instances of Mom’s interference with Dad’s placement, undermining his parenting, Mom rewarding the children for bad behavior, and coaching them to behave poorly. These instances seem to me in my professional opinion to be clearly intentional although often couched in “wanting to keep the children safe at all costs.” In my professional opinion, this type of level of undermining rises to the level of parental alienation.
What is Parental Alienation?
Parental alienation is a set of strategies that parents often use to undermine and interfere with a child’s relationship with his or her other parent. In a sense, parental alienation can be defined as a form of abuse whereby one parent convinces his or her children that their other parent is bad and having a relationship with him or her is wrong.
Research also is very clear on the fact that children should be allowed to develop an independent relationship with both parents even when parents are divorced and living apart. If the parental alienation is allowed to continue, it can lead to a severe loss of a valued relationship between a parent and child. Sometimes the loss can never be made up even after the children have grown up and are adults. The long-term effects of one parent’s deliberate acts of anger and revenge toward the other ‘targeted’ parent is devastating and far reaching.
In this particular family’s case, I am suggesting that Mom in fact exhibits this toward Dad. However, it is not uncommon for the parent practicing the alienating behaviors to not realize she/he is doing this. While the research on parental alienation shows this often occurs during a protracted custody battle, this is not the case in this situation. In this particular situation, this occurs on almost a daily basis. To me, the sole focus of Mom appears to be to keep Dad away from the children as much as possible.
For example, in Our Family Wizard (OFW), there are numerous emails about counting hours as if these two children are a commodity. As stated previously, Mom regularly and overtly rewards poor behavior toward Dad.
Core Set of Parental Alienation Strategies
With the concept of parental alienation, there is also no one definitive set of behaviors that constitute parental alienation but again, research has revealed a ‘core’ set of alienation strategies including:
20 Signs of Parental Alienation
Douglas Darnell, PhD highlights 20 signs of parental alienation that every divorcing parent should be made aware of.
Examples of Parental Alienation
Eleven of these points seem to apply in this particular case, but I have highlighted three examples of parental alienation in this particular case:
1. Giving children choices when they have no choice about visits.
Allowing the children to decide for themselves to visit when the court order defines placement time sets up the children for conflict. The children will usually blame the non-residential parent for not being able to decide to choose whether or not to visit. The parent is now victimized regardless of what happens; not being able to see his children or if he sees them, the children are angry.
Coach response: This just recently was identified in this case. One child was acting angry, defiant, and disrespectful toward Dad that resulted in his phone being taken away for the remainder of his visit with her Dad that day. This child stated she needed to go for a walk and then did not return. His brother went after him to find out the angry child was going to his friend’s home and would not be back to his Dad’s. Dad alerted Mom of the situation. Mom picked up the child and did not return him to Dad (to finish his placement time) but refused to bring him back there verbally stating she would “never return the children to an environment they perceive as toxic” In this regard, the angry child (with the assistance of her Mom) was able to decide to choose whether or not to visit with Dad. This left Dad victimized and without any closure to the unfortunate disrespectful conversation that occurred.
2. Refusing to acknowledge that children have property.
Refusing to allow transport of their possessions between residences.
Coach response: Dad did take a chance in purchasing a cell phone for one child as the other already had one. He did this as a prudent measure to be able to have the children contact him if they were going to be late getting out of school on the days that Dad picks them up and/or if Dad was delayed at work resulting in delay in picking them up. The phone was also purchased as a way to encourage further communication between the children when they are not physically with him during the week. Unfortunately, according to Dad, one childs cell phone is taken away at Mom’s house every time he enters Mom’s house regardless. This has also occurred with an iPad that Dad bought, thus constricting the communication between Dad and child.
Children will become angry with a parent. This is normal, particularly if the parent disciplines or has to say “no”. If for any reason the anger is not allowed to heal, you can suspect parental alienation. Trust your own experience as a parent. Children will forgive and want to be forgiven if given a chance. Be very suspicious when the child calmly says they cannot remember any happy times with you or say anything they like about you. It is important to note here that according to the research, often children who are being alienated are scripted in their responses and when diverted from the script, they have a difficult time responding.
3. A parent suggesting or reacting with hurt or sadness to their child having a good time with the other parent.
This will cause the child to withdraw and not communicate. They will frequently feel guilty or conflicted not knowing that it’s “okay” to have fun with their other parent.
Coach Response: Research suggests that children often need to be re-taught in therapy that it is ok to love both parents (especially with the parent from whom they are being alienated). However further research suggests that it is very difficult to have consistent therapy for children in this situation, as the alienating parent will often try to “control” the type of therapist or professional working with the children. The alienating parent will push to find the “right” type of professional—one who confirms her/his own biases in the matter.
Ways to Reduce the Likelihood of Parental Alienation
In light of coaching always being “coaching forward” and slowly trying to change old habits, there are 10 documented guidelines to reduce the likelihood of parental alienation.
10 guidelines for reducing the chance of parental alienation, in no particular order of significance:
1. Children should have their own phones so that Dad or Mom can contact them during mutually agreed upon times when they are in the home of the other parent. Neither parent should be the gatekeeper regulating the communication between a child and a reasonable parent. I would imagine this may become part of a future parenting plan.
2. If there in fact is a pattern that develops in which Mom reports “the children don’t want to participate in visits with Dad” the children may very well need a parenting coordinator to determine precise reasons that visits with Dad have been interrupted. Every effort must be made to honor these important visits with the noncustodial parent.
3. Any communication regarding the children shouldn’t be passed along via the children. Children aren’t messengers. The children should not be informed about outstanding issues between their parents that will put them in a position to negatively “judge” the other parent.
4. Parents need to permit children to bring items such as clothing, gifts, iPad, pets, and other personal items that have been given to the children by the “other parent” into their homes. Children shouldn’t fear or feel guilty for having a beloved item which is associated with one parent and then rejected by the other parent.
5. The children shouldn’t be asked details regarding visitations with the other parent.
6. Any derogatory comments directed to the children about the “other parent” is really forbidden. Such comments are a form of parental alienation and are extremely painful for the children to hear.
7. These four messages should never be conveyed to the children:
I am the only parent who truly loves you; Feeling good about yourself can only come from me; Your other parent cannot be trusted; If you want love and care from me; You cannot have a relationship with your “other parent.”
Often these messages can be delivered by the alienating parent in a myriad of ways. These messages are devastating and cause lasting damage to the children’s overall well-being.
8. Both parents really should be encouraging the children to love and respect their other parent. This should be the benchmark for both parents working toward positive change for the good of the children. Children need to be free to develop separate relationships with both parents. It is not for either parent to dictate how a child should feel about the “other” parent.
9. Visitation needs to be carefully crafted with room for negotiation to avoid leading to conflict that can easily slip into parental alienation.
10. Parents should be able to negotiate w/o constantly calling on the parent coordinator to break “the tie.”
Prevention of Perinatal Alienation
Parent Alienation has been referred to in the literature as emotional abuse. As well, parent alienation attempts to eliminate or reduce the natural right of a man or woman to parent his or her children. Prevention of parent alienation is really the only reasonable approach. Once parental alienation has been determined, changing it is difficult and can have limited success.
From the examples above and in my professional opinion, there is a strong likelihood that there is parental alienation exhibited in this family situation. In addition, there is much empirical evidence that I have reviewed to support parental alienation by Mom against Dad. I have been coaching Dad on a regular basis as explained in the beginning of this report NOT to engage in the alienation and consistently work with him on different strategies, skills, and tools to diffuse this alienation.
Seek Support from a Certified Divorce & Life Coach
A Certified Divorce Coach can also assist you with the impending process of change and provide you with the tools you need to move forward. If you find yourself going through the divorce process, contact me. I can help you through this process in a manner that is flexible, goal driven, and individualized for you.
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