What do you do about parental alienation?

Parental alienation is an unfortunate outcome of divorce.  If at first your divorce is amicable and then suddenly turns sour due to attorney involvement (attorneys can plant the seed of alienation even if it is not happening) or the jungle of emotions that naturally occur with divorce can inadvertently make the children pawns.  Sourness can happen, no divorce is immune.

Parental alienation will not happen if both parents are invested in seeing their children persevere through their divorce.

In some situations, one parent can be the extremist and abduct the children or constantly miss visits and taint the children’s ears with lies and/or truths that negatively impact the other parent in the children’s eyes (this occurs on both sides: custodial and non-custodial).  This emotional abuse, will lead to the child or children externalizing or internalizing problems.  The most bitter and vengeful parent will use anything in their arsenal to punish the other parent (this could be the same behavior that existed before the divorce – poor married behaviors become exaggerated in divorce).

No matter what, your children need both of you.  They need to know you are listening.  They need to know that you care.  Constant conflict between divorced parents hurts the relationship on both sides.  Once your children are in college, you don’t want to be the parents that only get phone calls for money.  Know what to do when you are the custodial parent and when you are the non-custodial parent if a form of alienation is happening.

If you are invested in seeing your children persevere through your divorce YOU NEED TO DO the following if you are the custodial parent:

  1. Follow the court order. The courts are flawed on many levels and mistakes can happen in the courtroom without a doubt; however, if you are the custodial parent it is your JOB to be the RESPONSIBLE one.  No excuses.  If the order is wrong you must get it corrected before you change anything in the schedule and you MUST get the other parent’s permission if it is a one-off change.
  2. Do not engage when the non-custodial parent is mudslinging. It is your JOB to be the RESPONSIBLE one.  No excuses.  Children can pick up on this right away.  Remember children are the smartest in the room.
  3. Be unbelievably consistent. It is your JOB to be the RESPONSIBLE parent since you have physical custody.  If the other parent misses a visit, act as though it was planned or turn it into a better situation by doing something special with the children.  If the non-custodial parent has trouble remembering the schedule, remind them constantly with traceable documentation (email, text and/or mobile divorce app) – so there are no surprises.  That way if it is the day before your vacation they can’t say, how come you didn’t tell me sooner or I didn’t agree to that.
  4. Silent coyote when the children are present. Remember, it is your JOB to be the RESPONSIBLE parent.  That means no specifics on the other parent while your children are present.  Schedule time to get together with friends while the children are in school or make sure the children are occupied in another room out of earshot if you are discussing your feelings about the divorce situation (this goes for family too while you are not present).
  5. Reverse the damage. If the non-custodial parent is alienating the children from you, address it right away.  Do not wait for a better time.  Do not rationalize.  Do not make excuses for them.  Tell it as it is and then move on.  Reinforce your love. You are the custodial parent, it is your JOB to be RESPONSIBLE and that includes safeguarding your relationship with the children without engaging in the same scheming tactics as the other parent.

If you are invested in seeing your children persevere through your divorce YOU NEED TO DO the following if you are the non-custodial parent:

  1. Follow the court order. If it is wrong or you feel there has been an injustice, fight to get it changed, but DO NOT disrespect authority by terrorizing the custodial parent.  If the custodial parent is being irresponsible it is your JOB to be the RESPONSIBLE one.  No excuses.  Custodial is skipping your visitation days, be gracious and then GO TO COURT (get legal advice to steer you in the right direction).
  2. Do not engage when the custodial parent is mudslinging. Your children need you to be the RESPONSIBLE one, it is your JOB especially since the custodial is stooping to low levels to gain control or punish you.  They are not punishing you; they are unknowingly punishing the very people they should be protecting, the children.  Take the high road, because your children will notice and when they are old enough they will request to live with you or it could be sooner if you present a strong enough case before the judge (DO NOT manipulate the children to request anything, be kind only and hope for the best).
  3. Be unbelievably consistent. If the custodial is missing visits, find a way to have constant contact with your children.  If your children are in school, do something special for them each week and visit them there.  If your children see their grandparents and you still have a relationship with them, try to see them then.  It is imperative that you be RESPONSIBLE by maintaining contact.  It is your JOB to undo everything the alienating parent is doing and you MUST be relentless.
  4. Silent coyote when the children are present. If you can’t say something nice do not say anything at all.  Children will replay everything that is mentioned in front of them in their heads.  Even if the custodial parent has said horrible things, be silent.  If the children ask about the things that are said, explain them, refute them, fill their ears with good things and your love and leave it at that.  By setting the example you are doing your JOB and being RESPONSIBLE. Document everything.
  5. Reverse the damage. Since you have less time with them, it is more difficult for this to occur.  You must keep fighting to get a court order that gives you time with them.  Every time you are with them it MUST be more POSITIVE than negative especially since you see them less.  You have less time, so there is no room for stupid mistakes like checking your phone constantly while you are with them.  Be grateful for the time you have and show your children you will persevere in adversity.  Your strength will encourage them, because you are showing you are RESPONSIBLE and putting your parent JOB as top priority.

Whether you are the custodial or non-custodial experiencing parental alienation, follow the court order, do not engage in mudslinging, be unbelievably consistent, silent coyote when the children are present and reverse as much damage as possible.  Coparenting and even parallel parenting requires BOTH parents be RESPONSIBLE.  Being a good parent is hard work and being a divorced parent is twice as hard, so take it seriously.  Being a parent is as important if not more important than any JOB or career that exists.  Being a parent is a privilege.  Do not squander the role and most of all DO NOT alienate the very person that your children love the most and DO NOT claim alienation when it is not happening.

Divorce Agony – The Wild Horse

If your divorce has lasted longer than a year, you will eventually stumble upon divorce agony.  There are so many emotions that are wrapped up in divorce.  I have described them as an emotional jungle and the 5 stages of grief, but once your divorce hits the long-term divorce mark such as over a year you will eventually reach divorce agony.  When you have been in a period of prolonged pain that twists your insides into new shapes, this feeling is agony.  The pain is intensified if the estranged spouse is an abuser (neglectful, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, etc.).

Divorce agony is like a wild horse confined to a cage and looking out to see a beautiful green pasture beyond its reach; the longing to be free is a desire that goes unsatisfied.  Confinement creates a sense of claustrophobia.  Things are cramped.  Space is closing in.  Turning around and around, but there is nowhere to go, but to stand in the same place looking out from the same viewpoint.  Sweet scents come in on the breeze which provide some minor relief; however, no real resolution to the situation.  There are moments when freedom seems obtainable; maybe someone from the outside looking in gives a glimmer of hope, however the moments are short lived and quenched quickly with reality.

Divorce with children is that reality in a contested divorce.  Divorce with children are those steel bars that do not seem to go away.  Children themselves do not create the steel bars that pin in the wild horse that longs to be free, the courts do.  The divorce industry calls these steel bars coparenting.  These steel bars are the constant reminder of the divorce state of your life.  The issues that caused the divorce in the first place are still active and relived through coparenting and regular interaction with the person that caged you in the first place which creates agony.  Coparenting itself is not the problem; however, the system does not customize coparenting according to relationship challenges.  Happy coparenting cannot and will not exist in a contested divorce, do not be fooled.  Also, it is common for a divorce to morph from an amicable divorce to a contested divorce very quickly when emotions run hot, be very careful there is no way to predict the outcome or plan for this switch.

Everyone will respond to divorce agony in their own way.  If you are susceptible to substance abuse, stay clear of any situation that will expose you or tempt you.  Do not let divorce agony impact your relationship with your child or children.  If you can afford counseling consider it and schedule it.  If you cannot afford counseling find an outlet, so that you are not facing this dreadful emotion alone.  By joining a divorce group, talking with friends, starting a new hobby, writing or journaling you can better cope with divorce agony and tame the wild horse.

Guard Against the Derailed Divorce

Divorce may seem to be an effortless way to cut ties with your spouse, but be very careful you do not put your children in harm’s way during the process. Your children could be at risk for Emotional/Psychological Abuse, Physical Abuse, Sexual Abuse, Neglectful Abuse and Sexually Exploited Abuse.

Making the decision to divorce is one of the toughest decisions people face in life.  Even when people are in abusive situations the decision to divorce does not come easy.  Divorce requires a lot of planning.  The person who leads the divorce march must accurately project future circumstances like financial security for the duration of the divorce, future living arrangements, assess current living risks, understand the impact the divorce news will have on the other party, the best scenario possible for your children and anticipate the emotional roller coaster that will ensue from divorce kick-off to divorce closure.  To be real, very few people cover all the bases and at times the emotional roller coaster can get derailed.  A derailed emotional roller coaster during a divorce is problematic for the children and puts your children at risk for abuse by you, by your estranged spouse, siblings or even from predators that seek children who are feeling lonely, unwanted, etc.

The first step in preventing this abuse from occurring is knowing and understanding the distinct types of abuse.

1. Emotional/Psychological Abuse

2. Physical Abuse

3. Sexual Abuse

4. Neglectful Abuse

5. Sexually Exploited Abuse

In some relationships, elements of these may already be present on a surface level – abuse is occurring, but not occurring enough to be identified as a problem or occurring only behind closed doors so no one really has any insight about the issues other than the people directly involved.  It’s terrible to think that children are exposed to this behavior at all, but the fact of the matter is child protective agencies receive millions of reports a year in the United States, a report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds.

What is Emotional Abuse?

It is the most difficult abuse to detect, especially by the parties engaged in it. According to the book, Understanding Child Abuse & Neglect by Cynthia Crosson-Tower there is a distinct pattern of psychically destructive behavior which includes: rejecting, isolating, ignoring, terrorizing and corrupting.  As you read this you may have some shocking realizations that this has happened to you in your life, your family or your marriage.  When a parent rejects a child they do so by dismissing the child’s worth or minimizing the child’s needs.  For example, never feeling “good enough” to be loved by the parent would be considered rejecting.  When a parent limits the child’s social engagements, outside communication and makes the child solely dependent on them this would be considered isolating.  When the parent plops their child in front of a television/phone/tablet all day as the babysitter, does not interact with the child, does not teach the child and stunts the intellectual development of a child this would be considered ignoring. Constant berating, verbal assaults, creating a climate of fear and making the child believe the world is out to get them would be terrorizing and finally, an example of corrupting – the adult encourages damaging behavior such as watching violence or witnessing a drug deal.

Children that experience emotional abuse grow up to be adults that have difficulty recognizing or correctly identifying the emotions in others and have trust issues.

Emotional/psychological abuse is probably the most prevalent in families and especially families of divorce.  Children that experience emotional abuse grow up to be adults that have difficulty recognizing or correctly identifying the emotions in others and have trust issues.  The idea of empathic deficiency comes from this article, “Linkages between Childhood Emotional Abuse & marital satisfaction: The mediating role of empathic accuracy for hostile emotions” from the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.  This can also explain why some people more readily divorce than others.

What is Physical Abuse?

This is any type of physical hurt inflicted on another; however, it does not include the form of discipline like spanking.  If spanking leads to bruising, the spanking goes beyond discipline and can fall into the physical abuse category.  The medical community identifies physical abuse as battered child syndrome (BCS).  Physical abuse can be prevalent in a divorce, because the stress can lead to learned coping strategies like indulging in alcohol which increases the likelihood of abuse.  Some family and friends may not be able to handle the separation and could disassociate themselves with the divorcing parties, making the divorcing parents feel even more isolated during the most stressful time they have ever experienced in life.  If people have less reliable relationships for support, the stress can boil over onto the children.  Additionally, if the couple goes through the court process with attorneys there is an additional financial strain on the relationship which also adds fuel to the already smoldering fire.  The dynamics of each person should be considered as well.  If either spouse has abuse in their background (it could be unknown by both parties – the brain blocks bad memories); this increases the chances of abuse as well.  If you were raised in a military family, especially if one parent was deployed or served during wartime; there could be abuse in your history.  Take note: having children can be a trigger for you if you have abuse in your history.  Anyone can identify the behavior warning signs of abuse.  If you see children that exhibit certain behavior it could indicate they have been exposed to an abusive situation.  Babies could have a shrill cry or do not cry at all.  Young children show no expectation of being consoled.  Children end up having a low self-esteem and very little confidence in their own abilities.  Some children can start regressing by wetting the bed, using baby talk and sucking on fingers.  Other children could have stuttering or speech problems, ADHD/ADD or general acting out.

What is Sexual Abuse?

Any sexual violence, exposing any sexual act to children (this includes inappropriate touching, seducing, precarious situations, testing the child’s boundaries, showing images, etc.).  There are two types of sexual abuse intrafamilial abuse and extrafamilial abuse.  Concerning child abuse, intrafamilial (incest between members in the nuclear family) abuse is much more common than extrafamilial (non-family members) abuse.  Over 90% of the time the abuser is someone the child knows (Crosson-Tower, 2014, p. 115).  When there is incest in a family it does not automatically make the perpetrator a pedophile.  There’s also some theories of covert incest where there is no touching involved.

What perpetrators fail to realize is that there are consequences beyond a court of law for their actions.

When there are marital problems and the spouse is no longer fulfilling the needs of the other spouse or one spouse rejects the other, some people turn to their children for comfort as a coping mechanism.  What perpetrators fail to realize is that there are consequences beyond a court of law for their actions.  Mia Fontaine from the Atlantic put it this way, “Incest is the single biggest commonality between drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, teenage and adult prostitution, criminal activity, and eating disorders. Abused youths don’t go quietly into the night. They grow up—and 18 isn’t a restart button.”  Divorce triggers feelings of rejection, loneliness and loss; be sure to teach your children what is appropriate and what is inappropriate, because they will not be under your supervision while they spend time in another household and divorce by nature is a stressor that triggers people to act out of character.

What is Neglectful Abuse?

Neglect is an act of omission.  When a child is neglected physically it could be as simple as sleeping instead of giving the child dinner.  Another example, if there is more than one child in the household, parents may often lean on the older children to perform their parental duties such as feeding the children, bathing the children and nurturing the younger children (this is called parentification); because the divorce situation becomes too much for them to handle the responsibility.  Divorce is notorious for causing depression and if there are young children involved depression can occur very easily in both parents; because the mother is recovering from giving birth.  If the mother is not treated for postpartum depression, the depression can last much longer and could be described as continued postpartum distress.  This scenario sets the stage for neglectMedical Neglect can occur as well if the parents fail to get medical help when the child needs it (this does not include missing immunizations or well child care visits). Neglect can happen in mature families as well.  Families with older children may take their older children’s independence for granted and forget they need to be extra attentive during a divorce not the latter which falls under Emotional Neglect.  If anyone decides to keep the children from school for an extended period of time or fails to notice their children’s absence from school – that’s Educational Neglect.  Ask friends and family for help and support if you are in this phase of life.

What is Sexually Exploited Abuse?

People are tricked to believe they are in a mutually loving relationship and the relationship gradually progresses beyond their control and they are coerced to perform sexual acts in exchange for money.  Single parent or divorced households struggle financially and under stress some people resort to doing things out of character to cope with their situation.  Rebekah’s story is a good example.

Divorce may seem to be an effortless way to cut ties with your spouse, but be very careful you do not put your children in harm’s way during the process.  Your children could be at risk for Emotional/Psychological Abuse, Physical Abuse, Sexual Abuse, Neglectful Abuse and Sexually Exploited Abuse.  Divorce changes a person to their very inner core.  Divorce is a refining fire.  For some that means the heat will uncover strengths the person did not know they had, make them a better parent than they were before and allow them to self-reflect on their mistakes so they are not repeated in the future; however for others it will send them on a downward spiral and possibly change them for the worst (there are always those middle ground people too, that continue with life maintaining status quo unchanged).  If attorneys are involved in the divorce, the attorney will reflect the person they represent in most cases.  Unfortunately, just like anything in this world the tools of law can be used to help or hurt a situation be sure to think before you act with any request for order or paperwork filed, because whatever you do you are indirectly affecting your children for the good or for the bad.

If you suspect a child is being abused please call the National Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-4-A-Child, you can report anonymously and you could save a life.