Parental Alienation – raising awareness
April 25th is my daughter’s 22nd birthday. For the first time that I can remember, I probably won’t get to spend any time with her on her special day – her boyfriend and the allure of a Scottish mini-break are far more enticing. But this is ok. This is normal. Children become adults, they separate from us and go on to start their own adult relationships, and most usually families. As a loving, caring parent – this is what I want for my children. I am happy – not despondent.
Also on April 25th in many countries of the world, events are being organised to raise awareness of Parental Alienation. This is the 10th year in which Parental Alienation has been highlighted in this way. This year events are taking place across the USA, in Canada, Portugal, Finland, Ireland, Sweden – and many other countries; but it isn’t something we really “do” here in the UK. Few people here have heard of it or understand what it is, and others would suggest that it doesn’t exist.
Having worked with children and families for 20 years, I notice with surprising regularity, that many a parent slips into potentially alienating behaviour – and I include myself in this statement. Before becoming aware of parental alienation, I was guilty of talking about some adult issues (mainly finance and child support) or giving my children a “choice” (asking them to make a decision …) about which parent they spent their time with.
Each child becomes a unique individual because of the relationships and experiences in their lives – because of their mum and dad, their grandparents and siblings, aunts and uncles and cousins. They are shaped by their interactions with their friends and their teachers, by all the interpersonal experiences in their life. For children caught up in the breakdown of their family, these interactions and relationships can become damaged.
A child may be subtly, or unconsciously, manipulated to gradually withdraw from one parent in favour of another. They may never hear one parent utter a bad word about the other – but they may never hear a good word either. When they excitedly report on a great time with mum or dad, their enthusiasm goes unacknowledged or is instantly dismissed. Conversely, reports of minor disagreements are dissected, commiserated with and relieved with a special treat. Sometimes mum or dad may appear to be very, very sad when they are about to spend time with the other parent. This sadness can be matched by equally excessive joy on return “home”.
Other children may experience explicit alienating behaviours. They may be lied to, manipulated and physically prevented from contact. They may need to supress or deny their love and affection or hide their thoughts and emotions. They may be prohibited from speaking to, communicating or being with someone they love. They may consciously, or unconsciously, acknowledge the risk of losing a parent if they do not succumb to these alienating tactics.
This is parental alienation. It all too often results in the unwarranted or illogical rejection of a parent, where there was previously a normal, warm, loving relationship. It can result in a life damaged by mental health issues, psychological disorders and enduring difficulties with relationships. It most often occurs in highly conflicted relationship break-ups and is often perpetuated by a parent who experiences shame, jealousy or hatred of their former partner. These parents often have unresolved issues from their own childhood or earlier relationships. Parents may believe that they are acting to protect their child. They may go to extraordinary lengths – moving to opposite ends of the country; creating a web of lies, misinformation and half-truths; breaking court orders. They may raise false allegations of abuse such as those brought to a wider audience on the BBC and in The Guardian this week.
Raising awareness about alienating behaviours, family dynamics and conflict in family breakdown is a key feature of my work.
My hope, on Parental Alienation Awareness day 2015, is that just one parent, somewhere, stops, stands back and reflects on the possible consequences of their actions. Loving relationships in childhood are an important factor in positive, healthy, resilient adult lives.
Dr Sue Whitcombe