Divorce — 11 July 2010
Coping with being alienated from your child

Dealing with a divorce is traumatic enough. Having to contend with being alienated from your child is torturous.

Judith Wallerstein and Joan Kelly first recognized the phenomenon of a child’s rejection of a parent by resisting contact in a 1976 study of children of divorce. They described it as an “unholy alliance” between a narcissistically enraged parent and a vulnerable child to punish or hurt the other parent.

In the 1980’s Dr. Richard Gardner, a forensic psychiatrist, identified what he termed “Parental Alienation Syndrome” (PAS). This occurs primarily during child-custody disputes where one parent brainwashes the child by denigrating the other parent and the youngster adds his/her own vilification of the alienated parent.

Gardner listed eight common child behaviors in PAS: 1. The child uses foul language and exhibits severe oppositional behavior. 2. The youngster offers weak, absurd justifications for his/her anger. 3. The child does not waver emotionally – only hates the alienated parent. 4. The youngster insists that he/she is the initiator of the rejection and is not guided by anyone else. 5. The child is protective of the alienating parent. 6. Feels no guilt over his/her cruelty toward the alienated parent. 7. The child recites scenarios that he/she could not have experienced. 8. Animosity for the alienated parent is spread to the extended family and friends.

The psychological issues of the alienating parent, mostly mothers, were portrayed by Dr. Gardner as though “…having total control over their child is a life and death matter. They don’t give, they only know how to take.” Also, “The parent may be diagnosed as narcissistic (self-centered), or they may be called a sociopath, which means a person who has no moral conscience. These are people who are unable to have empathy or compassion for others.” He adds, “In spite of admonitions from judges and mental health professionals to stop their alienation, they can’t.”

Gardner’s “Syndrome” has been widely criticized for lacking replicated empirical research and for being dangerous if it overlooks child abuse situations. Janet Johnston noted, “Subsequently, the term ‘parental alienation’ (PA) has been more broadly used.”

Aside from personality issues, some alienation may be motivated by financial gain such as reduction of child support, or stem from retaliation for the former spouse’s newfound happiness with a new mate.

The child involved in alienation is in a double bind. To protect the mother, he needs to be negative toward the father. This empowers the mother to demand less contact between the child and the father, whom the child may secretly yearn to see.

Today, attorneys, court systems and some mental health professionals are still divided about whether to accept or reject parental alienation as a valid phenomenon.

Alienated parents have no doubt about the reality of this behavior as they suffer intense grief and yearning to reconnect with the child they love. The irrational rejection by their son/daughter is profoundly painful and damaging to the alienated parent’s esteem. Bewilderment about how and why the alienation happened renders feelings of isolation, helplessness, anger, hurt and even deep depression in the rejected parent.

If you are a non-abusive alienated parent:

• Trust that the rejection and maligning of you are not a reflection of your worthiness as a parent or as a human being.
• Understand that your rejecting child is actually a pawn in a vicious game that is not of his/her sole creation.
• Keep calling, texting, emailing the child with positive messages, even if you receive no responses. It will be remembered.
• Abstain from “explaining” to your former spouse his/her role in the child’s behavior. It is futile and will only exacerbate the situation.
• Request that the court appoint a re-unification therapist for you and your child.
• Be patient and optimistic. Though it may be a slow process, you will likely restore your relationship with your child to the benefit of both of you.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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