Today is Parental Alienation Awareness Day. This was done for an online blog but didn’t make it in time.
An upstanding member of the community and a dad who his kids loved deeply until the divorce 10 years ago, Avery fights sadness every day knowing that he has had no connection to his daughter and two sons in 6 years. There was an abrupt ending to the baseball games, coaching, dance recitals and homework help. There was always some illogical reason as to why the children were not able to attend visitation. Despite having pursued a court battle during and after the divorce and having attended therapy sessions (when the children would show) little was done to help the situation. “It is in your agreement to not talk badly about their father” was the slap on the wrist to the mother, who, despite alienation from her spouse for a few years was enraged when he finally walked out. Attempts to reach for his children go unnoticed and unrewarded yet the alimony check arrives in a timely fashion every month. Recently he stopped reaching out because “I just can’t face the rejection and emptiness every day”.
Michael’s attempt at reunification therapy went nowhere. The courts agreed to 10 sessions but when time arose for joint meetings there were delays and interruptions in getting his now 16-year-old daughter to the sessions. With the evident glaring pathology of his former spouse he has since regained custody of the two small children and complies with their timesharing schedule. The daughter, however, was hijacked by the mother long ago and refuses any contact with him. Clearly convincing and despite psychological evaluations, it took a few sessions to gain a glimpse of her pathology and vindictiveness. Alienators can be quite subtle and endearing; they can pretend empathy and be very convincing to others that they are in fact the helpless victim.
Jeremy’s wife earned supervised visitation in a custody evaluation during their divorce five years ago. His spouse was deemed a malignant narcissist yet with two boys, then 12 and 15, Jeremy couldn’t do it; he didn’t want to take their only mother, albeit a very disturbed one, away from them. He realized that they would soon have to understand things for themselves as they mature and are able to see things through a more mature lens. Jeremy never questioned that his strong bond with both of them would ever be at risk but when the older one left for college Jeremy saw an unexpected turn away in his younger son, despite warning signs. There was a brief period where he left his father both physically and emotionally—there were exclusionary demands, detachment, acting out and debasement. Its amazing the power of the text from a sick person with only visitation that isn’t even exercised as its deferred most often to boyfriends and self-indulging activities; it is control and manipulation at a distance. At lunch the day before we last met there was a moment of revisit to the alienated child that Jeremy saw last year for three months- referring to him as provocative and abusive, something which he is nothing of but are sounds of the projecting sick parent. Jeremy wakes up every day trying to be the best that he can be because he knows that the only way to be a better parent is to be a better person.
It is the unfortunate circumstance for many men to be the subject of parental alienation syndrome (PAS). Although it may not be the man who initiates the separation it is often they who move out—on their spouses, not their children.
As a term, PAS is not real. The behaviors and experiences that surround it and define it are, as are the people who are involved.
I refer to men because in the majority of cases it is the men who are the targeted parents. I know because not only am I a professional but I am a mother and had I had a penis between my legs I too would have been the targeted parent and would possibly have no relationship with my children today. I firmly believe because one, I am the mother, and two, because I am strong parent, that I am strongly connected to my kids despite having had a short term glimpse into the world of the targeted parent. I understand the pain; one of the above stores is my own.
PAS is a disorder of attachment. A normal-range of parenting behaviors and attachment patterns are exhibited by the healthier targeted parent; they show empathy, affect regulation and engage in attunement with their children. The sick parent, on the other hand, is one with an often diagnosable personality disorder who shows a fragmented and often dismissive connection, if that, as it is often about them. The rage from abandonment is often the motivating factor for these parents and what better way to hurt someone than to turn their children against them. It is often said—these parents hate their former spouse more than they love their children. Frankly, they typically don’t see the difference. And they will never understand a most important fact—its easier to raise a healthy child than to heal an injured adult.
Broken bonds interrupt the healthy development of the child; the earlier the disrupted attachment bond and attunement between parent and child the more likely the parental alienation will become entrenched in the family. That is, the later in the child’s development that the splitting occurs as prompted by the hostile and angry parents the less likely there will be long term negative consequences; the easier (although it is never easy) for the child to turn back.
PAS is a tragedy. According to Craig Childress, PhD, it is not a problem for family court but rather an issue of child abuse that should be brought into our social service system. The basic problem with this, however, is the failure of our system to understand the dynamics and signs and symptoms of these patterns and it is in fact—given this— dangerous to get them involved because there is a good chance the system can work against you. I have seen cases where alienating parents are given slaps on the wrist or ‘asked’ to not engage in a behavior and their failure to follow the rules is met with little or no consequences. Hence a bind and little that can be done (although not impossible).
Despite the trauma it is wise to never give up hope. Continue to reach despite the pain; it shows you are present and care and it shows that no matter what you wont really abandon them. Do not talk about the alienation. The hardest part for the child is to face their pain and shame for having turned away; this is what makes it so easy for them to stay away and never to turn back, even as adults. Making it safe to turn back requires a safe, empathic, understand and accepting environment. Stay the course as one never knows what the future may bring. Michael just received a call from his daughter; she is in therapy and getting married—she is attempting to turn back.