When a divorce involves minor children, their best interests must be kept as a top priority throughout the dissolution process and continuing after the divorce is final.
It is widely accepted that children are far better off maintaining a healthy relationship with both parents when there are no signs of neglect or abuse.
With almost 25 years experience representing men in divorce with Cordell & Cordell, I have witnessed many cases where one of the parents will let their own feelings obstruct the development of a relationship between their children and ex, which can result in parental alienation.
Parental alienation, while a relatively new concept, has quickly become recognized as a genuine condition that is extremely detrimental to the mental health of children.
Through psychological manipulation, the alienating parent fosters and encourages rejection of the other parent. This can be done subtly and unintentionally through occasional belittling comments, to active and malicious "brainwashing" with the intent to replace any love the child may have for the other parent with hate.
Alienation can be cataclysmic during such an emotional time as divorce.
The children are trying to comprehend why their parents will no longer be together, and the younger they are, the more likely they are to cling to whatever they are told. This creates a perfect situation for a vindictive parent who is wrapped up in their own emotions to warp the perceptions of their children.
In most situations, the primary custodial parent is the leading offender in contributing to parental alienation. This overwhelmingly makes non-custodial fathers the targets due to the fact that the overwhelming majority of custody disputes result in mothers receiving primary custody.
Since the children spend more time with the primary parent, the mother usually has more of an opportunity to spread her influence. While the alienating parent may not intend to hurt their children, this can have extremely negative consequences on their well-being and is more common than you might think.
Recent studies have found that some level of parental alienation can be found in 11-15 percent of divorces involving children, and that severe alienation can be classified as abuse (though it is often overlooked).
Children can suffer from many issues that hamper development during their most impressionable years, including depression, low self-esteem, trust issues, and an increased risk of developing substance abuse problems. In severe of cases where one parent actively contributes to alienating the other, it becomes what is known as Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS).
While it has long been debated whether PAS is an actual clinical condition, the most recent version American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders finally added a section under the child psychological abuse category called parent-child relational problem that encompasses PAS:
"Non-accidental verbal or symbolic acts by a child's parent or caregiver that result, or have reasonable potential to result, in significant psychological harm to the child."
By rewording the definition with and creating a new title, the ADA was able to circumvent the controversy and criticism from women's advocacy groups PAS has endured since the term was first developed in the 1980s.
While PAS is still not officially recognized, the subject has become more popularized as it makes its way into the mainstream. However, it is incredibly difficult to diagnose, even harder to reverse and still challenging to get taken seriously in court.
There are many signs that your children may be suffering from parental alienation, but a couple warnings to watch out for include:
- Your ex does everything in their power to deny your parenting time and actively tries to cut you off from your child.
- You receive limited information about your children, such as how they are performing in school, or few updates on any medical issues.
- The child will be made to feel guilty or fears rejection/consequences from the alienating parent if they show affection toward you.
- Your child, who before the divorce had a perfectly healthy relationship with you, is now distant and is uninterested in speaking to you.
- Your child comes up with trivial excuses for skipping your allotted visitation time.
This can be a heartbreaking situation for a loving parent to go through, and what makes it even worse is the lack of ramifications in court. It takes extensive testing and a specialized mental health expert familiar with PAS to make a diagnosis, and even then, it often won't carry much weight with the judge.
If you have a legitimate concern your child is suffering from parental alienation, then your best option is to continue completing or exceeding every parental obligation you have and seek the help of a psychologist familiar with this condition.
While separating couples can obviously harbor animosity towards each other, it is your duty to protect your children from the fallout of divorce. Even sarcastic comments about your ex made in passing can be damaging to your children's psyche, and it is extremely detrimental their mental health when it gets to the level of PAS.
You have a responsibility to do what is best for your kids, and that means encouraging a positive relationship with your ex -- despite how you may feel about them.