A simple view is that separating parents put their children’s best interests first by collaborating. Where one or both parents don’t collaborate, they fail their children – or even emotionally abuse them.
Things are not so simple. There is a wide range of family separation patterns. Indeed, each family is unique and needs to be assessed and helped according to what each needs.
We do know that unaware professionals of all kinds can make things worse if they don’t know how to spot and handle the worst of what can happen … as it does with any degree of Child Alienation going on. And making the child the paramount focus is always going to be top priority.
Even if you know about Alienation, if you can find a child-focused way to pull back the parents to collaborate constructively, then we need to learn how to do that. So that is what Shelagh explores in her blog. She also sets out for us a spectrum of how families present for help.
The terms Parental Alienation or Hostile Aggressive Parenting describe a group of behaviours that are said to be damaging to children’s mental and emotional well-being, and can interfere with the relationship between a child and either parent. These behaviours are often associated with high conflict marriages, separation or divorce.
A child who experiences these behaviours whether verbal or non-verbal, can suffer great emotional distress and often will not realise that they are being mentally manipulated or bullied into believing a loving parent is the cause of their distress … that they’re the enemy, to be feared, hated, disrespected, or disregarded.
Parents, other family members or well-meaning friends who engage in these behaviours, deprive the child of their right to be loved by, as well as showing love for both of their parents. These destructive actions can become abusive to the child, as these behaviours can be disturbing, confusing, and often frightening, to the child, and can rob the child of their sense of security and safety and may lead to emotional and psychological distress.
Focusing on behaviour – a spectrum
I prefer not to focus on labels, but these terms are widely understood. I prefer to focus on behaviours and the impact of those behaviours. By using labels the professional can be tempted into a particular cognitive state which will affect the way they approach the parent. As a family therapist and family mediator I try to adopt a stance of non-judgemental curiosity.
So, what are these behaviours that are being referred to? I think there is a spectrum between deliberate action and benign indifference where these behaviours occur.
1. Conscious and strategic
At one end there is a conscious and strategic, either covert or overt deliberate attempt to turn the child against the other parent. These actions are demonstrated by a parent who cares more about the battle with the other parent than the well-being of their child. Working with such a parent would only be successful if this parent was able to step aside from their own hurt and anger to be able to focus on what their child felt and needed. This might sound straightforward but would require a huge shift in thinking and emotional awareness of the parent that takes time and effort to achieve.
2. Unconscious and strategic
The next level might be an unconscious and strategic either covert or overt attempt to turn the child against the other parent. These actions are demonstrated by a parent who has little self-awareness and little emotional maturity that they are merely enacting learned behaviours or they have little or no conscious awareness of the needs of their child. Working with such a parent would mean re-educating this parent about children’s needs and development. This work could be successful if this parent was able to reflect on themselves and the effect their behaviour was having on their child. If they were able to prioritise their child then the work could be successful.
3. Using pedestals, martyrdom and truth
We then might have a conscious and strategic covert or overt strategy to put the other parent on a pedestal for the child. That inevitably means the parent on the pedestal will let the child down as (s)he will be unable to live up to the idealised expectations. The outcome is that the remaining parent is the one the child can rely on.
Working with these parents would involve again developing more self-awareness and emotional intelligence so that the parent can prioritise the child over whatever issues they have themselves. This is also linked to the conscious or unconscious martyrdom that one parent may engage in, where the ‘martyred’ parent encourages their child to feel sympathy for them in how they are being treated or how they have to struggle etc at the hands of the other parent.
There is also the conscious decision to always ‘tell the truth’. And I use the word ‘truth’ here very loosely as we all have our own version of the truth and the ‘truthful’ parent is likely to only tell the ‘truth’ when that paints the other parent in a worse light than themselves. They may well acknowledge ‘mistakes’ on their part but would be done so within the context of bad or worse behaviour on the part of the other parent.
Deliberate or not deliberate: Who can change?
If the behaviour is conscious then the parent would need to be able to work on their own feelings, understand their own motivations and be able to reflect on their own behaviour before they might be able to prioritise their child. When a parent is acting deliberately then they have a plan to strategically turn their child away from the other parent and they have little or no regard for how that might affect their child. These parents tend to be less amenable to change.
If the behaviour is unconscious or not deliberate then enabling the parent to be more aware of their behaviour and its impact may be sufficient for them to be able to prioritise their child. When a parent is acting without deliberate intent then highlighting how these behaviours might affect their child can often enable them to prioritise their child. These parents tend to be more amenable to change.
How to include children
There is much debate in the mediation world about the inclusion or not of children in the divorce process. The government has recommended that all children over the age of 10 years are given the option to be consulted directly and many mediators are trained in direct child consultation in mediation. There is also much debate about the balance between mediation and a therapeutic intervention. Mediators in the UK are less inclined to intervene than their Antipodean counterparts.
Many parents seem to think that consulting children directly means that the child has a choice to make. Not so. Listening to children does not mean agreeing with them or doing what they ask. Direct Consultation with children means that conversations can take place without the fear of a decision being made.
Whether it comes under an umbrella of therapy or mediation, talking with children and their parents about their feelings and desires, both separately and together, is essential in helping families to move forward in their lives in a way that allows freedom to enjoy all of their relationships without negative repercussions.
Dr Shelagh Wright is a Family and Systemic Psychotherapist (registered with UKCP) and Family Mediator trained in Direct Child Consultation (registered with FMA), working with children and families who wish to improve their relationships.