Sometimes it’s just a feeling…a new behavior from your kids that seems different than usual. Sometimes it’s flat-out anger and withdrawal. Sometimes it’s parental alienation: the process of breaking down a relationship between a parent and a child, usually perpetrated by the other parent.
If you suspect there’s something going on with your relationship with your kids…and it’s not because you’re an abuser or a user…read Divorce Poison by Dr. Richard Warshak. It could be the most important thing you do for your kids as you all navigate life after divorce. In case you can’t get around to it right now, here’s a synopsis.
IDENTIFICATION: Familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms of alienation and recognize them when they crop up. Does your child hate just you or does he/she hate everyone associated with you, including your extended family? That’s a sure-fire sign they are being brainwashed.
Ask yourself these questions. A yes to one or more means your relationship may be in trouble:
* Does your ex systematically interfere with your time alone with your child by scheduling other events, having family “emergencies,” calling your child/children to make sure they’re okay, being late, or any other excuse?
* Has your child become withdrawn around you for no discernible reason or for a reason that seems minor compared to the withdrawal?
* Does your ex call you after your parenting time to tell you how upset your children were, even when they showed no signs of distress while they were with you?
* Is there a disconnect between how your child acts around you when you’re together and when he or she is with the other parent?
* Does your ex make your contact with your child conditional on you acting a certain way, isolating yourself from friends and family, or any other over-reach into your life?
* Does your child refuse to give you any information about his or her life in the other home?
INTERVENTION: As soon as you see a pattern of behavior that suggests your ex is interfering with your parent/child relationship, take action.
* Confront your ex on his/her behavior
* Talk with your child about why the relationship seems strained
* Involve attorneys or therapists
But, do something. And do it quickly. Children don’t take long to develop thoughts and feelings they believe are their own, but are really the brainwashing of their custodial parent. And, once they believe you’re a bad parent, even if you aren’t, it will be very hard to convince them otherwise. According to Dr. W, parents often make the mistake of thinking, “Oh, it’ll get better with time.” Not so. The longer the alienation is allowed to continue, the worse it will get until there is complete estrangement. Another point he stresses is that you need an attorney and a therapist who are familiar with parental alienation so you can effectively address the issue in court, if necessary.
INVOLVEMENT: As much as possible, stay involved in your child’s life. That may be difficult if you have relatively no contact with him or her. It’s even more difficult when your ex manipulates the children into un-inviting, misleading, or shunning you. But you’re allowed to show up at concerts and ball games anyway, if there’s some way to learn when/where they are. Also, a way to do this when all other contact has been broken off is to leave phone messages on a weekly or bi-monthly basis. Let your child/children know you’re thinking of them. One ex I’ve heard of has refused to tell the mother what activities the children are involved in, then chastises her for not participating in their lives. He also then uses her non-involvement as proof to the children that she doesn’t love them. Circular, yes. Sad, even more so.
Finally, the two biggest triggers for intensified parental alienation are 1) determining or revising child support or custody, and 2) a remarriage of either parent. If you are in either of those situations, pay very close attention to how your children are acting around you.
Parental alienation can be stopped if it’s caught early enough. Protect your child and your relationship with your child. It’s one of the most important things you can do for them.