Parental Alienation: When Parents Are Kept From Their Kids
After divorce or separation, some ex-spouse smack talk is sort of expected. But what if your ex drove a wedge between you and your children and they stopped talking to you?
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It's a Monday morning. The door buzzes and a woman walks in, struggling as she carries a bulky, clear Rubbermaid bin. One of the clips keeping the box shut is barely clasped while the other is broken, leaving the left corner popping open.
It is brimming with documents from her divorce and her ordeal: records of court motions she and her ex-husband endured, emails back and forth from lawyers and a worn book called Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties that Bind. It is a paper trail that still elicits tears.
"I have four kids," says Cindy, 50. She digs through her purse and pulls out a small photo album. She shows me a photo of four children, sitting together. "That's what they looked like. And now they're 23, 21, 19 and 15," she says in a shaky voice, sniffling.
One mom's story
Cindy, whose real name has been changed to protect her family, struggles every day with something called parental alienation. A byproduct of some divorces, it's when one parent is literally alienated from his or her child due to badmouthing, disparaging and, as it's referred to by some professionals, "poisoning" by the other parent.
It's beyond your garden-variety ex-spouse snarkiness and, according to those who work in the divorce field, it happens more often than you'd think. These professionals familiar with parental alienation believe the adversarial nature of the court system contributes to the problem, pitting co-parents against one another and sending them through programs that often don't work.
Somewhere in meeting with lawyers and dealing with the anger and sadness, maybe kids find themselves dragged to one side or another – either intentionally or unintentionally. And, unfortunately, it's not easy to prove, prevent or see coming.
When Cindy's then-husband filed for divorce in 2000, she was a stay-at-home mom parenting her three daughters and son, who at the time were 10, 8, 6 and 2 years old.
After the divorce, her ex would bribe the kids with no curfews or give them cell phones and, later, cars that they were not allowed to use to see or talk to her, she says. Eventually, they stopped driving with her to family holiday parties. And then they'd "play the mom is invisible game" when she'd come pick them up for her parenting time, often ignoring her knocking on the door. Once, she went to her daughter's soccer game and her daughter freaked out and stopped playing because she was there.
One by one, Cindy's children left her side. For more than a decade, she's been battling with her ex-husband in court. Through all the he-said-she-said stories, motions in court and attempts to get more time with her children, Cindy was still left alone.
"All the things I've missed. I didn't get to see any of my girls get dressed for a dance, you know. I didn't see my oldest daughter's graduation from college," she says. "I wasn't part of her life because he made it so."
Around 1985, Dr. Richard Gardner came up with the term "parental alienation syndrome" to describe what Amy Baker, Ph.D. summarizes as "a child's unwarranted rejection of one parent in response to the attitudes and actions of the other parent" in a 2008 Social Work Today article.
Psychotherapist Robert Hack, a divorce mediator, parenting coordinator and president of Associates in Divorce in Bloomfield Hills, says "hostile aggressive parenting" is another term for it. He calls it "emotional child abuse after divorce." But as John Langlois, president of Dads and Moms of Michigan, a nonprofit that advocates for children in what they call "bi-nuclear" families, adds, "it gets complex because even the word divorce isn't right." He points out, "You don't have to have a marriage license to conceive a child.
Signs of alienation
"The topic is so new that the industry as a whole is still arguing about what the nomenclature for it is going to be. It's that infant."
Regardless of the name, the actions are still the same. Hack says parents may do it consciously or subconsciously, and it usually happens in what's called a "high-conflict" divorce. Some believe they're doing a good thing for the child, thinking, "I have to let my child know how bad mommy is or daddy is."
Some, though, see it as a way to hurt and punish their former spouse. Langlois, who conducts supervised parenting time and exchanges at Dads and Moms of Michigan, and Hack, as a parenting coordinator, deal with these issues firsthand. Langlois says he's seen situations in which parents kept children from seeing the other parent – or felt their ex didn't deserve to be around their children because of what occurred in the marriage.
"I've been in the court and I've watched a mother yell and scream at the Friend of the Court that the father lost all rights to the child when he filed for divorce. Believed it. And it's just not true," he says.
While this emotional abuse comes in levels ranging from mild to severe, it can have a huge impact on children either way. Kids often think their parents' split is their fault. Furthermore, when pitted against mom or dad, it can affect their self esteem.
"What (parents) lose track of is the very key fundamental truth in that all children, throughout all time, were a product of both of their parents," Langlois says. "So all children throughout all time have identified at some level with both of their biological parents."