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Partner and Head of Family Law, Rugby
I was saddened to read in an article in The Guardian that Parental Alienation Syndrome in children was on the increase – saddened but not necessarily surprised. In my role as a consultant counsellor speaking to parents who are going through separation and divorce, the topic of how children are being influenced by the ex regularly comes up. This has been confirmed by my conversations with children who regularly tell me they don’t like it when one parent says nasty things about the other parent either to them or in front of them.
I haven’t very often had the experience of a child completely refusing to see the parent due to the influence of the other parent. I do however, regularly hear about a child suddenly exhibiting negative behaviours towards a parent when they see them or the child accusing a parent of being mean to the other parent, for example, “you took all Daddy’s money, so he can’t afford to take us out…” or “Mummy says you never cared about her or me and only ever cared about yourself…”.
Parental alienation is an escalation of these sorts of negative comments which can result in the child becoming completely estranged from one parent, viewing that parent as 100% bad, whereas the other parent will be regarded as 100% good. Ambivalence is quite healthy in the way that children view their separated parents; they can adjust to the fact that both have positive and negative qualities and that nobody is perfect.
I would be interested to know if research suggests that parental alienation is more common when abuse had been present in the parental relationship. When there are power and control issues in a relationship and one person’s need for dominance results in a form of abuse, is it likely that the abuse continues even after the relationship has ended by using the children as the conduits of power? What better way to dominate, hurt and control the ex partner than by poisoning the children so much that they no longer want to have a relationship with their other parent.
If this is the case this is not only abusive to the ex partner but to the children too, it is not their choice that they are rejecting their Mum or Dad, but the result of a consistent campaign of hatred and denigration towards one parent by the other. The children feel that they have to make a choice and why would they want to side with the parent who has been so effectively vilified that they no longer seem worthy of their child’s love?
Although this only happens in the worst of cases maybe there’s a salutary message to those of us who are separated parents; be very aware of how we portray our ex partner to our children because it will influence how they see them, think about them and behave towards them. We have a responsibility as a parent to protect our children from our own negative feelings about our ex.
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