WNY Family Magazine July 2018 - Page 54

SINGLE PARENTING — by Diane C. Dierks, LMFT The Mask of Parental Alienation T here is much talk in the mental health field about a concept called “parental alienation” — a combination of behav- iors and attitudes by one parent that con- tributes to a child’s rejection of the other parent, especially as it relates to post- divorce parenting. Unfortunately, many single parents are perpetrators of this so- called “brainwashing” of their children, which we now know has detrimental ef- fects on children of divorce. What does parental alienation look like? Sometimes parents blatantly refuse to allow visitation or access to the other parent. They may also place so many re- strictions and demands on the other par- ent that it becomes impossible to carry out a regular and effective parenting plan. The most common type, however, is when parents engage in mud-slinging, characterized by one parent’s negative words and attitudes about the other par- ent expressed to or in front of the child on a regular, frequent basis. If the child is closely aligned to the mud-slinging parent, feeling some sense of special loyalty, or has been in a care- taking role of that parent, the child is likely to believe the negative character- ization about the other parent, and pos- sibly reject that parent, even when the child’s experience does not fit with the negative picture that has been painted. Often, all of these types of alienation are 54 WNY Family July 2018 happening at the same time. On the surface, it is easy to think of the alienating parent as a monster, or at best, a selfish manipulator. However, some of the latest research shows that alienators are often able to mask their harsh words and attitudes by acting as very warm, involved parents toward their children, and quite likely believ- ing that they are always responding in the best interests of the child — even if that means turning their child against the “enemy” parent. This can be a danger- ous and emotionally confusing combi- nation for the child. What are the effects of parental alienation on the child? According to re- searcher Janet Johnston, et al (Journal of Emotional Abuse), some children “lose their emerging sense of self and their capacity for realistic judgment, become psychologically enmeshed, and form a pathological alliance with one parent against the other.” In other words, it cre- ates a virtual nightmare for the child and greatly affects self-esteem. This is not a good start for our kids as they grow into adulthood and seek to form healthy, meaningful relationships with other adults. As a former single parent and di- vorce educator, I find this subject mat- ter more disturbing than any other issues surrounding divorce or single parent- hood. In failing to deal with our own personal baggage (in therapy or other- wise), we load unnecessary weight onto our children and then make them feel noble for carrying it. Because of the subtle ways in which we can be masters at presenting a good case to win our chil- dren’s favor, we are in essence taking advantage of their innocence to resolve our own guilt. It is unfair, and in a word, abusive. Children deserve the right to ex- perience each of their parents in a rela- tionship that is not critiqued by anyone but the parent and child in that relation- ship. Unless a parent believes a child is in physical or emotional danger when spending time with the other parent, interference by word or deed will ulti- mately work against the child’s welfare. When children are given reasonable access to both parents and permission to love them equally, they will appropri- ately grow into their own opinions and assessments about their parents. Not surprisingly, this allows them to make choices along the way that reflect their individual personal feelings about their parents, rather than the distorted and embittered ones that result from parental alienation. So, how can you keep from alien- ating the other parent from your child? Here are a few rules to commit to: 1) Don’t use negative language, gestures, or attitudes when talking to your child about their other parent. No matter what age your child is, it never feels good to hear that “part of me (my parent) is bad.” If you cannot use posi- tive language, at least keep it neutral and unemotional. 2) Do work out a parenting plan that provides fair and reasonable ac- cess to the children for both of you. This is always subject to work schedules, school, activities, etc., but should never be subject to one parent’s assessment of the other parent’s skills, style, or per- ceived commitment. Again, in absence of abusive situations, neither parent should restrict the child’s right to experi- ence a relationship with both parents. 3) Do everything to encourage your child’s relationship with the