Parental Alienation

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What is Parental Alienation?

Divorce is a difficult process for any couple to go through, but it can be even more difficult for a couple's children. While adults are given the freedom of choice to divorce, children are rendered helpless to do anything except move along with the process-a position that often causes them to feel upset, depressed, fearful, or even guilty. It is vitally important to recognize this vulnerability and be supportive of your children during this time.

What should you tell your children about the divorce?

 While some parents might be inclined to get into the fine-print of their divorce motives, it is actually better if you spare your child the specifics behind your divorce. Even if you feel like you're just "sharing your side of the story," you are actually making an argument against your ex-spouse when you defend your reasons for divorce. This puts your child in the very stressful situation of having to side with you and against their other parent-a very unnatural and devastating position for them. Try instead to keep the "reasons" for your divorce short and neutral, and choose words that suggest a mutual, peaceful decision to separate.
You may also wish to review these other divorce do’s and don’ts if you are new to divorce.

What is "parental alienation?"

With recent separations, there is often a lot of bitterness between couples. A healthy couple will work this out through outlets like exercise, therapy, outings with friends, or other emotionally calming activities. However, some couples hold on to their anger, making it a focal point of their-and their children's-lives by speaking or acting out against their former spouse. This kind of aggression is called parental alienation.

There are three major classes of parental alienation: mild, moderate, and extreme.
Mild alienators are parents who are actually aware of the division between their needs and the needs of their children. While they may let a few unkind words about their ex slip out in front of the kids, they are generally controlled and careful. They also realize the importance of letting their children maintain a healthy relationship with the other parent, and will cooperate with an ex-spouse in order to support this.

Moderate alienators are those who have a much more vitriolic relationship with their former spouse. They tend to lash out against their ex in front of their children and blame problems on that spouse when they become frustrated. However, they still recognize the potential negative impact of these actions and will often try to repair the damage that they have done. Moderate alienators tend to be uncooperative when dealing with their former spouses.

Extreme alienators are the most damaging of the bunch. They not only fail to encourage a healthy relationship between their children and their former spouse, but work to actively sabotage that relationship. Everything about the divorce is blamed on the targeted spouse, and children are brainwashed into expressing hatred for their other parent. Children in this situation have a very difficult time recovering from this manipulation, and it may permanently destroy their relationship with the targeted parent-a fact that can traumatize them for the rest of their lives.

All forms of parental alienation are damaging to children, and it is extremely important to be aware of the way you relate to your ex-spouse. Awareness is the best means of protecting your children from psychological damage.

What if my spouse is alienating me? What can I do?
When your spouse deliberately pits your children against you, it can be heartbreaking. But the most important thing you can do is to not give up.

Remember that if the court has granted you the right to child custody or visitation, your spouse cannot deny you that right. Continue to spend time with your children, even if they act resentful of the situation, and try to realize that their anger is most likely driven by the fear of losing both of their parents. Despite the frustration involved, you should also avoid creating alienation issues of your own. Keep your relationship positive and refrain from lashing out at either your children or your ex.

Finally, speak with a family law attorney as soon as possible. The court can grant mandatory therapy for you, your children, and your ex-spouse if it is deemed necessary. Therapy can give you a chance to work through the damage and the alienation behavior in a neutral environment, and can show your children the flaw in your spouse's actions.

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Last Modified: 05-31-2012 02:00 PM PDT

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