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What every father should know about taking the “high road”
by Amy Baker
As your family life turns into family strife and you make that change from a married man to a recently separated soon to be divorced man, you probably have a lot on your mind and on your plate. Most likely, at the top of your list of concerns is maintaining a relationship with your children as your family undergoes a major shift. Hopefully, you will never experience a particularly problematic aspect of post divorce life, known as parental alienation. However, it is important that you know about problem so that you can quickly identify it, should you need to.
Parental alienation (PA) is a set of actions and attitudes exhibited by one parent (the alienating parent) with the purpose of undermining and interfering with a child’s relationship with his or her other parent (the targeted parent). There are countless ways in which one parent can try to poison a child against the other parent and many parents exhibit some of these behaviors at some point because there is so much hurt and anger experienced during this transition time However, only a subset of parents use parental alienation strategies in a concerted intentional effort to destroy the child’s relationship with the other parent. These parents employ a full range of strategies on an ongoing basis. Examples include the following:
Badmouthing the targeted parent by constantly highlighting for the child flaws or mistakes he or she has made and sometimes even making up stories and lies to put the targeted parent in the most unfavorable light.
Interfering with contact between the child and the targeted parent by refusing to produce the child for scheduled parenting time and cutting short parenting time with early pick-ups or late drop-offs.
Interfering with communication between the child and the targeted parent by throwing out letters and cards, hanging up on the targeted parent when s/he tries to contact the child, not letting the child come to the phone, and not passing on messages.
Interfering with symbolic communication between the child and the targeted parent by throwing out all photographs of that parent and not allowing the child to talk about that parent.
These are just some of the numerous strategies that alienating parents can use. Unfortunately, some children exposed to parental alienation behaviors eventually succumb to the pressure placed on them through these emotional manipulations and ally themselves with the alienating parent against the targeted parent. When this happens – in the absence of abuse or neglect on the part of the targeted parent — parental alienation syndrome (PAS) has occurred in the child. PAS is considered a syndrome because children who experience it typically exhibit a set of related symptoms that extend beyond the simple rejection of one parent in favor of the other. According to Dr. Richard Gardner, who coined the term PAS, the 8 symptoms include:
- A campaign of denigration against the targeted parent in which the child comes to hate and/or fear that parent, when there is no reason for these feelings. That is, the targeted parent has not abused or neglected the child.
- When asked to explain this sudden rejection of the targeted parent, an alienated child will provide reasons that are weak, frivolous, and absurd. The explanations for the rejection are often not of the magnitude that would typically lead a child to reject a parent, such as a parent not allowing a child to nap on the couch or serving spicy food to the child.
- An alienated child exhibits a complete lack of ambivalence about the alienating parent. The child demonstrates automatic, reflexive, idealized support of that parent. When asked to name one thing that is imperfect about that parent, the child will draw a complete blank.
- Even though an alienated child will give the appearance of being programmed or following a script, s/he will refuse to admit any outside influence on his/her behavior and actions. This is what is known as the “Independent Thinker” phenomenon.
- An alienated child will not appear to feel any guilt about the poor treatment of the targeted parent. An alienated child will generally behave as if the targeted parent has no feelings and is completely unworthy of common human decency. An alienated child may reject all gifts from the targeted parent or accept gifts but refuse to show appreciation by declaring that the targeted parent does not deserve it.
- The sixth manifestation of PAS is that an alienated child will always side with the alienating parent against the targeted parent even when there is no rational basis for doing so. There is no willingness or attempt to be impartial when faced with inter-parental conflicts. The child concludes that the alienating parent is always right and the targeted parent is always wrong, even when there is considerable evidence to the contrary.
- When speaking about both parents, the alienated child will use phrases and ideas adopted wholesale from the alienating parent, even when the child does not seem to grasp the meaning of the words and cannot define them. This is referred to as the use of borrowed scenarios and is what gives parental alienation syndrome the appearance of brainwashing.
- The final sign of parental alienation syndrome is that the hatred of the targeted parent spreads to his or her extended family. Not only is the targeted parent denigrated, despised, and avoided but so too are this parent’s entire family. Formerly beloved grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins are suddenly avoided and rejected. The family is treated as if it has an infectious disease that is to be avoided at all costs. Alienated children have been known to avoid important family functions such as birthdays, weddings, and even funerals of relatives with whom the child had once been quite close.
If you believe that your ex or soon-to-be-ex is using some or all of the parental alienation strategies, you need to act, before your child exhibits most or all of these PAS symptoms. You may believe that the only recourse short of engaging in a parental alienation campaign of your own is to take the “high road” in which you never point out the mistakes of the other parent, you never say anything bad about that other parent, and you don’t engage in any direct confrontation in front of the children because you don’t want to inflame the situation. Many parents who have taken this high road, conclude that the best course of action is no action.
However, experts in the field concur that there is more to the high road than doing nothing and that sometimes those who interpret the high road as doing nothing become either depressed because they feel helpless and hopeless as the situation deteriorates or they become overly reactive and angry as they suffer one frustration and indignity after another.
In order to avoid these common mistakes, it is suggested that you become fully educated and informed about parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome, you get as much support and counseling as you can, you become willing to look at yourself and make sure that you are not triggering your ex or creating your own problems with your children, and avail yourself of the best mental health and legal advice you can possibly obtain, ideally from professionals who are familiar with and trained in issues related to parental alienation. In addition, you may find a paper by Baker and Fine (2008) helpful, in which they offer specific and concrete suggestions for responding to parental alienation tactics, while staying on the high road.
Dr. Amy J.L. Baker, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist and author of
Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the ties that bind, W.W. Norton, April 2007 and is co-author with Paul Fine, of
Beyond the High Road: responding to 17 parental alienation strategies without compromising your morals or harming your child.
Her website is www.amyjlbaker.com and she can be reached at amyjlbaker (at) aol.com.