Submitted by: Big Little Wolf
Parental alienation seems to be the rallying cry these days – for those divorcing or divorced. What is it, exactly? And why should we all be concerned about it?
Let me be clear. I’m not an attorney and I’m not a therapist. But I am a long-term single parent who has tried hard to say the right things at the right time, and to protect the feelings of my children – about both parents – during and after divorce. I haven’t always succeeded; there have been bad days when I’ve said things I wish I hadn’t. But there have been far more days when I’ve spoken kindly or held my tongue, acted fairly, and done what is best for my children.
Here is a definition of parental alienation that I pulled from Wiki:
“Parental alienation is a social dynamic, generally occurring due to divorce or separation, when a child expresses unjustified hatred or unreasonably strong dislike of one parent, making access by the rejected parent difficult or impossible. These feelings may be influenced by negative comments by the other parent and by the characteristics, such as lack of empathy and warmth, of the rejected parent. The term does not apply in cases of actual child abuse, when the child rejects the abusing parent to protect themselves. Parental alienation is controversial in legal and mental health professions, both generally and in specific situations. Terms related to parental alienation include child alienation, pathological alignments, visitation refusal, pathological alienation, the toxic parent and parental alienation syndrome though the last term is a specific formulation of a medical syndrome proposed by psychiatrist Richard Gardner that is not well accepted.”
To see how prevalent parental alienation has become in the divorce industry, we have only to look as far as the article on the fictionalized use of Parental Alienation Syndrome on the series Law and Order. For that matter, read the comments on almost any divorce-oriented site, and you will see frequent claims of parental alienation.
Parental alienation, as I understand it, is not a slip of the lip at the end of another frantic day. Nor is it revealing factual information about the other parent when doing so is an absolute necessity, and not intended to manipulate the child or hurt the other adult.
Furthermore, parental alienation is not always intentional. This is exactly why we owe it to our children to be vigilant with our actions and our words – at all times.
Here’s my take on a real-world definition of parental alienation. You can decide for yourself whether or not you agree with my assessment.
• A negative remark made in despair or exhaustion? Not cool, but not parental alienation.
• Answering a child’s questions honestly and appropriately? Not parental alienation.
• Infrequent changes to visitation for legitimate reasons? Not parental alienation.
• Blocking visitation? Parental alienation.
• Blocking phone calls and emails? Parental alienation.
• Constantly berating the other parent? Parental alienation.
• Repeated manipulation of a child’s opinion of the other parent? Parental alienation.
There are times when children ask for explanations – the reasons behind divorce, not seeing the other parent as much as they would like, reasons for financial difficulties. I believe we should field these questions as diplomatically as possible, disclosing only what is necessary, when it is necessary – dispassionately, and gently.
That may mean explaining the financial realities of a divorced household and impacts on the child’s future, or positioning the facts to do with addiction or abuse. Certainly, we owe it to our children to make appropriate judgments about what we say, as well as when and how.
But in my opinion, telling the truth does not equate to parental alienation.
I’ve witnessed what I consider to be parental alienation, and it can be devastating. In one example, a good friend fought five years for shared custody of his children. He finally won his case, but the ex, who remained in state, moved far enough away to make it logistically impossible for him to exercise his custodial rights and still keep his job. Without the job, he couldn’t pay child support, not to mention his own rent.
This father is left with occasional phone calls and visits, and the hope that when his sons are older they will understand that he did everything he could for as long as he could. And his children? What are they left with?
It is because of these unconscionable scenarios that I say enough to the automatic and frivolous outcry – largely from men – that women are poisoning their children against them. Calling any negative remark “parental alienation” does a disservice to those men and women fighting situations like the one I just described.
There is no all-inclusive handbook to post-divorce parenting, and none of us is a perfect parent – whatever our marital status. But we need to watch our tongues and our actions because our children are watching us, as models for adult behavior. Aren’t we capable of better than sticking it to the other parent by using the kids? Couldn’t we love our children in ways that are constructive and unselfish? Is it really so difficult to act responsibly, be fair in our dealings, and live up to the privilege of parenthood – honorably?
© D. A. Wolf
D. A. Wolf is an independent consultant, freelance writer, and single mother of two teen sons. She is a former art reviewer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and her work has appeared in ARTnews, Raw Vision, France Magazine, ForbesWoman.com, and other publications. She holds a BA from Wellesley College, an MBA from the Wharton School, and has lived and worked up and down the East Coast and in Paris. These days, she reflects on life at her Daily Plate of Crazy, where she writes about women’s issues, divorce, parenting, popular culture, and anything else that strikes her on a given day as important, entertaining, or of interest.