When Children Get Caught in the Middle
by Kelly Burgess
Most people have probably witnessed parental alienation. This is where one parent denigrates another in front of the children. In its most severe form it can lead to Parental Alienation Syndrome, or PAS, where the child completely rejects contact with one parent.
PAS was first described in 1985 by the late Richard Gardner. J. Michael Bone, who worked extensively with Gardner, notes that PAS occurs almost exclusively in the context of divorce. "Most of the research done on this suggests various motivations, but in general it involves anger and a desire for revenge because of abandonment," Dr. Bone says. "However, sometimes it's also engaged in by the person who initiates the divorce because of emotional instability or a desire for control."
In addition, although in the past it was thought that the mother was primarily the alienating parent, Bone notes that it's now thought to occur equally between the mother and father. Parental alienation can manifest itself through constant negative and untrue comments by one parent against the other, through false allegations of abuse and, in its most extreme form, literally through abducting and convincing the child that his mother or father no longer loves him or is no longer living.
"It's easy to think that one parent could never have the power to turn a child against a parent they've always loved and been close to, but one of the things we've discovered is that it's not that hard to do," Bone says. "Divorce is very tough on kids and it represents a loss for the child. It's not that great of a leap for the child to start worrying that if he doesn't 'side' with the one parent against the other he may lose both parents."
What makes it worse is that the alienated parent often reacts by getting angry at the child, thus reinforcing what the child is being told: that this parent is a bad person, or doesn't love them or is angry at them. In fact, the child is not responsible for the alienation; they are merely a pawn.
Fighting AlienationJeff Opperman of Seymour, Conn., has been divorced for six years and has not seen his youngest son for the last five. "At first there was contact but it was very negative," Opperman says. "I forced him to spend time with me even though he obviously didn't want to. Finally, I just gave up and there's been no contact at all since then. I send e-mails and gifts just in case there might be a breakthrough, but they just go into a black hole."
In Opperman's case, the alienation started before he and his ex-wife separated, when they first began having problems in the marriage. Bone says this is not uncommon. However, even in retrospect, Opperman is pessimistic about whether or not he could have fought successfully against his ex-wife's influence over their son.
While PAS was finally accepted by a court of law in a case in 2000, in general it boils down to situations that are "he said, she said" and is extremely difficult to prove. "It's very easy to split up property and money in a bank, but what do you do whe you have a child who says he doesn't want to have anything to do with one parent, and one parent thinks the child should be able to make that decision while the other parent is protesting it," Opperman says. "The courts simply aren't prepared or equipped to deal with this."
Complicating the situation are those rare instances where one parent truly is a bad person and does want to hurt the child and the parent accused of being alienating is just trying to protect the child.
Recognizing PASSo what's a parent to do? Opperman says you can watch for signs that your spouse has the potential to alienate. Look for things like the spouse having little secrets with the child or telling the child things about the parental relationship that are inappropriate. It may be worth holding off on divorce or separation and getting counseling to work out child relationship issues before going ahead with ending the marriage.
Dr. Bone says a parent who thinks he or she is being alienated should find out as much as possible about parental alienation and PAS so that they react appropriately and don't make matters worse with the child. He is also more optimistic that action can be taken through the courts than Opperman is, but it's important not to blame the child for actions over which he or she has no control.
Opperman, like all alienated parents, can't do much but hope for the day when his son realizes that his father loved him all along and chooses to resume their relationship.