Mitigating the Damage of Parental Alienation

By Mila Koljensic

The term Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) was coined more than 30 years ago by Richard A. Gardner, MD (1931-2003). As a child psychiatrist, he provided expert witness to more than 400 families going through divorce and custody battles.

It is important to note that much of Dr. Garner’s work and theories have been disputed by clinicians and legal scholars alike, since he postulated that many children were coerced by an alienating parent to report childhood abuse. During custody battles, this sometimes resulted in children being placed with an abusive parent, and he was criticized for his lack of documentation and an abundance of speculattion.

Dr. Gardner, however, did shine a light on what would become one of the biggest public health emergencies of our time — the unwarranted and unjustified alienation of one parent toward the other. This occurs when the alienating parent sort of brainwashes their child into believing that the other is a bad or dangerous parent, simply to win over the heart and mind of the child. This demonization of the other parent often results in the child’s rejection of the targeted parent.

The practice of parent alienation causes harm to the targeted parent and their relationship with the child — and as more has become known about this issue, it has also been deemed a form of child abuse. These poor children are programmed to reject one of their parents without any justifiable reason.

This dynamic is more frequently instigated by the custodial parent. Because fathers represent a higher proportion of non-custodial parents, they experience alienation in larger numbers and are victimized more frequently.

For fathers who are faced with a high-conflict and combative ex-partner, it is important for them to learn to co-parent and help prevent and subdue the effects of parental alienation.

If you’re a parent going through a divorce or separation involving children (of any age), here are a few guidelines to ensure that you always put your child’s needs and interests first.

  • Think carefully about the impact your words and behavior have on your children — don’t criticize your ex in front of them, and never ask them directly to take sides.
  • Always bear in mind that children need to feel loved by both parents as they struggle to come to terms with the breakdown of family life as they know it.
  • Remember that children of all ages, particularly teenagers, are vulnerable to emotional manipulation. As adults/parents, we need to consider how this war impacts their health and well-being in the long term.
  • If you can do this with honesty — and without anger and animosity — encourage your children to foster the relationship with their other parent. Again, but only if you can be honest — show a genuine interest in what they do during their time with your former partner.

Take your oxygen first!

In order to help your child(ren), you must help and protect yourself first. Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) can hit hard — both emotionally and physically. When dealing with PAS…

  • Focus on developing a loving, trusting, positive relationship with your child(ren).
  • Remember what our parents used to say? “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing.” This is extremely helpful when your relationship with your ex is hurtful, difficult, and filled with anger. Be aware of your own feelings and avoid saddling your kids with negativity and acrimony.
  • Show compassion toward your child(ren) and respect their feelings. Let them know that they can express anything to you without fear or judgment.
  • Be aware of your tone and facial expressions during interactions with your high-conflict ex in front of your kids. In other words, keep your cool.
  • When you’ve set appropriate boundaries, can anticipate tension, manage yourself, and have realistic expectations, pat yourself on the back for creating an environment where your kids feel safe, valued, and respected.

The only thing you can control is your own behavior!

You alone control your reactions to your ex’s vindictive and angry comments and behaviors. However, neither you nor your ex should ever have to do or say something just to keep the peace. Both of you should sit down and develop a communication strategy; a business-like, just the facts, style of communicating. While this negotiation is bound to be difficult, it is doable so long as you both have the best interests of the kids in your hearts and minds.

  • To prevent disagreements, try to avoid responding to provocative comments in a defensive way.
  • Avoid texting unless it’s about your child’s schedule or to set a time and place to meet. Never text emotional content or critical remarks.
  • Avoid emotional expressions and do not apologize to your ex for the failures in the relationship. If your ex is an abusive narcissist, they might interpret your apology as proof of your incompetence and use it against you.
  • Make a structured, specific parenting plan a top priority. Be firm — the plan should include schedules, holidays, and vacations to minimize conflict. Also, a little flexibility to accommodate emergencies can go a long way toward developing a more positive co-parenting relationship. Using a communication notebook or other resource to share important details with your ex can prove to be an essential tool in helping you stay detached and business-like.

As you navigate through re-making your co-parenting relationship with your ex, make sure to nurture your supportive relationships with friends and family. Keep in mind that a third-party mediator, if needed, can provide valuable guidance to both of you. Educate yourself on strategies to deal with a difficult or high-conflict ex-partner by searching for books and websites that offer sage advice.

The good news is that you can learn coping skills needed to deal with a high-conflict ex and lessen the negative impact on your day-to-day life while helping your child(ren) through this difficult transition. When you accept that you have control over your own feelings, reactions, perceptions, and behaviors — and not those of your high-conflict ex — your life will greatly improve.

Parental alienation is not a gender issue, nor is it exclusive to parents. Both mothers and fathers can be victims of toxic co-parents. Boys and girls, sisters and brothers, as well as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, can be forced to take the side of one parent at the expense of the other. The abuse of the child affects everyone.

Parental alienation is an international scandal and can damage children for life.

Do not give up on yourself or your children. Stay strong, no matter how hard it gets. You will endure. Your love for your child will prevail and you will find peace.

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