We often speak of the benefits of mediation and the Collaborative process to prevent the escalation of positions and allow for solution-focused communication.
While anger, hurt and conflict are natural reactions to (or in fact sometimes the cause of) the dissolution of a marriage, how well it is managed affects both the immediate and long-term well being of the children. In a child-centered approach, there is a preference that a parent should (abuse and neglect aside), support a child’s good relationship with the other parent. Mediation and the Collaborative divorce process allow parents to not only discuss the legal issues in dispute but also the kind of relationship they wish to have with each other moving forward as well as their aspirations for their children.
When parents put their children in the middle of the conflict, children are more prone to develop serious consequences, including depression, low self esteem, anxiety, inability to trust, fears of abandonment, inability to maintain intimate relationships, impairment of thinking skills, feelings of hopelessness, lack of impulse control, inappropriate behaviors, etc.
In some cases, either a parent, or a child’s attempt to avoid being caught between two warring parents, can create a situation where the child has no relationship with one of the parents. An alienated child describes a child who strongly and consistently aligns with one parent (the preferred parent) and refuses or resists contact with the other parent (the alienated parent) without legitimate justification (i.e., no abuse or neglect). The child may be influenced by the mistaken belief that the alienated parent is dangerous or untrustworthy and/or that the collapse of the family is wholly due to the alienated parent.
How does this occur? In brief, some practitioners believe that the child’s rejection is a result of the family system’s pathology, which has been exacerbated by parental conflict. Others propose that the child’s alienation develops because of one parent’s strong influence, wherein that parent, the preferred parent, often motivated by a desire to use the child as a victory or vindication, demands that the child has an unequivocal and complete allegiance. Others posit that the problems of an alienated child result from multiple factors, including a history of intense marital conflict, a humiliating custody disposition, the personalities of both parents, the child’s age, cognitive ability and temperament, the influence of siblings and new partners, and the adversary nature of the litigation process. All agree that it is the intense level of conflict that encourages the dynamic.
New York courts consider interference with the non-custodial parent’s relationship with a child as an act so contrary to the best interest of the child that it raises the strong possibility that the offending party will be determined to be unfit as the custodial parent. In some circumstances, the act of alienating a child against a parent may also violate a custody order and judgment. In a recent decision, Lauren R v Ted R 2010NY Slip OP 5091 (U), a mother was found to be in civil contempt of the Judgment of Divorce because of her deliberate interference with her husband's right to parental access and was sentenced to jail for her behavior.
Research has shown that interventions which seek to contain parental conflict, promote close relationships between the child and both of parents, and enhance economic stability in the post divorced family are key factors in promoting a child?s healthy adjustment and resilience. Mediation, the Collaborative process, counseling, and parent education are four interventions that are recognized as pursuing these ends.
The desire to help families minimize tensions motivated me to become a certified presenter in the NYS Court sponsored Parent Education and Awareness Program (PEACE). A goal of the program is to reduce conflict by teaching parents how to become better equipped to make responsible decisions that recognize a child’s need for a stable relationship with both parents. Access to the program can be court ordered or voluntary. More information about the program can be found at www.nycourts.gov/parented.
For an excellent compilation of the relevant research and arguments in support of including Parental Alienation Syndrome in the DSM-5 see, Bernet, William MD. (2010). Parental Alienation, DSM-5 and ICD-11. Springfield Illinois: Charles C Thomas.
For a compelling personal story written from a mother’s perspective, of her alienated child, see Richardson, Pamela. (2006). A Kidnapped Mind: A? Mother?s Heartbreaking Memoir of Parental Alienation. Toronto, Canada: Dundurn Press.
For further reading on the effects of and causes for alignment as well as a discussion of helpful therapeutic interventions, see, Johnston, Janet, Vivienee Roseby, and Katherine Kuehnle. (2009). In the Name of the Child: A Developmental Approach to Understanding and Helping Children of Conflicted and Violent Divorce, Parental Alignments and Alienation: Differential Assessment and Therapeutic Interventions. pages 361-389. NY: Springer Publishing. Kelly, Joan and Robert Emery. (2003). Children’s Adjustment Following Divorce; Risk and Resilience Perspectives. Family Relations, 52: 352-362.