Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Parental Alienation Syndrome?

I recently came across an article stating that one out of every four children whose parents are divorced or going through a custody battle suffer from Parental Alienation Syndrome.
According to the article I read, this is an actual psychological syndrome that is brought on when one parent (usually the parent who has primary custody of the child) encourages the child to reject the other parent, by consistently making negative remarks about the parent, accusing the child of abandoning the first parent when he visits or speaks to the second parent, forcing the child to choose between her parents, etc.
Children then begin to reject the second parent, as a sort of survival mechanism to retain the love and approval of the first parent. They may begin refusing to see the second parent, and even cut relatives of the second parent out of their lives.
I don't know if this is a real syndrome or not, but I do know that this type of situation is very real. In fact, I don't think it only effects children of divorce. Any time a child is used as a pawn between two adults he loves... whether that is his two divorced parents, his two parents who've never been married, a parent and a relative, a parent and a foster parent, a birth parent and an adoptive parent, a parent and a sibling, etc... the child suffers greatly.
Adults who are involved in the lives of children need to recognize that every child is better off with as many people as possible who love and cherish him. There need not be any competition among adults to see who can win the child's love an affection. Instead, adults can think of themselves as a team, whose job it is to raise a child in the most positive and loving way possible. Adults who do not get along with each other can still put their feelings for each other aside when it comes to dealing with a child.
Here are some tips of the trade:

1. Never "badmouth" a child's other parent, or anyone else in the child's life, whether you are speaking directly to the child or just within the child's earshot. Remember the old rule, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."
2. When you are angry at the other adult, don't take it out on the child. Avoid saying things like, "You're just like your mother," or "Stop acting like your father!" Saying things like, "If your father would just send the child support check, we wouldn't be having problems." A child should not have to feel guilty just for being related to their other parent!
3. Avoid using your children to get messages back and forth between two adults. For instance, try not to say something like, "Tell your mother not to just feed you junk food this weekend." Instead, communicate directly with the other person. If this isn't possible, another choice might be to communicate through your lawyer or a mediator.
4. Don't interrogate your children after they have seen the other adult. Kids can tell the difference between friendly questions like, "Did you have a nice time? What did you do? How is Aunt Rita doing?" and information-seeking questions like "Did Dad have his girlfriend over? Did she say anything about me? What does she look like?" When put in this situation, children might feel they need to lie about the other parent, either to protect the other parent or to protect your feelings, and then they can start to feel very guilty and nervous. Avoid putting them in that situation!
5. At certain times, the child may need to vent to you about the other adult. Kids do get mad at adults. When your child is venting to you, do your best to listen and provide support without judging. For instance, if your child complains, "Grandma makes me go to bed at eight o'clock and I hate her!" try to avoid replying with something negative like "Grandma is so bossy, isn't she." Instead, just listen, and perhaps try to help the child understand the other adult's point of view. Saying something like, "Maybe Grandma thought you seemed extra tired this weekend," or offering to talk to Grandma about a compromise will be much more helpful to the child.
5. Don't withhold visitation to punish the other adult. Visitation is not a reward for the other adult for complying with your wishes, but a necessity for a child to keep up a relationship with an important person in her life. Telling your ex-spouse, "You can see Timmy when you start paying child support," may be a punishment for the ex-spouse, but you're also punishing Timmy, and that's not something you want to do!
6. If you are a non-custodial parent, do your part by paying child support on time. It may be tempting to withhold child support to punish the other parent, but you are also showing your child, "You're not worth the money to me." The child does not need to know how much you are paying. He only needs to know that both of his parents or caretakers are working together to make sure his needs are met. Also, if you have a visitation schedule, avoid cancellations, and be there on time to pick the child up! It may be tempting to cancel or be late in order to inconvenience the other adult, but when you cancel your visits or show up really late, it tells the children that they're not important to you. Be there, or be square!
7. If you are an adult who has regular visitation times with children, try not to think of this time as "your time". Some parents or other adults with visitation schedules get angry if a child has a soccer game or a birthday party to go to on "their" weekend. Try to realize this is the child's time as well, and work around the child's schedule in order to keep her life as normal as possible. If you live close enough, you can be the one to pick up and drop off your child at this birthday party, or you can be the one to go watch the soccer game. If this isn't possible, make other arrangements. Let the child skip one weekend in order to go to the birthday party, sign the child up for the soccer league in your town instead, or consider visiting the child in her own hometown instead of having her come to your town.
8. Keep rules as stable as possible... at least the important ones! For instance, if a teenager has an eleven o'clock curfew at her father's house during the week, she should not be allowed to come home at two am during her weekend visits with her mother. If a child's mother is a vegan and doesn't want the child eating meat or dairy, don't take him to McDonald's during your visits! Adults need to work together to come up with stable rules they can both agree on.
9. Involve children in planning visitation schedules. Older kids and teenagers may not want to visit every single weekend, as their social lives become more demanding. Try to come up with an agreement, such as every other weekend, or half the summer instead of the entire summer.
10. There are certain situations in which it is going to be very, very, very tempting to speak badly about another adult or to use the children to punish that adult. For instance, if the other adult has let the child down in some way... perhaps she did not show up for her scheduled visitation, or he made an extravagant promise to a child but then did not keep it. In more extreme cases, you may find out that the adult has abused or neglected the child at some point. Or, perhaps a parent has a serious mental illness or substance abuse problem and is not a very stable influence in the child's life. It is important to acknowledge to the child that what the other adult did was wrong and that the child did not deserve it. The child may not want to see the other parent for a while, or, in extreme cases where the child has been put in danger, you may have to make the decision to not allow the child to have unsupervised visits. But avoid portraying the other adult as a "bad person". Try not to say things like, "I told you, your dad is such an asshole," or "I don't know why your mother doesn't love you the way I do!" "He's just a jerk," or, "What can you expect from a crackhead," may be true statements, but they're not helpful. Remember to speak about the parent's behavior as being wrong. You can explain that sometimes adults make big, big mistakes, or that the drugs, alcohol or mental illness cause the other adult to say and do things that he doesn't mean. Remind the child that the other adult does love her, and point out all of the other people in the child's life that love and adore her as well.
If unsupervised time with the other adult is no longer possible because of the other adult's behavior, try to allow the child to keep up a relationship with the other adult in the least restrictive way that the child and you are comfortable with. This may mean allowing the child and other adult to visit at the home of a mutual friend or relative you trust, allowing the child to visit with the adult in a public place along with yourself or another responsible adult, allowing the child and adult to exchange phone calls or letters, etc. But if a child does not feel safe or comfortable having contact with the adult, he should probably not be forced.
11. The above example is a very serious situation, and not something anyone would want to manifest or make up. Being hurt or disappointed by a parent or other beloved adult is traumatizing to children. Parents should never, ever, ever make false accusations against each other. For instance, if your ex-spouse was violent towards you, your children need to understand that they and you are not safe being alone with your ex.... and in that situation, the children are probably already aware of it. Even if you have tried to hide evidence of being abused by your ex-spouse, the kids probably sensed that something was very wrong.
On the other hand, falsely accusing your ex-spouse of having been abusive, just to punish him and to keep the children from him, is the wrong thing to do. Hearing such horrible things about a parent is traumatizing for kids, and kids who are really in that situation will need counseling and a lot of extra love and attention. If it is not true, kids shouldn't have to go through that.
Similarly, if you truly believe a child has been abused, neglected, or otherwise endangered by the other adult, it is obviously your job to protect the child and make sure he isn't put in danger by that adult again. You may have to take your child to a doctor or to the hospital, call the police, etc. But do not falsely accuse another adult of hurting a child, just to punish the adult and keep the children from her. Asking your children to lie, or convincing them that something happened when it really didn't, is so very, very bad for them.
This can be a tricky situation because you may have a feeling something has happened to your children while they were with the other adult, but you may worry that it is your imagination, or you may think you are subconsciously trying to punish the other adult. Trust your instincts. If you truly, seriously think something is wrong, or if your children ever tell you or tell someone else that something is wrong, you should definitely take it seriously. If you have doubts, taking them to a doctor or therapist will help you decide for sure if there is something to worry about.
12. Above all, love the children! Whatever you do in life, do it out of love. It may sound corny, but if you make decisions while concentrating on your love for your children, and not on your hate or contempt for the other adult, you can get through anything.

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