By Gianna Huesch
While many divorced parents are angry at their former spouse and love a good verbal rant, most are wise enough parents to understand that such venting simply cannot take place in front of, or directed towards, the child. Most divorcing parents are well aware that their beef is with their ex, and must not involve the children, who are the innocent bystanders in the conflict. But there are some individuals, often those with personality disorders, who lack the maturity or insight to understand that through parental alienation they are essentially abusing their child, because it is the child who suffers most.
Parental alienation is a somewhat fraught term in the family law arena, because the term which is used to describe parental behaviours is often muddled with the term ‘Parental Alienation Syndrome’, a purported resulting psychiatric condition in a child. While the concept of a syndrome is disliked in the psychiatric and legal professions, the existence of the set of parental behaviours designed to drive a wedge between a parent and child is increasingly acknowledged. (We have previously written about parental alienation here, and you might like to have a read to understand the difference between the two terms https://www.familylawincanberra.com.au/canberra-family-law-parental-alienation-vs-parental-alienation-syndrome-whats-the-difference/.)
Parental alienation occurs when a bitter (or psychologically damaged) parent uses a variety of covert and overt methods to attempt to destroy the loving relationship a child has with the other parent. It is different to estrangement, where a child may refuse to see a parent due to parental behaviours such as drug or alcohol abuse, neglect or criminal behaviour.
With alienation, one parent employs covert tricks (for example, making the child feel guilty for enjoying spending time with other parent, or leading the child to believe the other parent is not interesting in relationship) or overt ones (such as throwing away letter and gifts from the other parent). Other typical methods seen include:
- attacking the other parent with insults, criticisms and negative portrayals;
- badmouthing the other parent;
- making the child feel they need to take sides or defend a parent;
- refusing contact; and
- any other instances of wilfully acting to turn the child against the other parent.
What can you do if alienation tactics are being used against you?
- At every possible opportunity you get, remind your kids how much you love them and want to spend time with them.
- Take the high road and demonstrate peace and civility to your kids rather than being angry, bitter and vindictive, even if you ex is. Don’t become an alienator as well, even though being on the defensive means you will have to fight the natural tendency to want to retaliate. Never do so! Don’t add fuel to the fire: remain calm and well-behaved. Avoid acting childish and spiteful.
- Manage your emotions, follow court orders and agreements and don’t give your ex any reason to vilify you more than they already have.
- Document all instances of attempts at contact and refused contact. Keep logs of phone calls, visits, emails. Attempt to capture proof of your intent to make contact (eg use certified mail, set email up to provide delivery receipts). You may need to involve the legal system, so back up any claims with documentary evidence.
- Remind your kids that they are free to love and like who they want, and vocalise your support for their right to love and be loved by the other parent.
- Alienators may be successful in manipulating the kids to spy on you, discuss what you do, what you buy, who you spend time with, and so on. Remember this is the alienator’s strategy and not the kids’ fault, so never blame them.
- Use positive language. Instead of risking making your child feel even guiltier, don’ say “I miss you”. Say instead, “I look forward to next time I see you!”
- Prove the allegations of the other parent wrong. Show your child all your good qualities and your child will soon determine who is lying, and eventually will come to understand that the other parent has issues that are nothing to do with them.
- Act as you always have: in the children’s best interests. This will help the kids see that you are not the person being portrayed by your ex. It’s important not to feel the need to overdo it and be extra special to counter false allegations. Be your usual, loving, caring self. Actions will speak louder than your ex’s words, especially the older your children get.
- When you do have contact, work on creating happy memories and special moments that your kids will remember.
- Don’t lose heart. Even though these kinds of situations can drag on for a long time, at some point reunification of the alienated parent and child is likely to happen. Continue to send cards, letters, gifts, emails etc, even if you know they are being intercepted. Keep a journal of your efforts to contact your kids as well as writing to your kids as if they are going to read it someday. Hopefully, your kids will have the opportunity to find out the truth one day. Never give up and never stop contact efforts.
- Take legal action. Make sure you choose a professional team knowledgeable and experienced with parental alienation, and importantly, who understand the proper usage of the term in the Australian family court context, and how the case law on parental alienation in this country suggests the best way forward for your case.
“There’s not much anyone can do to prevent the extreme tactics of a narcissist or others who are mentally unbalanced. Just do your best to ensure your children have one stable parent.”
Do you need assistance with a family law matter? Please contact Cristina Huesch or one of our solicitors here at Alliance Family Law on (02) 6223 2400 for a caring, empathic approach to your situation.