It’s a fine line to walk – parental alienation versus honestly responding to a child’s questions. In fact, this entire topic is a minefield for the custodial parent trying to protect his or her child.
For those who need a reminder of the signs and symptoms of parental alienation, here’s the quick list:
* Bad-mouthing the other parent
* Limiting access to the other parent
* Disallowing communications with the other parent
* Manipulating the child to believe the other parent is “bad”
* Putting the child in situations in which he or she feels forced to choose
Naturally, situations of abuse are exempted from the above attempts to protect our children. And that opens up a whole other can of worms.
We know our family court system can readily recognize physical abuse, and while it may be more difficult in certain circumstances, the potential problems of drug and alcohol abuse are obvious when it comes to our children.
Emotional abuse is another matter. For one thing, we often find ourselves so ably manipulated that we’re not certain if we’re imagining what’s taking place, or if the abusive behaviors are intentional and real.
As for the definition of emotional abuse, it consists of words or behaviors by one person that subject another to psychological trauma. That trauma may play out in a variety of ways that include anxiety and depression, among others.
If you’re wondering about examples of emotional abuse, they include:
*humiliating, shaming, criticizing
* demeaning, dismissing, ignoring
* accusing and blaming
* giving the silent treatment
* emotional abandonment or neglect
When Kids Are Put in the Middle… For Years
Here is my concern.
That it is wrong to intentionally prevent a child from loving both parents is crystal clear. That it is wrong to knowingly put a child in the middle of a co-parenting war zone, even years after the ink has dried on the divorce decree, is equally clear. But this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. It may occur occasionally, when one parent is under extreme stress of some sort – or simply furious over the latest financial, legal, or custodial skirmish.
It may occur intentionally and persistently, as it did in the marriage, though perhaps to a lesser degree. It may occur to your surprise – you never expected this sort of behavior toward your children.
So now what?
What if your ex is misleading your child, not quite “alienation,” but feeding him or her what amounts to a version of distorted truth? What if your child comes home from a visit to the other parent, relates what he’s been told, and asks a very pointed follow-up question? What if your response would essentially equate to showing the other parent’s statements as untrue?
What if you tell the truth – as gently as you can – and your child accuses you of being a liar?
We may all dream of “setting the record straight” some day, especially when it comes to the complexities of why we divorce and everything that may occur in the aftermath, but wanting to express our truths is not the same as doing what is best for our children.
As for the request for facts and how to position them? Where is King Solomon when you desperately need him?
High Conflict Divorce Aftermath Means Kids in More Pain
I don’t know how else to say this. When one parent won’t let loose the venom that took place during the divorce conflict itself, when he or she continues to stir up trouble, to play games, to change the rules of the game for no good reason – the ones who pay the highest price of all will be our children.
* Who do they trust when they want to believe in both their parents?
* What do you do if you know the “truth” to be factual – and knowing that truth is relevant to your child?
That second question is one I wish to focus on for a moment. As difficult as it may be to swallow – and this is purely my opinion – you still must stick to allowing your child to love both parents. If whatever is at issue is not relevant to your child’s life in a significant way, my approach is an executive decision in your child’s best interest. That may mean calling upon all your skills of diplomacy, summoning words like “your dad and I see things from a different perspective,” and most of all, delivering your message in a way that is moderate, age-appropriate, and in your child’s best interests – not yours.
I’ll give you an example.
Maybe your 12-year old comes home from seeing Dad and the new wife, and blurts out “Dad says you’re the one who wanted a divorce, and that’s why my life is a mess now – because of you!”
Maybe you filed because you could not longer put up with your spouse’s affairs. Maybe you filed after a long sexless marriage. Maybe you spent two years trying to coax him to take marriage counseling seriously. The fact that technically you filed may be true, but “you” aren’t the reason for the divorce – divorce takes two, just like marriage – though your child (and your ex) may be looking for a person to blame.
Do you fire back some nasty remark about the other parent? I don’t think so. You offer whatever comfort you can, you try calming words that explain that sometimes marriages no longer work, but that both parents will always love their children. You remain the adult, and recognize that you’re dealing with a child.
Special Challenges: Medical, Psychological, Financial
What if you’re faced with an even tougher challenge?
You have special needs, or your child does, that require medical or psychological intervention. You may not have the funds. Your ex may not be willing to kick in.
What if those special needs are in fact opportunities? You have a gifted child who is offered enrollment in a prestigious academic or creative program. But again, you haven’t the money, and your ex refuses to kick in to help.
Sure, these are very different scenarios. In the former, your child’s current and future health are at risk. What parent wouldn’t move heaven and earth to get their child whatever it is that’s needed? But what if you can’t, no matter what you do? What if the other parent, fundamentally, is the reason? What do you say – how much and how? If you’re angry and it shows, is that parental alienation or a natural and very human response?
In the second case, we’re also talking about your child’s future. Physical health may not be a factor, but what if she earned the opportunities that now await? What if you have to say no because the other parent reneged on a willingness to share in the payment? How do you respond to a direct question?
My fallback here is similar to my earlier approach. You tell the truth – as gently as possible and in age-appropriate fashion. And if you’re dealing with a teenager and it concerns financing college, it’s my belief that you speak the truth as clearly as you can, but without bad-mouthing the other parent.
Like I said, it’s a fine line to walk. I haven’t always managed it elegantly, but I’ve tried my best.
Clearly, those of us who have danced to the damaging tune of an emotionally manipulative parent or spouse want to break the cycle. We want to break the cycle not only for ourselves but for our children.
Manipulation, Acting Out, Telling the Truth, and Unconditional Love
We may recognize “bad behaviors” and wish to keep our kids away from them. We may recognize that they will continue forever; we may foresee that however harmful, they’re the result of the other parent acting out, and the misdeeds are likely to diminish.
Regardless of the circumstances and how much we wish to protect our children, to deny access to the other parent may be considered parental alienation. We may not know where to draw that line any more than a court could reasonably do so. We may also not have the power to deny access. In fact, in the wake of divorce, we may have to knowingly deliver our children to a manipulative parent. It’s one of the hardest things we do, we work our damnedest to offset the consequences with our own unconditional love, and we seek the least painful path for our kids.
Sometimes that means stepping out of the way to allow them to love a parent we don’t respect, but a parent they have a right to know and love all the same.
Sometimes it means getting back in the ring for a fight, when that’s the last thing we really want to do, but it’s the only way to protect our children.
Sometimes that means telling the truth – directly, in documented fashion, knowing it’s necessary and also, painful. We stick to the facts. We do our best to keep angry opinions out of the conversation. We remain watchful and available to cushion the hurt.
I’ll leave you with one last thought.
Even an emotionally manipulative parent is still capable of sharing good times with his or her children, creating warm memories and offering meaningful lessons, and exhibiting good behaviors along with those we consider problematic.
So we do what we can to be fair, to be truthful, and to be diplomatic. We keep our eyes and ears open. We offset our negative judgments with gut, guts, and common sense.