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Marriage and Family

Parental Alienation

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12/01/2016 - Last month's article focused on the various, complex emotions a child may face when experiencing their parents' divorce. Some of these feelings may parallel the feelings of their parents, but often may be vastly different. The kids will have very specific needs which must be provided by their parents who will find providing to be extremely difficult given their own emotional pain.

The majority of parents in this situation express great concern for their kids and how they are being impacted by divorce. Few parents would actually say that the kid's pain is unimportant. Fewer still would be willing to intentionally cause further hurt to their kids. Sadly, within a divorce situation, a well-intentioned, but hurting, parent may unintentionally cause further harm.

In the 1980s, a man named Dr. Richard Gardner coined a term called "Parental Alienation Syndrome" or PAS. Though Dr. Gardner's theory was met with some controversy, especially given that Dr. Gardner has made very controversial claims on other subjects, PAS has gained recognition and attention. PAS is not an official diagnosis, but was heavily considered to be made as such when the American Psychiatric Association was developing the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the "Bible" for mental health workers, in 2013.

PAS is essentially the phenomenon where a child rejects one parent due to the strong attitudes and reactions of the other parent. The child in this situation may express very strong hatred towards the other parent and display no desire to see or visit them. Many of their complaints may not warrant such strong reactions such as hatred because the parent switched churches or moved to an apartment on the opposite side of town. Also, they may not have any feelings of guilt towards how they are treating that parent. Besides the expressed hatred towards the one parent, they may also have no sense that the parent they are favorable towards has done anything wrong. They may only see the favored parent in the best light. The child will also feel and insist that the developed feelings are purely their own perspectives and, in no way, influenced by either parent.

While the mentioned signs of PAS are something to look out for, a parent must not forget their own role in this phenomenon. The influence of the parent's attitudes and reactions are a large factor, and can do much to foster PAS. When a child is witness to a parent's grief and anger, and listens to a parent talk about how the other parent caused the pain, the child will begin to associate the other parent as causing pain. Most will recognize how easily a child's views can be influenced by their peers; a parent will have as much, if not more, ability to influence their child. Edward Kruk, Ph.D. authored an article in Psychology Today entitled "The Impact of Parental Alienation on Children." In this article he states, "Every child has a fundamental right and need for an unthreatened and loving relationship with both parents, and to be denied that right by one parent, without sufficient justification such as abuse or neglect, is in itself a form of child abuse."

Some may believe that with PAS, the true damage is done to the other parent. Influencing a child to hatred towards a parent could seem like a form of retribution to the one they are angry towards. While it would hurt that other parent, the true long term damage is done to the child. In Social Work Today, Amy J.L. Baker Ph.D. explains that adult clients may present with anxiety, depression and relationship problems who have experienced PAS as a child. "These clients may be unaware of the meaning of the lost relationship and may even minimize its effect on their growth, development, and current mental health concerns."

If you are going, or have gone through a divorce and have kids, be alert for hints that your child/children are developing a hatred towards the other parent. Be careful to not speak negatively about the other parent and save the emotional venting for a trusted friend. Encourage the kids to foster a healthy relationship with that other parent and assure them this will not be viewed as a betrayal to you.

If you feel you are the target of your kids hate after a divorce, be careful not to try to "correct" their thinking. This can easily lead to attacking the other parent, and this will only serve to further embitter them. Rather, pursue a quality relationship with them through patience, love and understanding. Attempt to be involved with activities and events as much as possible. Attempt to give them a different experience with you than what they are formulating in their mind.

The best approach to address this problem will be mutual. If both parents can work to combat the feelings of hatred in their children then it will be the children who reap the benefits over the long term.

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