There are many ways one parent can influence how children perceive their other parent. This is often a positive experience for children, as they learn to appreciate both of their parents as individuals. Other times—especially during a divorce—this is a negative experience, making it difficult for children to manage their feelings of loyalty and have loving relationships with both parents.
It is sometimes the case that one parent is truly a danger and should not have access to the children as determined by a court of law. However, alienating behaviors often occur not because of fear of danger to children, but because of conflict between parents due to hurt feelings, imagined offenses, actual offenses, infidelities, feelings of abandonment, and more. There are various levels of alienating behaviors, all of which impact children, but some of these behaviors are more damaging than others.
Sometimes one parent might say something negative to other other parent in front of the children. Usually, they will quickly regret the statement and will try to mitigate the inappropriateness in an effort to minimize damage to the child and their relationship to the other parent. When a child already has a difficult relationship with the other parent, this effort to talk to the child about it is very important.
Behaviors can step up from there, from parents who, while they might regret their outbursts, do not believe it is their job to make sure there is a good relationship between the children and the other parent; to parents who are determined that there is no relationship possible. Parents may see this as a battle, thinking they are protecting their children, when in fact children tend to be the “casualties of war” between the warring parties.
Here are some examples of alienating behaviors, from more benign to more egregious:
- When it is time for children to go to the other parent and they refuse to go, the delivering parent does not encourage them to go to the other parent, stating they do not want to force them to go against their will.
- When one parent calls to talk to the children, the parent who answers stages a loud conversation about responsibilities for financial difficulties, while the children wait to “have to” get on the phone.
- Unwillingness of one parent to attend events where the other parent will be in attendance, letting the children know their unwillingness and the reasons for it.
- Letting the children know that he or she will feel badly if the child goes to the other parent when he or she feels ill, there is a relative visiting from out of town, etc.
- Telling the children he or she does not want to hear about what they do when they are with the other parent.
- Ripping up photographs or letters from the other parent with no regard for children’s awareness of the activity.
- Telling the children information about the other parent, such as issues regarding finances or infidelities—sometimes admitting that they should not have said anything.
- Telling lies about the other parent, like “Your father had an affair” or “Your mother is an alcoholic” when statements cannot be supported with evidence.
- Telling the children they can’t repeat things to the other parent about who they spend time with, how they’re doing in school, trips they have taken, or other information.
- Threatening to stop loving the children if they continue to have a relationship with the offending parent.
- Creating an environment that is so toxic to the children that they find it easier to believe the lies and innuendos and choose one parent to align with—usually the parent exhibiting the alienating behaviors, effectively ending the relationship with the other parent.
This is clearly not an exhaustive list. Hopefully, you will not find yourself represented in any of them.
© Copyright 2011 by Shendl Tuchman, PsyD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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