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Parental Alienation

In our current culture, we have had to expand our vocabulary when it comes to talking about the impact of unresolved conflict between parents on their children. This has become necessary due to the deconstruction of the nuclear family, which is evidenced by the following trends:

  • As of 2011, for the first time in Minnesota history, there were more unmarried couples living together than there were married couples1;
  • The divorce rate among married couples has continued to hover around 50%;
  • The percentage of children born to parents in Minnesota who have not made the public, life-long commitment has increased from 21% in 1990, to 33% in 2010, and has leveled off to around 32% since 20152 (Nationally at 40% in 20153);

Considering that half of all children born to married parents will see their parents divorce, this leaves only about 30% of the children growing up today who will not experience the loss of a parent in the home. The reasons for the loss of a domestic parental relationship vary dramatically, but there are some predictable effects in all cases. One of the terms that has come into popular use more and more is “Parental Alienation”. This term describes a range of phenomena, from the impact on the child of losing the closeness of one parent’s presence in the home, to the intentional cultivation of hatred and rejection of the absent parent by the parent who lives with the child. While professionals continue to battle over the clinical definition so as to be able to bill for treatment, the reality is that parental alienation in any degree is damaging to children.

My observation over almost 30 years of working with child custody cases in the courtroom, mediations, and advocating for children as a guardian ad litem, is that the loss or absence of a parent from a child’s day to day life deprives that child of several things that cannot be fully replaced. A child’s identity is tied to each parent in specific ways. So, the loss of day to day contact creates a distance from that source of identification – a disassociation. The resulting struggle to establish identity is only a part of the loss. The other impact is in some ways even more crippling in the long run – the lack of any reference for resolution of the conflict that ultimately separated the parents. This lack of conflict resolution experience is what directly affects the child’s ability to navigate future relationships.

Most parents would never intentionally hurt their children. But when a parent chooses to distance himself/herself from conflict with their child’s other parent, they don’t realize that this act by itself conveys an indelible statement to the child: “Your mom/dad is not worth what it would take to resolve this conflict.” It is a value-based decision. While a child may not be able to articulate this, the impact is very evident. There may be a stubborn self-centeredness, evidence of depression or listlessness, or a host of other behaviors. While many parents seek to build evidence to the contrary in the child’s school grades or athletic performance, these true impact will most clearly be seen in the future, as they try to navigate relationships.

The impact of separation from a parent is only magnified when the remaining parent fails to promote the child’s relationship with the absent parent. This aspect of parenting is actually a part of Minnesota Statutes’ “best interest” analysis for custody and parenting time4. The difficulty is that the ability to do this is contradicted by the parent who has already “alienated” the child’s other parent. So, what is the best answer when parents cannot stay together? The promotion of the child’s relationship with the other parent in a way that does not have to compromise safety or honesty for the child. Whatever boundaries will allow the child to have as good a relationship as possible with both parents must be considered to be “worth the trouble”. There are many tools available for doing this, including co-parenting classes, on-line communication tools, and provisions in agreements or court orders for drug testing, supervision, or other measures that allow maximum contact without risking safety. Parents that want to give their children the best possible future will work to put things in place that will allow them to promote the best of the other parent to the child.