As a divorce attorney, one of the things that I find most troubling is a parent who alienates the children from the other parent as a form of retaliation. Sometimes this alienation is deliberate. A parent wants to get even with the other parent so they tell the children bad things about that parent. Sometimes the parent alienates a child from the other parent without knowing he or she is doing it. I’ve seen quite a few “victim” parents who have no idea that their behavior will have a permanent negative impact on their children.
In my experience, child alientation in the divorce process is far more common than most people think. Recently, the results of a study of the impact of divorce on children in Boston, Massachussets, was discussed on National Public Radio. The conclusion was that divorce negatively impacts children. In my view, it is often not the divorce per se that negatively impacts the children, but it is the behavior of a parent who either subtly, or not so subtly, implants negative ideas and beliefs about the other parent into the minds of their children.
This can occur many ways:
A parent can show a child the divorce pleadings. A parent can turn to a child for emotional support, telling them how sad, scared and depressed they are. A parent can tell the child that the other parent is not paying enough money to support that parent or the child. A parent can quibble about whether the other parent shows up for parenting time a few minutes early or a few minutes late. The list goes on and on.
Of course, the alienating parent has all sorts of ways to justify this behavior in his or her mind. She will say that the children need to know “the truth,” as if there were only one “truth” to the divorce (and it just so happens that the alienating parent knows what it is). The parent will say they just “happened” to leave the pleadings on the dining room table where the child just “happened” to pick it up and read it.
Parents who rely on their children for emotional support are turning their children into adults. This is wrong. Children have the right to be children. Children should not have to be the emotional support or emotional sounding board for their parents. Children’s minds are not adequately developed to do this. A child should not have to know how depressed his or her parent is. Children should not have to listen to their parents argue about parenting time or the sufficiency of alimony or child support payments.
To those parents who are emotionally distraught and want to act out emotionally in front of the children, I say “suck it up.” I understand that divorce can be a miserable process to go through, but you owe it to your children to keep them out of the middle.
There are two things an attorney needs to do when dealing with an opposing party who is alienating the children. The first step to go to court early and seek the appropriate legal relief. This is very important. The longer the alienating behavior goes on before it is addressed by the court, the greater the negative impact on the children. The second thing to do is to immediately get the child or children into therapy with a psychologist who has experience in both child alienation syndrome and forensic psychology. There are several that I recommend when discussing this issue with clients.
If you have questions about this or any other topic on the Fiskum Law blog, feel free to contact me at (952) 270-7700.