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Preferred, Estranged or Alienated?
when children are involved, is a common but complex process. Quite often
the request for a child custody and access assessment comes hot on the heels of
one parent alleging that the other parent is undermining or obstructing
access. The parent who feels wronged will claim they are being alienated.
The term “parental alienation,” was first coined by the late
psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Gardner. According to his theory, the child is brainwashed by one
parent against the other so that the child rejects the other parent as if
it were the child’s own idea. Further,
in these scenarios, allegations of abuse are posited against the rejected
parent but there is no tangible evidence to support the abuse allegations.
Parental alienation is different though from estrangement. With
estrangement, the rejected parent has acted in a tangible way so as to
reasonably elicit their child’s rejection, whether or not the rejected
parent takes responsibility for their actions.
reality is, that children can prefer or reject a parent for many reasons,
including the child’s temperament, gender issues, simple preferences,
siding with the custodial parent, anger at the rejected parent’s
behaviour or any combination thereof.
instance, a 9-year-old boy has enjoyed a good relationship with his
mother. His father has been marginal, often busy with work. The boy has
been sheltered from the distancing in the marital relationship between his
parents. The boy learns of his mother’s affair and witnesses his
father’s anguish when he learns of his wife’s infidelity.
marital separation, the child relentlessly seeks to reside with his father
and in pursuit of this objective displays a distain for his mother. His
mother, through a Court process alleges the father has poisoned the boy
against her as retribution for the affair. On the surface her allegation
is plausible and serves as the basis of a hotly contested battle wherein
the boy becomes entrenched in his position while the father takes a
passive position resting his case on the stated desires of the child.
is easy to get caught up in the issues and emotions of the affair as well
as the stated desire of the child. For
the parties involved (and those around them), it is difficult to take a
step back from the emotion of the situation.
However, if one takes a step back and examines the situation
outlined above more deeply, then it would be reasonable to say that the
boy may harbour a wish (secret or otherwise) to have more time with his
father, who previously had been marginal in his life.
It is not unreasonable for this boy to want “more time with my
dad”. This is a gender-based, developmental issue.
Living with his father suits the child’s psychological need to
connect more with his father. Additionally, given the boy’s age, moral
outrage at his mother is appropriate in view of her affair. While she may
have provided for and appropriately met her son’s needs, the boy is
dealing with her betrayal of moral standards. This is legitimate source of
upset to the boy, and thus an issue of estrangement by virtue of her
behaviour. And finally, the father does contribute indirectly to the
son’s rejection of mother by taking a passive stance and not helping his
son to resolve his upset with his mother.
often serves to exacerbate these situations as the positions becomes
polarized and focussed on the contributions of the parents. These legal
battles do not help the child. Instead,
the focus must be child-centred. In this case example the child does need
to enrich his relationship to his father and resolve his anger to his
mother, such that over time he may come to enjoy a relationship with both
without having to reject either for the other. In so doing, the child
learns to better manage conflicted feelings and desires which in turn
better equips the child for the demands of adult intimate relationships.
Preferred, Estranged or Alienated? The truth is, often the issues are multi-faceted. In high-conflict situations where there is great difficulty resolving parenting arrangements, consider an assessment with a well-qualified assessor who is acquainted and able to tease out the possible multitude of dynamics and propose treatment strategies to improve matters for the children now and for their future.
Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
For information on Direnfeld's book, Raising Kids Without Raising Cane, click here.
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