Parental Alienation

Many of the Lunchbox regulars are well aware that, of the five kids in my life, the three who are my sons live away from me. I've been questioned by family and friends as to why I allowed their mother to leave the state, and I've always replied by explaining the benefits afforded my children while concluding it's up to me to make it work from where I'm at.

Before their move, I spent as many weekends with the boys as allowed which helped establish a stronger bond between me and the two older boys (the youngest was still a wee baby, but eventually I got to have all three). I briefly moved and picked up on the regular visits again, however, the economy forced me to make some hard decisions and I returned to Houston. It's now been nearly a year and a half since being away from my boys. Even though I do see them on long holidays and for a few weeks in the summer, the only consistent contact I have with them is nightly phone calls.

Moving closer has always been the plan, but in the interim I expected the boy's mother to be a help in my maintaining regular involvement in the boys' life. Unfortunately, however, my ex-wife and I have a relationship that is similar in nature to that of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. We may talk to coordinate a visit or inform the other of pertinent news, but these exchanges are infrequent and uneasy, and even in the off chance they are cordial in tone, neither party's finger is more than a few inches away from launching every Intercontinental Ballistic Missile in our arsenals at the other's capitol.

Recognizing the damage done in such an act, we both don't want to push those buttons, but we are fulling willing to do so if we feel justified, especially in the name of "protecting" our kids. The irony, however, is we are not protecting our boys in attacking one another, we are killing them slowly, one little bit at a time. In witnessing the type relationship their mother and I have, the boys are definitely getting a confusing message as they watch us working to keep our defenses. Meanwhile their developmental needs are dealt with in a disjointed fashion because, as their parents, we still cannot get past our own hurts, let alone have a discussion on raising our children.

Within the same Cold War context, our boys are like how Afghanistan and Vietnam were to the Soviets and Americans who tried to control them. If you recall your history, both Superpowers at first acted like benevolent parents, providing aid and support, but eventually the situations deteriorated into messy conflicts with devastating and lasting consequences. In the realm of foreign policy trying to win over a small country with favorable interests to your political ideology is sometimes called as a "heart and minds" campaign. In the world of divorced parenting it's known as parental alienation.

Parental alienation, according to Dr. Douglas Darnall, the author of Divorce Casualties: Protecting Your Child From Parental Alienating, can be defined as,

any constellation of behaviors, whether conscious or unconscious, that could evoke a disturbance in the relationship between a child and the other parent

In simple terms, anything a divorced parent does that causes the children to perceive the other parent in a negative way is considered alienating. We've all seen on TV or in movies, where one parent goes on and on to the children about the other being a tramp or a deadbeat, and as such is responsible for the current set of circumstances. That's an obvious example, but parental alienation can be much more subtle, and it's not limited to just the parents.

Grandparents, friends, relatives, attorneys, and therapists can all be party to changing how kids see the other parent who sometimes is referred to as the target parent. Usually, these are people who empathize with the alienating parent, and in doing so often lend credibility to alternator's efforts in the mind of the children. Sometimes it's the non-parent who's the alternator. The grandparents never liked their daughter's husband from the start so after the divorce they see this as an open license to bad mouth the him in front of the grandchildren.

Parental alienation, based on what I've explained thus far, may seem a straightforward concept, but in actuality it's much more complicated. Pining it down is sometimes tough because we all have moments when we let something slip about the other parent in front of the kids that's taken the wrong way. That could be considered alienating, but is it consistent?

And what about the legitimacy of a parent's remarks? At first, therapists believed that only claims against the target parent that were exaggerated and baseless qualified as alienating. Now however, taking the target parent's tiniest of faults and using it against them counts, which means there are degrees kind of like the way we differentiate lies as either "little white ones" and "whoppers."

Along with these degrees is a breakdown of categories define the types of alienation - Naive, Active or Obsessed. A closer look at the characteristics of each category requires parents to be honest with themselves, which, I can say from personal experience, may not be comfortable admit.

It's easy to see yourself as the target parent, but the fact of the matter is there is no good guy or bad guy perspective. It's a revolving role, especially if the target parent retaliates as a backlash from the hurt caused by the original alienating efforts. In fact, if you continue look at it as a good guy/bad guy situation it really boils down to both parents being bad guys since all the focus is being placed on how it defines and impacts the parent rather than focusing on what's really important, the children and their feelings.

That really became the starting point for me as I educated myself on this topic. As I learned more on the specifics of parental alienation, it was easy to fall into the trap of vilifying my sons' mother. I could think of example after example to illustrate the points I wanted to write about, but I couldn't think of a way to do so without violating the two criteria I've imposed on myself when it comes to mentioning my ex-wife. I never want my boys to read anything negative about their mother who loves them, and I don't think it fair to present one side of a personal issue in a forum where the other side cannot defend itself.

Once I got the part of my research discussing how to positively approach parental alienation, I realized that I have been guilty of alienating behavior too - and blatantly so. The only person's actions I can take responsibility for are my own. Once I could admit this I could accept the core concept in resolving this issue, to put aside hurt and preconceived notions from the divorce aside and place the children's development first above ourselves.

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