Much attention has been paid to the case of the three minor children in Oakland County Michigan who were removed to juvenile detention in the wake of years of conflict between their divorced parents. Judge Lisa Gorcyca observed that the mother had been engaging in parental alienation, loosely defined as brainwashing her children against their father. Experts debate whether parental alienation is a mental health disorder. It was not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, however, it is undisputed that some angry parents do insult and disparage their ex-spouses in an effort to “win” their children in the divorce. Often, it is the mother who hates her ex-husband and wants the children to hate him, too.
She may have legitimate concerns about their father’s ability to parent, but the court system, and society at large, believe that a child has a right to a relationship with both parents. Unless she can convince the court that he is physically endangering the children, her concerns about his parenting style are legally irrelevant. Unable to find validation in the court, some parents try to turn their children against their ex-spouse to protect them, or because their anger is so consuming they cannot tolerate seeing their beloved children align with their “enemy.”
The parent-child relationship is one of the strongest bonds in human experience. If our children suffer, we suffer. If our children are happy, we are happy. Parents are hard-wired to care for and protect their children. We anticipate their needs and as they grow we direct them towards healthy goals. And most children, raised by loving parents, accept their parents’ vision for them.
When parents’ divorce, each parent’s vision of what their children need may differ. This causes conflict between the parents, but what may cause greater conflict is the post-divorce disparity between each parent's needs and the child’s needs. An angry mom may never want to speak to her ex-husband again. An angry dad may want to punish his ex-wife for hurting him. These parents have certain feelings with respect to each other, healthy or not, but those now differ from their children’s who still want and need to have a relationship with their other parent. A byproduct of divorce is that the parent’s needs, and the children’s needs, diverge. The divorce severs the umbilical cord connecting parent and child.
Parental alienation occurs, in part, because the alienating parent cannot differentiate herself from her children. She is enmeshed in their lives such that the boundaries between mother and child are blurred. Her needs are still their needs and their needs remain her needs. For her, her hatred or fear of her ex-husband is indistinguishable from her children’s feelings. She sees him as evil and so must they. Sadly, this parent has difficulty accepting that with respect to their father, her children’s needs are now and will always be different from hers.
There will now be a part of her children’s lives she cannot share. Her children will now have experiences and relationships which may cause her concern, but she must learn to identify the cause of that concern. If it is born of an actual threat to her children’s well-being then she can pursue legal recourse. But if it is generated by her own anger and fears, then she must accept that her needs and her children’s needs are distinct and will never again be identical.