When the other parent intentionally turns the children against you, it becomes difficult – if not impossible – to have a successful co-parenting relationship. Knowing what symptoms and behaviors to watch out for in your children will help you determine whether or not parental alienation is occurring, and this podcast offers steps you can take to lessen the corrosive effects.
In this podcast, Benjamin Garber, Ph.D., explains what parental alienation is, how and why it happens, and strategies for preventing or recovering from parental alienation. He discusses the warning signs to watch out for in your children, and how to tell the difference between your child’s normal feelings of anger or sadness during and after divorce, and negative emotions inflamed by the other parent.
Host: Diana Shepherd, CDFA®, Editorial Director and Co-Founder of Divorce Magazine
Speaker: Dr. Benjamin Garber, licensed psychologist, former Guardian ad litem, parenting coordinator
Dr. Garber has served as an expert witness in a number of states, and his experience includes international Hague Convention matters, Daubert arguments against “parental alienation syndrome,” the critique and review of Guardian ad litem, and as a custody evaluator.
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Read the Transcript of this Podcast Below.
Diana Shepherd: My name is Diana Shepherd, and I’m the Editorial Director of Divorce Magazine and a facilitator for the Divorce School. Today’s topic is entitled Parental Alienation: How to Detect, Prevent, and Overcome its Effects. And my guest is Dr. Benjamin Garber. Dr. Garber is a licensed psychologist, a former Guardian ad litem, and a parenting coordinator. With advanced degrees in child and family development, clinical psychology, and psycholinguistics, Dr. Garber has served as an expert witness, educating the court about parental alienation. Welcome, Dr. Garber.
Dr. Garber, what is parental alienation?
Benjamin Garber: Thanks for asking, Diana. It’s such an important topic today in our family courts and in our families in general. Alienation is actually a very natural and necessary dynamic that helps us define where we belong and who we belong with. When alienation breaks groups apart, it becomes a destructive dynamic. In particular when co-parents are in high conflict and either parent exposes the child to unwarranted negatives about the other that the result can be a very destructive process for the child causing the child to feel a loyalty bind. As if loving one parent costs him the love of the other, or is a betrayal of the other. We call this dynamic generally parental alienation. And we work very hard in psychology and in the court system to try to avoid it happening and help children who are caught in the midst of this dilemma as best as we’re able.
So why does this happen?
I wish I knew the answer. I’m not sure that anybody does clearly. What we conclude about the parents who engage in this very destructive process is that the stresses of losing an intimate relationship, whether it’s through divorce or otherwise, can cause people to act out in very selfish and immature ways. Putting your own needs first before those of the child is destructive to a child and is antithetical and counter to the needs of the child him or herself. That’s the best that we understand through what happens. The stresses of an adult breakup can interfere with a person’s ability to behave in a mature and child-centered way.
What are the warning signs in terms of the other parent’s behavior that he or she may be trying to turn the children against you?
Well, once again, I wish that we had a clear set of criteria. Unfortunately, we don’t. The symptoms or behaviors that I’ll speak to in just a moment can come up for any number of reasons. But they can come up in instances in which one parent is exposing a child to needless negatives about the other. In particular, the most obvious sign would be the child’s uncharacteristic resistance to the targeted parent, refusing to spend time with that person. Expressing anxiety about proximity to that person. Making choices that appear to make the child appear polarized in the midst of the adult conflict as if the child is being forced to choose sides.
Are there any other symptoms or perhaps behaviors to watch for in your children?
The general description I just offered could be manifested in many ways. But it does boil down to the child’s needless and uncharacteristic rejection of or refusal to be proximal to the targeted parent. All of this assumes, of course, that the parent who’s being rejected had a healthy relationship with the child in the first instance and that nothing had happened specifically to cause the child to reject that parent him or herself. That the force at work in this high-conflict destructive family occurs because parent A is acting out his or her anxiety, stress, anger, selfish needs with the child at the cost of the child’s relationship with parent B.
So other symptoms you’re asking for? It’s commonly the case that children who are caught in the middle of their parents’ high-conflict separation and divorce will regress. That is, if we think of development as if a person is climbing a flight of stairs, always with one foot forward to test a new way of functioning, and one foot back secure and always is functioning, regression is a normal and natural reaction to stress that involves taking that forward foot back and retreating to previous and more primitive ways of functioning.
And so in the midst of the stress of a high-conflict adult separation, you’ll get a five-year-old boy who’s been toilet-trained for years all of a sudden having wetting or soiling accidents. You’ll get a teenager who’s been pretty independent and autonomous for years all of a sudden acting in a very needy way. You’ll get kids of any age who are experiencing somatic or body complaints that aren’t explained by the pediatrician, tummy aches and headaches and sleeping problems, eating difficulties, these can all be signs of stress generally. The symptom most specifically associated with alienation per se would have to do with an abrupt and otherwise unexplained change in the quality of the child’s relationship with the parent who was previously a secure, beloved, familiar attachment figure in that child’s life.
So if there are enough red flags, should the parent confront the alienating parent about his or her actions? What’s the best way to address these concerns?
It’s a great question. I like to think perhaps naively that a great deal of what we might call alienation happens out of ignorance. Many parents who are involved in the separation or divorce process simply don’t know (or don’t think at the time) that exposing the child to negatives about the parent is a negative and even an abusive thing to do. I often advocate prevention and education as ways of helping families out of this problem. Because once it’s begun, once the child feels that loyalty bind and has to take sides in the adult war, it can spiral downward and become a very harsh reality and a very pathogenic, a very destructive thing for the child.
You asked whether the parent who feels targeted by the process should confront the other parent, I suppose if you’re asking whether there should be a discussion between the adults, absolutely. Confront sounds like such an aggressive tactic. Instead, I take the firm position … I believe psychology and family law generally take the firm position that no matter the quality of the intimate adult relationship, parents who share responsibility for a child – we refer to them as “co-parents” –co-parents must continue to cooperate, communicate, and maintain consistency of parenting practices so as to support their children.
In effect, when I do this, you know, visual medium as we try to do here today but technology failed us, I hold my hands out together and interweave my fingers as if one hand is Mom and one hand is Dad, or it doesn’t matter the gender or the legal relationship of the parents. They have to fit together in a way that creates a safety net under the child. Alienation occurs when those hands pull apart and the child falls through the cracks between the fingers. That child may feel joyous because nobody is putting them to bed at night and nobody’s enforcing rules. And when I go to Mom’s I get to eat M&Ms for breakfast but Dad makes me eat broccoli for dinner. Those things can be happy events in a child’s eyes, but they really are signs of budding insecurity. The child feels not contained, not held.
So the bottom line is, as I said, no matter the quality of the intimate adult relationship, we need co-parents to work together to support the child and the child’s opportunity to make and maintain a healthy relationship with both of his parents.
How can a parent tell the difference between normal anger or grief related to the divorce and negative emotions being fueled by the other parent? I’m talking about the child in this instance.
Again, it’s a great question. And again, there is no single litmus test that would distinguish the two. You’re right in presuming that children commonly respond to changes in their families with lots of strong emotions. Anger, sadness, fear, maybe even some happiness as well. In fact, I would offer that a child whose family is in transition who’s exhibiting none of those strong emotions is at grave risk for something boiling to the surface later. We need to help our kids express their strong feelings and teach them specifically by our words and by our examples. Healthy ways of expressing those strong feelings. But the difference between the anger, sadness, grief, fear, even pleasure that might be associated just plainly with the family transition as opposed to being exposed by one parent to negatives about the other is a very gray line. I’m gonna go back to what I said to you a couple of times now … I’m going to apologize for repeating myself … The clearest evidence that alienation may be happening is the child’s uncharacteristic and unwarranted, even abrupt rejection of one parent, whereas the child used to have a cuddly, warm, fuzzy relationship with that parent previously.
Can parental alienation have long-term negative effects on children? For instance, perhaps in their ability to initiate or maintain romantic relationships as adults?
Yes, absolutely. And even more broadly than your question poses. Being taught early in life that you have to choose between the people who care about you, that loving one person is a betrayal of another can undermine a child’s ability as they reach adolescence and adulthood to develop appropriate self-esteem and healthy relationships generally, not just healthy intimate relationships as they grow into adulthood.
I’m sure that most alienating parents think that their actions are justified. I’m wondering if they can ever really be justified? I’m thinking about circumstances where the other parent is emotionally or physically abusive or has an addiction or maybe suffers from a personality disorder.
Well, that’s a dilemma. And it’s a dilemma that’s heard by the courts all the time. A parent, for example, who is court-ordered to send her child into the care of a co-parent who is known to be a drug addict or is known to be inappropriate with or around the child, that parent is on solid ground to remind the child before visits, before contact with the other parent, “Do you remember how to dial 9-1-1? Do you know that the neighbor’s going to be there?” General precautions that will ensure the child’s safety and might in some eyes constitute alienation. But where are those warnings are warranted because the other parent is known to present a danger of some sort, abuse, neglect, unresponsive, insensitive to the child’s needs? Those sorts of things are necessary.
Remember at the start of this discussion I said that alienation is a necessary and natural dynamic that we all engage in healthy families, regardless of their compositions. We routinely tell our kids not to talk to the guy in the overcoat standing on the corner. That’s appropriate and necessary because that stereotypic fellow on the corner is presumed to be a predator of some kind. So we instill caution and we act to protect our kids.
In an instance in which parents separate and there is a known history or a high likelihood of future abuse, neglect, or otherwise inappropriate behavior, the sending parent, the parent who is responsible and is soon to separate from the child, needs to protect the child. That isn’t alienation. But once again, it’s a very gray area.
What can someone do to prevent parental alienation or at least mitigate against the worst of its effects?
I feel the need to emphasize that these destructive dynamics, parental alienation, and similar dynamics, can and we presume do happen even within intact families. You don’t need to separate and you certainly don’t need to divorce for your child to be at risk of being pulled into that sort of destructive triangulation. The reason that comes to mind is that the best prevention for all of us, regardless of marital status, regardless of adults’ gender, regardless of the age of the child or the legality of the thing, is always going to be constructive proactive child-centered communication amongst the adults.
We as caregivers and professionals who take care of children and are focused on their needs need to assure that we protect children. That Billy might be seven or 12 or 15 and might be really smart and even socially skilled, but he’s still a little boy underneath the surface. Too many professionals, too many parents for that matter, are fooled by facades of social skills, of vocabulary, of grades. And fall into the trap of saying, “Oh, he gets it. It’s okay. I can tell him what a shmoe his Mom is or what a jerk his Dad is.” That sort of thing. You can’t. You can’t. We really must allow that children need the opportunity within the limits of safety to develop a healthy relationship with each of their parents on their own, never fearing that loving one is a betrayal of the other.
If the alienating parent has already been successful in poisoning the other parent’s relationship with his or her children, is there any hope of resuming a healthy relationship?
Yes, of course. There are a number of targeted therapies, sometimes – I dislike this term – referred to as reunification or reconciliation therapies that can be very helpful. They are usually or routinely court-ordered therapies, so you can’t just Google “reunification therapist”, you need to go through a court process to make this happen.
And there are a handful of … Let’s call them reunification or reconciliation camps around the country. These are intensive residential brief programs that can be a weekend or they can be a week in which typically all of the players are invited to come. They live off-site that is away from their homes and they are 24/7 in the care of very skilled therapists who help the child and the rejected parents to rebuild the quality of their relationship.
It’s important to add for your listeners that families … Family systems seek balance. So in any family system, most simply defined as Mom, Dad, and let’s say eight-year-old Sally, when that family system is out of balance because now Sally is rejecting Dad or refusing contact with Dad, the remedy has to address not only Sally’s relationship with Dad but also the quality of the relationship between Sally and Mom. As one becomes more distant, it’s commonly the case that the other becomes too close. So those camps that I was just referring to or the outpatient reunification or reconciliation therapies must look at all the parts of the system. They will almost always fail if they only seek to address the broken relationship between Sally and Dad.
So, I’m just wondering about the success rate of this reunification or reconciliation therapy if the alienating parent doesn’t stop doing what they’re doing.
Well, I wish I had statistics for you, Diana, I don’t. We have no organized way to collect those matters, that data. In part because all of these therapies are very confidential. And in part, because they’re court-ordered, the data that comes out of them is very closely protected by the lawyers who are involved. However, the reconciliation camps that I just referred to … One is called … I’m sorry, the name of it escapes me. I’ll come up with it in just a moment. The camp that I was just referring to and one other are each really good about publishing their results and they each have really impressive success rates.
Breaking Barriers is one. I believe it’s hosted primarily in Texas. And the other, which alternates between Vermont and California is called Overcoming Barriers? Something of the sort. I’m sorry. If you like, I’ll get you the references. You can put them on the website with this podcast.
Okay, that would be great. Do parental alienation cases inevitably end up in court?
No, of course not. As I mentioned a moment ago, there are presumably many, many, many instances in which alienation occurs within a family very much to the detriment of the child without the benefit of the legal system, without even marriage in the first place. Therefore there can be no divorce. The cases that we know most about come up because the adults were once married and are now separating or are already divorcing or divorced. And the fact that the child is completely refusing contact with one parent, regardless of the child’s age, becomes a matter that one lawyer or one pro se litigant will bring before the court and then is litigated in court. I’ve never yet seen a judge bang his or her gavel and force a child to conduct healthy contacts with a rejected parent, but I have seen some instances, very dramatically and sometimes with good outcomes … I have seen judges in cases of extreme alienation require that the child go to live with the rejected parent on a full-time basis.
So if a case does end up in court, I’m guessing it’s a bit of he said, she said. What can be done to prove that it is occurring? Or that it isn’t?
You’re asking terrific questions. And this one particular is not brief. I suppose I should start my answer by saying that the data that we have suggest that alienation almost never occurs by itself. In the field, we refer to “the hybrid model”. That is the notion that when a child is allied with one parent and rejecting of the other, there is usually some combination of alienation as we’ve been describing it. Enmeshment, which is that instance if you recall a moment ago, I was subscribing that when a child rejects one parent they become overly close to the other. The technical term describing that category of relationships is enmeshment. Let’s leave it at that for the moment. So alienation is usually accompanied by some degree of enmeshment.
If we understand that those two dynamics co-occur most commonly, then really the only way of getting at understanding the balance of those dynamics in the family is to participate in what’s commonly called a custody evaluation conducted by a specially trained mental health professional. In many jurisdictions, we no longer use the word custody, although it’s familiar to many people. It also carries with it connotations of ownership and no one owns another human being, especially a child.
So the other key words to look for – the phrase that I use in my office, for example – is “child-centered family evaluation”. This is a very intense, very detailed look at all of the dynamics within the family system in order to advise the court how best to understand and serve the child’s needs, including and especially the quality of the child’s relationship with each of his or her parents.
Dr. Garber, any last pieces of advice to offer our listeners?
It’s easy to get hung up on the labels. And hearing this discussion I can imagine that listeners might say, “Aha! Well, that’s what’s going on. He or she is alienating me or she’s enmeshed.” And maybe so. I mean, it does happen out there. And it’s a nasty situation that can be very hurtful to children. But more important than the labels and certainly more important than which lawyer you hire, which court you’re in, or how much … What percentage of the child’s college fund you spend in the process of divorcing, more important than all of that is simply taking the high road yourself as a caregiver. Putting the child’s needs first.
Never lower yourself to the level of what you believe the other parent might be doing. And open those lines of communication, which really calls for maturity, your ability to pick your battles, your ability to bite your tongue and control your impulses. Co-parenting post-marriage, when the intimate relationship is over, should be like a business relationship where the business is the child. The child’s health and well-being. If every parent out there in the listening world could do that, I would happily be out of a job.
Thank you for the opportunity to address these issues, Diana. I welcome your listeners to be in touch. Please visit my website, healthyparent.com. And in particular, on the subject that we’ve been discussing, I’d recommend my book, Keeping Kids Out of the Middle. I wish you all the best and I’ve really enjoyed being associated with The Divorce School. Thanks so much.
Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Diana Shepherd: My guest today has been Dr. Benjamin Garber, a child-centered advocate to family law matters, licensed psychologist, parenting coordinator, consulting expert, author, and speaker. For more information about Dr. Garber’s practice and clinical child consulting and forensic psychology, or to look at his books, go to www.healthyparent.com.