Dear Neil: My wife and I divorced 3 years ago, and since then my children (ages 15, 12 and 10) will have almost nothing to do with me. My ex-wife now hates me, and makes me appear to be evil, which I’m not. I was a doting dad, and I did everything I could to help my kids feel loved, cared for and wanted. I pay child support and maintenance, but my kids are refusing to see me or have contact with me—and all of this has happened since the separation. Why?
Hurt in St. Louis
Dear St. Louis: In my years of practice as a marriage and family therapist, I have come across hundreds of cases involving kids feeling almost completely alienated from one parent, even though there were no signs of abuse. Typically involving separated, divorcing or divorced parents, it has come to be known as Parental Alienation Syndrome. Parental alienation is where a child has a good relationship with one parent—to the exclusion of the other parent. The child expresses positive feelings for one parent, and negative feelings for the other parent—meaning the child is missing the range of emotions that most kids have for their parents.
Here is a list of symptoms of parental alienation, collected by Douglas Darnall ([email protected]):
Allowing the child to decide for him/herself whether to visit the other parent, when s/he doesn’t actually have a choice. (This sets the child up for conflict with the other parent.)
Telling the child “everything” about the marital relationship or reasons for the divorce. The alienating parent’s motive is for the child to think less of the other parent.
Refusing to allow a child to transport his/her possessions between residences.
Not allowing the other parent access to school, medical records or schedules of extracurricular activities.
One parent demeaning the other parent in the child’s presence, criticizing the other parent or that parent’s friends or family where the child can hear, or blaming the other for financial problems, changes in lifestyle, breaking up the family, having a boyfriend or girlfriend or or talking about child support or legal issues in front of the child.
The alienating parent may schedule the children in so many activities that the other parent’s visitation is squeezed out, especially if the alienating parent isn’t flexible with the visitation schedule.
Asking the child to choose one parent over the other, or encouraging the child to choose sides. (The child, not the parent, should initiate any suggestion for change of residence.)
If a parent or stepparent suggests adoption or changing the child’s name.
When a child cannot give reasons for being angry toward a parent, or his/her reasons are vague and without any details, or if he says that he cannot remember happy times with you. All of these may be borrowed scenarios from a parent, and they may not be true.
When a parent and a child keep secrets together, have special signals, a private rendezvous or words with special meanings—or when a parent asks a child to lie or keep things from the other parent.
When a parent uses a child to spy or covertly gather information from the other parent.
When a parent acts hurt or sad if their child has a good time with the other parent.
When a parent asks the child about the other parent’s personal life.
If a parent attempts to rescue a child when there is no threat to the child’s safety. This practice creates the illusion of danger or threat.
Making demands on the other parent that is contrary to court orders or a prior agreement.
Listening in to the child’s phone conversation with the other parent.
Moving away from where the other parent lives, so that visits become difficult and expensive.
Allegations of physical, sexual or emotional abuse toward the other parent.
When a child has animosity toward the extended family of the other parent.
Interrupting the child’s time with the other parent by calling a lot or planning activities when they’re together.
Preventing the child from speaking with the other parent by blocking phone messages, not returning phone calls, or not giving email messages, letters or gifts.