How family law professionals can help alienated children make and maintain healthy relationships with both parents.

By Benjamin D. Garber, Ph.D., Family Law Consultant, Evaluator, and Expert Witness

Parental AlienationThe greatest casualty of high-conflict divorce is the polarized child. You know this child: so much of her* life has been spent in her parents’ crossfire that she’s been forced to choose sides. She’s learned that loving one parent is a betrayal of the other. We could argue endlessly about the extent to which the preferred parent has needlessly undermined her relationship with the rejected parent (alienation) and may be overinvolved in her life (enmeshment), versus the extent to which the rejected parent is insensitive and unresponsive to her needs (estrangement), but dozens of motions and tens of thousands of dollars and many months later, the child would still be caught in the middle.

The following is a very brief summary of the remedies commonly available to family law professionals who are willing to think beyond blame to actually try to help the polarized child make and maintain a healthy relationship with all of her caregivers. This overview serves as an introduction; in order to genuinely serve the polarized child’s needs, you will require a thorough grasp of the child’s dilemmas as well as the remedies appropriate to his/her unique family system.

*Note: all gender references in this article are arbitrary and used only to facilitate expression. Please do not mistake any of the dynamics presented as specific to males or females.

1. Put the Child’s Safety First

Allegations of abuse or neglect often arise in counterpoint to allegations of alienation. Revealing that the person whom you once publicly promised to “love, honor and cherish” is a monster can be at once validating and an excellent rationalization for the child’s rejection of her other parent. Statistics about the frequency of false allegations in these matters are irrelevant. Each allegation must be carefully evaluated so as to assure the child’s safety, noting that case law precedent exists for those extreme cases when the preferred parent levies serial false allegations in an effort to lock one parent out of the children’s lives.

2. Taking a Break Doesn’t Work

Arguments that the child “just needs a break” or will resume contact with the rejected parent “after she’s cooled off” are generally obfuscation and avoidance. The old maxim about getting back on the horse after a fall is true. Absence does not make the heart grow fonder; it may be necessary and appropriate for contact to be briefer or supervised or mediated by a family systems therapist, but “taking a break” will generally make resuming contact that much more difficult.

3. Voice, Not Choice

We must listen carefully to children without allowing them to choose, confident that we are able to distinguish what a child needs from what she may want. Children who feel like their voices have been heard are more likely to comply with the court’s orders – even when those orders are contrary to their wishes. This is consistent with the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act, and those jurisdictions that allow or require that the “mature minor” be heard with regard to his or her future care.

4. Fix the System, Not the Individual or the Dyad

Psychotherapeutic interventions intended to repair ruptured parent-child relationships often fail because they are too narrowly defined. Because systems seek balance, interventions must simultaneously seek to disengage the enmeshed parent-child pair and re-engage the rejected parent-child pair,. Parents’ significant others, extended family, children’s full-, half- and step-siblings often need to at least support, if not be actively involved in the process

5. Anxiety Can Cripple the System

Don’t be misled by all of the anger and fear and humiliation. It’s all real, but it also overlays anxiety. Anxiety causes regression, compromises mature decision-making, and can make change impossible. Even if Mom has never said a negative word about Dad, Billy will still resonate with her anxiety about Dad – particularly when the two are face-to-face at transition. Any “reunification” or “reconciliation” intervention should include cognitive behavioral interventions to help all involved reduce anxiety so as to make relationship building easier and more time- and cost-efficient. Tried and true cognitive behavioral methods can be critical to the process.

6. Extreme Measures Are Sometimes Necessary

In those instances in which a child’s resistance to one parent and alliance with the other are deeply entrenched and without good reason, and particularly when conventional psychotherapies have failed, courts may entertain more dramatic interventions. Intensive camp-like experiences can turn around some of the most recalcitrant dynamics,. Abruptly placing the child in the rejected parent’s primary or exclusive care has sometimes been successful when all else has failed, but it has also led to tragic outcomes sometimes.

7. Sometimes, the Rejected Parent Has to Step Back and Wait

The children’s rhyme got it right: sometimes even “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men/Couldn’t put Humpty together again.” The tragic reality is that some relationships cannot be repaired. Sometimes the rejected parent can do nothing but step back and let the child grow up, hoping that she will find her way back. This parent may need help to grieve the loss and to vent the rage. Individual psychotherapeutic support can be helpful so as to assure that the rejected parent remains present and available to the child without being intrusive in anticipation that – someday, somehow – parent and child will reconcile.

Dr. Benjamin Garber is a New Hampshire licensed psychologist, parenting coordinator, and expert consultant to family law matters across North America. He is an acclaimed speaker, addressing professional audiences on subjects in child and family development and family law. He is the author of six books; the most recent is Holding Tight/Letting Go: Raising Healthy Kids in Anxious Times (Unhooked Books, 2016).

Recommended Reading 

“Children Resisting Post-Separation Contact With a Parent: Concepts, Controversies and Conundrums” (Family Court Review, 48, 2010) by B.J. Fidler and N. Bala.

Children Who Resist Post-Separation Parental Contact: A Differential Approach for Legal and Mental Health Professionals (Oxford University Press, 2013) by B.J. Fidler, N. Bala, and M. Saini.

“Cognitive-Behavioral Methods in High-Conflict Divorce: Systematic Desensitization Adapted to Parent-Child Reunification Interventions” (Family Court Review, 53(1), 2015) by B.D. Garber.

Developmental Psychology for Family Law Professionals: Theory, Application and The Best Interests of the Child (Springer Publishing, 2009) by B.D. Garber.

“Early Identification and Prevention of Parent-Child Alienation a Framework for Balancing Risks and Benefits of Intervention” (Family Court Review, Vol. 48, No. 1, 2010) by P.G. Jaffe, D. Ashbourne, and A.A. Mamo.

“False Allegations of Abuse and Neglect When Parents Separate” (2005) by N. Trocmé and N. Bala.

“False Allegations of Child Abuse in Contested Family Law Cases: the Implications for Psychological Practice”  (Educational and Child Psychology, Vol. 31(3), 2014) by T. MacKay.

“Family Bridges: Using Insights From Social Science To Reconnect Parents and Alienated Children” (Family Court Review, 48, 2010) by R.A. Warshak.

“Hearing the Voices of Children in Canada’s Criminal Justice System: Recognizing Capacity and Facilitating Testimony” (Child & Family Law Quarterly, 22(1), 2010) by N. Bala, A. Evans, and E. Bala.

Holding Tight/Letting Go: Raising Healthy Kids in Anxious Times (Unhooked Books, 2016) by B.D. Garber.

Keeping Kids Out Of the Middle: Parenting Effectively In The Midst Of Adult Conflict, Separation and Divorce (Health Communications, 2008) by B.D. Garber.

“Parental Alienation and the Dynamics of the Enmeshed Parent-Child Dyad: Adultification, Parentification and Infantilization” (Family Court Review, 49(2), 2011) by B.D. Garber.

Parental Alienation: The Handbook for Mental Health and Legal Professionals (Charles C Thomas Pub, 2013) Edited by D. Lorandos, W. Bernet, & S. R. Sauber

“Security by Association? Mapping Attachment Theory Onto Family Law Practice” (Family Court Review, 50(3), 2012) by B.D. Garber.

“Therapist Alienation: Foreseeing and Forestalling Third-Party Dynamics Undermining Psychotherapy With Children of Conflicted Caregivers” (Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 35(4), (2004) by B.D. Garber.