A child’s best interest isn’t always for them to determine — they don’t always know what is best for them. It’s important that adults make proper decisions for them while still empowering their voice, thoughts and feelings.
By Richard A. Warshak,Ph.D.
The Child’s Best Interest: Making Decisions In Court
When training judges about parental alienation cases I emphasize that a child’s stated wishes may be a poor index of the child’s best interests.
Children do not always want what is best for them. What they say they want is not always what they truly want. And they do not always say what they truly want. A child’s best interest isn’t always for them to determine.
Child Abuse and Decision Making
Nowhere is this more poignantly true than with abused children. I have worked for many years with children who suffered acts of unspeakable cruelty at the hands of their parents. Those who work with such children know that it is not unusual for abused children to appear bereft when first separated from the abusive environment.
In some cases, abused children truly want to remain with the abusive parent even when the authorities regard this as a dangerous placement. In other cases they may say they want to remain with the parent when they really hope that they will not be taken seriously and will be rescued and protected from further abuse. Sadly, when it comes to letting others know about the abuse, too many children keep it to themselves, confide in no one, and carry the secret into adulthood.
Stacy Lannert’s Story
A few months ago I listened to a heart-breaking account from Stacy Lannert, a woman who, as a child, suffered multiple episodes of sexual abuse by her father until, at the age of eighteen, she killed him. In the course of describing the repeated sexual assaults, she made the point that her parents divorced when she was a teenager and she was given the option to move away from her father to live with her mother. Stacy chose to remain with her abusive father in the hope that he would make good on his promises to do better.
Clearly this was a situation in which an adolescent was unable to make the right choice and was unable to exercise sufficiently mature judgment. She should not have been entrusted with the task of protecting herself. The system let her down.
When children express a strong preference either to live with or to avoid a parent, mature adults must retain the authority to override children’s choices when these choices do not serve their best interests. Abused children, as adults, let us know that they wished that they had someone to confide in who would protect them from further abuse. Some adults who as children expressed the wish to avoid a parent, with the hindsight of maturity say that they never wanted to be taken seriously and never expected adults to take them seriously.
Stacy Lannert’s horrifying ordeal teaches us the importance of empowering children to voice their thoughts and feelings. Her tragedy also teaches us the importance of not delegating adult decisions to children.
Children Held Hostage: Crafting Solutions in Parental Alienation Cases
How to understand and identify brainwashed children, present a case, and craft solutions in parental alienation cases.
Dr. Richard Warshak is the author of Divorce Poison: How To Protect Your Family From Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing (HarperCollins), the classic and best-selling parental alienation resource in the world, and co-author of Welcome Back, Pluto: Understanding, Preventing, and Overcoming Parental Alienation, the leading resource for families whose children struggle to stay out of the middle of parental conflicts. You may find him at www.warshak.com and his blog, Plutoverse.
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