Children are far less likely to have psychological issues if the separating parents promote a healthy relationship, writes Richard Hogan
In the 1980s child psychiatrist Dr Richard A Garner coined a term to describe the process whereby one parent turns their child or children against the other parent; his term for this behaviour was ‘parental alienation’. And it is one of the most devastating maladaptive behaviour’s a parent can engage in for the entire family.
In my experience it is generally the father that finds himself a victim of this process, of course women are subjected to it too, but in my clinical experience it has nearly always been the father that has been alienated from his children. Working in the therapeutic setting with children that have been coerced into a particular narrative about their father or mother is a particularly difficult and challenging experience for the psychotherapist.
Because of course, in some cases, a child’s fear of their father is warranted; it is trying to decipher what is real and what is a deliberate attempt to alienate someone from their children that proves to be the real challenge for the court system, lawyers and mental health professionals. There really isn’t enough training being provided for those professionals to give them the appropriate knowledge and skills to deal with this complicated and insidious issue.
Over the years I have had to deal with the utter wasteland that is left after children are forced to launch disparaging and negative narratives about a particular parent in order to please the parent that is their primary caregiver.
The fallout from this is absolute and catastrophic for the psyche of the young child’s mind as they are coerced into alienating their once loved father or mother.
Research is quite clear on this topic, children are far less likely to have psychological issues if the separating parents promote a healthy relationship between each other post separation.
The problem is of course, that the issues that brought about the dissolution of the relationship in the first place become weapons of destruction in the post separation landscape and children are the proxies by which they launch their attack. I have often found that when a relationship dissolves one or both of the partners may have a low differentiation of self, which means their emotional maturity is poor and as a result they lack the empathy needed to see their child’s position and so they use them as bait to hurt their ex partner.
Schools need training on this issue too. After all, they are with the child more than anyone. And I see the alienation of fathers in my work in schools nearly every day. I think it is down to the fact that the school doesn’t really understand the issue and as a result the school often joins the mother in her narrative of the father and thus further increase his sense of alienation by not contacting him or only sending her feedback on the child’s progress.
As I said, schools need training on this issue more than anyone, because during the weekdays, the child is with the school more than their family.
I often hear teachers colluding with a certain viewpoint about a parent and I wonder where is his voice in all of this? What must this experience be like for him? And why are we allowing this to take place? Is there a gender issue here?
If this was generally a female experience would we be more motivated to bring her voice into the conversation?
I think the answer is that we probably would be more motivated to ameliorate the process. So why are we so slow to develop a clear policy around this issue that helps a man to have the right to have his experience heard?
I have seen how absolutely devastating parental alienation is for the child, father and ultimately in the end for the mother.
In my experience I have noticed how the child inevitably comes to resent the mother for forcing them to say awful things about their father, so no one wins here, in fact it is utter destruction for the entire family. But the anger one parent may feel post separation blinds them to this fact and drives them forward with this maladaptive behaviour.
However, as clinicians and policy makers we must be able to identify it and work to save the entire family because the research shows us that the residual affects from parental alienation can last a lifetime.
We have to come into contact with our own bias. And it is an uncomfortable truth, something that we may not want to face, but the records show that in 2014 out of 5,700 custody and access applications made a total of 2,016 were rejected. Were these all negligent and abusive fathers and mothers being stopped from seeing their children? We must wake up to the fact that sometimes a parent, motivated by the anger they feel towards their ex partner, will use their child as a pawn in their game of total war.
This is generally what is happening to many men at the moment in our society and we must hear their voice because their voice is all of our voices. And we must not let our presuppositions and bias blind us to the fact that fathers, even though they may have ended the relationship, need love and support too and do not deserve to have their children turned against them.
Richard Hogan is a school teacher, systemic family psychotherapist, and father of three.