Parental Alienation

This is a heartbreaking topic – children who become alienated from a parent, and too often his/her extended family as well.

Parental alienation occurs when one parent continually demeans, criticizes and marginalizes the other parent and their family.  Unfortunately, we see this too often during contentious divorce.  The child is privy to hearing faults and misdeeds , real or perceived, of the alienated parent.  Children hear such statements as “he/she left us” instead of the reality that the parent was left or “he/she doesn’t love us any more”.  In the extreme, there may be false allegations.  The alienating parent makes no effort to speak privately about their partner/spouse to family and friends when they only have bad things to say.  The saying “Children have big ears” especially rings true about listening in on conversations when their life is being turned upside down.

The children may be said to be “busy, out, or asleep” when the alienated parent calls or comes to spend time with them.  They become a ‘weapon’ used to hurt the other parent.  They are often asked to carry messages from the alienating parent.  “Why are you not giving mommy money for us?”   “Why do you have a girlfriend [boyfriend] and spend time with her/his children?”   “If you loved us, you wouldn’t have left.”

The alienating parent may have no awareness of the harm to the children.  He/she is overwhelmed by devastation and feels s/he is protecting the children from the other parent.  The alienator projects his/her rage at the other parent and believes that the children feel that anger on their own.  Alienators do not believe that they initiated that rage and then cultivated it.  Hopefully, the alienated parent does not engage in the war and loves the children enough to become informed about alienation and how to secure help.

The alienated child becomes’ ‘parentified’, feeling that they need to protect and defend  the hurt and angry parent. The child often parrots the exact words of that parent, using words or phrases that are not uttered by their age peers.  The child’s comments about the ‘bad’ parent are strong and all encompassing.  There is no admission of anything good about that parent.  Most children have negative and positive things to say about their parents.  After all, we are all human. An alienated child sees NO good in the ‘bad’ parent.

The harm to children is multifaceted. They are in great pain.  Not only do they lose contact with a parent (and their extended family), they are learning that, when people come apart, ‘war’ is inevitable and warranted.  That angry feeling and behavior can seep into their personality and affect friendships and future relationships if they part ways. At a time when the family is coming apart, children lose half of their primary support.  Even if the alienated parent was not as active, in parenting, as the other, they usually want to have contact with their children.  Sometimes those parents left the household in order to avoid their partner/spouse and keep the peace.

When doing parent/child reunification therapy, I work with both parents and the children to help them understand that they will all benefit from working through their differences.  Parents learn to move on with their lives and realize how much their children will be affected and limited if the present situation  continues.  They come to realize that there are major benefits for their children if they can alter that situation.  War destroys.  Working together peacefully builds.






Divorce: Well-Adjusted Children


children suffering from stress anxietyDivorce is a wrenching experience for all family members. Parents are sad at the end of something they thought would be ‘forever’ when they first came together.  Children lose their family grouping, in the way they always knew.  Now there are two homes, changes in lifestyle, maybe new people in their lives and other adjustments. But, that is  not a reason to not continue to raise well adjusted children.  It just takes some special attention.

  • Know your children, their needs, fears, quirks, strengths and weaker areas. Keep that information in mind as you parent.
  • Listen to them before you speak so you know the best way to approach things.
  • Individualize them. Pay close attention to their personality, their relationship with both parents, etc. – to share certain information, individualized.
  • Be aware of yourself and how you look when you are speaking. Pay attention to your voice, your facial expressions and your body.  The body speaks too, hopefully, in sync with what you are saying.  You don’t want your body and face to be announcing doom while you are saying that things will get better.
  • Don’t limit what your children can express.  Hear it all – the sad, the bad, the mad.  It will give you important information about they are feeling and what they need. If they can speak, and be heard, about their hurt and anger, they are less likely to act out those feelings.
  • Let them know you are deeply listening by repeating your understanding of what they are saying. They can correct you if wrong and appreciate when you are on target.  It feels so good to be heard and understood and not shut down.
  • Repeat what they have said so they know you listened and heard correctly.
  • Speak to what you hear them saying and empathize so they know you are right there with them.
  • Be consistent with most of your household rules. A little loosening lets them know you understand but trust they will be OK to carry on as usual. Dropping all rules and tasks sends a message that nothing is the same.  Continuing rules offer structure, so important when other things are changing.
  • Be the best that you can be…real, maybe vulnerable, but strong and up to the
  • challenge. Remember, they do as we do. You are  one of their main supports and a major role model role model.

Be sure to utilize your own supports and be kind to yourself. Life does go on and life, after divorce, is a new chapter.  You have a lot to do in the writing of it.





13 Things Kids Want Parents to Know

13 Things Kids Want Parents to Know

By Isolina Ricci, PhD

  1. We need to know you love us, will protect us and won’t leave
  2. Help us get organized for going back and forth. Be patient
  3. Listen to our questions and opinions even if you don’t agree.
  4. Accept that we need a lot of time to adjust, even when we don’t show it.
  5. Keep your conflicts and dislike of each other out of sight and earshot.
  6. Keep us out of the middle of your problems. We are just kids.
  7. Don’t ask us to spy, pass messages or hear you put down the other parent.
  8. Give us a chance to talk with kids who are also going through this.
  9. Help us express our feelings and learn how to manage them.
  10. Give us space and time to grieve the loss of our old life at our pace.
  11. Confide in people your own age. We are not your substitute spouse.
  12. Tell us we aren’t at fault for your problems. We can’t fix them either.
  13. Show us it’s OK to love and want to be with both of you

Children and Divorce

“When you’re a little kid, you don’t know what’s going on”

“When they fight, I go to my room and cover my ears. Why do they have to do that? They tell me and my sister not to fight”.

“When my parents get into it, I play my music……loud ”

“I think it’s my fault when they yell. “

“I want things to be like they used to be. My little brother comes into my room. He gets so scared…….me too.

“ I want them to know how I feel but they might feel bad or get angry with me”.

“ I feel lonely and bad inside”

“I’m stuck in the middle…it doesn’t feel good”.

These are some comments I’ve heard from children of divorcing parents over many years. It’s heartbreaking.  Children love both parents, who are part of them, and share their parents’ pain. Children may be confused by what they see and hear. They feel disappointed or upset with their parents’ negative behavior. Typically, they won’t, or can’t, articulate their upset to their parents for fear of upsetting them. Divorcing parents  struggle to hold things together during a very trying time. Because they can be preoccupied, many parents are  unaware of what their children are experiencing.

Divorce is a multifaceted and draining experience.  It requires many  transitions for the entire family.  If you are considering it, or in the midst of it, you know that. There may be a number of major transitions in your life. You may need to move, change your child’s school or get a job, even if you have been out of the workforce for a long time.  Living on your own may mean having to take on tasks that your partner/spouse took care of.  Entertainment can be impacted as well, including few extracurricular activities and vacations, dining out less and fewer indulgences for all. There may be shifts in how you relate to in-laws or how they relate to you.  Sometimes ‘couple’ friends choose one partner and withdraw from the other, which may also affect children.

If your spouse is involved with a new partner, there will be a period of acclimation for all. Even though your children may like the new person, there are often loyalty issues to their bio parent. Many of children’s feelings depend on how their parents feel and handle the situation.   “If I like Mary, will mom feel bad or be upset with me?” “If David plays ball with me, how will dad feel”? In a blended family situation there will be new and different family rituals and rules to be absorbed by children…the time [and how] you eat dinner, rules of behavior, holidays and vacations to name just a few situations that require adaptation on every one’s part. If your partner’s or spouse’s new partner (or yours) has children, additional layers of adaptation need to be considered and managed.

Children don’t cause divorce but they do have to live with its consequences. Confusion, sadness, anger, guilt and feeling lost and powerless are some of the feelings expressed by children living through divorce and its aftermath. Parents need to protect their children from having to do the hardest thing of all – choose between them. One way to protect them is to minimize or eliminate the negative and angry aspects of the divorce experience. If parents don’t create two sides, children don’t feel conflicted about having to take a side. It’s important for them to feel safe and be able to hold on to cherished family memories as the family transforms.

Single or shared parenting is a new and challenging experience, for parents and children. If your spouse/partner relocates farther away, you may find yourself with most of the parenting responsibilities.  You long for your children when they are with the other parent.   Your children may be missing one parent much of the time, especially initially. If you live near the other parent, your children’s needs, schedules and desires will be best served by flexibility on the part of both parents. There are so many ‘ifs’…   cooperative co-parenting is crucial!

One of the benefits of collaborative divorce is that stressful transitions can be eased.   The level of divorce related tension is largely determined by how you and your spouse/partner navigate the experience. When you work together, with dignity and respect, everyone feels more comfortable – family members, in-laws, other couples and friends in your sphere but, most important, your children. As you and your spouse/partner make decisions together, with the assistance of experienced and understanding professionals, in a safe environment, your joint efforts to put your children first will generate priceless rewards.

The child specialist is a licensed professional who has expertise in working with children, adolescents, adults, family systems and divorce. S/he is knowledgeable about the emotional and cognitive development of children and can provide answers to your questions and guidance, as needed. Child specialists are experienced in gathering information and sharing recommendations with parents that are specific to each child’s personality and needs. Having been trained in mediation and collaborative divorce, in addition to fulfilling the  requisites of their clinical professional licenses, they are well qualified to help you create a Parenting Plan, which covers all aspects of your children’s needs following the dissolution of a break-up or divorce.

The child specialist is a member of the collaborative divorce team who first meets with both parents to gather background information on the children’s personalities, predilections and possible problems.   He/she will want to know what the children already know about the divorce and how the parents have dealt with, or plan to deal with, the situation. S/he can advise you on how to tell the children about the change in your family and how to prepare them to meet with the child specialist.   Parents often seek guidance on the best way to inform their children, about separation, and/or divorce.   The child specialist’s role is to understand what is especially important and meaningful to each child and share that information with parents.   S/he educates parents about the impact of divorce and family transition on their particular children, given their ages, personalities and established relationships with each parent. Working with both parents, the child specialist tailors the Parenting Plan to each family’s specific needs. Cooperative co-parenting, at all times, is basic to insuring continuity, consistency and emotional security.

The children’s contact with the child specialist is often brief and focused. They are seen individually and/or together, as appropriate, in a gentle and friendly manner. They are helped to understand that they are their parents’ priority and their input is important to their parents although it is their parents’ responsibility to make decisions.  The child specialist can also be available, if child related issues arise, following divorce.

After working with parents and children during the collaborative divorce process, I have been so happy to hear more different comments from children:

“I got punished a lot so thought it was my fault that mommy and daddy were getting divorce. Now I know it wasn’t my fault, just something between them. I don’t know what – they said it was grown-up stuff”.

“They used to fight but now they talk more – even so, they still don’t want to live together.”

“They said Santa will know and come to both houses!”

“We’re still a family but don’t live together any more, that’s all.”

“ I think they are both happier and it’s easier ,“

Ah, music to my ears!

Kids and Divorce…They Are Never Too Old to Protect

For most couples seeking a divorce or a dissolution of their relationship, children are the primary concern and rightly so. We fall in love, partner or marry, expand the family and then, too often, problems develop and the end of a partnership or divorce follows. It is the choice of parents and the responsibility of parents to ‘protect’ all children from the fallout of the dissolution of a relationship or divorce and subsequent changes in their lives. As parents, you agonize over custody and parenting time, vacation and holiday schedules, camp, activities etc. Discussions and papers abound, in media, on how to plan for younger children and divorce but often fail to address the impact of divorce on older teen-agers, young adults and, even adult children with their own children. It’s so important for parents to be mindful of the needs, concerns and feelings of that population too. As long as we have parents, we are still children, no matter our age.

Teen-agers, especially those over sixteen, are often ambivalent about home. They have one foot out the door, preferring to be with peers, thinking about being more independent, their romances, learning to drive, contemplating or preparing for college or work and being away from home with no parent to tell them when to sleep, study or set curfews.  But home is also that safe place they have known for all of their years. Parents often complain about their teens’ thinking they know it all while still exhibiting childish behaviors. There can be a lot of testing limits.

Learning about parents separating and/or divorcing can shake teens’ emotional foundation [what they’ve always known or thought] and lead to feelings of loss of control. They have more opinions than younger children and may take to blaming one or both parents, especially if they think, or are told, that one parent caused the break-up.   They may feel that they have to be in charge, particularly with the parent they feel has been hurt and is not managing well.

It’s important to allow teens to express any of their feelings, including disappointment and anger. Keep the communication door wide open so they don’t resort to acting out their feelings, with alcohol, drugs, sex, dropping schoolwork and other self-destructive behaviors. Listening to their anger, etc. doesn’t mean that you don’t maintain many of your boundaries and restrictions because you feel guilty or bad for them. They need to understand that life does go on. Teens are especially vulnerable and being able to get away with anything can be just as unsettling as having too many limits.  Cooperative co-parenting is still so important.  When your children know that you keep each other in the loop, they are less likely to try to manipulate.  The royal “we” works beautifully. ” We’ll  speak and give you an answer.”

Many parents believe that their emancipated offspring are completely launched, often with families of their own and not affected by their parents’ marital dissolution. Wrong!  Once children leave the nest, they are still affected by the breakup of their family unit.  I have heard: “I’ve never seen a normal relationship,” “I’ll probably make the same mistake,” “I’ll need to take care of myself because now I don’t trust anyone ” and “Why are they doing this to us now?”   Older children worry about their parents, how they will  manage, financially, emotionally, etc., especially the parent who says they did not want the divorce.  Adult children feel they must be protective of that parent and angry with the other…another good reason for parents to be vague about such details.

Divorcing parents should protect all their children from ‘adult information’, even when those children are parents themselves. They deserve not be placed in the middle or be   a confidant to either parent. That’s what friends are for!  Adult children who become parental confidants are at risk of becoming less secure about the future of their own relationship or marriage. Also, they may need to deal with their children’s feelings and reactions to their grandparents coming apart, particularly if they are close to them and… their own children worrying if that will happen to them..

Adult children have to alter their ways maintaining contact with both parents, more so if parents no longer live near each other. How, if possible, to split or alternate holidays and other visits? Some families are still able to share holidays, grandchildren’s birthdays and graduations  together. Concerns can arise, with older parents. who are divorcing at increasing rates, about how to take care of them as they age and are living alone.  Adult children may also have reactions to a parent’s new love interest, especially if that is presented during or soon after a divorce.

When divorcing, be aware that your coupled or married children are still vulnerable. Here are some guidelines:

  • Agree with your partner/spouse to keep personal information confidential.
  • Tell your child[ren] calmly and peacefully, together, setting the tone for “We are coming apart but are not enemies”.
  • Never ask, or hint, that they should take sides.
  • Never speak negatively about their other parent or his/her new partner.
  • Have a good support system [friends, family] and let your child[ren] know that. Be accepting and flexible with their having to divide visits and holidays.
  • Reach out, when possible, to include the other parent in family celebrations, to demonstrate civility and respect so your children  don’t have to celebrate twice or miss one parent on special occasions.

It’s about ‘how you ‘do divorce that determines much of how your children, young, teen-age or adult children will fare. The work is not easy but the rewards are so well worth it!