Families come in many shapes and forms and may often pass through trying times. However, when the relationship between the main caregivers of a child is damaged irrevocably, the dynamics of the family may become difficult to preserve.
It is not uncommon in such circumstances to observe children side with one parent or the other. Known as ‘parental alienation’, the term describes a situation where a child begins to display unwarranted fear or aggression towards a caregiver and may ultimately lead to the rejection of that parent. This occurs almost exclusively in cases where the parents of the child have separated.
The World Health Organisation recognised parental alienation as a “caregiver-child relationship problem” in June 2017, describing it as a “loss of love relationship in childhood” in its international classification of diseases.
While some researchers have explored the possibilities of parental alienation as a syndrome, others have erred on the side of tackling it as a relationship problem.
One might think that just like other relationship problems, it can be worked upon to be improved.
Charlie Azzopardi, a family therapist and systemic consultant at the Institute of Family Therapy, thinks that children’s behaviour must be understood within the context of their experiences.
“Psychologically children depend on their parents. Destroying one parent means destroying the child”
“While individual psychology may focus on the child’s internal psychological nuances and searches for a rational understanding of the phobia, we as family therapists understand that such behaviour is contextualised within the wider system, including the family and its situation,” Azzopardi says.
“At family therapy clinics like ours, children present with behavioural problems as well as physical problems, reflecting and representing the stress and distress children would be going through.”
There are many situations which may lead a child to express aggression towards a parent. In the case of marital separation, the scenario can be more complex and children can sometimes misinterpret actions which were well-intended.
“Children often express specific angry behaviour towards the parent who leaves home physically,” Azzopardi says. “They often interpret this as abandonment or attachment injury.”
A child may also show aggression towards the parent they deem to be the ‘safest’, that is, the parent they perceive to be ever constant and poses no risk of flight.
In other situations, the child may also respond to a parent’s inability to express anger towards their partner, which manifests in a depressive state. Some children interpret this as a symptom caused by a perceived aggression by the other parent, thus becoming angry at the non-depressed parent.
In parental alienation, some parents may fight in plain view of the child and divulge personal and inappropriate information about the relationship that a child only has a limited understanding of.
“In this way, the loud parent is projecting their anger on to the child and role-model a destructive way to express angst and worry, that is through violence,” Azzopardi explains.
What is most notable, however, are the long-term effects prolonged separation from a parent without valid justification may have on a child.
“Children who grow up away from one parent are marked,” Azzopardi notes.
“There are many tangible effects [of parental alienation], most of which are long term and expressed in eventual intimate relationships. The immediate effects can be distinct and physical, with boys externalising the concern, worry and anger though misbehavior and girls tending to internalise. Thus girls tend to manifest more somatisation and suffer more physically.”
He continues: “Growing up psychologically healthy involves learning from both parents and the alienation from one is like denying the child from important lessons, which are often gender-based, and relational lessons.
“Children learn from parents both as parents and as a couple. Therefore, they learn how to eventually be parents themselves and how to love someone else intimately and romantically. When one parent is missing, children are deprived from learning such important lessons.”
Advice for parents
Preventing a child from alienating one of their parents is fairly simple, according to Azzopardi.
Parents must learn to differentiate between their relationship with their partner and their child’s relationship with their other parent. Children will often internalise more than a parent might assume, but they lack the emotional maturity to understand in a nuanced way.
“Parents need to first understand that because they are hurt and feel destroyed. They don’t have the right to destroy the life of their children,” Azzopardi says.
“Secondly, they need to understand that children, to grow psychologically healthy, and I would say even physically healthy, need both parents. Psychologically children depend on their parents. Destroying one parent means destroying the child.
“Parents need to keep their children’s best interests at the forefront of their thinking and evaluate whatever they do through their children’s reaction to it”
“Parents need to keep their children’s best interests at the forefront of their thinking and evaluate whatever they do through their children’s reaction to it. In this way, parents will be truly be loving their children honestly and sincerely without incongruencies and paradoxes.”
Family therapy can serve as a good vehicle not only to mend relationships between parents, as well as parents and their children, but to also manage the family separation in a healthy way that minimises damage.
“There is this misunderstanding that family therapy is there to help you make up. But the reality is that family therapy is also there to help you break up,” Azzopardi remarks.
“Most importantly, family therapy is not there to judge who is to blame and is not interested in blaming parents or spouses and judging them. It is there to support people in their choices and in implementing them in the best possible way with the least damage possible.”