In any child’s eyes, parental alienation is the encouraged estrangement that manifests itself as fear, disrespect or outright hostility and rejection towards one parent and their family. This does not only happen when the parenting couple reach the point of separation. It can even have active roots within the familial context while the couple still live under the same roof.
Every member of the family can contribute to this hardship and, consequently, cause more upset and distress to everyone involved. There’s no need to say that the ones who suffer the most are the children, as they are robbed of their childhood.
When children are not given a safe space within which to express their positive emotions towards the alienated parent, they are put in an untenable situation to lie in their attempt to avoid negative repercussions. This is a highly inappropriate burden of responsibility to place on any child. All too often, children are engaged by the parents to act as messengers or spies, and this gives rise to emotional chaos and a conflict of loyalties.
In their attempt to understand their world, children may start developing a low tolerance of anger or hostility. Children who experience parental alienation erroneously perceive conflicts as abuse, and the concept that experiences and relationships are either good or bad, black or white.
Grooming towards rejecting a parent can often lead to long-lasting severe pathological behaviours or attitudes. Many may resort to breaking off all communication with any person who presents a threat to their way of being or thinking. This can make it difficult for them to accept differences of any kind, and can create confusion, uncertainty and debilitating feelings of guilt in the child because of their own sense of helplessness.
All this makes it easier for children to reject others, rather than practise flexibility, acceptance and forgiveness. If the effects of this emotional upheaval are not properly addressed and processed in a good time, children may end up suffering the negative consequences for the rest of their life.
One must keep in mind that parental alienation takes place in an atmosphere of misinformation and manipulation; a very destructive ambience for children. It is every parent’s and guardian’s duty to practise active empathic listening and absent judgement or criticism.
“In their attempt to understand their world, children may start developing a low tolerance of anger or hostility”
Children have a need to express themselves freely, to be given the space and time to process thoughts and feelings without fear of blame or pressure of repercussions.
It is crucially important for parents to create a space where their children can safely reflect and share their experiences. Having fun playing games together is an essential part of healthy parenting, and it is a wonderful opportunity for children to voice their innermost thoughts, and to share their hidden emotions and unprocessed traumas. Such a playful, informal atmosphere offers children a calm and safe place to speak up so that they can start to come to terms with the situation, and start the process of healing.
Evenings are a good time for this. As children are winding down for bed, an opportunity for a bonding time is created. This must not be used for quizzing children about what is going on in the other parent’s life, but to allow them to freely confide when they are ready to talk. Comfort and reassurance are provided as parents respond with empathy and love, absent negativity and judgement.
If children express anger, parents should continue to support them with compassion. Children too need to vent their frustrations and let off steam. Parents must keep up this level of support, regardless of how long it takes, providing children unconditional love throughout. This is certainly not an easy task, but hard doesn’t mean impossible either. Our children’s well-being is more than worth the effort.
William Hayman is a counsellor and vice-president of MACP, the Malta Association for the Counselling Profession.
If you’re interested in learning more about the counselling profession or would like additional information on mental health and self-care, visit www.macpmalta.org, www.facebook.com/CounsellingMaltaMACP or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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