Separations and parental alienation

Separation can be a traumatic experience with long-term consequences for children, especially when a parent is blocked from a child’s life without a justifiable reason.
Arguments in the presence of children can lead to them thinking that they are at fault for their parents’ altercations and subsequent separation. Photo: Shutterstock.com

The separation process is often a very stressful period not only for the couple who are separating but also for their loved ones, especially the children.

Experiencing the separation of your parents and realising that two essential people in your life do not wish to continue sharing their lives together can be a strenuous experience for any mature adult; let alone for a young child, when parents are the essence of life. This is further amplified if parents involve the children in their conflicts and use them as pawns in their incessant separation battles. 
The unsettling change of waking up every morning to not having both parents present at home is a drastic change for any minor. For various reasons, the child might also have had to depart the matrimonial home, meaning not only does the child need to endure the loss of having both parents present at the same time, but also the loss of their home, bedroom and maybe also personal belongings. It is possible that because of this change, they may have to switch schools and may thus have to part with their friends.
When a couple who are going through the process of separation are hurt, resentful and angry towards each other, there are situations where these impassioned emotions impede them from recognising that their own behaviour in relation to the other parent can cause emotional damage to their children.

Arguments in the presence of children, especially concerning the same children, can lead to them thinking that they are at fault for their parents’ altercations and subsequent separation. They can also experience insecurities and question whether their parents’ love for them can ever diminish, just like their parents’ love for each other did.

What is parental alienation?

Parental alienation occurs when a child begins to disassociate and distance themselves from one of the parents and begins to refuse to have contact with the same parent. This happens due to influence coming either from the other parent or from any other person close to the child. This process can even start before the separation.

Consequentially, the child begins to believe that the parent does not love them, or is a terrible person, or deserted them to build another family or may even believe that this parent had abused them when this would not be the case.
It is essential to bear in mind that not every child who refuses a relationship with a parent is alienated from that parent. It is possible that the minor has a valid reason why they refuse contact, possibly because of abuse, fear or neglect. If the parent was never present in the child’s life before the separation, one cannot expect that suddenly the child will seek the presence of this parent. However, if the child had a positive, healthy relationship with the parent before the separation, and if there was no form of abuse, there may be parental alienation.

“Through alienating a parent from children’s lives, we are robbing them of half their lives”

Not every parent who tries to alienate their children from the other parent succeeds. This is because the relationship between the child and the other parent would be strong and hence the child may block the alienating behaviour. This alienating behaviour can also happen non-verbally and unconsciously, but it is still influential and possibly damaging to children. Eventually this can also lead to parental alienation.

Blocking a parent from a child’s life without a justifiable reason is not only cruel but also abusive. Through alienating a parent from children’s lives, we are robbing them of half their lives. We are robbing them of the right to build memories and experiences with both parents. We are robbing them of half their history. We are robbing them of enjoying their childhood.  We are robbing them of their identity.
Research shows that children flourish when both parents are involved in their lives. The absence of a parent from a child’s life is traumatic and may lead to serious consequences in adulthood.

Having a ‘bad parent’ may lead the child to question whether they have inherited the genes and are hence also ‘bad’, resulting in losing their self-worth, self-confidence and self-esteem. Believing that a parent does not love them or that he has abandoned them to build another family is also an impeding factor on any child’s self-worth and consequent esteem.

Alienated children are not only missing the fundamental right to enjoy and build memories with both parents but often experience challenges in building and maintaining relationships in adulthood. Subsequently, parental alienation can lead to depression and substance abuse.

The loss of a relationship, like every other loss, paves the way for a bereavement process which everyone experiences differently. These emotions can vary from positive emotions such as relief and joy; to more negative emotions such as anxiety, fear, despair and even extensive resentment.

 It is essential that throughout this arduous process, parents are aware of their emotions and are cautious to not burden their children with these emotions. It is hence encouraged that couples who are pondering the likelihood of separation seek help and support expeditiously; ideally even before embarking on the separation process.
For the past several years, the Court Services Unit within the Directorate for Child Protection has been providing a service to the Family Court through assessments and monitoring of high conflict separation cases. The unit offers individual services targeted to families; in addition to group work and training sessions focusing on acquiring and polishing parenting skills during and after separation. The aim is to support parents to separate amicably and hence ensuring the best interest of the children is pivotal.

For more articles on the subject, read ‘Parental alienation: a child’s interpretation‘. For more Child stories, click here.

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