The behaviour of some parents can be appalling as their anger and hurt towards each other is directed via their children. Family is a stressful branch of the law. You rarely deal with happy people not to mention deflecting extremely angry or distraught clients who do not wish to listen to advice.
Amongst the worst situations is what is known as Parental Alienation syndrome (PA). One particular case led me to become so stressed and upset that I had to take a career break to recover from it!
This syndrome manifests itself in lesser degrees quite often where there is hostility between parents, but can become quite horrific. It is the process, and the result, of extreme psychological manipulation of children into showing fear, disrespect or hostility towards one parent by the other.
“Hatred is not an emotion that comes naturally to a child. It has to be taught. A parent who would teach a child to hate or fear the other parent represents a grave and persistent damage to the mental and emotional health of a child”. (Edward Kirk PhD – The Impact of PA on Children. Psychology Today 2011). It occurs when a parent particularly wants to exclude the other and the resultant psychological issues can last throughout life, encompassing both physical and mental illness.
Early symptoms in children typically displays as grandiosity, entitlement, lack of empathy, arrogance and delusional beliefs about one parent being inadequate, abusive or both.
Very often, the alienating parent also shows Narcissistic behaviour and elements of Munchhausen’s Syndrome or Munchhausen’s by Proxy (imagined illness of themselves or others). They will validate even minor complaints about the absent parent, let the child absorb lies and exaggerations that have been put in the mix and lead the child or children to reject that parent as being inadequate. The grief felt at the loss of a parent through separation also leads them to regard the rejected parent as abusive.
The parent with PA has a need to make the ex-partner also become the ex-parent. They will alienate the child even further against the parent by frustrating contact, even when ordered by the court, by failing to facilitate telephone or visiting contact, to pass on letters, even failing to attend court hearings to determine the best possible outcome for the child’s interests, with an endless onslaught of excuses. The child then becomes even more distant from the missing parent and, because of the way they have been “led”, will reject them.
This is truly difficult for a solicitor to deal with and to advise on from either angle. My belief is that the courts should stamp down on such behaviour from the PA parent, but also it needs to ensure support and help to all concerned. Structured intervention can often be far more effective than counselling.
I do know of one such case – not my own -, where the mother displays all the varying elements. She has damaged her children irreparably not just through PA, but also the endless and often painful medical tests to which she subjects them because of the Munchausen’s by Proxy tendencies and her endless quests for diagnoses of some dire complaints, as well as her narcissistic behaviour which wishes to exercise complete control, by seeking to ensure that the father does indeed become an “ex-parent”. It is a tragedy for these children and their father. Interestingly, her eldest child has now rejected her. It is vital in a separation that children continue to feel valued and loved by both parents. Such extreme behaviour is a much exaggerated version of what many parents subject their children to in the circumstances of a family break-up. But, this is how bad it can get.
If you ever find that you are no longer able to co-parent – think on and think hard. Try to cling on to some awareness of the sensibilities of all concerned. Your own bitterness, hurt and disappointment can colour events. Our children are entitled to our love and protection.
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