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Parent-Child Reunification After Alienation
Strategies to Reunite Alienated Parents and Their Children
Published on May 8, 2013 by Edward Kruk, Ph.D. in Co-Parenting After Divorce
Children and parents who have undergone forced separation from each other in the absence of abuse, including cases of parental alienation, are highly subject to post-traumatic stress, and reunification efforts in these cases should proceed carefully and with sensitivity. Alienated children seem to have a secret wish for someone to call their bluff, compelling them to reconnect with the parent they claim to hate; despite strongly held positions of alignment, alienated children want nothing more than to be given the permission and freedom to love and be loved by both parents (Baker, 2010). Yet the influence of the alienating parent is too strong to withstand, and children’s fear that the alienating parent may fall apart or withdraw his or her love holds them back. Research has shown that many alienated children can transform quickly from refusing or staunchly resisting the rejected parent to being able to show and receive love from that parent, followed by an equally swift shift back to the alienated position when back in the orbit of the alienating parent (Fidler and Bala, 2010). Thus while children’s stated wishes regarding parental residence and contact in contested custody after divorce should not be determinative in cases of parental alienation.
Reunification efforts subsequent
to prolonged absence should be undertaken with service providers with
specialized expertise in parental alienation reunification. A number
of models of intervention have been developed, the best-known being
Warshak’s (2010) Family Bridges Program, an educative and experiential
program focused on multiple goals: allowing the child to have a healthy
relationship with both parents, removing the child from the parental
conflict, and encouraging child autonomy, multiple perspective-taking,
and critical thinking. Sullivan’s Overcoming Barriers Family Camp
(Sullivan et al, 2010), which combines psycho-educational and clinical
intervention within an environment of milieu therapy, is aimed toward
the development of an agreement regarding the sharing of parenting time,
and a written aftercare plan. Friedlander and Walters’ (2010)
Multimodal Family Intervention provides differential interventions for
situations of parental alignment, alienation, enmeshment and estrangement.
All of these programs emphasize the clinical significance of children
coming to regard their parents as equally valued and important in their
lives, while at the same time helping enmeshed children relinquish their
protective role toward their alienating parents.
As Baker (2010) writes, alienated parents acutely feel the hostility and rejection of their children. These children seem cruel, heartless, and devaluing of their parents. Yet it is important to realize that from the child’s perspective, it is the targeted parent who has rejected them; they have been led to believe that the parent whom they are rejecting does not love them, is unsafe, and has abandoned them. Thus, the primary response of the alienated parent must always be one of loving compassion, emotional availability, and absolute safety. Patience and hope, unconditional love, being there for the child, is the best response that alienated parents can provide their children, even in the face of the sad truth that this may not be enough to bring back the child.
With alienating parents, it is important to emphasize that as responsible parenting involves respecting the other parent’s role in the child’s life, any form of denigration of a former partner and co-parent is harmful to children. Children’s connections to each parent must be fully respected, to ensure their well-being, as children instinctively know, at the core of their being, that they are half their mother and half their father. This is easier said than done, as alienating parents are themselves emotionally fragile, with a prodigious sense of entitlement and need to control (Richardson, 2006), and thus pose significant clinical challenges. Yet poisoned minds and instilled hatred toward a parent is a very serious form of abuse of children. When children grow up in an atmosphere of parental alienation, their primary role model is a maladaptive, dysfunctional parent. It is for this reason that many divorce specialists (e.g., Fidler and Bala, 2010) recommend custody reversal in such cases, or at least a period of separation between a child and an alienating parent during the reunification process with an alienated parent. I have come to believe, however, that the means of combating alienation should not themselves be alienating, and that a non-punitive approach is most effective, with co-parenting being the primary goal. Thus engaging and involving the alienating parent in reunification programs, whenever possible, is critical (Sullivan et al, 2010).
Finally, it is often quite difficult to discern who is the alienating and who is the targeted parent in alienation cases. Thus equal or shared parenting is clearly preferable to primary residence or sole custody orders in potential alienation cases, as courts are ill-equipped to assess the dynamics attendant to parental alienation, and co-parenting is preventive of alienation.
Baker, A. (2010). “Adult
recall of parental alienation in a community sample: Prevalence and
associations with psychological maltreatment.” Journal of Divorce
and Remarriage, 51, 16-35.