When you hear the phrase “parental alienation,” you probably think of one parent refusing to allow the other parent to see the child, denying phone contact or telling the child negative things about the other parent. In reality, parental alienation can be much more subtle. Oftentimes parents unwittingly alienate their children from the other parent with the best of intentions. The purpose of this blog is to help you think like the courts so that you can avoid both putting your children in a hard spot and getting on the wrong side of the judge.
Example 1. Mother has refused to allow Father any contact with the children leading up to the Temporary Orders Hearing where Father finally is awarded some much overdue parenting time. Father is desperately worried that the children will think he has abandoned them because it’s been more than two months since he’s been allowed to see them.
What Father wants to say to the children: It wasn’t my fault that I haven’t gotten to see you.
What the court hears: It wasn’t my fault…it was Mother’s.
What Father should say instead: I’ve missed you so much and I’m so glad to see you. We’re going to have a great weekend.
We understand the desire to make sure your children know that you didn’t choose not to see them, but children are very black and white thinkers. If you introduce fault into the equation, they understand that someone is at fault. And if it’s not you, there’s only one other person to blame. It’s important that you understand that painting yourself as the “good guy” naturally implies that the other parent is the “bad guy.”
Example 2. Until the separation, Mother has never really been apart from the children. This is the first time in their lives that she doesn’t know what they’re doing during the day and she’s both curious and a little worried. When the children return from Father’s house, she wants to know what they did.
What Mother wants to say to the children: Tell me what you did at Father’s house.
What the court hears: Tell me what Father is doing so I can use it against him.
What Mother should say: I bet you had a good time with Father, tell me the best thing about your week.
The key is to ask about the positive. It’s perfectly natural to want to know what our children are doing when they’re not with us, but we don’t want to turn our children into investigators of the other parent or to give them the impression that we don’t trust the other parent. If you have safety concerns, bring them to your attorney and we will guide you on how to get to the bottom of the problem without putting your child in the middle.
Example 3. Father has temporarily been restricted to supervised parenting time only and is now having to go through CASA to see the children. He’s happy to see the children, but he and the children aren’t getting to do the typical kinds of things they do during the summer. Father wants the children to know that this is a temporary situation and they will be back to doing all the fun things they used to do.
What Father wants to say to the children: Pretty soon, you’ll get to come see me at my house and then we’ll get to go camping and play basketball again.
What the court hears: I’m making promises to you over things I don’t control. I’m giving you the expectation that you will be back at my house in a very short period of time and if it turns out to be months, then I’ve disappointed you. I’m setting you up to lose trust in me and to resent your Mother.
What Father should say: I’m really happy to see you! I know we can’t do the things we usually do, but I brought some other fun things for us to do together.
Children have a different definition of “soon” than adults do. When you tell a child, particularly a young child, something is going to happen soon, they anticipate that this can begin happening as early as tomorrow. Supervised parenting time can last for weeks or months. When you tell your child something will happen “soon” and it doesn’t happen within a matter of days, you create anxiety in your child which they then direct at the other parent. Rather than focus on the temporary nature of supervised parenting time, acknowledge your child’s disappointment in not getting to do the same sorts of activities they’re used to doing and quickly follow up with something positive.
Example 4. Father didn’t pay his child support. Again. Unfortunately this means that there’s no money for Boy Scout Camp. Again. Son is extremely disappointed and is expressing his feelings by blaming Mother. Mother genuinely can’t afford to send Son to camp when the child support doesn’t come in and doesn’t want Son to blame her for things she can’t control.
What Mother wants to say to the child: I can’t afford to pay for things like Boy Scout Camp unless I get child support.
What the Court hears: Father doesn’t love you enough to send you money. Hate him, not me.
What Mother should say: I’m sorry you’re disappointed, but we just can’t afford it.
Sometimes the other parent really does fall down on the job and it leaves you in a difficult position. It’s tough to bear the brunt of our children’s anger when it’s really not our fault. Kids may be disappointed when there isn’t enough money to do the things they really want to do, but kids are damaged when they think they’re not good enough for the other parent to love. As much as you may want to defend yourself, sometimes being a good parent means taking one for the team.