From the Coparenting Coach's Desk


High Conflict Coparents are quick to use the label "Parental Alienation" with fingers pointing at each other, and it is a controversial label. In part this is related to Dr. Richard Gardner's early attempts to create a diagnostic category of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). The attempt was well-intentioned and opened an area of discussion and inquiry that contributed significantly to awareness and understanding a critical dynamic in many Family Court cases. PAS itself was, not surprisingly, discredited. The reasons are complicated and varied, and relate directly to the extraordinary diversity of problematic family dynamics which present in families as they separate and then reconstitute in new formations.

Dr. Douglas Darnall, author of Divorce Casualties, further contributed to this important topic when he sought to differentiate PAS, the syndrome, from the alienating behaviors coparents use to diminish each others parental roles when caught in a struggle over custody of a child. His contribution was essential to ensuring that the dynamic itself did not disappear from our conversations with mothers, fathers, and other adults in care-providing roles with a child learning to live between 2 homes.

Dr. Richard A. Warshak, author of Divorce Poison, has also made significant contributions to our exploration of those parental behaviors designed to turn a child against his or her parent. His book is an excellent resource for parents who have been designated by the court system as "High-Conflict" as they try to understand how their own behavior may contribute to the stress on the children.

Dr. Craig Childress, author of Foundations, has integrated attachment theory, mental health diagnosis, and parental alienation into a comprehensive approach to some of the most challenging and protracted family breakup dysfunctions. 

While there is still no consensus on the label of "Parental Alienation," most mental health professionals with forensic experience know that many parents compete fiercely for the love and favor of their children during difficult family transitions rather than working to shield their children from the stress and strain of the adult traumas. This fear-and-anger fueled competition leads to behaviors which hurt the children and interfere with parent-child bonds, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. Few parents set out with the goal of hurting their own children as they work so hard to carve out a significant place in their child's life. Unfortunately some parents do it intentionally, convinced that the other parent is evil, bad, unforgivable, irredeemable, and disposable.

Parental behaviors which alienate the child from the other parent and, ultimately, from him or herself, sometimes occur out of a sense of desperation, powerlessness, or hopelessness.  Sometimes the behaviors occur out of a hate-fueled desire to injure the other parent beyond repair;  to disable, to disempower, to diminish their ability to parent. No parent knows how he or she might respond if the vital role of Mom or Dad is threatened in a profound and lasting way. Parents in that position are often quick to explain that they would never say anything bad about the other parent to their son or daughter. These parents don't realize that words are not required. The negativity toward the other parent is usually felt so deeply by the child that no words are necessary. The child knows that the other parent is hated.

Losing time with and the opportunity to care for a child is painful for a parent. Losing a sense of safety and security in the world is terrifying for a child. The child's need for reassurance must trump the parent's need for self-worth if that parental sense of integrity comes at the expense of the child's innocence and trust in those who are supposed to ensure it. If you are struggling with your own sense of competence and worth as you make difficult family transitions, reach out for help. There are coparenting classes, support groups, and affordable therapeutic services for families in transition. You do not have to do it alone.

San Diego's Transitions Family Program at Hannah's House provides these support services and more. Conjoint therapy between parent and child, especially when ordered at the first sign of High Conflict Coparenting, can make all the difference in the preservation of a child's resilience, happiness, and well-being. Email today