Parental Alienation in Modern-Day Divorce

Parental alienation is a controversial diagnosis but a common concern in modern-day divorce. Psychology and legal professions disagree on using the term Parental Alienation. Still, both fields recognize the harm that parents can do to one another and their children in a high-conflict divorce.

What is parental alienation, and why is it so controversial? According to Wikipedia, parental alienation “describes a process through which a child becomes estranged from a parent due to the psychological manipulation of another parent. The child’s estrangement may manifest itself as fear, disrespect, or hostility toward the distant parent and may extend to additional relatives or parties.”

The controversy involves whether this action is a form of child abuse, family violence, or a criminal act. It should not be used as a formal diagnosis and may not be allowable in a legal court battle. However, it is useful to know the behavioral characteristics of a parent or child to navigate this painful reality of modern-day divorce.

“The theory of parental alienation has been asserted within legal proceedings as a basis for awarding custody to a parent who alleges estrangement, or to modify custody in favor of that parent. Courts have generally rejected parental alienation as a valid scientific theory. Still, some courts have allowed the concept to be argued as relevant to determining the child’s best interest when making a custody determination. Legal professionals recognize that alienating behaviors are common in child custody cases, but are cautious about accepting the concept of parental alienation.” (Wikipedia)

Parental alienation places the child in a “loyalty bind” where they must choose between parents. To resolve this inner conflict, they will start to prefer one parent over the other. They may refuse to go with the non-preferred parents when it is their time for custody, and they may make false claims or accusations against the non-preferred parent.

One reason for alienation and loyalty binds is to view what is in the “best interest” from a legal vs. a psychological perspective. From a legal view, child custody is determined by “who the child belongs to” vs. a psychological view of “who belongs to the child.”

This is not merely semantics. Many people could belong to the child’s emotional security. The legal viewpoint is rigid and creates one winner and multiple losers in the custody situation.

In high-conflict divorce situations where alienation may occur, all family members can engage professional support and guidance. Family therapists and mediators can be essential to reduce estrangement and manipulation and set a straightforward course of behaviors to prevent harm to children and their parents.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parental_alienation#:~:text=Parental%20alienation%20describes%20a%20process,to%20additional%20relatives%20or%20parties.

Tips for Divorced Parents: Co-parenting with Your Ex and Making Joint Custody Work

Co-parenting after a separation or divorce

Joint custody arrangements, especially after an acrimonious split, can be exhausting and infuriating. It can be extremely difficult to get past the painful history you may have with your ex and overcome any built-up resentment. Making shared decisions, interacting with each another at drop-offs, or just speaking to a person you’d rather forget all about can seem like impossible tasks. But while it’s true that co-parenting isn’t an easy solution, it is the best way to ensure your children’s needs are met and they are able to retain close relationships with both parents.

It may be helpful to start thinking of your relationship with your ex as a completely new one—one that is entirely about the well-being of your children, and not about either of you. Your marriage may be over, but your family is not; doing what is best for your kids is your most important priority. The first step to being a mature, responsible co-parent is to always put your children’s needs ahead of your own. 

Co-parenting is the best option for your children

Through your parenting partnership, your kids should recognize that they are more important than the conflict that ended the marriage—and understand that your love for them will prevail despite changing circumstances. Kids whose divorced parents have a cooperative relationship:

  • Feel secure. When confident of the love of both parents, kids adjust more quickly and easily to divorce and have better self-esteem.
  • Benefit from consistency. Co-parenting fosters similar rules, discipline, and rewards between households, so children know what to expect, and what’s expected of them.
  • Better understand problem solving. Children who see their parents continuing to work together are more likely to learn how to effectively and peacefully solve problems themselves.
  • Have a healthy example to follow. By cooperating with the other parent, you are establishing a life pattern your children can carry into the future.

Co-parenting tips for divorced parents: Setting hurt and anger aside

Need More Help with Divorce?
Helpguide’s Bring Your Life into Balance mindfulness toolkit can help.

The key to co-parenting is to focus on your children—and your children only. Yes, this can be very difficult. It means that your own emotions—any anger, resentment, or hurt—must take a back seat to the needs of your children. Admittedly, setting aside such strong feelings may be the hardest part of learning to work cooperatively with your ex, but it’s also perhaps the most vital. Co-parenting is not about your feelings, or those of your ex-spouse, but rather about your child’s happiness, stability, and future well-being.

Separating feelings from behavior

It’s okay to be hurt and angry, but your feelings don’t have to dictate your behavior. Instead, let what’s best for your kids—you working cooperatively with the other parent—motivate your actions.

  • Get your feelings out somewhere else. Never vent to your child. Friends, therapists, or even a loving pet can all make good listeners when you need to get negative feelings off your chest. Exercise can also be a healthy outlet for letting off steam.
  • Stay kid-focused. If you feel angry or resentful, try to remember why you need to act with purpose and grace: your child’s best interests are at stake. If your anger feels overwhelming, looking at a photograph of your child may help you calm down.
  • Use your body. Consciously putting your shoulders down, breathing evenly and deeply, and standing erect can keep you distracted from your anger, and can have a relaxing effect.

Children in the middle

You may never completely lose all of your resentment or bitterness about your break up, but what you can do is compartmentalize those feelings and remind yourself that they are your issues, not your child’s. Resolve to keep your issues with your ex away from your children.

  • Never use kids as messengers. When you have your child tell the other parent something for you, it puts him or her in the center of your conflict. The goal is to keep your child out of your relationship issues, so call or email your ex yourself.
  • Keep your issues to yourself. Never say negative things about your ex to your children, or make them feel like they have to choose. Your child has a right to a relationship with his or her other parent that is free of your influence.

Co-parenting tips for divorced parents: Communicating with your ex

Relieving stress in the moment—no matter who you’re dealing with

It may seem impossible to stay calm when dealing with a difficult ex-spouse who’s hurt you in the past or has a real knack for pushing your buttons. But by practicing quick stress relief techniques, you can learn to stay in control when the pressure builds.

Peaceful, consistent, and purposeful communication with your ex is essential to the success of co-parenting—even though it may seem absolutely impossible. It all begins with your mindset. Think about communication with your ex as having the highest purpose: your child’s well-being. Before contact with your ex, ask yourself how your talk will affect your child, and resolve to conduct yourself with dignity. Make your child the focal point of every discussion you have with your ex-partner.

Communication with your ex is likely to be a tough task. Remember that it isn’t always necessary to meet your ex in person—speaking over the phone or exchanging texts or emails is fine for the majority of conversations. The goal is to establish conflict-free communication, so see which type of contact works best for you. Whether talking via email, phone, or in person, the following methods can help you initiate and maintain effective communication:

  • Set a business-like tone. Approach the relationship with your ex as a business partnership where your “business” is your children’s well-being. Speak or write to your ex as you would a colleague—with cordiality, respect, and neutrality. Relax and talk slowly.
  • Make requests. Instead of making statements, which can be misinterpreted as demands, try framing as much as you can as requests. Requests can begin “Would you be willing to…?” or “Can we try…?”
  • Listen. Communicating with maturity starts with listening. Even if you end up disagreeing with the other parent, you should at least be able to convey to your ex that you’ve understood his or her point of view. And listening does not signify approval, so you won’t lose anything by allowing your ex to voice his or her opinions.
  • Show restraint. Keep in mind that communicating with one another is going to be necessary for the length of your children’s entire childhood—if not longer. You can train yourself to not overreact to your ex, and over time you can become numb to the buttons he or she tries to push.
  • Commit to meeting/talking consistently. Frequent communication with your ex will convey the message to your children that you and their other parent are a united front. This may be extremely difficult in the early stages of your divorce or separation.
  • Keep conversations kid-focused. You can control the content of your communication. Never let a discussion with your ex-partner digress into a conversation about your needs or his/her needs; it should always be about your child’s needs only.

Improving the relationship with your ex

If you are truly ready to rebuild trust after a separation or divorce, be sincere about your efforts. Remember your children’s best interests as you move forward to improve your relationship.

  • Ask his or her opinion. This fairly simple technique can effectively jump-start positive communications between you and your ex. Take an issue that you don’t feel strongly about, and ask for your ex’s input, showing that you value his or her input.
  • Apologize. When you’re sorry about something, take the time to apologize sincerely—even if the incident happened a long time ago. Apologizing can be very powerful in moving your relationship away from being adversaries.
  • Chill out. If a special outing with your ex is going to cut into your time with your child by an hour, graciously let it be. Remember that it’s all about what is best for your child; plus, when you show flexibility, your ex is more likely to be flexible with you.

Co-parenting tips for divorced parents: Parenting as a team

Parenting is full of decisions you’ll have to make with your ex, whether you like each another or not. Cooperating and communicating without blow-ups or bickering makes decision-making far easier on everybody. If you shoot for consistency, geniality, and teamwork with your ex, the details of child-rearing decisions tend to fall into place.

Aim for consistency

It’s healthy for children to be exposed to different perspectives and to learn to be flexible, but they also need to know they’re living under the same basic set of expectations at each home. Aiming for consistency between your home and your ex’s avoids confusion for your children.

  • Rules. Rules don’t have to be exactly the same between two households, but if you and your ex-spouse establish generally consistent guidelines, your kids won’t have to bounce back and forth between two radically different disciplinary environments. Important lifestyle rules like homework issues, curfews, and off-limit activities should be followed in both households.
  • Discipline. Try to follow similar systems of consequences for broken rules, even if the infraction didn’t happen under your roof. So, if your kids have lost TV privileges while at your ex’s house, follow through with the restriction. The same can be done for rewarding good behavior.
  • Schedule. Where you can, aim for some consistency in your children’s schedules. Making meals, homework, and bedtimes similar can go a long way toward your child’s adjustment to having two homes.

Important issues

Major decisions need to be made by both you and your ex. Being open, honest, and straightforward about important issues is crucial to both your relationship with your ex and your children’s well-being.

  • Medical needs. Effective co-parenting can help parents focus on the best medical care for the child, and can help reduce anxiety for everyone. Whether you decide to designate one parent to communicate primarily with health care professionals or attend medical appointments together, keep one another in the loop.
  • Education. School plays a major role in maintaining a stable environment for your kids, so be sure to let them know about changes in your child’s living situation. Speak with your ex ahead of time about class schedules, extra-curricular activities, and parent-teacher conferences, and be polite to him or her at school or sports events.
  • Financial issues. The cost of maintaining two separate households can strain your attempts to be effective co-parents. Set a realistic budget and keep accurate records for shared expenses. Be gracious if your ex provides opportunities for your children that you cannot provide.

Disagreements

As you co-parent, you and your ex are bound to disagree over certain issues. Keep the following in mind as you try to come to consensus with your ex.

  • Respect can go a long way. Simple manners are often neglected between co-parents, even though they should be the foundation for co-parenting. Being considerate and respectful includes letting your ex know about school events, being flexible about your schedule when possible, and taking his or her opinion seriously.
  • Keep talking. It might sound tedious, but if you disagree about something important, you will need to continue to communicate about the topic. Never discuss your differences of opinions with or in front of your child. If you still can’t agree, you may need to talk to a third party, like a therapist or mediator.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. If you disagree about important issues like a medical surgery or choice of school for your child, by all means keep the discussion going. But if you want your child in bed by 7:30 and your ex says 8:00, try to let it go and save your energy for the bigger issues.
  • Compromise. Yes, you will need to come around to your ex spouse’s point of view as often as he or she comes around to yours. It may not always be your first choice, but compromise allows you both to “win” and makes both of you more likely to be flexible in the future.

Co-parenting tips for divorced parents: Making transitions easier

The actual move from one household to another, whether it happens every few days or just on weekends, can be a very hard time for children. Transitions represent a major change in your children’s reality. Every reunion with one parent is also a separation with the other; each “hello” is also a “goodbye.” In joint custody arrangements, transition time is inevitable, but there are many things you can do to help make exchanges and transitions easier, both when your children leave and return.

When your child leaves

As kids prepare to leave your house for your ex’s, try to stay positive and deliver them on time. You can use the following strategies to help make transitions easier:

  • Help children anticipate change. Remind kids they’ll be leaving for the other parent’s house a day or two before the visit.
  • Pack in advance. Depending on their age, help children pack their bags well before they leave so that they don’t forget anything they’ll miss. Encourage packing familiar reminders like a special stuffed toy or photograph.
  • Always drop off—never pick up the child on “switch day.” It’s a good idea to avoid “taking” your child from the other parent so that you don’t risk interrupting or curtailing a special moment. Drop off your child at the other parent’s house instead.

When your child returns

The beginning of your children’s return to your home can be awkward or even rocky. You can try the following to help your child adjust:

  • Keep things low-key. When children first enter your home, try to have some down time together—read a book or do some other quiet activity.
  • Double up. To make packing simpler and make kids feel more comfortable when they are at the other parent’s house, have kids keep certain basics—toothbrush, hairbrush, pajamas—at both houses.
  • Allow the child space. Children often need a little time to adjust to the transition. If they seem to need some space, do something else nearby. In time, things will get back to normal.
  • Establish a special routine. Play a game or serve the same special meal each time your child returns. Kids thrive on routine—if they know exactly what to expect when they return to you it can help the transition.

Dealing with visitation refusal

Sometimes kids refuse to leave one parent to be with the other. Although this can be a difficult situation, it is also common for children in joint custody.

  • Find the cause. The problem may be one that is easy to resolve, like paying more attention to your child, making a change in discipline style, or having more toys or other entertainment. Or it may be that an emotional reason is at hand, such as conflict or misunderstanding. Talk to your child about his or her refusal.
  • Go with the flow. Whether you have detected the reason for the refusal or not, try to give your child the space and time that he or she obviously needs. It may have nothing to do with you at all. And take heart: most cases of visitation refusal are temporary.
  • Talk to your ex. A heart-to-heart with your ex about the refusal may be challenging and emotional, but can help you figure out what the problem is. Try to be sensitive and understanding to your ex as you discuss this touchy subject.

What to Do When Co-Parenting Doesn’t Work

In a good-enough divorce, exes work through feelings of anger, betrayal and loss and arrive at a place of acceptance. Frustrations over the other parent’s values and choices are contained and pushed aside, making space for the Holy Grail of post-divorce life: effective co-parenting.

Co-parenting is possible only when both exes support their children’s need to have a relationship with the other parent and respect that parent’s right to have a healthy relationship with the children.

But some people never get to acceptance. They become, essentially, addicted to anger. They convince themselves that the other parent is incompetent, mentally ill, or dangerous. They transmit this conviction directly or indirectly not only to the children, but also to school staff, mental health professionals and anyone who will listen.

High-conflict exes are on a mission to invalidate the other parent. No therapist, mediator, parenting class, or Gandhi-esque channeling will make an anger-addicted ex take off the gloves and agree to co-parent.

If this scenario feels familiar, and you are wondering how you’re going to survive raising kids with your high-conflict ex without losing every last one of your marbles, I offer you this counterintuitive suggestion: Stop trying to co-parent!

Try Parallel Parenting instead.

What is Parallel Parenting?

Parallel Parenting is radical acceptance. It means letting go of fighting reality. Divorce is terrible enough, but to have a divorce that is so hellish as to make co-parenting impossible is another kind of terrible altogether.

It’s helpful to conceptualize Parallel Parenting as an approach many Alcoholics Anonymous folks use when dealing with the addict in their lives: they stop going to the hardware store looking for milk. Why are you trying to have a reasonable conversation with someone who isn’t reasonable, at least with you? Stop expecting reciprocity or enlightenment. Stop needing the other person to see you as right. You are not ever going to get these things from your anger-addicted ex, and you can make yourself sick trying.

How to Practice Parallel Parenting

You tried to co-parent so your kids would see their parents get along, and to make them feel safe. That didn’t work. Now you need to limit contact with your ex to reduce the conflict in order to make your kids feel safe – and to keep yourself from going nuts. So how do you do this?

1. Communicate as little as possible
Stop talking on the phone. When speaking with a hostile ex, you will likely be drawn into an argument and nothing will get resolved. Limit communication to texting and e-mail. This way you can choose what to respond to and you will be able to delete knee-jerk retorts that you would make if you were on the phone.

2. Make Rules for Communication
Hostile exes tend to ignore boundaries. So you will have to be very clear about the terms for communication. E-mail or texting should be used only for logistics: travel plans, a proposed weekend swap, doctor appointments. If your ex tends uses e-mails to harass you, tell him you will not respond, and if the abuse continues, you will stop e-mailing altogether.

3. Do Not Respond to Threats of Lawsuits
Hostile exes frequently threaten to modify child support or custody arrangements. Do not respond! Tell your ex that any discussion of litigation must go through your attorney. This will require money on your ex’s part: phone calls between attorneys, disclosing financial statements, etc. It is quite possible that your ex does not really intend to put her money where her mouth is, so don’t take the bait.

4. Avoid being together at child-related functions
It’s great for your kids to see the two of you together – but only if they see you getting along. So attend events separately as much as possible. Schedule separate parent-teacher conferences. Trade off hosting birthday parties. Do curbside drop-offs so your child doesn’t have to feel the tension between you and your ex.

5. Be proactive with school staff and mental health professionals
School staff and therapists may have heard things about you that aren’t true – for instance, that you are out of the picture or mentally ill. So be proactive. Fax your custody order to these individuals so they understand the custody arrangement. Even if you are a non-custodial parent, you are still entitled to information regarding your child’s academic performance or mental health treatment and the school and therapists want you to be involved. Talk to school staff and therapists as soon as possible. Do not be defensive, but explain the situation. When they see you, they will realize that you are a reasonable person who is trying to do the right thing for your child.

6. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Parallel Parenting requires letting go of what happens in the other parent’s home. Although it may drive you crazy that your ex lets 6-year-old Lucy stay up until midnight, there is really not much you can do about it. Nor can you control your ex’s selection of babysitters, children’s clothing or how much TV time is allowed.

Your child will learn to adapt to different rules and expectations at each house. If Sienna complains about something that goes on at Dad’s, instruct her to speak to him directly. Trying to solve a problem between your ex and your child will only inflame the conflict and teach her to pit the two of you against each other. You want to empower your child, not teach her that she needs to be rescued.

Parallel Parenting is a last resort, to be implemented when attempts at co-parenting have failed. But that doesn’t mean you have failed as a divorced parent. In fact, the opposite is true. By reducing conflict, Parallel Parenting will enhance the quality of your life and most importantly, take your child out of the middle.

And isn’t that what a good-enough divorce is all about?

Children and Grief

Grieving the loss of a loved one is difficult, especially for a child.  When a child loses a loved one to death or incarceration, the loss can have a profound effect on the rest of his or her life.

Emotional, psychological and physical trauma that often come with loss challenge children’s well-being and school performance.  Grieving children are likely to feel different, and very alone.

While concealing deep emotional   pain, fear and loss of concentration,   children are in the pressure cooker   of  expectations to grow emotionally   and academically. They say that   seeing friends with parents and   parent/child school activities are daily reminders of their own loss.

Children express grief in a different way than adults.  They tend to move in and out of intense feelings, rather than sustaining high levels of one emotion for long periods of time.  When adults see a grieving child playing or laughing, they may mistakenly believe that the child is “over it”.  This perception may influence how much grief support a child receives.

In the United States, approximately 4.8 million children under 18 are grieving the death loss of a parent.

1.5 million children in the US are grieving the loss of a parent to incarceration, sometimes for the duration of their childhood.


Community awareness and support help children heal from loss and excel in life.

Start a Support Group

The loss of a loved one is a universal human experience. How thoughts and feelings about the loss are expressed vary by culture. We encourage you to adapt information in this site to what fits for your beliefs and customs.

Ron Huxley Resources: I am preparing for some presentations to professionals who work with adoptive families and reminded about one of the most basic of all clinical tools: grief work. One of the most common assumptions is that children grieve in the same was as adults and therefore, the same tools work for them that work for big people. Each intervention should have individualized criteria built into them. Do you know of a child that has suffered a loss? What worked for them to help them cope and heal? Share with us on our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/parentingtoolbox or leave a comment below.

Helping children of divorce transition between homes

When parents are going through a divorce things can get heated very easily. The simplest things can become very complex when parents disagree on issues. Often the only recourse is to get a legal agreement that spells out how custody is shared. This will involve a mediator, frequently appointed by the courts, if parents can’t work it out between them. Parents often ask me how to help their children adjust to the transition between two homes. This is a difficult answer to give as circumstances vary depending on the age of the child, distance between homes, parents work schedules, living arrangements and special needs of the child. Here are some general ideas, gathered about the net, that might prove helpful.

My best advice is that parents keep the child in mind first and foremost. What is in the best interest of the child?

Emotional Preparations for Transitions:

• Hold young children and give them physical comfort, hugs and reassurance. Most young children naturally seek the comfort that comes from being held or hugged. Give children extra hugs, smiles and hand-holding. Set aside time to sit together, put your arm around them or hold them and talk about their feelings.

• Give verbal reassurance to young children. Tell them often that you love them, that everything will work out and that you will not leave. Also, listen and allow them to share thoughts or feelings and help them realize that feeling scared or upset is OK and can be worked out.

• Provide children with security through maintaining some consistent routines that are familiar to them (build on existing routines or establish new ones). This might mean consistent routines at lunch time, during an exchange or at bedtime. It might involve reading stories each night (whether with either parent), playing a game or having the same child-care provider. Keep a child’s routines as similar as possible, which helps build security.

• Discuss upcoming changes or schedules before they occur and show young children in concrete ways what will happen. Make a calendar with X’s on days with mom and O’s on days with dad so they can see what will happen, or do a paper chain to show how many days until they see the other parent. Young children struggle more if they are uncertain of what will happen next.

• Read books or watch shows that involve dealing with divorce or related issues together. Buy, check out or borrow books or movies that show children or families dealing with divorce and its effects (make sure they are age appropriate). Ask children what they think about the story or characters and how they respond. Compare your own situation.

• Give young children tangible items to provide them security. Let them have a picture of the other parent in their bedroom, a stuffed animal they take with them between locations or other concrete items that help them. Young children need to have things of their own that they do not “lose” every time they go with another parent.

Parenting Guidelines:

Don’t talk down about the child’s other parent, no matter how frustrated or angry you become. Talking down about a child’s parent is like talking down about part of your own child. Establish a special routine during transition periods. Perhaps play a game or serve a special meal each time your child returns. Kids thrive on routine and if they know exactly what to expect when they return to you it will make the transition easier. Allow your child to have a transition object. If your child needs a blanket or teddy bear, let them. If the child is older and maybe doesn’t want to carry an item that large, help them make one. Maybe pick out some rocks that represent each parent. Have fun designing them so they know which rock belongs to whom. Call your child every day. You would be surprised at how much hearing your voice and knowing that you are thinking about them means to them, even if they don’t say much in return. Be understanding of their missing things from their other home, including the other parent. All of those things are very real to your child and not having them when they want them can be very frustrating. Work with the other parent to establish a few basic routines that are at both houses. For example, at both houses bedtimes should be very similar. Sitting at the dinner table may be something to be encouraged at both houses. Television viewing or video game playing habits could be similar in both homes. Establish some routine for going back to the other parent’s house. Maybe develop a checklist.

Did you remember your bear, your homework, your library book, your gym shoes etc? Make sure you do this each and every time so it becomes habit. Fewer things will be forgotten leading to less frustration and more responsibility. Develop firm procedures and rules about what is acceptable about forgetting things at the other parent’s house. Are you going to ground your child because he forgot his teddy bear? Will you be driving over to your ex’s house to get it at 9:00 at night because your 4 year-old just can’t sleep without it? Are you willing to let your child get a failing grade because your ex doesn’t follow a checklist and make sure your 5th grader had packed her month-long book report assignment? Make procedures and follow through. If it is possible, keep the communications open with your ex. You won’t always agree, but if you are at least communicating you both will always be in the know. If you are able to keep the communication lines open, make sure your kids know this. Have family meetings. Present yourselves as a united front even though you live apart. Back each other up. By doing this you will prevent your kids from trying to play you off each other.