Undermining a co-parent and/or cutting out the other parent from a child’s life is an alienating behavior with potentially devastating consequences. If you are a co-parent and you consistently undermine, disrespect, denigrate, or use any other type of behavior/actions that serve to put down your ex to your child or cut them out of your child’s life I implore you to stop immediately! There are serious long-term consequences of putting your child through this. First, they have to go through the conflict of having to choose sides. A child should never have to do this. Second, the loyalty conflict between having to choose creates cognitive dissonance in them–they know what they’re doing/saying is wrong, but they’re not mature/healthy enough to express this. They know the truth, but yet can’t handle it. Instead, they “hate” the targeted parent, disrespecting them and viewing them just as the alienating parent does, but they can’t provide a reasonable explanation of why. Their behaviors toward their once loved parent later manifests as guilt, low self-esteem, depression, relationship issues, and other disturbing findings–including personality disorders, addictions, and suicide. Here are some recent examples from my own experience of Parental Alienation:
“Hang in there, Honey.” This is what my ex told one of our kids when she complained to him recently about the fact that I have some rules in my house. As a counselor and mother who is an authoritative parent, when a teenager compares her dad’s permissive style of parenting to mine–which do you think she’ll prefer? I should back up a little bit and provide you with a little background.
A few years ago, daughter A left our home abruptly after refusing to help us rake the yard. “It’s child abuse,” she said. After this, unbeknownst to me she went to her father to complain about the “mistreatment.” A few days after this raking incident, my ex called me up and asked to have a meeting about parenting. Me and my new husband met him in a diner, to which my ex had me present my parenting views while tuning out the entire time (which was incredibly disrespectful), only to tell me afterwards that my daughter was never coming back. I think this moment was almost as devastating as the moment I found out about my ex’s affair. Blindsided, I went home extremely upset, feeling powerless, and betrayed yet again. Not necessarily by my daughter, but by the incredibly egotistical need to put his needs ahead of everyone else’s in a need to be the hero. Also in a need to hurt me in a way that would hurt any mother–by using their children to get back at them.
I had no idea what I was dealing with then, but now I know it has a name. Parental Alienation (PA). This action created a domino effect. My ex became best friends with my new husband’s ex (their weekly “family dinners” created a toxic environment in which denigration of me and my husband was the main course–by the adults and the kids). My stepson unfortunately also soon began showing signs of PA. He too left our home only a few short months after our daughter. Fast forward a few years…his mother has had two “midnight moves” that he was told to keep a secret (along with court papers two years in a row, falsely accusing us of neglect and abuse in order to gain full custody).
Eventually my ex and I went to therapy but this was a short-term fix. Recently, one of my daughters had her Church’s confirmation service. Only, I wasn’t notified. Oh, wait–I kind of was. On the morning of, approximately an hour before it began, my daughter called and asked if I could come (I live half-hour away). She hung up the phone and realized that the time was wrong–it was actually a half-hour earlier. “I should call her back,” she said to her dad. “Nah, she’ll figure it out,” he told her. And so I arrived late and couldn’t sit with her–which would have meant so much to her. I made it–that’s what was important, but it would have meant the world to her if I could have sat next to her as part of the family. It was needless, thoughtless, and manipulative–and only the latest action on my ex’s part to undermine my relationship between the daughters I raised for 14 years while he was absent (building his career as a surgeon) and only one of many subtle attempts at cutting me out of my children’s lives.
Here’s another recent example:
I had to drop daughter C off at a sleep-over at a friend’s house. The next morning, she asked if I could pick her up and drop her off at her dad’s house–she had a doctor’s appointment. Doctor’s appointment? Curious, I texted my ex. What’s the doctor’s appointment for? When is it? He didn’t respond so I asked my daughter. Turns out two of my children had a doctor’s appointment that afternoon and their sitter was taking them. I texted my ex back. Why they were going with a sitter (a sitter? Really?)? He texted me me back the appointment was at 3 pm, not answering my other question. I called the doctor’s to confirm. No, it was 2 pm. Are you sure? Yes. Hmmm…Text my ex back. You have the wrong time. By the way, how many of these appointments has the sitter been to with them? His response was to try to blame, shame, and denigrate me. I won’t bore you with the details, but his reasoning was that I didn’t want to be involved with the children or their appointments (huh? What distorted, damaged fantasy world did I land in? And then it hit me–his guilt and embarrassment over the failed marriage, etc would be allayed if he had people believing that I did not want to be a part of the kids’ lives–he was the hero, I was abandoning them–it was starting to make sense, distorted as it was).
So, flash forward to less than 2 weeks ago. Daughter B is crying out for therapy–actually, we need family therapy desperately because she is symptomatic of co-parenting gone awry. My ex texts Daughter C at our house and starts grilling her for evidence of Daughter B’s wrong-doing. She becomes intensely upset and anxious. She doesn’t want to be in the middle. I tell her her dad and I are handling this. He doesn’t let up. I text him and ask him to stop involving her and take it up with me, the parent. She’s in tears now huddled in her closet. He refuses and starts egging me on via texts. I ask him to pick up the phone and call me. Eventually he does and as I am trying to talk with him, he blurts out “She’s going to a private school (this school is an hour away from me) and she’ll live with me. And, she can’t get her driver’s license now until her 18th birthday. That will solve the issue!” This is when I finally found my voice–my voice of standing up to a parent who a majority of the time isn’t even there, and the other time wants to be the best friend instead of parent. “You do not make arbitrary decisions without consulting me, the other parent. You do not involve her younger sister–she is not the parent–I am. You’re stressing her out! Our daughter will not be going to private school nor will she be living with you and she will be getting her driver’s license. These are things you should discuss with me first, not her, not her sister–with me first!” And I went on–and it was really, my first time asserting myself as a parent–and not just a parent, but as the only parent on the ball in this family and as a person who was no longer afraid of advocating for our kids in front of who I had once thought was a bully. But, this stand for sanity, for co-parenting rights on my part, and as a strong role model as a mother was short-lived. A few days later, there was a “showdown” involving my daughter B and once again, my ex intentionally undermined me and supported my daughter by playing the role of best friend and abdicating the role of parent. Anytime there are rules that are challenged, our kids run to their dad. He wouldn’t even return my texts or my phone calls making this situation much worse than it should have been. And, to make matters even worse, once I was in contact with my daughter, she asserted that she was going to go live with her father. Discussing this further, I asked what had she and her father talked about. “Nothing,” she said, but I could tell she was holding back and protecting him. “He only tells me to ‘Hang in there,'” she said after a moment. I responded by saying, “If you have an issue with me, it’s better if you talk to me about it. That way we can resolve it. You are not going to live with your father–that’s not an option. You’ll have to work this out with me.”
In the meantime, all I could think of was : Hang in there? I’ know more was said (I could tell by the language she used in her arguments–she was parroting his words), but even so, this statement implies there’s something wrong with our home, and you’ll just have to bear with it. How is that supportive of the other parent?
I wasn’t going to write about these recent episodes because it can really elicit frustration in me–I have nowhere to go if I want to discuss this with my ex–he is not speaking to me. I think he was so surprised about my recent reaction to his one-sided parenting show that he doesn’t know how to handle the now-assertive, I’m not scared of you or what tricks you have up your sleeve anymore person I’ve become. It’s upsetting because I know that when the parents aren’t getting along, the kids suffer. I don’t want that for our kids. I don’t want them thinking they have to choose parents or that dad’s house is the “fun” house because there are no rules and there’s lots of stuff so they can decide, with dad’s encouragement, to go live there without mom’s input or awareness.
With a background in psychology and marriage and family therapy, I know all too well how much kids suffer from this distortion of power–the imbalance of hierarchies, and the breach of boundaries. When they become mothers, or girlfriends/wives–which role model will they reference? Will they reference his example–or, I hope, mine? Will their self-esteem suffer as they choose men who put them down, trying to work out their childhoods through their adult relationships? Will they become depressed as they try to reconcile the cognitive dissonance of what their father presents to them versus who their mother actually is? Will they numb the emotional pain with addictive behaviors? Children being used as a pawn as a way to get back at an ex harms them. It’s emotional and psychological abuse. These kids have been through enough. Adults–please become adults now and stop reacting/engaging your ex. Work out your wounds with a professional and stop ruining these kids’ lives. Be the parent your children need you to be (and again, I’m preaching to the wrong audience here because alienators don’t take responsibility for their actions–they are blamers).
What I find incredulous is that my ex thinks he can step into parenting after 14 + years of not being there for the kids, and then think he’s the parenting expert. He doesn’t consult me for parenting, he goes to others for parenting advice. I am “not good enough.” (Oh boy, I can see why I chose him as a partner so long ago.) I am all for him being part of our kids’ lives–having a dad in their life is beneficial to their well-being. I am not for being continually cut out, undermined, and denigrated–and like most parents dealing with alienating behaviors from their ex, it can be exhaustive, painful, and frustrating. Then, on top of it, to solidify their position of power/revenge, they recruit others to align with them–sometimes other exes, the targeted parents’ own family members and friends, people in the community, schools, and doctors and other professionals. Even therapists can be duped into thinking the targeted parent is really the “bad” guy. I’ve had to personally reach out to people in the community to let them know I won’t be left out or shut out. These are my kids too.
As I re-read this, I am incredulous at what I have had to deal with–just in 3 months (and I haven’t mentioned that my stepson’s mother came and picked him up early during our family trip to Maine last month–which was a complete surprise to us and it made him have to keep another secret)! For years now I have had to constantly deal with being undermined or cut out–and that hurts my kids. It doesn’t hurt me anymore. I’ve been through the loss of 2 kids, I can handle the pain and loss. What I have a hard time dealing with is knowing how much it harms our kids. And yet, it has made me a better parent and a better person. I still struggle with imposing rules and knowing that maybe one of the kids will not come back (how “off” is that?), but PA has provided me with invaluable learning opportunities. I continue to strive to be the parent my kids need. I may not be perfect, but I am good enough.
One of the reasons why I am going into the field of marriage and family therapy is because of what I have been through as a parent and stepparent to our kids. And I am not alone. It is estimated that there are over 750,000 children a year who are alienated from a parent. That’s a lot of kids! And that’s a lot of parents–fit parents–who could be parenting their kids and having that wonderful experience. Kids need both parents in their lives. Kids need parents to work together, not tear each other apart, using the kids as a weapon.
**After I finished writing this article, my kids went on a family vacation with their dad. They shared a house rented by their grandparents. One of our kids asked to have a friend over for a day. Grandma said no. At this point, my ex did not undermine her by telling my daughter to “hang in there” or “you can come live with me–let’s get you out of here” because she felt disappointed. He didn’t put grandma down for having rules, nor did he challenge it or talk badly about her to my daughter. It was accepted and everyone went on from there. Grandma’s rule was respected, her place in the hierarchy was recognized, and kids could be kids. Now, if he had an issue with this rule, or Grandpa, they could have taken Grandma aside and talked with her about this–not in front of the kids (it’s such a drag to be challenged on every single rule though–I speak from experience–you’d think it’d be the kids, but no–it’s the other parent. Did I miss something? Is raking leaves child abuse and I missed that in the parenting manual somewhere?).