Divorce is hard enough on children, but what if one parent tries to damage a child’s relationship with the other parent by saying untrue things and, in some severe cases, brainwashing the child.
It’s called parental alienation.
ABC27 spoke with a woman who says she is a victim of parental alienation. She asked that her name not be revealed.
“I was a weapon and a pawn,” she said. “My mom would tell me that my dad doesn’t love me. She would say that he was dangerous.”
Her relationship with her father suffered.
“Occasionally, he would come to visit me, but I would always just push him away,” she said.
The woman says her mother would destroy the gifts her father gave her. As she got older, she realized the things her mom told her weren’t true, and she asked her mom why she told her lies about her father.
“She would always derail the conversation and say that she did it because she loves me,” she said.
Attorney John King has worked in family law for 27 years and is familiar with parental alienation.
“I have won custody just on that issue. It is recognized by the court as being so damaging,” King said. “It is extremely important that a child have a good loving relationship with both parents, and for either parent to try to interfere with that is reprehensible.”
Arnold Shienvold has been working as a psychologist for over 40 years and is often called to do assessments of families for the court system. Shienvold says there are varying degrees of parental alienation. In some severe cases, he has seen children “rewrite history”.
“I have seen children who have told me I never loved my dad, I never wanted to be with him. When you show them pictures of happy vacations where they were smiling at the beach or show them videos, they will say I was just faking it, I didn’t even like him. And it’s pictures of them when they are 5 and 6 years old. So, it can get that severe,” said Shienvold.
There is debate over the term parental alienation. Some want to see it labeled as a syndrome, which would make it a medical disorder and give it stronger significance in court.
“The problem with labeling it as a syndrome is it doesn’t always happen. When you think about a medical syndrome, you think about a certain toxin. Whether it’s bacterial or viral, if someone is exposed to it, they always end up with the disease. In alienation, you can have two children within the same environment, exposed to the same exact stimulus, and one becomes alienated and one doesn’t, so why would that be the case if it was a syndrome,” said Shienvold. “I think its much more important to see it as a family relational problem than it is to label it a syndrome.”
There is also concern that if parental alienation is labeled a syndrome, it could be used against a parent who is trying to keep a child away from an abusive parent.
The American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. Since 2008, the APA has had “no official position” on the purported parental alienation syndrome, but there is research underway.
“Last year, APA appointed a working group to review scientific literature for high conflict family relationships with child involvement, whose members met last month. They explored key issues and went over materials APA received after we issued a public call for input on the topic. There is no timeline yet for them to report out,” said Kim I. Mills, a spokesperson for the association.
As the term gets debated, those exposed to it suffer the long term effects.
“Sometimes I feel as though everybody has an ulterior motive. If you can’t trust your own parents, it’s almost like who can you trust,” said the woman who spoke with anonymity.
She is now estranged from her parents.
“I just want an apology. I just want to know that it was not me. I want to hear them say ‘yes, we did use you as a weapon,’ just so I get validated, so I don’t feel crazy. Right now, I feel healthier without them,” she said.
Experts say adults must not take their anger over a divorce out on their children.
“Don’t use your children as part of the tool of your anger,” said Shienvold. “Let them be kids and have good relationships with both of you because they will be a lot healthier.”
To learn more about a local support group for parental alienation, click here.