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Imagine: a child you know loses a parent through illness, accident or military conflict. What would you expect to see?

25 Sep 2012

[This is the second post in a series. Consider starting with the first.]

Imagine: a child you know loses a parent through illness, accident or military conflict. What would you expect to see? You might expect to see an overwhelming sense of loss, of grief. You might expect family and friends and others to rally round with emotional, practical and other forms of support. You might expect the grieving process to go on for some time. You might expect to see a grief-stricken parent struggling at times to muster the energy to be strong for that child, yet always instinctively driven to put the child’s needs first.

You might in time, expect to see signs of a return to some new form of normality. You might dare to expect; to believe, that this child will grow into a well adjusted, contented and responsible adult and parent.

You’d not I imagine, expect to find all pictures of a dead parent gone within days of the funeral. You’d not expect, within weeks, to find a child claiming to have no happy memories of that parent; to be engaged in a campaign of denigration, expressing hatred of someone so recently loved and valued. You’d not expect the remaining parent to subsequently claim this child was doing much better now precisely because the dead parent was no longer part of the child’s life. You’d not expect the child to say the lost parent wasn’t missed or thought of at all, or for the child and remaining parent to seem to consider all this perfectly normal.

Yet this is what can and sometimes does happen when a child loses one parent, not because that parent has died, but because the other parent wants to complete the removal of an ex-partner in every respect possible, from their lives. It normally comes to light after separation, but the process can start within intact families; with one parent seemingly trying to compete with and continually put down and belittle the other, often in very subtle but manipulative ways.

It’s not always so severe and in some cases it can be short lived until the heat and pain of a break up starts to subside, or the parents are worn down by or come to accept some inevitable consequence of the legal process. Even then though, the underlying cause is likely to linger and have a lasting effect on the child as one or both parents, sometimes inadvertently, undermine and disrupt that child’s relationship with the other parent.

So, given how starkly these behaviours contrast, why is there such acceptance of – even support for – the behaviour we see when some parents separate, when we so instinctively know we must act in the best interests of children faced with such trauma?


Children simply don’t have the means to understand or cope with such traumatic events alone; all they feel is the loss of someone they love and a deep sense of vulnerability about who’s going to care for them now. In bereavement we reinforce how much their lost parent loved them and assure them they’ll continue to feel that love even though the parent is gone. We encourage them to cherish the good times they had and to talk about the parent they’ve lost. We help them treasure those moments and feelings and possessions that hold special significance. We ensure they can still keep in touch with the lost parent’s family; with grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, because there’s a part of the lost parent in them, just as there is in the child. We ensure they feel safe and cared for and loved; we tell them nothing will ever change that.

We do these things, often without anyone having to tell us, desperately hoping it’s going to be enough to get this child through the pain. We do them because we fear if we don’t, that the child may be scarred by such a traumatic event.



These are vital ingredients in a child’s grieving process, recovery and future wellbeing. So what consequences for children who, instead of being helped and supported through grief, find the grieving process denied them as the loss of their parent is contrived and celebrated?

Kids Message to Both ParentsThere are no perfect parents of course; most work hard in the hope they’ll be “good enough”. Most parents who separate, manage that well by putting their children first. Even when circumstances mean it’s really difficult for them; as parents they work hard at that too. Many would much prefer to leave the past behind them and move on with their lives, often with good reason; be it guilt or anger or pain, but they resolve this dilemma well away from their children; taking care to infect them only with contagious reasonable behaviour.

Children Need BOTH Parents


Some parents are not so initially reasonable, or the extent to which each of them is may differ. Family and friends and others may influence them and provide a more reasonable view for their children. Sometimes mediation or counselling provides the neutral and balanced perspective to draw them back to a  more focused view and for others it takes the advice of a lawyer. Some need the courts to decide for them, and whilst one or both may never entirely agree with the outcome, most – with their families – go on to make that work in some reasonable way for the children too.


Parents, children & professionals explain their own motivation and personal experience:


It’s important to recognise there are families where parents, even children have suffered or witnessed abuse. If there’s any chance of risk of abuse then it must be given absolute priority; with thorough assessment and careful management. In these cases, the best interest of the child welfare standard, normally applied to test that solutions follow our informed presumption: children should have both parents actively involved in their lives, is only considered once courts are satisfied they will not face risk of abuse.

It therefore follows where there’s risk of abuse; delays must not force these families to mediate or leave them exposed to that risk. These families need to be quickly identified so the appropriate agencies, with the courts, can intervene without delay. Abuse is so unacceptable that these families must be the priority and courts must have effective measures to deploy to support them.

When cases present where one parent has stopped contact; not because the other parent is a risk, but because that parent seeks for themself the priority others require, swift identification of children at risk of abuse becomes more complex and scarce court resources are spread thin. If that parent seeks only the status this priority suggests, not the rapid intervention it sets out to provide; the parent’s best interest will be served if the court is forced to explore; not issues of welfare and safety, but details of the other parent’s imperfections.

If a child’s unyielding campaign holds the spotlight on the other parent’s imperfections, the legal process can take months, even years as courts examine those imperfections in detail to discover the reaction exhibited is disproportionate to the child’s actual experience with the other parent. The child does not exhibit post traumatic stress symptoms associated with exposure to physical or sexual abuse or extremely compromised parenting, but another quite remarkable disturbance that should not be ignored; yet the significance of that disturbance is seldom acknowledged, nor the source isolated, and so the original suspicions may linger. Since the child can appear to be doing well in other aspects of life, a court may decide not to disrupt the status quo; allowing the passage of time itself to deprive the child of a relationship with both parents.

What manner of thinking could allow [custody evaluators] to imagine that a child whose affections have been poisoned against a loving parent or grandparent is doing reasonably well? Are there any parents in the audience who would agree that their children were functioning reasonably well if they expressed the firm and stable desire to have you leave their lives forever? Would you accept this situation so long as your child made good grades in school, had friends and was not an arsonist?

Obstacles & Controversies in the Pursuit of Children’s Best Interests, by Dr. Richard A. Warshak. Based on a keynote address at the Arizona chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, 4 February 2000.

The question too infrequently asked of these parents who stand back and defend a child’s right to choose – perhaps because it is so apparent anyway – is why there has been no mention or sign of any serious intention to encourage that child differently. At the least, it’s clear these parents omit to consider, support and moderate the child’s need for contact and love with their other parent.

It’s so difficult to comprehend that some parents might systematically and unreasonably portray the other parent as all bad, and themselves as all good, with the conscious or subconscious intent that their children are persuaded to be wholly loyal to them and wholly disloyal to the other parent, that we dismiss it as unthinkable. However we must be prepared to suspend disbelief long enough to discover how the wealth of international thinking and research can enlighten us now.

Parents who try to alienate their child from his or her other parent convey a three-part message to the child: (1) I am the only parent who loves you and you need me to feel good about yourself, (2) the other parent is dangerous and unavailable, and (3) pursuing a relationship with that parent jeopardizes your relationship with me. In essence the child receives the message that s/he is worthless and unloved and only of value for meeting the needs of others. This is the core experience of psychological maltreatment (emotional abuse) as defined by the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC).

Amy J. L. Baker Ph.D. from: Caught Between Parents, on Psychology Today

Most complex but important of all, might be for us first to find a more sympathetic understanding of what makes a few parents so determined to do this, when there is little or nothing to otherwise justify it. Why is it so important for them to so completely erase the other parent from the lives of their children? The next post in this series will consider that question.

This is the second in a series of posts exploring this issue.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Kat permalink
    17 Oct 2012 10:58

    A couple of comments. The reason given by the alienating parent for the child’s apparent lack of grief is of course that it is the child’s own choice to rid themselves of the alienated parent. This should be a dead give away that something is a miss, children of abusive parents still love and grieve for the loss of this parent, even if they know it is in their own best interest to have limited contact due to the abuse and/or neglect. Also the rejection of the extended family should raise serious concerns, if say dad really was abusive, why does the child now no longer wish to see the cousin they used to be so close to etc.

    Likewise the alienating parent will often maintain that they are doing their very best to talk this child into having contact with the alienated parent. They try so very hard to make it happen and they just cannot because the child really does not want it. Again this is in stark constrast to all the other restrictions we put on children’s choices. Chocolate is not served at every meal to a toddler, you have to be a certain age before you can buy alcohol and learn to drive, school attendence etc.

    However, it is also an aim of our society to increase the choices of young people and children and to listen to and respect their wishes. We see it in school councils where children are actively encouraged to participate in decisions making processes and many other places too. This is of course to try to bring up children to become confident, capable of making desicions and independent. I wholeheartedly believe that this is important as long as the decisions the children are faced with are age appropriate. Asking a child to make the decision whether or not they want contact with a parent is not age appropriate. As adults we know how disadvantaged such children are, we cannot expect them to make decisions based on increased risk in their adult life of mental health problems and drug abuse – no child can understand and evaluate that kind of risk.

    Likewise should you ask teenagers about the level of contact they want to have with each parent? If both parents are supportive of the relationship with the other parent then fine have very flexible arrangements to suit the teenagers increasing engagement with friends and other activities. Both parents will take seriously their responsibility to ensure the this does not mean that the child looses contact with either parent. In a parental alienation situation it is detrimental to have such flexible arrangements. It will undermine one parent completely, but of course the lack of flexibility is not something a teenager will be happy with, when they can see their friens having much more flexible arrangements.


    • 17 Oct 2012 12:52

      Thanks Kat. It is striking that a point so often missed is that children who’ve really suffered at the hands of a parent almost always want to maintain a relationship with that parent. These are the circumstances where supervised contact; sometimes very strictly controlled, are required to ensure it’s still possible. Courts (and other agencies) sometimes go to great lengths to facilitate this safely for children. When it’s apparent, even in those circumstances, that this is so important for the welfare of children it’s rather remarkable that in other circumstances it becomes a less significant consideration. As you say, some of these signs are so striking that they ought to be picked up very early on in the process. That requires more awareness and some training, but early identification and careful management of these cases is crucial for the future welfare of these children.

      It is common for one parent to claim they’re doing all they can but that the child simply refuses to have anything to do with the other parent. “Children should never be forced ..” is the implication that often goes along with that, and is sometimes accepted too. Yet coercion of various outright and subtle kinds is an everyday part of family life as parents ensure their children are cared for and come to no harm. We don’t stand back and allow them to poke things into power sockets nor do we accept their resistance to dental or medical treatment. No-one wants to see brutal enforcement of contact but strong encouragement and persuasion and even skillful coercion are sometimes necessary given the far reaching consequences for children if this important decision is to be made with the necessary care by the adults involved. Even, perhaps especially, with teenagers there are a great many things we have to do to guide them and sometimes to prevent them from making mistakes, in the full and certain knowledge that if we don’t they’ll blame their parents later for not having intervened.

      On the other hand, some parents are quite clear they’re not prepared to encourage their children differently. I’m aware of a case where a parent; when asked by the judge if there were any small steps that might move the child towards a more positive view, answered immediately with the somewhat intellectual response that to do so would betray the trust the child had placed in them as a parent.

      In the next post I’ll explore the much less well publicised issue that gives rise to these situations. I’d really value your contributions to that further discussion.


  2. 31 Oct 2012 14:00

    Reblogged this on Journey Through Alienation and commented:
    It just baffles me that judges, lawyers, and social workers just accept the child’s refusal see the non-custodial parent, and do nothing about it. Who is looking out for the child here? You think it would never happen, but it does, repeatedly, across the country, without a second thought. I consider those who take this position as contributing to the emotional abuse of the child.


  3. 27 Dec 2013 19:56

    Reblogged this on Tampa Family Court Victim: The War on Women and commented:


  4. 31 Dec 2013 03:47

    Reblogged this on Alienation Is Abuse and commented:
    An insightful discussion of alienated children denied the grieving process.


  5. 11 Nov 2014 15:32

    Reblogged this on Moms' Hearts Unsilenced and commented:
    Please share. And thank you for all who serve.


  6. 11 Nov 2014 15:40

    To lose a parent through alienation absolutely can be more difficult and unnatural than to lose a parent through death, due to the confusion and lack of support for grieving, among other things. In addition, the child is in the custody of an alienating parent, then this means that s/he is in the care of an unhealthy adult.



  1. Imagine: a child you know loses a parent through illness, accident or military conflict. What would you expect to see? | Moms' Hearts Unsilenced

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