Alienation Nation

In bitter custody battles, parents aren't fighting for their kids -- they're fighting through them.

Five-year-old Alex looks like the happiest kid in the world. His smiles, captured forever in photos proudly displayed around his mother's cubicle, aren't forced for the camera. But Alex's smiles might not have been so genuine had his mom continued to cling to her mistrust of his dad. Until a year ago, his divorced parents were playing a heated game of tug-of-war -- with Alex in the middle.

Leslie wanted sole custody of her son, while Scott wanted joint custody. "We're both engineers, which by default makes communication one of our downfalls, and we weren't communicating at all," Leslie says. "So I could see no way that joint custody could work."

It used to be common for courts to grant sole custody to one person -- usually the mother -- when a couple's relationship was so acrimonious that forcing the spouses to share child-rearing decisions seemed impossible. After Leslie and Scott divorced more than four years ago, she was awarded sole custody; Scott was granted weekly visits with his son. (The names of the mother and son have been changed at Leslie's request; Scott asked to be identified only by his first name.)

Gilbert Ford
Father's day: Bill Sponheimer found himself an alienated parent after he and his daughter's mother split up.
Mark A. Manger
Father's day: Bill Sponheimer found himself an alienated parent after he and his daughter's mother split up.

But sole custody didn't satisfy Leslie. She was so concerned about Scott's parenting skills that she didn't want to leave Alex in his care at all. If she had an appointment to which she couldn't bring Alex, she'd call a babysitter rather than ask Scott to watch him. If she needed to take Alex to the dentist, she wouldn't bother telling her ex-husband. In short, Leslie would have preferred that Scott had nothing to do with his son.

Even in the friendliest divorces, parents often resort to behavior that runs counter to their better judgment. Sometimes one will badmouth the other in front of their children; sometimes one will try to become the favorite by spoiling the kids with gifts or by granting them freedoms they don't normally enjoy. But some people go much further than that.

Richard Gardner, a child psychiatrist and Columbia University professor, elevated bad parenting to a new level in 1985, when he gave this behavior a label: parental alienation syndrome.

"It's a continuum of behavior. Parents often say bad things about each other during the course of a divorce, but usually it's not longstanding, and usually kids aren't placed in that position forever, but there are situations where it goes on and on and on," says Les Katz, a Colorado psychologist who works with families in high-conflict divorces. "The big issue is whether a child can still have a relationship with that other parent. When a child is adamant about not having a relationship with one parent because of what the other has said or done, that's when it becomes a parental-alienation situation.

"I'm not in favor of calling it a syndrome, because that implies a kind of science that just isn't there," Katz adds. "But when you see it, you know it's bad."

"A syndrome is supposed to be something everyone can recognize because it meets certain criteria, and no one has agreed yet on what those are," says Denver psychologist Carla Garrity, who's co-authored several books on high-conflict divorces. "Gardner came up with some criteria, but they don't apply to every case. The important thing is that we understand the dynamics; they need to be picked out early and remediated early. It's the most complicated area of divorce law right now."

In Working With High-Conflict Families of Divorce, Garrity and her co-authors list alienation as the second-most serious level of family conflict, defining it as a situation in which one parent "attempts to form a permanent or standing coalition with [the] child against [the] other parent."

"The first year of a divorce is ugly; the parents are scared and hurt, so that first year isn't a good time to figure out whether there's alienation," Garrity says. "If it's gone on beyond two years, then it worries us. I'll be talking to people who got divorced in 1993, and they talk about it like it's yesterday, the feelings are so intense. That's a bad sign.

"If you ask a parent to list all of the good things that the other parent does for the children and they can't say one nice thing, that's a red flag," she continues. "You start to accumulate red flags, and when you have too many, you say, 'This is alienation' or 'This could become alienation.'"

Like Katz and Garrity, most experts refer to the behavior simply as "parental alienation." Others refer to it as "child alienation" or "visitation refusal." Whatever name it's given, the practice can be devastating to the children involved. But there's new hope for solving this age-old problem: impartial third parties appointed by the court to help couples get past their problems for the sake of the kids. the carriage, her mother, all kisses, ribbons, eyes, arms, strange sounds and sweet smells, said to her: "And did your beastly papa, my precious angel, send any message to your own loving mamma?" Then it was that she found the words spoken by her beastly papa to be, after all, in her little bewildered ears, from which, at her mother's appeal, they passed, in her clear shrill voice, straight to her little innocent lips. "He said I was to tell you, from him," she faithfully reported, "that you're a nasty horrid pig!"

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