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by John Sedgwick: Best Life Magazine
“Whatever their intentions, these parents are stealing their children’s souls,” Warshak contends. “They are rendering them incapable of receiving love from the people who have the most love to give them.” Some of the alienating behavior is simply petty, like deriding an ex-husband’s cooking skills or housekeeping so the children will think less of him; or it can be insidious, like encouraging the children to call the alienated father by his first name, diminishing his stature.
Some of the alienating techniques are simple propaganda, similar to what combatants use in wartime, Warshak says. “You repeat negative messages until they are so deeply imbedded in memory, the child doesn’t really know how he’s come to know them.” One father saw his youngest daughter, just 8, at a meeting attended by an array of attorneys and psychologists to appraise their relationship, write on a whiteboard, “Dad, you are an asshole.” Only she spelled the word “asswhole,” since she was obviously unfamiliar with the term. For good measure, the girl added, “And you’re a suck-up,” another word that was not likely part of her vocabulary. She wrapped up with a strangely adult send-off: “I never want to see you again.”
Alienating parents have been known to clip the heads off their ex-spouses’ photos in family albums, deliberately lose their letters or telephone messages, treat them like nonpeople at events like a kid’s soccer game, or, in one case, mount a photograph of the ex on a dartboard for family target practice. And it is not just the father who is alienated. Everything about him can be relegated to the discard pile—his side of the family, his associations, his friends, even the family dog, if it is considered to have been primarily his. “It’s tribal warfare,” says Warshak. “Anything associated with the alienated parent is tainted and has to be rejected.” McNeese Swank said one mother insisted that her son change his clothes before he visited his dad’s house and then leave those garments there, lest they somehow contaminate her own house if he were to bring them back.
Some of the alienating verbiage is more like a political attack ad that, Warshak says, “draws attention to the problems of your opponent, while talking only positively about yourself.” A mother might be braiding her daughter’s hair, he says, and ask pointedly, “Does Daddy do that for you?” The implication, of course, is that Daddy doesn’t—because he doesn’t care.
Fathers used to playing the role of disciplinarian can lose points with their young children for encouraging a masculine-style toughness and adherence to rules, and mothers win them for being indulgent and cozy. A wholesaler named Richard Burke lost out to his ex when he insisted that their two children go to a stricter private school than the one attended by their friends. “My wife told them,” he reports, “ ‘It’s really a shame that Dad makes you go to that hard school where you have to wear a uniform and do all that homework.’ ” She also bought them cellphones and in-bedroom satellite TV. Before long, the kids opted out of the school and moved in full-time with Mom. The son was the first to go. When he refused to come out of his mother’s house to go for his usual nights at his father’s, Burke called the police. He showed them the custody agreement and pointed to the calendar. “See? This is my day,” he insisted. But it was no use. “The police didn’t want to get into the middle of it. They said, ‘Yeah, but the kid doesn’t want to go.’ And that was the end of it.” The sister later repeated the same scenario. And the courts offered Burke no support. “They just don’t understand what parental alienation is when they’re looking right at it,” Burke sighs.
“Getting custody is like getting a judgment in small-claims court,”says Reena Sommer, Ph.D., a divorce-and-custody consultant in Galveston, Texas. “You still gotta go collect.” Adds psychotherapist J. Michael Bone, Ph.D., a leading authority on PAS, “Court orders are ignored all the time. When a father objects, a judge will say, ‘What am I supposed to do? Throw the mother in jail?’ You may have to go back multiple times to get visitation rights enforced, and it can take months. By then, the child can be more alienated than ever.”
THE TOLL ON THE CHILDREN
The legacy of such warfare on the alienated children, Warshak says, is terrible and lasting—depression, low self-esteem, and strained relationships for decades to come.
“Alienated children are like ghosts,” says Timothy Hoffman, Ph.D., a Massachusetts family therapist who has treated many of these kids. “They don’t fully exist, because they are trapped between two adults who are battling to be right. Allegiance, betrayal, deciding whom to believe—it’s a dreadful position for a child to be in.” In later life, Hoffman goes on, these alienated children are likely to struggle to develop trusting relationships, to be emotionally shut down, and to be prone to an identity crisis after ultimately discovering the truth about an alienating parent. “They may find they’ve aligned themselves with a parent who styled himself or herself as the victim but then turns out to be the perpetrator,”says Hoffman. “What a betrayal that can be.”
For the alienated parent, the brutality of the experience is often intensified by the nuclear bomb of custody disputes—a charge of physical or sexual abuse coming straight from the child’s mouth on some witness stand or in a court-appointed therapist’s office. Many PAS experts agree that the syndrome is sometimes used to cover up real abuse; and because 79 percent of confirmed abuse cases involve a parent as the abuser, the courts have a hard time distinguishing between situations involving actual abuse and allegations that are the result of PAS. But since nothing asserts, or provokes, a child’s alienation quite like charges of abuse, they are a regular feature of PAS cases.
“The parent who files the charges is automatically given protection,” says Burt W., a 48-year-old chemical engineer from Virginia, whose ex-wife orchestrated his two daughters’ claims that he’d molested them in the shower. (The court later ruled there was no evidence to substantiate the claims.) The accuser rarely has to submit to the polygraph tests or psychiatric evaluations that are imposed on the defendant. “But the other person is damaged, isolated, and completely powerless. You want my advice? Learn to manage your anger, or it will eat you alive. Me, I was pumping weights like never before, and I was still driving up to hilltops to scream my lungs out,” says Burt.
THE SUDDEN EXPLOSION OF ALIENATION
It was the psychologist Richard Gardner, M.D., who first identified Parental Alienation Syndrome in 1985 after he began to notice an increase in children of divorce who seemed to have it in for their dads for no good reason. In all but 10 percent of cases, he wrote in 1987, the mother was the alienating parent and the father the “target parent” with the bull’s-eye on his back. In his book Parental Alienation Syndrome and the Differentiation Between Fabricated and Genuine Child Sex Abuse, Gardner, who died in 2001, attributed the behavior to a combination of maternal entitlement and a custodial privilege that had traditionally won mothers special influence over their children—and thus the means and incentive to turn them against their fathers should that primacy be threatened.