Parental alienation

Posted: August 11, 2013 in Communication, Divorce, Family, Kids, Lessons, Parental Alienation, Parenting, Tools

As I start to wrap up the posts about our most recent family drama, I come to another one of those things that as a Christian I look at and see as the hand of God working for our good, but that a non-believer would call luck or coincidence.

So around mid-June (June 19th to be exact as I looked at my Amazon order) we were made aware of an excellent book called “Divorce Poison” by Dr. Richard Warshak by the mom of the kids half-brother involved in the incident most recently.  She had heard about it from a friend, was going to look it up, and recommended it to my wife given how Bert functions.  This was the same reason it was recommended to her.

I had quickly read through the book in about three days and found it excellent and very indicative of what we had seen Bert doing through the children.  Were it not for having read this book just weeks before the ordeal that began in early July I would have had a much more difficult time not only understanding but not quickly building resentment and anger towards the kids for their false accusations.  After all I knew Bert was likely to accuse me of doing something inappropriate to the kids at some point, but I felt confident that there was no way one of the kids, when questioned by other adults, would stick with their lies.  I was certainly upset when this occurred, but was able to deal with it because I had read the book.  Had God not orchestrated these events to prepare us, this trial would have been even more difficult to bear.

The premise of the work is that either accidentally or deliberately (we know Bert proceeds with this deliberately because he did the same things to my wife when she was married to him and abused by him) a parent (termed the favored parent) will attempt to turn the kids against the other parent (the rejected parent).  There have been several studies about this phenomenon and Dr. Warshak talks about this a bit.  There are levels of this process and bad-mouthing and bashing of the other parent are the tools used most often.  This can lead to alienation, where a child wants nothing to do with the rejected parent and is hostile, contemptuous and totally negative to them.

In our case, we do not feel we are at that point yet, as the kids come over and have no problem showing affection to their mom when here, but in the presence of Bert they will not even come over to my wife and hug her or even acknowledge her presence in anything but the most cursory manner.  Dr. Warshak likens this to programming or brainwashing, and it can occur just because a divorced parent is upset and talks too much in front of the kids or where they can hear to other people, or makes it clear they do not want to talk about the other parent.  Many people do this by accident, and this book tries to open parent’s eyes to the fact that this is unfair to the children.  Again, with Bert we know this is not random but deliberate as he denigrates everyone he can to further his goals of being in control and important.

The real lynchpin of this entire book is that the conventional wisdom from many counselors, attorneys and others when this type of behavior is occurring is to just wait it out and things will work out.  The kids will see for themselves.  Just ignore it as you do not want to bad mouth in reverse.  Dr. Warshak says this wisdom is dangerously wrong and by the time you realize it, you can have a real mess on your hands, possibly with children who have nothing to do with you at all as you react inappropriately and tell them to stay with the other parent until they want to see you, a tactic we were contemplating earlier this spring with Marcia when she wanted to move to Nan’s for a time.  Luckily out gut told us to do what we have now learned was the right thing and not allow contact to be restricted because it would only feed into the path to alienation rather than “show” them how their decision was wrong.   Dr, Warshak teaches you how you can speak up with facts and not bad mouth, but teach them what is really going on.  As an example when the kids say, “you never did anything fun with us” you can respond “You are mistaken” and show them videos or pictures of events.  The problem in our case is Bert kept all those, perhaps in an attempt to make this type of factual sharing more difficult, but we pray we continue to not get to full blown alienation and that the kids will remain open to clarification.

There is also a video to watch with your kids on this called “Welcome Back Pluto” that is available from Dr. Warshak’s website where you can also find a bunch of other resources on this problem.  Since we have had our family back together this is part of what we are doing to raise some awareness amongst the children about what they should be aware of and not have to deal with.  They provide an excellent guide on how to introduce the video to the kids, even if they are fully alienated and have no interest in not hating you.  They have you run through it as something that the company needs feedback on from kids on how they can improve and that has seemed to work for our group, though again, we do not feel the kids are to the point of alienation yet but we worry about the danger and as Dr. Warshak explains in the book, it is much better to stop it before it gets to that point than trying to recover from alienation or full blown estrangement where you have no contact with the kids at all.

Based on what we have learned we have definitely modified our approach to not simply sit by while we hear the kids parrot the bad-mouthing from Bert but to set the record straight and give them good examples.  Dr. Warshak explains how to subtly teach your kids how they can be manipulated by using advertising as a teaching tool about how you an be made to believe something that might not be entirely true with careful placement of messages.  We have spoken with the counselors about this and they all think it is an excellent idea and method and to use the tools we have from Dr. Warshak to try to keep the situation for getting any worse and hopefully to reverse it.

If you suspect any of this type of behavior in your divorce, intentional or accidental, I would highly recommend looking into the resources at

  1. […] So with these initial points explained, I want to divert and explain the topic of parental alienation.  In brief, parental alienation is when one parent tries to impact how the children view the other parent in a negative way with the goal of driving the children to want to be hostile and/or to cease contact with the other parent.  Bert has always had this on his agenda but when pushed into a corner as we had just done, his attempts moved into overdrive.  You can find a much older post talking about some resources to help deal with parental alienation here. […]

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