Caught between a rock and a hard place

a child holding their parent's handBy Ivan Flores
Staff Writer

My 2 year-old nephew is given choices: do you want to wash your hands in the kitchen, or the bathroom? Do you want to take a shower, or a bath? Carrots or broccoli? It works well as a parenting technique. But sometimes parents give children an impossible dichotomy: mommy, or daddy?

In recent years, a concept called Parental Alienation Syndrome, has sprung up in custody battles. Proponents argue sometimes a parent may be turning a child against the other parent for arbitrary reasons.

By denying a former partner access to his or her child, or manipulating the emotions of the child, the other partner thus becomes “alienated.” The manipulation is said to take different forms, such as constant degradation of the other partner, ignoring visitation rights, or flatly asking a child to choose between one of the two parents.

According to Live Law, the Supreme Court has recognized parental alienation. However, the American Psychiatric Association has rejected PAS from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental disorders.
Dr. Daniel Saunders is a professor of social work at the University of Michigan who wrote about parental alienation in the Michigan Family Law Journal. He makes a distinction between the phenomenon of a child becoming estranged from a parent, which could happen for any number of reasons, and parental alienation, which is presented as a behavior or condition originating within the alienating parent.

According to Saunders, while parental alienation is holding water in court, many professionals in social work are skeptical of its existence. For example, the “symptoms” could just be manifestations of other underlying conditions like borderline personality disorder, narcissism, or bipolar disorder. And while a child may become estranged from a parent during separation, it’s impossible to quantify the effect of alienating behavior on a child’s emotions towards the other parent. Correlation does not imply causation.

There could be underlying emotional, physical, or sexual abuse that goes undetected. There could just be quirky and innocent but wrong perceptions that lead a child to stray from one parent.

This leaves some people in a very awkward situation. Undoubtedly, there are parents who are losing access to their children unfairly because their former partners have big egos. But it is also possible that the parents claiming parental alienation are themselves the alienating parent, or worse.

But the biggest losers are the children.

I was nine years old when my parents separated. I thought I had it figured out; mom was good, dad was bad, and that was all there was to it. When my mother asked me to choose, the choice was obvious. It was only in retrospect that I saw how unfair that decision was, and the true nature of the dilemma. Children can’t be the moral judges of their parent’s relationships, and the adults in the court system often don’t know better either. While my mother certainly had a hand in estranging me from my father, had he taken her to court on the grounds of parental alienation and won, the separation would have been traumatic.

There is no painless resolution to domestic disputes. The well meaning efforts of advocates of estranged parents and children are often fruitless because the wounds caused by the destruction of a family can only be healed with time.

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