7 Arguments in Support of Co-Parenting

Posted on September 2, 2013. Filed under: story | Tags: , , , , |

Published on April 16, 2012 by Edward Kruk, Ph.D. in Co-Parenting After Divorce

I have long maintained that a more child-focused approach to resolving parenting disputes after separation and divorce is needed to reduce harm to children and ensure their well-being. Usually, when parents cannot agree on parenting matters, they take their case to a judge for a resolution. The court then applies a “best interests of the child” standard in its decision-making in regard to kids’ future living arrangements. The problem is, however, that this standard is extremely vague and indeterminate, based on projective speculation about which parent might in future be the “better” parent, and thus subject to judicial bias and error. Judges not trained in child development and family dynamics are given unfettered discretion, and this results in unpredictable outcomes based on idiosyncratic biases and subjective value judgments.

Our current system of resolving child custody disputes rarely considers either children’s needs from children’s own perspective, or current research on child custody outcomes. What is needed is a new standard, a “best interests of the child from the perspective of the child” standard, and an approach to child custody determination that is built on a strong foundation of empirical research.

My recent article in the American Journal of Family Therapy, “Arguments for an Equal Parental Responsibility Presumption in Contested Child Custody,” outlines sixteen distinct arguments in support of a shared parental responsibility presumption in contested child custody, which are presented from a child-focused perspective, with clinical and empirical evidence in support of each argument contrasted to the conflicting evidence. The shared parental responsibility alternative addresses the problems associated with judicial bias and error. The seven arguments are as follows:

1. Shared parenting preserves children’s relationships with both parents

2. Shared parenting preserves parents’ relationships with their children

3. Shared parenting decreases parental conflict and prevents family violence

4. Shared parenting enhances the quality of parent-child relationships

5. Shared parenting decreases parental focus on “mathematizing time” and reduces litigation

6. Shared parenting provides a clear and consistent guideline for judicial decision-making

7. Shared parenting reduces the risk and incidence of parental alienation

Many of these findings run counter to now-outdated research and prevailing practice wisdom in the field of divorce. However, there is an emergent consensus within the divorce research community that in the great majority of contested cases of child custody, where family violence is not a factor, children’s needs and interests are best served by preserving meaningful relationships with both of their parents. Children need and want both parents in their lives, beyond the constraints of “visitation” relationships and “primary caregiver” arrangements. Shared parenting is a viable and desirable alternative in this regard, and “in the best interests of the child from the perspective of the child.”

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Parent-Child Reunification After Alienation

Posted on September 2, 2013. Filed under: story | Tags: , , |

May 8th, 2013  Kruk, Ph.D

Children and parents who have undergone forced separation from each other in the absence of abuse, including cases of parental alienation, are highly subject to post-traumatic stress, and reunification efforts in these cases should proceed carefully and with sensitivity. Alienated children seem to have a secret wish for someone to call their bluff, compelling them to reconnect with the parent they claim to hate; despite strongly held positions of alignment, alienated children want nothing more than to be given the permission and freedom to love and be loved by both parents (Baker, 2010). Yet the influence of the alienating parent is too strong to withstand, and children’s fear that the alienating parent may fall apart or withdraw his or her love holds them back. Research has shown that many alienated children can transform quickly from refusing or staunchly resisting the rejected parent to being able to show and receive love from that parent, followed by an equally swift shift back to the alienated position when back in the orbit of the alienating parent (Fidler and Bala, 2010). Thus while children’s stated wishes regarding parental residence and contact in contested custody after divorceshould be considered, they should not be determinative in cases of parental alienation.

Reunification efforts subsequent to prolonged absence should be undertaken with service providers with specialized expertise in parental alienation reunification. A number of models of intervention have been developed, the best-known being Warshak’s (2010) Family Bridges Program, an educative and experiential program focused on multiplegoals: allowing the child to have a healthy relationship with both parents, removing the child from the parental conflict, and encouraging child autonomy, multiple perspective-taking, and critical thinking. Sullivan’s Overcoming Barriers Family Camp (Sullivan et al, 2010), which combines psycho-educational and clinical intervention within an environment of milieu therapy, is aimed toward the development of an agreement regarding the sharing of parenting time, and a written aftercare plan. Friedlander and Walters’ (2010) Multimodal Family Intervention provides differential interventions for situations of parental alignment, alienation, enmeshment and estrangement. All of these programs emphasize the clinical significance of children coming to regard their parents as equally valued and important in their lives, while at the same time helping enmeshed children relinquish their protective role toward their alienating parents.

In reunification programs, alienated parents will benefit from guidelines with respect to their efforts to provide a safe, comfortable, open and inviting atmosphere for their children. Ellis (2005) outlines five strategies for alienated parents: (1) erode children’s negative image by providing incongruent information; (2) refrain from actions that put the child in the middle of conflict; (3) consider ways to mollify the anger and hurt of the alienating parent; (4) look for ways to dismantle the coalition between the child and alienating parent and convert enemies to allies; and (5) never give up on reunification efforts. As much as possible, Warshak (2010) recommends, alienated parents should try to expose their children to people who regard them, as parents, with honor and respect, to let children see that their negative opinion, and the opinion of the alienating parent, is not shared by the rest of the world. This type of experience will leave a stronger impression than anything the alienated parent can say on his or her own behalf, according to Warshak.

As Baker (2010) writes, alienated parents acutely feel the hostility and rejection of their children. These children seem cruel, heartless, and devaluing of their parents. Yet it is important to realize that from the child’s perspective, it is the targeted parent who has rejected them; they have been led to believe that the parent whom they are rejecting does not love them, is unsafe, and has abandoned them. Thus, the primary response of the alienated parent must always be one of loving compassion, emotional availability, and absolute safety. Patience and hope, unconditional love, being there for the child, is the best response that alienated parents can provide their children, even in the face of the sad truth that this may not be enough to bring back the child.

With alienating parents, it is important to emphasize that as responsible parenting involves respecting the other parent’s role in the child’s life, any form of denigration of a former partner and co-parent is harmful to children. Children’s connections to each parent must be fully respected, to ensure their well being, as children instinctively know, at the core of their being, that they are half their mother and half their father. This is easier said than done, as alienating parents are themselves emotionally fragile, with a prodigious sense of entitlement and need to control (Richardson, 2006), and thus pose significant clinical challenges. Yet poisoned minds and instilled hatred toward a parent is a very serious form of abuse of children. When children grow up in an atmosphere of parental alienation, their primary role model is a maladaptive, dysfunctional parent. It is for this reason that many divorce specialists (e.g., Fidler and Bala, 2010) recommend custody reversal in such cases, or at least a period of separation between a child and an alienating parent during the reunification process with an alienated parent. I have come to believe, however, that the means of combating alienation should not themselves be alienating, and that a non-punitive approach is most effective, with co-parenting being the primary goal. Thus engaging and involving the alienating parent in reunification programs, whenever possible, is critical (Sullivan et al, 2010).

Finally, it is often quite difficult to discern who is the alienating and who is the targeted parent in alienation cases. Thus equal or shared parenting is clearly preferable to primary residence or sole custody orders in potential alienation cases, as courts are ill-equipped to assess the dynamics attendant to parental alienation, and co-parenting is preventive of alienation.

Baker, A. (2010). “Adult recall of parental alienation in a community sample: Prevalence and associations with psychological maltreatment.” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 51, 16-35.

Fidler, B. and Bala, N. (2010). “Children resisting postseparation contact with a parent: Concepts, controversies, and conundrums.” Family Court Review, 48 (1), 10-47.

Friedlander, S. & Walters, M.G. (2010). “When a child rejects a parent: Tailoring the intervention to fit the problem.” Family Court Review, 48 (1), 98-111.

Warshak, R. (2010). “Family Bridges: Using insights from social science to reconnect parents and alienated children.” Family Court Review, 48 (1), 48-80.

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The impact of parental alienation on parents

Posted on September 2, 2013. Filed under: story | Tags: , , , |

Published on May 2, 2013 by Edward Kruk, Ph.D.

In this second installment of our three-part series on parental alienation, we turn our attention to alienated (targeted) and alienating parents. Parental alienation is the “programming” of a child by one parent to denigrate the other (targeted) parent, in an effort to undermine and interfere with the child’s relationship with that parent, and most often occurs within the context of a child custody conflict. This includes the “legal abuse” of parents who have been disenfranchised from their children’s lives subsequent to sole custody and primary residence judgments. Within an adversarial legal process, non-custodial parents are often subjected to shame and stigma, lack of access to their children, and devaluation of their role as parents. And those who speak about the pain and woundedness in their lives are subjected to a mean-spirited cultural response, where their talk of woundedness is mocked.

Most alienated parents are non-custodial fathers, and engaging these fathers is a significant challenge, as clinical and research literature has described the lack of “fit” between fathers and therapeutic agents as emanating from two sources: the characteristics of men and fathers themselves (their resistance to counseling and therapy), and aspects of the therapeutic process (which have failed to successfully engage fathers). Patterns of traditional gender-role socialization directing men toward self-sufficiency and control, independent problem-solving and emotional restraint have largely worked against fathers being able to acknowledge personal difficulties and request help. A fear of self-disclosure and a feeling of disloyalty to one’s family in exposing family problems are not uncommon; a fear of losing control over one’s life and the need to present an image of control or a “facade of coping” in the form of exterior calm, strength, and rationality, despite considerable inner turmoil, characterize many fathers. Professional service providers do not always consider such psychological obstacles to therapy and thus do not address fathers’ unique needs. The research on divorced fathers is clear about their most pressing need: their continued meaningful involvement with their children, as active parents. The lack of recognition of this primary need is the main reason for therapists’ lack of success in engaging alienated fathers.

Above all, the key to engaging alienated parents is to validate their parental identity, and combine advocacy efforts with counseling focused on enhancing their role as active and responsible parents. Human service professionals have been notably absent in the politics of reform with respect to the issue of legal child custody, yet they are desperately needed as allies in policy reform efforts. An important role of human service professionals in supporting alienated parents is through such advocacy and activism, challenging the custodial/non-custodial and residential/non-residential parent dichotomy and advancing the cause of co-parenting.

An active program of outreach is essential as alienated parents report a lack of effective support services, and they remain a highly vulnerable population. Service providers need to be persistent and proactive, as it takes time to build and sustain engagement in the context of these parents’ feelings of isolation, helplessness, and their tendency to wait until there is a crisis before accessing support. Parents who were highly involved with and attached to their children and suddenly find themselves forcefully removed from their children’s lives experience profound woundedness. The experience of being removed as a loving parent from the life of one’s child via a sole custody order strikes at the heart of one’s being. Suicide rates are reported to be of “epidemic” proportions among alienated parents struggling to maintain a parenting relationship with their children (Kposowa, 2000); and legal abuse has been noted as a key factor in these cases. Being vigilant regarding symptoms of post-traumaticstress and suicidal ideation among non-custodial and alienated fathers and mothers is an essential role for service providers. A strengths-based approach, recognizing alienated parents’ aspirations to their children’s well being and the experience, knowledge and skills that they can contribute to this well being, while maintaining the high road in addressing the alienation, is vital.

And finally, what about the alienating parent, who uses a combination of fear, lies, flattery and gratification of material desires to win over their child, and whose sense of entitlement and desire to control the child is greater than the desire to nurture and care for the child? As Amy Baker writes, parents who try to alienate their child from the other parent subtlely or overtly convey a three-part message to the child: I am the only parent who loves you and you need me to feel good about yourself; the other parent is dangerous and unavailable; and pursuing a relationship with the other parent jeopardizes your relationship with me. Alienating parents are themselves emotionally fragile, often enmeshed with the child, with a “sense of entitlement, needing control, knowing only how to take” (Richardson, 2006). Yet although it is easy to pathologize and blame such parents, it must be remembered that alienating behavior is encouraged in the context of a legal adversarial forum where the goal is to “win” the custody or residence of one’s child. And although some would recommend a solution of removing child custody from alienating parents and placing children in the care of non-alienating parents, it is often very difficult to adjudicate who actually is the alienating and who is the targeted parent. Family law judges are not trained in the finer points of child development and family dynamics, and can be easily swayed by legal arguments made on behalf of disputing parents, including alienating parents.

On the matter of parental alienation, I have come to see that the problem is systemic in nature; that is, the problem lies primarily in the adversarial nature of legal determination of parenting after divorce. Parents are set up to fight in an effort to win “primary residence” or “custody” of their children, and the system tends to reward those skilled in adversarial combat. Parents often win their case by disparaging the other parent as a parent, in effect engaging in alienating behaviors, and the system thereby encourages and produces alienating behavior. A legal presumption of co-parenting, rebuttable in established cases of child abuse and family violence, may in fact be the most effective means of combating parental alienation and curtailing its damaging consequences, while at the same time protecting the safety and well-being of children at risk of abuse.

The final installment of our three-part series on parental alienation will examine programs, services and interventions that combat alienation, and seek to reunite estranged parents and their children while addressing the significant clinical challenges in working with alienating parents.

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The Impact of Parental Alienation on Children

Posted on September 2, 2013. Filed under: story | Tags: , , |

Published on April 25, 2013 by Edward Kruk, Ph.D. in Co-Parenting After Divorce

I offer the first installment of a three-part series examining (1) the impact of parental alienation on children, (2) the effects of parental alienation on parents, and (3) programs, services and interventions that combat alienation and seek to reunite estranged parents and their children.

What children of divorce most want and need is to maintain healthy and strong relationships with both of their parents, and to be shielded from their parents’ conflicts. Some parents, however, in an effort to bolster their parental identity, create an expectation that children choose sides. In more extreme situations, they foster the child’s rejection of the other parent. In the most extreme cases, children are manipulated by one parent to hate the other, despite children’s innate desire to love and be loved by both their parents.

Parental alienation involves the “programming” of a child by one parent to denigrate the other “targeted” parent, in an effort to undermine and interfere with the child’s relationship with that parent, and is often a sign of a parent’s inability to separate from the couple conflict and focus on the needs of the child. Such denigration results in the child’s emotional rejection of the targeted parent, and the loss of a capable and loving parent from the life of the child. Psychiatrist Richard Gardner developed the concept of “parental alienation syndrome” 20 years ago, defining it as, “a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent’s indoctrinations and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent.” Children’s views of the targeted parent are almost exclusively negative, to the point that the parent is demonized and seen as evil.

As Amy Baker writes, parental alienation involves a set of strategies, including bad-mouthing the other parent, limiting contact with that parent, erasing the other parent from the life and mind of the child (forbidding discussion and pictures of the other parent), forcing the child to reject the other parent, creating the impression that the other parent is dangerous, forcing the child to choose between the parents by means of threats of withdrawal of affection, and belittling and limiting contact with the extended family of the targeted parent. In my own research on non-custodial parents who have become disengaged from their children’s lives (Kruk, 2011), I found that most lost contact involuntarily, many as a result of parental alienation. Constructive alternatives to adversarial methods of reconnecting with their children were rarely available to these alienated parents.

Parental alienation is more common than is often assumed: Fidler and Bala (2010) report both an increasing incidence and increased judicial findings of parental alienation; they report estimates of parental alienation in 11-15% of divorces involving children; Bernet et al (2010) estimate that about 1% of children and adolescents in North America experience parental alienation.

There is now scholarly consensus that severe alienation is abusive to children (Fidler and Bala, 2010), and it is a largely overlooked form ofchild abuse (Bernet et al, 2010), as child welfare and divorce practitioners are often unaware of or minimize its extent. As reported by adult children of divorce, the tactics of alienating parents are tantamount to extreme psychological maltreatment of children, including spurning, terrorizing, isolating, corrupting or exploiting, and denying emotional responsiveness (Baker, 2010). For the child, parental alienation is a serious mental condition, based on a false belief that the alienated parent is a dangerous and unworthy parent. The severe effects of parental alienation on children are well-documented; low self esteem and self-hatred, lack of trust, depression, and substance abuse and other forms of addiction are widespread, as children lose the capacity to give and accept love from a parent. Self-hatred is particularly disturbing among affected children, as children internalize the hatred targeted toward the alienated parent, are led to believe that the alienated parent did not love or want them, and experience severe guilt related to betraying the alienated parent. Their depression is rooted is feelings of being unloved by one of their parents, and from separation from that parent, while being denied the opportunity to mourn the loss of the parent, or to even talk about the parent. Alienated children typically have conflicted or distant relationships with the alienating parent also, and are at high risk of becoming alienated from their own children; Baker reports that fully half of the respondents in her study of adult children who had experienced alienation as children were alienated from their own children.

Every child has a fundamental right and need for an unthreatened and loving relationship with both parents, and to be denied that right by one parent, without sufficient justification such as abuse or neglect, is in itself a form of child abuse. Since it is the child who is being violated by a parent’s alienating behaviors, it is the child who is being alienated from the other parent. Children who have undergone forced separation from one of their parents in the absence of abuse, including cases of parental alienation, are highly subject to post-traumatic stress, and reunification efforts in these cases should proceed carefully and with sensitivity (research has shown that many alienated children can transform quickly from refusing or staunchly resisting the rejected parent to being able to show and receive love from that parent, followed by an equally swift shift back to the alienated position when back in the orbit of the alienating parent; alienated children seem to have a secret wish for someone to call their bluff, compelling them to reconnect with the parent they claim to hate). While children’s stated wishes regarding parental contact in contested custody should be considered, they should not be determinative, especially in suspected cases of alienation.

Hatred is not an emotion that comes naturally to a child; it has to be taught. A parent who would teach a child to hate or fear the other parent represents a grave and persistent danger to the mental and emotional health of that child. Alienated children are no less damaged than other child victims of extreme conflict, such as child soldiers and other abducted children, who identify with their tormentors to avoid pain and maintain a relationship with them, however abusive that relationship may be.

In the second installment on parental alienation, I will examine the effects of parental alienation on targeted parents, and suggest a range of strategies for preventing and intervening in these cases in the third.

Related Articles

Baker, A. (2010). “Adult recall of parental alienation in a community sample: Prevalence and associations with psychological maltreatment.” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 51, 16-35.

Bernet, W. et al (2010). “Parental alienation and the DSM V.” American Journal of Family Therapy, 38, 76-187.

Fidler, B. and Bala, N. (2010). “Children resisting postseparation contact with a parent: Concepts, controversies, and conundrums.” Family Court Review, 48 (1), 10-47.

Kruk, E. (2011). Divorced Fathers: Children’s Needs and Parental Responsibilities, Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.

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