Parental alienation: Enough blame to go around

BlogHer Original Post

In conversations with some divorced men and while reading blogs by single fathers, I've noticed that during and following unfriendly divorces fathers who don't have physical custody often declare that the mother is affecting parental alienation or is turning the child or children against them. I've noticed that some fathers will blame their children's anger at them on mothers even when the father's own behavior toward their children is reprehensible.

At the end of my last blog, which was a post about Alec Baldwin's phone call to his daughter, Ireland, I said my next blog post would be about "encouraging children of divorce to honor parents even when parents don't act with honor." I decided to talk about it because as Alec Baldwin explained why he spoke so abusively to Ireland he mentioned "parental alienation."

Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is a phrase coined by psychiatrist Dr. Richard Gardner in the 80s. Gardner, who died in 2003, said PAS was a mental disorder suffered by children victimized by mothers who turned children against their fathers with vicious lies. He didn't base his theory on traditional scientific study but on years of personal, professional experience and observation. Mainstream medical and mental health science did not embrace Gardner's conclusions; nevertheless, some mothers who charged fathers with abuse lost custody of their children when attorneys brought Gardner in as an expert witness.

As one critic noted, the acceptance of Gardner's theory seemed driven by people's willingness to believe "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." In other words, Gardner played to bias against women.

Not all judges accepted Gardner's conclusions.

Sol Gothard, an appellate court judge for Louisiana's Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, complains that too many judges don't bother to look into Gardner's record, relying on his resume instead.

"Too many judges making critical decisions relative to child custody do not have the slightest idea of how Dr. Richard Gardner has been thoroughly discredited by the professionals in this area, the social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists," Gothard said.

Some judges considered his other writings and what critics saw as his too lenient stance on pedophilia and wondered if he had other motivations for challenging mothers who charged fathers with abuse. (Source).

I bring up the "parental alienation" terminology because the human tendency to latch onto buzz words fascinates me. I wonder if Alec Baldwin and some of the other fathers who've taken up parental alienation terminology know about its founding father's history and ideas about incest. Also, I get suspicious when anyone starts tossing around big words and fancy names to blame someone else for his/her abusing another person. That's why I looked up parental alienation. Another red flag went up when I noticed that websites at the top of the search were agenda-oriented, slanted. I wasn't directed to scholarly debate.

I'm not saying that some mothers don't need their heads examined and aren't using their children like pawns. What I'm saying is that whenever anyone starts telling me that something as complicated as a dysfunctional relationship is completely the fault of one person and one person only, I get suspicious.

Alienation of parental affection

It's true that in some cases of divorce the mother is actively working to alienate the father from his children. However, it's also true that in some cases during a difficult period of the divorce a mother may speak of her ex husband negatively because he's made her life and the lives of their children extremely difficult. She may speak negatively even when she doesn't realize she's doing so. Neither situation is good for a child, but one passes and the other does not; one indicates a mother's malice and the other does not.

I think when a father is trying his best to be active in his child's life, is clearly interested in what's going on with his child's health and school activities, and wants to make sure the child has whatever he/she needs and the mother is busy sabotaging the father/child relationship, obviously she's wrong. I even think that when the father's a jackass and the mother makes it her mission to point out to the child just how much of a jackass the father is she's still wrong. Children observe and think for themselves. They're watching both parents.

Nonetheless, I think sometimes fathers want to blame mothers for anger their children feel toward them when mothers have not worked against fathers. I think many mothers are left with the dilemma of teaching children to honor fathers when children can see that the father acts without honor.

Double-edged Sword

Honoring parents is not only a Judaeo-Christian concept. Parents, whether from a Judaeo-Christian background or not, like the concept "honor your mother and your father" because they want their children to obey them. In houses where parents know the concept from a church setting and have access to a Bible, mothers or fathers sometimes may be tempted to point the scripture out if they promote reverence of God in their households.

I heard that scripture in my house while growing up. My mother liked to quote it: "The Bible says, 'Honor your mother!'" I needed to hear that. I was a smart mouth.

And then I would hear something else. My father would say, usually under his breath, "The Bible also says, 'Provoke not thy children to anger.'" Hmm. I pondered this.

I am a divorced woman who struggles with myriad guilt issues that I've discussed before. I teach my children to respect their father, but I've stopped spending energy begging them to do so or pleading his case for respect. I've stopped defending or explaining his behavior to his children. I used to do that when we were still married and the marriage was falling apart until I realized my children had begun wondering whether I was daft.

It got a point where I would start out saying something like, "Well, you really shouldn't say that about your father because ..." and I would give them some reasoning about how they were being unfair and judging him and that adults have so many other things going on that children don't know about, etc.

My children, first my daughter and later my son who is much younger than his sister, eventually challenged me and accused me of making excuses for their father. So, I stopped defending him. I want them to have a better relationship with their father, but I finally accepted that's no longer my responsibility. It's his.

What I can do is not do anything to make the relationship worse. I always deliver messages from their father to them. I encourage them to return phone calls. I mention father's day cometh, but I don't pressure them to pursue their father's affections or to spend their energies trying to open dialogue. He's the elder, as he likes to remind them, and with that comes an elder's responsibility. He's the one who should have more wisdom and compassion.

Forgiveness one by one

I realized this when I tried to talk over forgiveness with my daughter, who's also an adult. She basically told me that as long as her father approached her with an attitude that nothing he ever did was wrong, she would have trouble talking to him.

My son also has this attitude, but explains it differently. He's 16.

Divorce takes the entire family through a healing process. I've had to deal with my own rage and learn not to blow up or let my children overhear me rant about something their father's done. Rage control was especially difficult in the past when my ex had done something that meant we might not have food or lights.

It's even harder to keep your lips zipped when your children come to you with complaints about their father that are valid. You have to weigh everything you say carefully and not blast the dad when what you'd really like to say is "you're absolutely right."

My children are older now, and I've been able to say, "You need to address that to your father." Sadly for both him and them, they don't.

My children behave with respect toward their father. Do they feel respect for him? That I don't know. I hope that one day my children have a better relationship with their father, but at some point I let it go. It's their lives and his life. I breathe and forgive on my own.


Nordette Adams' personal blog is Confessions of a Jersey Goddess

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