From the Pasadena Weekly
Kids caught in the middle of separation need parents focusing on them, not undermining each other
By Patti Carmalt-Vener 04/02/2009
After years of taking my wife’s abuse, I finally had enough the night she threw a cup of coffee at me. When she saw me pack and realized I was serious, she woke our children (ages 7 and 9) and told them I was leaving the family. I’ll never forget the memory of both of them in their bare feet and pajamas as they grabbed my pant legs, crying and begging me to stay. Their mother was shouting she’d never abandon them — even if I did. Although I told them I loved them and would be back soon, I regret I didn’t stay and put them back in bed. The look on their faces when I closed the front door still haunts me. It’s been nine months since I moved out, but no matter how much I try, my kids don’t want much to do with me. Their visits with me are constantly interrupted by their mother’s numerous phone calls. This makes my daughter cry for her mother and it breaks my heart. I believe my children and I could have gotten past that terrible night but their mother constantly bad-mouths me — it’s like they’re brainwashed. I’m seeing a therapist trained to work with dysfunctional families and my attorney is helping me fight for more time with my children. I want what’s best for Hannah and Jacob. They’ve already been through enough. — Brian
Dear Brian, What you’re describing sounds like Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). This usually occurs during a divorce when the attitudes and actions of one parent direct the children into thinking the other parent is corrupt, inferior or even the enemy. Examples of PAS behavior are (1) denigrating the other parent in front of the children, (2) revealing negative details about the marriage or divorce that blames the spouse for breaking up the family, (3) discouraging or withholding visitations, (4) asking the children to choose one parent over the other, and (5) reacting with hurt or sadness to their children’s affection for the other parent. Under these conditions, it’s not uncommon for children who were once affectionate and loving to become hostile or unreceptive.
Alienation is emotional abuse. It’s not your children’s fault. Although they’re helpless to fight for the relationship themselves, they need you to fight for them, even if they don’t realize it. In spite of their rejection, continue to enjoy their company, remain stable and even-tempered, take them on vacations and create healing experiences. Provide them a different point of view to reflect on through contact with friends and family who hold you in high regard and show love and affection to you in front of them. Demonstrate your trust, reliability and responsibility by never breaking your promises or violating court orders. Likewise, you need to refrain from discussing the divorce with them or talking badly about their mother.
Encourage them to talk freely about her and to have her picture in your house. Let them know you believe it’s important for them to be able to love both of you.
Spend quality time alone with each of them. (It’s easier for them to be alienated when they have each other’s support.) Encourage them to think for themselves. If, for instance, they report that their mother says you don’t really care about them, ask “What do you think?” Listen thoughtfully to their answers and show them you’re a good and honorable man who loves them. Make sure to evaluate your own behavior and take responsibility for actions that might be alienating in their own right.
Continue therapy, read and learn as much as possible about good parenting. For starters, I recommend “Divorce Poison” by Richard Warshak and “Between Parent and Child” by Hiam Ginott. Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or visit patticarmalt-vener.com.