The Complex Tapestry of Parent-Child Relations emphasizes that the psychology of alienated children cannot be reduced to a single factor. In some cases, the judge has little doubt that one parent is primarily responsible for the child’s alienation. It may be the parent whom the child favors. It may be the rejected parent. In other cases, though, it is difficult to discern the threads that make up the tapestry of alienation. Consider this example.
A child, still feeling unmoored in the early aftermath of her parents’ separation, is reluctant to leave her mother’s home for her first extended stay with her father in his new home. She asks Mom if she can postpone the time with Dad for one more day. Each parent’s response can make things better . . . or make things worse.
Handled insensitively or ineffectively, the girl’s request can lead to a yelling match between the parents where each blames the other for their daughter’s temporary uneasiness. The child may feel pressured to choose sides. If the scene ends with dad storming out of the house, and mom uses this as an opportunity to commiserate with her daughter about what a lousy dad she has, weeks may go by with no contact between father and child. The longer the hiatus in contact, the more the child’s anxiety about her dad freezes into a stubborn refusal to spend time with him. Meanwhile, her younger brother, eager to spend the week with Dad, either cannot understand what the problems are about, or he feels the need to join Dad’s team against Mom.
By the time such a case reaches the courtroom, months later, each parent accuses the other of causing the daughter’s negative attitudes. It can be very difficult for mental health professionals and judges to sort out exactly how Daddy’s favorite girl turned into an obnoxious child who vilifies the man who taught her how to ride a bike, claims she never really had a good time with him, says that she never wants to see him again, and tells a custody evaluator that no one can make her spend time with the father she now refers to as “Bill,” or, simply, “that man.”
Because of this complexity, when judges deal with cases in which it is clear that a child is alienated from a parent (and those who know my work understand that I use the term alienated the way it has been used for several hundred years, with no implication about the cause, or reasonableness, of the ruptured relationship), but the causes of the alienation are less clear, I recommend that judges focus on the question, “Is this child’s rejection of this parent in the child’s best interest?” The question deemphasizes a search to apportion blame. Instead, it focuses on the child’s welfare.
Naturally, the court will strive to understand the type of environment that each parent is likely to provide for the child. If the court determines that a rejected parent is likely to physically harm the child, either through abuse or neglect, that the child is truly better off having no contact with a parent, and that the child is being reasonable in harboring hostility or fear toward that parent, the court will want to protect the child from such contact.
If the court determines that the rejected parent is someone who would provide safe and loving care and with whom the child previously enjoyed a positive relationship, and the other parent is emotionally harming the child by pressuring the child to give up a relationship with a good-enough parent, the court will want to protect the child from such negative influences.
Even when the court is unsure of the extent to which the favored parent contributes to the child’s rejection of the other parent, the court may find that the child’s best interests would be served by healing the damaged parent-child relationship. The court can then explore the various options for accomplishing this goal and promoting the child’s best interests. [For an in-depth discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of the main options, see my peer-reviewed article, Family Bridges: Using Insights From Social Science To Reconnect Parents and Alienated Children.]
If the court chooses to enforce an expectation that the child have contact with the rejected parent, a plan can be developed to help the family without blaming the favored parent. Even if the court suspends contact between the child and the favored parent for an extended period of time, this need not be framed as punishing the favored parent. The court may conclude, without elucidating all the reasons, that the desired repair of the parent-child relationship will be more difficult to achieve if the child has regular contact with the favored parent. The court may believe that the favored parent’s behavior will interfere with the healing process. Or, the court may believe that when the child is in the presence of the favored parent, he or she feels internal pressure to reject the other parent, even if this pressure is not coming from (or is no longer coming from) the favored parent. Or, the court may simply believe that an extended period of time in the exclusive care of the rejected parent will compensate for the prior prolonged absence of contact between the child and parent.
My main point: in some cases it will be easier for the court to determine whether it is in a child’s best interests to disown a parent, than it will be for the court to tease out the various factors responsible for a child’s alienation from a parent.