Messy split-ups can see parents sidelined from their kids

My parents are divorced. At the time it happened I was only nine, and of course it seemed like the end of the world. As any person who has experienced the same knows – it’s a scary feeling to have your family foundations shaken, and sometimes completely uprooted.

But looking back, I can see that I was one of the lucky ones – my parents were civil with each other. They never argued in front of my sisters and me, they never involved us in their marital troubles, and they never tried to make us choose sides.

I am lucky because I know that many other people who have experienced divorce cannot say the same. When my mom remarried, my new stepdad came from a messy divorce. Even well into his new marriage with my mom, strands of his toxic relationship with his ex were held together by the mutual visitation of their kids.

The toll that this unhealthy relationship has taken on his kids became evident when, without any Jocelyn Payne says that despite her bad experience with parental alienation she is not wary of getting married and having her own children.

Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Paynewarning signs, his daughter started refusing to see him in 2012. The toll this took on him was immeasurable. For a guy who is usually happy, respectful and above all a great father, he began to doubt his capability as a father. He was left to wonder what he did wrong to deserve his estrangement. Sometimes he and my mom would get into arguments because he would leave her out of the loop while making last ditch efforts to rebuild his relationship with his daughter. My mom was also at a loss for what to do. There seemed to be no solution. This is known as parental alienation (PA), a painful situation.

Just from seeing how my step-dad dealt with this has shown me how tough PA can be on parents, but the children suffer equally too. When she was 14, Jocelyn Payne said her mother thrust her into a role where she was the leverage to get back at her father for their marriage ending.

Now a 27-year-old insurance broker, Payne said that even now her mother still tries to alienate her from her father, and still blames him for when things go wrong in her life.

Sadly, Payne is not alone. A 2010 Canadian study on PA estimated approximately one fifth of children in custody disputes exhibit alienation behaviours, and some 11 to 15 per cent of children in divorcing families align with one parent and reject the other.

But not all cases are created equal. Off the paper and in the real world it’s never black and white. When assessing for PA, psychologists must ask: Does the child have a justifiable reason for being estranged from the parent? Is one parent actively trying to sabotage the child’s relationship with the other? Or is this is a psychological reaction from the child trying to cope with their parents strained relationship?

Often, problems start when parents in high-conflict divorces lack the capability to see a complete picture of their family dynamic. Since they live apart, they can only interpret and make assumptions about their child’s behaviour from what they see on their side.

If these assumptions had by both parents remain unchecked, they only exacerbate the alienation and trauma on the child, lead to lengthy court trials and custody battles that are heavily taxing both financially and emotionally, and usually only make things worse, according to the writings of Calgary psychologist, Gary Kneier.

Psychology of Parental Alienation

Kneier has worked with sufferers of PA and their families for more than 38 years, often in conjunction with the courts. He believes such adverse reactions in children can be the result of a subconscious psychological coping mechanism, rather than a conscious choice or a result of inadequate parenting.


A study on court outcomes of parental alienation found that in 22 of 175 cases there was no expert evidence used to come to the conclusion that there was parental alienation, raising questions about how the courts come these conclusions.

Photo by Kassidy ChristensenHe gives an example of Mary, a fictional six-year-old with divorced parents. She loves her mom and dad, but since they don’t get along she can only love them one at a time. In the past she would say things about one parent that made the other mad, so now she had to watch what she said. She found it easiest to totally forget about mom when she was with dad, and vice versa. She dreaded when she would have to switch her heart from loving one to the other.

During days with dad she would have fun flying kites or going to McDonald’s or the zoo, but oddly enough, when she was picked up by mom, all she would remember was how her feet were sore because dad made her walk so much, how the fries burnt her mouth, or how the kite kept crashing. Kneier suggests that this “switching reaction” between parents is the child’s subconscious reaction to the incredibly stressful situation of trying to please both parents who don’t get along with one another.

Mom will think that since it seems like Mary isn’t enjoying her visits with dad, that she should decrease them. While dad, who knows his visits with Mary were fun filled, will think mom is trying to sabotage his and Mary’s relationship. Without intervention, this type of conflict between parents can quickly escalate. With the growing difficulty the child faces when attempting to please both parents, it eventually becomes easier to completely alienate one parent (often the dad), and favor the other, so as to not have to continue enduring the pain of switching their love from one parent to another.

“My mom was fighting for things she wasn’t entitled to and at some point my dad just gave up and was like, ‘whatever, if you want it just take it’.” 

– Jocelyn Payne, Daughter

Fighting it out in the courts

Sometimes this situation becomes so severe that, lacking any other options, the alienated parents take the case to court to regain access to their kids. Unfortunately for Jocelyn Payne, her parents’ legal battle only made things worse.

“My mom was fighting for things she wasn’t entitled to and at some point my dad just gave up and was like, ‘whatever, if you want it just take it’,” she said.

One study proves her point. Calgary anthropologists Christine Giancarlo and Kara Rottmann studied 28 parents and grandparents who have used the courts to combat PA, and found “each of the participants in this study invoked legal involvement as a last resort to help their children, but sadly, the effect of Family Law involvement in PA was to make the alienation worse.”

“In all 28 cases they were all good loving parents with excellent relationships with their kids, until the alienation started after separation,” Giancarlo said. She also found that the courts were ill-equipped to manage alienation cases, and legal professionals maximize their profits by letting PA cases drag on unnecessarily long.

“As one of my participants said ‘the lawyers are making money on the backs of the kids’,” Giancarlo said.

Furthermore, she found instances in 79 per cent of participant’s cases, that judges used gender-biased language, “based on an assumption of ‘deadbeat dad’ or ‘less important parent’”.

Payne believes this stereotype of mothers being the nurturers and fathers being “deadbeats” is the opposite of what is actually happening.

“If courts could look 10 years down the road and actually foresee everything, I think they would see more success rates of giving the children to the men, in my experience there are way more deadbeat moms.”

Kneier writes that if the parents can co-operate, that is the first step for alienation reactions in children to be remedied. However, without co-operation alienated parents can only hope their child will re-establish a relationship with them some day in the future, and must brace themselves for the potential that the day might not come. On the other hand, legal action seems to only make things worse.

For all intents and purposes, the victims of parental alienation are truly stuck between a rock and a hard place.

tbortsmayer@cjournal.ca 

Editor’s Note: The thumbnail photo is courtesy of Pixabay