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Family Wars: The Alienation of Children
(provided by Dr. Peggie Ward)

II. Harm to the Child

All litigation concerning children can effect their healthy growth and development negatively. The greater the acrimony and the greater the part that the children need or are asked to play in the litigation, the greater the potential for harm. To judges and lawyers involved in severely acrimonious cases, this is obvious. It is less apparent to the legal system that, when the parents are divorced or separated, parental conflict concerning the children in the presence of children also causes harm.

The persistent quality of the conflict combined with its enduring nature seriously endangers the mental health of the parents and the psychological development of the children. Under the guise of fighting for the child, the parents may succeed in inflicting severe emotional suffering on the very person whose protection and well-being is the presumed rationale for the battle. " (emphasis added).

It is psychologically harmful to children to be deprived of a healthy relationship with one parent.

"Visitation agreements must insure that the emotional bond of the child with both parents is protected. There is substantial research that indicates that children need contact with adults of both sexes for balanced development"

With the exception of abuse, there is no good reason why a child should not want to spend some time with each of her parents, and, even with abuse, most children still - want to maintain some relationship with the abusive parent. It is the job of the parents, the professionals and the courts to see that such contact is possible under safe circumstances.

While alienating messages and behavior affect a child negatively and impact upon the child's growth and development, the impact on the child may not vary with the parent's intentions. The effect will be to place the child in a severe loyalty bind, a position wherein the child believes she\he must chose which of her two parents she\he will "love" more. To have to choose between parents is itself damaging to the child, and, if the end result is the exclusion of a parent from the child's life, the injury is irreparable.

There is a continuum of alienating parental behaviors which cause harm to children, and all positions on this continuum need be of concern to the professionals and the Courts. Some of the behavior is scarcely detectable with the result that attorneys and the court system a loss over the alienation as a "normal " part of the divorce or litigation process.

All families are made up of individuals who live together in relatively stable intimate groups with the ostensible purpose of supporting and caring for each other. Family members develop their own rules and boundaries, spoken and unspoken, about the ways that they will behave with each other, cohabit, be intimate, support and care for each other. Each family's rules and boundaries are unique and change over time to reflect modifications in membership. The evolving needs of its members and the realities the outer world places on the family, such as schedules, finances, etc. Most of the time changes in the family system are gradual and evolving, but some events force cataclysmic upheaval in the system. Divorce is usually such an event.

Unless a separating family can change its own rules and boundaries without outside intervention, the divorce process itself may reach an impasse, the term applied when the divorce process itself becomes "stuck" and the family system falls to appropriately restructure itself. When there is an impasse, any move by anyone, family member, attorney, spouse, is met with a counter move resulting in no forward progress.

The impasse creates a system of its own, with its own membership, rules and boundaries. Although little recognized by professionals, membership in the divorce impasse system will include all members of the family living together and all professionals involved in "helping," the family get a divorce, i.e. the lawyers, mediators, therapists and even the judge. A divorce impasse can occur at three different levels: an internal level (inside an individual), all interactional level (between two individuals); and/or an external level (within the larger social and familial system. An impasse at any one of the levels will affect the entire system, and and how each individual member responds will affect all members, especially the child.

The children themselves are members in both the changing family system and in the developing broader divorce impasse system. As a member of the family system, a child is attached legally, emotionally and psychologically to each of his parents. As a member of a divorce impasse system, a child is often asked to ally himself with one parent or the other, a request which clearly places the child in a loyalty bind. Sometimes the request, either overtly or covertly. is that the child make the alliance exclusive. All members of the divorce impasse system, including the professionals, are affected by the loyalty struggles and may become polarized.

Information provided by:
Dr. Peggie Ward

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