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


There are many motivational factors that could cause a parent to want to alienate her child from the child's other parent. An alienating parent most likely has strong underlying feelings and emotions left over from earlier unresolved emotional issues which have been resuscitated and compounded by the pain of the divorce. The individual, in attempting to ward off these powerful and intensely uncomfortable feelings, develops behavioral strategies that involve the children. One solution to the pain and anger is to sue for custody of the child and to endeavor to punish the other parent by seeking his exclusion. The internal world of all alienating parent can have complex and multifarious origins which are beyond the scope of this article.

If the motivating factors are unconscious or subconscious, the alienating parent may not feel and/or may not be aware of the feelings and emotions described above. Unaware parents may deny to lawyers and judges both motivation and behavior quite convincingly, but nonetheless, may be involved in alienating behavior.

Parents may also be aware of their angry or hopeless feelings but may consciously desire to protect the child. They tell their attorneys and the court of their conscious plans; however, despite the conscious desires, they may, unintentionally and unwittingly, engage in alienating behavior, driven by less conscious needs. Frequently, the unconscious or unintentional alienating behavior results in the milder forms of alienation of the child from the target parent. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize the concrete signs of alienating behavior in order to thwart the development of alienation.

The courts should not tolerate alienating behavior simply because the intention to alienate is denied. The disavowal of alienation and active verbal espousal of relationship may be quite convincing and mislead lawyers and judges from the actual truth of the alienation.

Neither should the courts predicate a custody award on the hopes that the behavior witnessed and cited in court is merely a product of the acrimony generated by the litigation. Parties engaged in a high conflict divorce may show their worst behavior to all, but it is impossible to predict, as the courts so often wish they could do, whether this behavior will lessen after the final resolution of the case. In a case in which the Plaintiff father was awarded custody against the recommendation of the Guardian ad Litem, the Marital Master concluded:

Here, the master has been witness to a divorce impasse which may not resolve itself without intervention, and the parties' statements of good intentions should not be relied upon to bring about a reversal of a behavioral trend already witnessed.

Information provided by:
Dr. Peggie Ward

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