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Saturday, November 5, 2016

More Parental Alienation: What Are the Characteristics of Rejected Parents?

Internet sites focused on “parental alienation” (PA) during high-conflict divorces give vivid descriptions of the behavior and moods of children who unreasonably reject and avoid one of the parents, while preferring and seeking the other one. Some such sites also describe the preferred (or “alienating”) parents as suffering from personality disorders like narcissism, which drive them to brainwash children and to make false accusations against the rejected parent. These descriptions are questionable and concerning because in most cases the preferred parent has not been seen by the practitioner who suggests these diagnoses.

There seems to be much less discussion of the characteristics of the rejected parent. Does rejection take place “at random”, so anyone involved in a high-conflict divorce is as likely to be rejected as anyone else in a similar situation? Or are there characteristics and behaviors—other than actual abusive treatment-- that make a parent more likely to be rejected by his or her child? Given that human relationships are ordinarily transactional, or influenced both by characteristics of all members and by time and experience of interaction, it seems most likely that everyone in the conflict contributes something to what happens, whether for good or ill.

Not surprisingly, and quite humanly, rejected parents tend to feel that they have done and said nothing that would make the children reject them. But as it turns out, there have been a few comments on how characteristics of rejected parents may help to drive the process of rejection. These suggestions are not based on careful empirical work with large numbers of cases and so should be considered with some caution, but I think they are worth a look.

Descriptions of characteristics of rejected parents have been given by Barbara Jo Fidler, Nicholas  Bala, and Michael Saini in their 2013 Oxford University Press book Children who resist postseparation parental contact, and were further discussed by Nicholas Bala and Katie Hunter in a 2015 Queen’s University Faculty of Law research paper (“Children resisting contact & parental alienation: Context, challenges, & recent Ontario cases”; 2015-056).

Here are some of the characteristics suggested as more likely to belong to parents rejected by their children in the course of a high-conflict separation and divorce, as described by Bala and Hunter:

·         Harsh, rigid and punitive parenting style
·         Outrage at child's challenge to his/her authority
·          Passivity or withdrawal in face of conflict
·          Immature, self-centered in relation to child
·          Loses temper, angry, demanding, intimidating character traits, but not to level of
abuse (an important point, as a parent may not perceive this “permissible” behavior as problematic—JM)
·          Counter-rejecting behavior (the parent responds to the child’s rejection with coldness and hostility—JM)
·          Lacks empathic connection to child
·         Inept and unempathetic pursuit of child, pushes calls and letters, unannounced or
      embarrassing visits

·          Challenges child's beliefs and/or attitudes and tries to convince them otherwise
·          Dismissive of child's feelings and negative attitudes
·          Induces guilt
·          May use force to reassert parental position (this, of course, may be easier when a court has been persuaded to order treatment including an abrupt custody change, or transport of the child to a treatment facility by hired “transport staff”—JM)
·          Vents rage, blames alienating parent for brainwashing child and takes no

I would add to these points a term that I have not heard used for some years, but which I think describes an important consideration in both high-conflict and other divorces. The term “funneling” has been employed to describe situations where a noncustodial parent  
continues to treat a visiting child just as he or she did when last sharing a home with the child—for example, if the separation occurred when the child was three years old, the parent may continue to read the bedtime stories the child liked then, even if five years have passed, or may continue to come into the bathroom at will even when the child is nearing puberty. These are not abusive behaviors, but certainly demonstrate a lack of empathy and therefore (when combined with other factors) may be part of the picture when the child rejects and avoids the parent.

My point in this post is not to attack or defame rejected parents, but simply to say that because human relationships are largely bidirectional and transactional, it would be surprising if child custody issues did not share those characteristics. Therefore, we could hardly expect rejection of a parent to be due entirely to the character traits and actions of the preferred parent, or even to those of preferred parent and child combined. Neither could we expect genuine changes in relationships to be brought about simply by custody change without serious work to alter the factors the rejected parent brings to the situation.

However, I want to emphasize the fact that none of the descriptions of either preferred parent or rejected parent characteristics are at this point supported by systematic investigation of a large number of cases.

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