Sunday, June 4, 2017
Children, Family Systems, and Parental Alienation
Yesterday I was listening to an audio recording of an appeals court hearing related to a high-conflict divorce and the wish of two teenage daughters to avoid contact with their mother. The father’s attorney brought up the point that one of the girls was headstrong, obstinate, difficult to persuade, and always had been so. The characteristics attributed to the girl were presented as an argument why the father could not force her to visit her mother, but there was no mention of the role her characteristics might have played in her initial reluctance to have contact with one of her parents.
When children of high-conflict divorces have strong preferences for one parent and avoid the other parent, the non-preferred parent may allege that the preferred parent has intentionally alienated the child and turned him or her against the non-preferred one. This is especially likely to occur if certain attorneys or mental health practitioners or “coaches” are in the picture. These advisers rather piously allude to family systems theory and the need for all members of a family to work together, even though they live apart. They invoke family systems theory as a reason why courts should order changes of custody and forced treatment of children who avoid one parent. They argue that unless a child has a “reasonable” explanation for avoiding a parent, the avoidance must be a result of parental alienation (PA) by the preferred parent; that parent should be punished, and the children should be rescued so they can reunite with the non-preferred parent. (“Reasonable” explanations are limited to substantiated child abuse.)
But let’s look at family systems theory for a minute. This fruitful theory considers all members of a family to bring their unique characteristics into family and dyadic interactions. This means children too, of course—but PA proponents generally focus on the preferred parent, who is described as narcissistic and emotionally disturbed, but who has almost never been seen or interviewed by the person giving this description. Little is said about the personality characteristics of the non-preferred parent, and even less about the personality characteristics of the children.
Going back to the “headstrong” girl described in the first paragraph of this post, let’s speculate (yes, SPECULATE, because no one has really studied this) about how child characteristics could lead to avoidance of a parent even when there was no demonstrable abuse by the non-preferred parent and no intentional or unintentional attempts at alienation by the preferred parent.
What I am about to say has nothing to do with diagnostic categories of mental illness, although a child with real mental disturbance or developmental problems like autism might rather readily come to avoid a parent who did not handle those problems very well. But all children, whether emotionally or mentally typical or atypical, have from the time of birth individual patterns of responsiveness to the environment, created by their own unique constitutions. These patterns are often referred to as patterns of temperament, and although no one could claim that temperament explains everything about personality, this concept is of enormous help to understanding of social interactions and why two people do or do not get along well.
Studies of temperament suggest that the patterns unique to an individual in infancy are stable and are still present at 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, and into adulthood. Naturally children do not continue to express their temperaments in the same ways as they get older, because they mature and learn to behave conventionally, but they do retain basic constitutional characteristics. For example, the person who cried a great deal and was easily distressed as an infant will not cry so much as an older child but will still show more negative mood quality than most other children of the same age.
Research on temperament has focused on characteristics that make an infant difficult to care for. Difficult infants tend to have negative mood quality, to react intensely to internal or external events, and to be slow to adapt to changes. They are often distressed and are hard to soothe. They need a lot of time to get used to new situations like starting out-of-home child care. Because these temperamental characteristics are rather stable, we can predict that these difficult babies will also later be the children who go to the beach all summer but will not go into the water until Labor Day, who cry when there is a clown at the birthday party, and who need to be taken to visit a new school several times before opening day so they will be able to cope.
So what does all this have to do with avoiding the non-preferred parent? Again, let me say that this is pure speculation on my part, because as far as I know work on PA has largely ignored child characteristics (I have just seen one reference to this factor in an on line paper by Bala and Fidler.) But a plausible hypothesis can be offered: children who have the temperament of difficult infants may bring to high-conflict divorce an unusual readiness to prefer one parent and avoid the other. A tendency to a generally negative mood quality pushes such children in the direction of disliking whatever new situation they find themselves in. Intense reactions predispose them to strong distress that may be very difficult for them – or for either of their parents—to tolerate. The factor of poor adaptability means that these children will take a good deal of time before they can feel comfortable with changing circumstances, including new living conditions and contacts with parents’ new romantic partners (and possibly those people’s children). Children of difficult temperaments need appropriate parental support to help them deal with the world and eventually master the skill of looking beyond their own temperamental reactions, but in high-conflict divorces the chances are that neither parent will immediately be able to provide such support. The entire situation seems designed to cause such children to decide that they can only tolerate what is happening if they can choose one parent and stay with that person.
Yes, I’m speculating when I hypothesize about how child temperament may be relevant to PA. But I’m not speculating when I say that family systems theory would demand attention to child characteristics. The question is, which characteristics are the ones that interact with high-conflict divorce to create avoidance of one parent? Temperament is a strong possibility, but not the only one.
N.B. Readers may notice that I don’t speak of children “rejecting” a parent. I believe that language plays into the sense of humiliation and frustration that motivates some non-preferred parents to believe that the former spouse has manipulated the children. To speak of “avoidance” seems to me to make the issue less personal and more focused on the child’s needs and feelings.