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Over the years I’ve lived through and noticed a number of disturbing behaviors in the complicated and contentious area of child custody during divorce proceedings. It is almost as though a psychotic element of personality can emerge when two people, once lovers and friends, turn to enemies. Suspicion, paranoia, hatred and massive distortions of reality can emerge. When children are involved they can be used and therefore traumatized in the divorce war.
Judges, attorneys, and guardian ad litmus – in fact the litagatious process itself, polarizes the couple further. The system builds in the fact that there are two opposing forces, three when the children are represented by their own attorney. This ultimately promotes a warlike atmosphere which undermines collaboration and rational thinking.
If we look back in our recent history, with the advent of World War II, the men left for war (and a relatively small number of women too) while women took their places in factories and the workplace. That was a taste of freedom and power for women. It was followed by another women’s liberation movement in the 1960’s bringing the concept of equality a step further. Women went to work – they did not nor do they get equal pay – but as they left for work, the parents role moved more to the center. Now both male and female, father and mother go to work. Now they both tend to be part time parents and full time workers. Although there is still a tendency for women to be expected to do it all – working, parenting, cooking, cleaning and taxi – the new parent generation tends to be heading in the direction of fully sharing the parental role.
As is so often the case we see inadvertent consequences to events. A reactive movement followed in which men sought to regain perceived power lost and it played out within the polarized family. The courts went from the presumed natural right of the mother to be the primary parent to an equalization of custody and parenting rights. Unless proven as incompetent, the father was given 50 percent custody.
This then sets up the child as a ping-pong ball between the two parents. The child is honored by both parents in a split arrangement, but is always on the move. The suitcase and the calendar became preeminent in the child’s life. The mantra, “In the child’s best interest” has moved to a new level. What is actually in the child’s best interest? Society has moved to an understanding that, although it is hard for children to move around, they need both parents equally. We have recently moved to the concept of “nesting” in which the parents move in and out while the child stays in the family home. This is done with small children and for a limited time since each parent seeks to move forward in their lives, past this level of connection with their ex or soon-to-be ex.
However, complications do arise. When one parent uses the child against the other parent we have seen a tremendous increase in battles over custody. The fight for “full custody” leads to a denigration of one parent so that they are punished with less time with their child.
Another potential complication: What if one of the parents is abusive and manipulative? What if that is the very reason for the divorce? What if the manipulative tactics play out in the “parenting plan” and child custody arena?
With this as backdrop to our discussion, here are some ways in which parents hurt their children in their quest for control and power.
1. Undermining the other parent
This is far more common than is publically known. The devastation to all involved is profound, especially to the child. During separation and divorce one parent may subtly or overtly deprecate or criticize the other parent. The alienating parent may undermine the authority of the other parent in front of the child, thereby actively giving permission for the child to do the same.
In the process of a separation and divorce, as outlined above, one parent actively undermines the other parent to the child, thereby using their influence to convince the child that the other parent is bad, inadequate, an abandoner. This all to the end of winning the child over “to their side.” It is like stealing the child’s own mind away from the “enemy” parent. I have seen this when one parent shamelessly cries to the child as a victim of the other parent, eliciting the child’s sympathy. If the child feels sorry for that parent it follows that the other parent is vilified.
Child stealing can occur by someone other than the parent. A subversive person who represents him or herself as a rescuer, friend/better parent to the child can undermine the relationship between parent and child. I have seen this in a “family friend’ who set herself up as a better parent figure – lenient, supportive, permissive. “Bad parent – good “rescuer.”
Dr. Richard A. Gardner, forensic psychiatrist, coined the term “Parental Alienation Syndrome” in the 1980s. It has been largely discounted in the psychiatric field and is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – but the concept holds some truths, from my perspective, in some families of divorce. The destructive force unleashed by a vindictive parent against the other by using the child as weapon is truly a dark and destructive force. Working hidden behind a façade of normalcy the alienating parent sacrifices the child in order to attack and eviscerate the alienated parent.
What may be most controversial about this “syndrome” is an understanding that the child, at some point, actively aligns him or herself, with the offending parent. While the child may feel that they have come independently upon the belief that the alienated parent is bad, weak, inferior – they may be unaware that the offending parent has hijacked their newly developing cognitive functioning.
The neophyte personality of the child is then formed around a belief system based on hate. The “splitting” phenomenon – seeing the world in black and white, good and bad terms jells, unless caught and treated early on. The child may then “identify with the aggressor,” aligning him or herself with the “winner” in the battle of warring parents.
In severe cases, the child is without conscience in brutally attacking the alienated parent. Another characteristic seen in the child of this form of abuse is the irrational and baseless criticism and the failure to recognize the loving or positive aspects of the rejected parent.
This can be done by either parent – mother or father. It was first identified as being done predominately by women, but I have seen it both ways. No matter, the result is devastating either way.
Another way in which one parent may undermine the other is through the financially bankrupting the other parent. The abuser, usually the male (not always!), undermines the ability of the mother to successfully parent the child by giving her as little money as possible, possibly hiding assets or underreporting of income to the court.
Parentification is a word used to denote a pattern of exploiting the child to meet the parent’s needs. This then subverts the child’s ability to meet their own needs. This can be seen as a form of “taking away the child’s childhood.” Another variation is the parent treating the child as a “friend or confidante.” In some instances the father turns his daughter into the “little wife.” This occurs following divorce with or without sexualization where the father of a girl treats his daughter as he did his wife. Usually done to a female child, she is expected to do the housework, make meals and take care of younger children.
In stealth abuse toward children, a parent may sleep with the child for his or her own needs. In some cases overt sexual behavior, molesting or rape can occur. Even if this is not the case, by sleeping with the child beyond infancy, there is a covert, indirect sexualization that can occur. If not overtly sexual toward the child undertones of incest reverberate. In some cases, known or unknown to the parent, the child is actually used to protect herself from an abuser husband.
4. Covert neglect
Neglect can be a passive form of abuse, which has at its base failure to meet the needs of the child. During divorce cases sometimes neglect of the child is done to “get back at” the other parent.
For example, bringing the child back without a coat on a cold winter day sacrifices the child in order to force the other parent to buy an additional coat. Feeding the child a carb and sweet-filled diet in the face of a child’s obesity is neglecting the real needs of the child for appropriate nutrition.
Here is another example: The mother calls her ex, the child’s father, in order to notify him that she is bringing the child to the clinic for diagnosis and treatment, since the child had a 102 fever. The father then speaks to the child urging her not to go to the clinic, undermining the mother’s authority to make an appropriate medical decision.
Emotional vacating is a passive form of emotional abandonment. Often this generates in the child a longing for contact and connection. This can have lifelong effects causing the child, later adult, to be drawn to emotionally unavailable people in the hopes that this time they will be valued and loved.
Workaholism is another avoidant behavior. In the name of making money to support the family, excess work can be an escape from intimacy. A form of emotional vacating, it leads to the same kind of longing for connection.
Alcoholism and drug addiction generate even more pain since the parent vacates emotionally when numb from substance abuse, but also dysfunctional behaviors, violence, blaming and a myriad of other disturbed behaviors are induced.
5. Covert abuse
“Collateral damage” in a divorce can occur when a parent rejects a child because they look like or act like the rejected parent. Through no fault of their own the child is scapegoated; anger is displaced on that child from the other parent and the result can be devastating.
On the other hand, a pattern of preferential treatment of one child over the other can occur if that child is seen to look like, act like the offending parent. That child is not seen as him or herself, but rather as a function of the parent. At times the reverse is true: If the parent has unconscious self-hate the child that is most like them can be targeted. It is as though they can’t stand looking “in the mirror.”
Another convoluted form of covert abuse comes in the form of triangulation or favoritism. By pitting siblings against each other they are led to believe that there is only so much love to go around, so they need to fight in the bid for parental favor. I have seen this acted out decades later in families with feuds carried on even to the death of the parent!
6. Failed promises
Especially during separation and divorce one parent may make commitments to pick up the child or make some plan, and fail to show up, or be consistently late, leaving the child bereft. The child waits, looking out the window, ready and dressed to go. When the parent fails to appear, the tragic result is low self-esteem and self doubt. Inside, they may be saying, “If my own mother (father) doesn’t love me, who will?” The extreme failed promise is abandonment.
On the opposite end of the spectrum of child usage/”slavery” is over-indulgence thereby creating false expectations in the child and engendering feelings of entitlement.
Permissive parenting in combination with over-indulgence generates a child who “has been given everything but the checkbook.” Since children are immature beings who are essentially self-focused (with rare exception), parents who give the power and control to the child end up with a narcissistic, angry and demanding child. What may be thought of as loving attention and care, if overdone without accountability can be just as damaging as many other forms of abuse.