What is parental alienation and why does it happen?
Parental alienation syndrome, a term coined in the 1980s by child psychiatrist Dr. Richard A. Gardner, occurs when one parent attempts to turn the couple’s children against the other parent. The effect is that the child becomes estranged from a parent as the result of the psychological manipulation of another parent. The child’s estrangement may manifest itself as fear, disrespect or hostility toward the distant parent, and may extend to additional relatives or parties. There are various reasons for why parental alienation happens. The alienating parent may feel that the target parent was the cause of their marital breakdown and may have unresolved feelings of bitterness toward their ex-spouse. The alienating parent sometimes expresses their underlying resentment by keeping the child out of their ex-spouse’s life, hoping that the parent-child relationship will slowly grow cold. There are also other circumstances where the alienating parent is not actively trying to hurt the target parent, but still unintentionally cause parental alienation. Due to the stresses of divorce, the alienating parent’s originally healthy affection for their child can unknowingly become an excessive attachment to the child. After a divorce, the alienating parent may understandably, but unnecessarily, fear losing the child or not having as much time with the child as they wish. They are not used to having their child stay with their ex-spouse under a different roof from them, even though it may be only one night a week. Their desire to have the child with them at all times may then result in them unintentionally displaying alienating behaviour.
Higher reports of parental alienation during Covid-19
In most cases, the alienating parent is the parent with care and control of the child, also known as the custodial parent. The custodial parent spends more time with the child and has a greater influence over the child than the non-custodial parent. The Covid-19 situation has unfortunately resulted in in a flood of new cases of non-custodial parents reporting that their child access rights are being denied. They blame the custodial parent of encouraging parental alienation and accuse the custodial parent of citing the government’s social distancing measures in bad faith and using it as a cover-up for their behaviour. In reality, the situation may be more complex. In many situations, the custodial parent is genuinely concerned for their child’s safety and understandably wants their child to minimise contact with persons outside of the household. They feel differently from their ex-spouse about what safety precautions should be undertaken to protect their child and believe that child access should be postponed until a later time when the social distancing measures are lightened. Nonetheless, despite the custodial parent’s legitimate concerns, they should note that the government has clarified that any existing court orders on visitation and access orders should be complied with, even during the Circuit Breaker period. On the other hand, even if the non-custodial parent is agreeable to limiting their access rights during the Circuit Breaker period to reduce the risk of transmission and protect their children, they should nevertheless be on the lookout for signs of parental alienation, especially if the custodial parent has displayed such behaviour in the past. Common signs of parental alienation include:
- The child often criticises the target parent and cannot provide any logical reasons for their criticisms.
- The child claims that the criticisms came from themselves and no one influenced them.
- The child refuses to have phone or video calls or other kinds of access with the target parent.
- The child does not feel guilty for hurting the target parent in any way.
- The child demonstrates unwavering support for the alienating parent.
- The child’s ill-feelings toward the target parent begins expanding to extended family members on the target parent’s side.
Action to take when you suspect parental alienation
If you have observed some of the abovementioned signs in your child and you have a strong suspicion that there is parental alienation ongoing, it is imperative that you take action immediately. Firstly, you need to remain calm and keep your emotions under control. It is understandable for anyone to react in anger and hurt when they suspect that their ex-spouse has affected their relationship with their child. However, if you give in to your emotions, you may only reinforce the child’s mistaken perception that you are emotionally unstable and unsuitable to be a parent. In addition, you should keep in mind that your ex-spouse may be unaware that they had been practising parental alienation. It would only make matters worse and co-parenting much more difficult if you confront them as an enemy. Instead, remaining calm and understanding the situation better first before making unnecessary accusations would be the best way to begin restoring your relationship with your child. Secondly, you need to begin documenting everything you believe your ex-spouse may be doing to alienate you from your child. This will include keeping a calendar of all visitations, including missed ones. You should also keep a record of unusual behaviour and speech from your child that may be suggestive of parental alienation by your ex-spouse. Thirdly, you should seek legal advice as soon as possible from an experienced family lawyer. The Singapore courts treat parental alienation very seriously. If there is indeed a strong case for parental alienation taking place, your lawyer will help you to file an application for a variation of parenting orders to place the child under your care and control and limit the alienating parent’s actions. Lastly, you should do your best to keep your child out of the conflict between you and your ex-spouse. Avoid talking poorly about your ex-spouse in the child’s presence and do not show them any court documents. Young children are too immature to process what is going on between their parents but are nonetheless the most affected by the acrimonious relationship. They are often unable to even realise that they have been subjected to parental alienation until much later in their life. Parents have the responsibility to ensure their wellbeing and protect them from harm, even when the harm comes from the other parent.
Action to take when you have been accused of parental alienation
If you find yourself in the opposite position where you have been accused by your ex-spouse of parental alienation, the advice above still largely applies. Remain calm and do not respond to their aggravations. They may not intend to cause trouble for you but are only concerned that they cannot see their child. Gently explain to them your reasons for why the current circumstances make it difficult for you to allow the usual child access. At the same time, do document the steps and actions you are taking to demonstrate that you are keen for your ex-spouse to maintain their relationship with the child, even though you are uncomfortable with the usual access terms. Make your ex-spouse offers of “make-up” access opportunities or facilitate alternative forms of access such as video calls. Finally, if you have concerns that your ex-spouse may be considering legal action against you, you should also seek professional advice from a family lawyer to understand your rights and your obligations better.
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