Understanding Hostile Aggressive Parenting Behavior Used to Sever the Parent-Child Relationship

March 7th, 2021 by dayat No comments »

When I first married, I didn’t realize there was a 50 percent chance that my marriage would end in divorce. During our marriage, we had a child and again, I didn’t realize that there was a one in six chance my divorce would turn out to be “high conflict,” and that my child would be used by an angry and vindictive ex to avenge the failure of our marriage. Over the years since my divorce, the mother’s behavior has only intensified. Eventually, I came to learn the meaning of terms such as Parental Alienation (PA), Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), and Hostile Aggressive Parenting (HAP), and experienced how easily the family court system can be manipulated by false allegations.

In 1985, Dr. Richard Garner, a forensic psychiatrist, introduced the concept of PAS in an article, “Recent Trends in Divorce and Custody Litigation,” in which he defined PAS as “a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child-custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of programming (brainwashing) by the other parent and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the targeted parent.” Several years later, Ira Daniel Turkat introduced “Divorce-Related Malicious Mother Syndrome.” Behaviors associated with both syndromes are relatively similar, encompassing hostile aggressive parenting behavior in an attempt to alienate the child from the other parent. However, the latter focuses on the mother’s behavior whereas PAS can relate to both the mother and the father. Presently, PA or PAS are the common terms used to define the practice of attempting to alienate a child or children from a parent, regardless of gender.

The American Psychological Association’s (APA) official statement on PAS notes “the lack of data to support so-called parental alienation syndrome and raises concern about the term’s use.” However, the APA states it has “no official position on the purported syndrome.” Advocates against PAS believe it is a form of psychological child abuse, and the APA’s refusal to address PAS leaves “targeted parents” lacking needed resources to fight the problem. At the same time, there are those who discount the validity of PAS and believe it is used as an excuse by abusive parents during custody challenges to explain “the animosity of their child or children toward them.” In certain cases, that may very well be true.

In his article, “New Definition of Parental Alienation: What is the Difference Between Parental Alienation (PA) and Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)?” Dr. Douglas Darnall focuses on the behavior and defines “parental alienation (PA), rather than PAS, as any constellation of behaviors, whether conscious or unconscious, that could evoke a disturbance in the relationship between a child and the other parent.” Simply put, PA is teaching the child to hate the other parent, leading to estrangement from the parent. By concentrating on the behavior, Dr. Darnall presents a more pragmatic approach to acceptance of PA by attorneys, therapist and family courts.

The tactics or tools that parents use to alienate a child range from simple badmouthing the other parent in front of the child; encouraging others to do likewise, until the child is bombarded with negative remarks on a daily basis; to reporting accusations of abuse or neglect to child protective services or family court. This behavior is known as Hostile Aggressive Parenting. One tactic that author John T. Steinbeck describes in Brainwashing Children is that some “hostile parents who remarry will have the child or children call the stepfather, ‘daddy,’ as a technique used to devalue the biological parent.” Parental Alienation Syndrome is a condition. Hostile Aggressive Parenting is the behavior.

Hostile aggressive parents are unable to move on. They are stuck in the past and focused on avenging the failure of their marriage and the control they had during the marriage. They manipulate the family court and child protective services in an attempt to continue control over their ex-spouse. They accept no responsibility for their actions, blame everyone, and place themselves above the child’s own interest. Therapist turned family law attorney Bill Eddy notes in his article “Personality Disorders and False Allegations in Family Court” that there is a “prevalence of personality disorders in high conflict divorce and custody cases in which false allegations are used.” The most prevalent of these is Borderline Personality Disorder, followed by Narcissistic Personality, and Anti-Social Personality Disorder. This accounts for the lack of empathy toward the child’s emotional state, and the ability to manipulate family court and child protective services so easily. Parents with anti-social personality disorders will play the “victim.” They are experts at manipulating and lying because they actually believe their lies to justify what they are doing.

Not all children can be taught to hate. Some have a very strong bond with the parent. Steinbeck also notes that in certain cases the “alienating parent feels that the other parent has a strong, highly functional relationship with the child or children and is irrationally worried that this positive relationship will somehow affect their relationship with the child.” A child old enough to decide with whom he or she wishes to live with may result in a reversal of financial obligations, as the non-custodial parent is obligated to pay child support and provide medical coverage for the child. HAP may simply be financially motivated. Regardless of the motives, attempting to alienate a child from a parent using hostile aggressive parenting or parental alienation tactics is psychological child abuse.

It is much easier to alienate a child when the child is separated from the parent. False allegations to family court of abuse or neglect will severely limit the relationship between the parent and child and the limited time spent will be under supervision. The Standard Divorce Decree has already reduced the non-custodial parent to a visitor in the child or children’s lives by a visitation schedule of the first, third, and fifth weekends of the month. Now the parent is limited to a “supervised” visitation schedule of three or four hours per month. Supervised visitation programs are just as easily manipulated as family court, e.g., parents simply need to call in at the last minute to seek rescheduling.

Family court will always side with the allegations and the court moves very slowly. Depending on the skill of an attorney, this period of separation could last for months. This gives the “targeting parent” additional time to teach the child to hate the “targeted parent,” as well as draining the “targeted parent’s” financial resources.

An attorney once told me that “the only place people lie more than in family court is at a bar.” Family court is plagued by false allegations simply because they are such an effective tool to quickly sever the parent-child relationship. Family court does not prosecute against false allegations, which is why false allegations have proliferated. Allegations do not need to be specific. Some attorneys advise clients to keep the allegations vague so as not to chance involving investigative agencies such as child protective services, as their reports carry so much weight with the court. An allegation to family court may be as vague as “The father is a danger to the child.” This is enough for the family court to order visitations withheld or supervised, but not specific enough to involve child protective services.

Family court is a guilt-by-accusation system. Once accused, it is the responsibility of the accused to prove the allegations false. The accused parent will most likely be court-ordered to supervised visitations with the child or children, as well as complete a psychological evaluation and meet with mediators and parent coordinators, all at personal cost. He or she also may pay for a forensic investigation, also referred to as a Social Study Evaluation, to prove the allegations false. The accused parent will spend thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands, of dollars proving the accusations false – and in the end, find him/herself financially drained and psychologically exhausted. An accused parent may lose a relationship with the child or children simply because they ran out of money to continue to fight. Unfortunately, this also results in a child losing a loving parent. David Levy, cofounder of the Children’s Rights Counsel and author of The Best Parent is Both Parents, stated: “President Obama talks a lot about absentee fathers who need to take responsibility. (But) he may not realize that there are millions of parents who want to be involved (in their children’s lives).” Fighting for the “child’s right to both parents” is a costly battle – both financially and psychologically. Many parents simply lose because they ran out of money.

The solution is to define “in the best interest of the child” as “the child’s right to both parents,” and then protect that right. Stop ignoring false allegations. Understandably, allegations need to be investigated; however, if proven false, the parent who made the false allegations should be prosecuted. Order that parent to complete a psychological evaluation. Step in to protect the child when you hear your friend or relative making negative remarks about the child’s parent or any other hostile aggressive parenting behavior. Let the child know that both parents love him/her. Encourage those hostile parents to seek therapy to find closure and stop using the child to “get even.” One thing is certain: when a parent is attempting to separate a child from a parent simply to avenge a failed marriage, the child suffers emotional pain. Because this pain was brought on purposely, it is psychological child abuse. If you participate or allow hostile aggressive parenting behavior in an attempt to alienate a child from a parent, you are an accomplice to psychological child abuse. Stand up and protect the child’s right to both parents.

The Good Parent Divorce

February 7th, 2021 by dayat No comments »

“To All Divorcing Parents
Your children have come into this world because of the two of you. Perhaps you two made lousy choices as to whom you decided to be the other parent. If so, that is your problem and your fault. No matter what you think of the other party-or what your family thinks of the other party-these children are one half of each of you.”

When I read this quote by a Family Court Judge I was struck by how strongly I reacted: not only should this be mandatory reading for every divorcing parent, I thought, but there should be steps in place to enforce it somehow! Of course I know that’s not possible, but I feel it should be! Here’s the rest of the quote:

“Remember that, because every time you tell your child what an ‘idiot’ his father is or what a ‘fool’ his mother is, or how bad the absent parent is, or what terrible things that person has done, you are telling the child half of him is bad. That is an unforgivable thing to do to a child. That is not love. That is possession. If you do that to your children, you will destroy them as surely as if you had cut them into pieces, because that is what you are doing to their emotions.
I sincerely hope that you do not do that to your children. Think more about your children and less about yourselves, and make yours a selfless kind of love, not foolish or selfish, or your children will suffer.”
Judge Michael Haas – Family Court Judge, Minnesota, USA

I myself am a product of divorced parents, and also what you would call a ‘multiple divorcee’ while raising a child. I know first-hand how painful it is – to be in either position. The loneliness, confusion and anxiety of being a child feeling torn between your parents, and the anguish and stress of dealing with all the complexities of divorce that parents experience cannot be described as anything but awful. It is easy to see why parents can sometimes fail to notice how deeply the children are affected by the changes going on in their world and the adjustments they have to make.

My own experiences played a significant role in my choice to become a counsellor and advocate for children of divorce. For the last two decades, a large part of my practice time has been spent helping divorcing parents create more conscious and mindful transitions for their children, and in many cases helping them develop collaborative, shared parenting that has resulted in their children becoming well-adjusted adults who have a good relationship with both parents. This is, as you may imagine, not easy but is nonetheless doable and with the right support can even be relatively stress-free!

In the beginning of a family break-up it can be difficult to know what exactly will cause the least amount of damage to the children. Certainly there are many differing beliefs and schools of thought about this, and ultimately in most cases, the parents are the people best equipped to know their child’s needs – as long as they are not so caught up in their own emotions and agendas that their judgment becomes clouded. Unfortunately, this is all too often the case.

The good news is that there are a few basic considerations and some self-questioning that can greatly help parents gain clarity and increase their ability to ‘do the right thing’ by their children.

As parents we want to protect our children, and we may believe we are covering up our own pain and distress and that our children are not aware of how we feel. We may also assume that because a child is not acting out any angst or upset they are handling the situation well. But neither of these assumptions are reliable. For a variety of reasons – depending on their age, stage, temperament, and family dynamics – children will hold their distressed feelings inside. One young six-year old I worked with had convinced him parents that he wasn’t bothered by their divorce for over two years. Finally he developed nightmares so frequently that his mother sought help. The young lad told me with a proud smile; “I have lots of bad feelings but nobody knows, ‘cos I keep them all inside me! You see I don’t want my mamma to feel more bad.” Needless to say the focus of my sessions with him became helping him to find and accept ways to express his emotions. Like many children in the same situation, he had adopted an emotional care-taking role for the parent he felt was suffering, and so he kept his own feelings under wraps to protect that parent from further distress. Interestingly, his mother believed she had successfully hidden her distress from her son. Younger children also often feel responsible for the family break-up even though nothing has been said or done to make them believe such a thing. One seven-year-old girl with parents divorcing told me she knew that if she “a really good girl,” her mother would “let daddy to come back.” A four-year-old brother threw temper tantrums every other night, because he knew that when he screamed for long enough his mother would phone his father and ask him to come over to calm him down. Both children were acutely aware of their father’s sadness (even though dad assured me he had kept it well hidden and they couldn’t possibly know), and both children believed they could bring their parents back together. All children feel their parents’ emotional state; whether the parent shows it or not, and will act according to what they feel rather than what they are told (or not, as the case may be).

This last fact I know not only because both research and counselling experience has informed me, but because I remember vividly what it felt like to ‘know’ my mother’s distress when she told me she was fine; to ‘know’ my parents’ marriage was a charade when they pretended otherwise; and to be told my feelings were wrong when I felt them so clearly. The result was that I began to doubt my own internal ‘knowing’ or intuition, and when I later discovered that these feelings had been right, I became a very angry young person indeed. Years of therapy later, I have since worked with hundreds of people who have similar stories about their childhoods, and children in the midst of comparable situations.

One of the most important ways parents can help their children to feel safe and be resilient in the midst of family break up is to be congruent; i.e. that what you say and do is congruent with what you feel and what is going on around your children. For example: if you are upset, at the very least do not deny it. If you can tell them you are not feeling very happy right now, this may be followed by something like; “I don’t really want to feel upset right now so I’m going to try to make myself feel better.” Then do whatever is appropriate in the moment – whether it’s going for a run or making a cup of tea – so that your child can witness how you may effectively deal with your emotions and that you can take charge of the way you feel. If he or she also feels upset, you might suggest that you sit down together and talk about the feelings, and then figure out what you could do to make yourselves feel better. Most adverse situations can also be great opportunities for learning and building resilience.

I am of course not advocating for parents to share inappropriate and ‘adult’ information with their children. Nor am I suggesting parents confide in or otherwise share their sorrows with children. What I am suggesting is that when you feel upset, and especially when children’s questions indicate that they feel something is not right, you do not deny those feelings. Let them know their feelings are valid, and that there are ways to express and even shift negative emotions, appropriately.

if you are in open conflict with your children’s other parent, any resulting damage to your children can be mitigated when you are able to manage your emotions and the degree to which your discord escalates, particularly when the children are nearby. Regardless of the level of your disagreement, it is vital that children are reassured that they are not to blame, and if they do witness conflict, that they also witness their parents settling the arguments, even if you merely agree to disagree.

Children are not equipped to deal with their parents being in conflict, and certainly not to witness or handle when parents are abusive towards each other. Whatever their age, children are frightened by conflict, as much after divorce as before, and the fear they feel when witnessing fighting, arguing, hostility, withdrawal or disharmony between parents is very real and can be very harmful. One of the ways this can manifest is that children learn to be aggressive and manipulative by watching their parents’ hostility. They can easily develop poor problem-solving skills and negative or disruptive behaviours, all of which may be avoided if the parents are mindful of their influence on their children and learn to manage their own emotion-driven actions.

I want to emphasize here the point made by Judge Haas in my opening quote: that no matter what you think of your children’s other parent, that person is ‘the other half’ of your children and when you speak badly of him or her, you are effectively telling your children that half of them is bad.’ It is worth noting that studies have shown that the conflict between parents can be more damaging to the children than the divorce itself.

Regardless of how badly your marriage or relationship ends, it is not the end of being a parent. It may seem unbelievable at that point but an unsuccessful marriage does not need to mean an unsuccessful co-parenting relationship.

The best interests of children are met when parents can work together to carry out the responsibilities of raising them. Although it may seem daunting at first, collaborative and shared parenting can allow for the responsibility to be shared without over-burdening one parent (as so often occurs with sole custody). Parenting is a privilege as well as a responsibility and children need a relationship with both of their parents – they deserve to have their parents make the effort to collaborate and ensure that this vital need is met. It may be helpful to remember that parents have different skills, roles, and assets that are important to their children, and making the effort to collaboratively co-parent allows you to combine these to more fully and completely meet their children’s diverse needs.

If, however, collaborative parenting is impossible for whatever reason, supporting your children to maintain a consistent relationship with their other parent as well as refraining from dropping negative comments or otherwise speaking negatively about him or her (no matter how tempting it may be), will ensure your child experiences the family break-up with less long-term stress or trauma. If all of this seems overwhelming, it can be most helpful to ‘bring it home’: bring your attention and focus back to yourself, where you actually have some control!

1. Whenever you feel overwhelmed or any other disagreeable feeling, take the time to release the emotion, either physically if you can (run, jump, walk fast, etc.) or by writing in a journal, even screaming into a pillow can help. Then follow that immediately by spending a few minutes slowing down your breathing and lengthening the out-breath, preferably while placing one hand gently on your chest. Notice anywhere you are holding tension (i.e. shoulders) and let it go.

2. Start each morning by focusing on the love you feel for your child or children, and on all that you can appreciate about them and about being their parent. Allow yourself to breathe slowly and feel the feeling of love and appreciation, really feel it!

3. Choose one ‘Parenting In Stress’ behaviour you may be doing from the list below, and make a commitment to exchanging it for a better, kinder, more appropriate behaviour.
1. Threatening
2. Being defensive
3. Reacting from DIS-stress or DIS-ease
4. Lecturing
5. Catastrophizing
6. Fixing and Rescuing
7. Guilt (either acting from guilt or laying guilt on)
8. Shaming
9. Cramming morals
10. Trying to make control look like it’s “for their own good!”
11. Withdrawing love or attention (passive aggressive)
12. Confusing behaviour with identity

Check in with yourself and the list at the end of every week, and re-commit to your new and more positive parenting behaviour.

Divorce or the break-up of a relationship is never easy, especially when children are involved. But increasing your awareness of your and your children’s emotional reality, honouring those emotions and taking steps to better manage them, can all go a long way to improving the experience and making it, if not completely stress-free, at least considerably less stressful!