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Divorce Helping Children Through the Crisis of the Separation
Divorce & Children continuing education addiction counselor CEUs

Section 17
Addressing Parental Alienation Syndrome with Children of Divorce

CEU Question 17 | CEU Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Couples
Psychologist CEs, Social Worker CEUs, Counselor CEUs, MFT CEUs

The Common Enemy
Remarried families are fragile. Children do not choose their stepparents. And adults do not marry in order to acquire stepchildren. The children merely go along with the deal. It takes time for the new family to get used to each other. It takes time to feel like a family. It is even more of a challenge when each adult brings children from a prior marriage. Small wonder that divorce is common in these types of "blended" families. One way to strengthen family cohesiveness is to unite around a common goal. Unfortunately, in some families bad-mouthing and bashing the nonresidential parent becomes that goal. It may be the glue that holds the new family together, that gives them the sense of being on the same team. Even mere significant, while everyone is trashing the other parent, they are avoiding negative feelings that would inevitably arise among them. As their anger gets channeled into criticisms of the other parent, they distract themselves from problems within their newly constituted family. Isaacs (1986) described this process as deflecting the new couple's problems through the outside parent. The motive is to deny the presence of conflict in the new relationship. This protects the couple from the anxiety generated by the prospect of another divorce. In some families, the new partner joins in a campaign of denigration as a means of ingratiating himself or herself to the spouse. The basic message is, "Your battles are my battles." Particularly in the early stages of remarriage, the new spouse may find it difficult to take a different position with respect to the exspouse's character and the type of treatment that he or she deserves.

Hal Q. and his second wife, Annette, spent much of their time colluding in trashing Hal's first wife, Melinda. The more they did so, the closer they felt. Annette's children joined the chorus of denigration. Hal's son, Josh, couldn't resist participating. At first he felt disloyal to his mother, but he wanted to be accepted by the family, and complaining about his mother seemed to be the price of admission. Josh had another motive. In a contest between his father and mother, Josh sensed that his father had more power. Although he was not consciously aware of it, Josh feared that the family's criticism could turn on him if he defended his mother. Like most people, Josh wanted to side with the winner. He wasn't in a position to stem the tide of denunciation, so he chose to affiliate with it. Essentially, Josh was following the strategy of "identifying with the aggressor." It is more popularly known as, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Uniting against a common enemy has one fatal weakness. When the enemy is vanquished, conflicts usually arise among the former allies. That happened in this case. Melinda finally gave up her efforts to counter the trashing and she moved to another state. The family had virtually no contact with her. They lost their common enemy. Soon after, conflicts in their own family relationships began to surface. These had been present all along, but they were able to avoid them by making Melinda the target of all their hostility.

Children's Contributions To PAS
An integral part of Gardner's formulation of the concept of PAS is that the disturbance results from a combination of parental brainwashing and the child's own contributions. Josh Q.'s behavior is a good example. In the case of remarriage, a child may join in a campaign of denigration for several reasons. As already mentioned, the child may be capitulating to group pressure in the service of aligning with the new family. The child may also be attempting to reduce inner conflict experienced as a result of the remarriage. Such inner conflict may be related to loyalty conflicts or difficulty accepting the remarriage and the stepparent.

The child who feels caught between two homes may try to resolve the conflict by declaring a clear allegiance to one household. This dynamic can result in alienation from either parent. A child who is anxious or angry about the remarriage may channel these feelings into unwarranted denigration of the remarried parent and stepparent, or the child's alienation may express the disappointment of reconciliation wishes that have been dashed by the remarriage. Most children of divorce harbor strong wishes for their parents to reconcile (Warshak & Santrock, 1983). Regardless of the child's underlying motivation, if the favored parent welcomes the child's allegiance, or passively accepts the child's estrangement from the other parent and fails to actively promote the child's affection for the other parent, the child may cling to this maladaptive solution.

A central goal of therapy with alienated children in remarried families is to help them appreciate that they do not have to choose sides. We can try to help them appreciate the benefits that come from avoiding unhealthy alliances, while working with the parents to support this concept.

Poor Boundaries
The dynamics discussed in this article help to explain the impulses parents may feel to tamper with children's affections. But an impulse is not an action. Parents often inhibit behavior toward their children rather than act on impulse. For example, we don't spank every time we feel like doing so. And most divorced parents go through a period when they have chronic impulses to badmouth their exspouses whether or not their children are present.

What is it, then, that allows loving parents to act on the impulse rather than inhibit their behavior as they do other behavior they regard as destructive to their children? In many cases the answer is simple: They do not regard it as destructive to their children. Many parents who badmouth are so preoccupied with hurting their exspouses or the new stepparent that they choose not to think about the impact on their children. Other parents appear incapable of recognizing that their own thoughts and feelings and their children's needs may not be identical. So they pursue, with singleminded determination, their goal of demeaning the exspouse, even when this means embarrassing the children, and even when this means confusing them, depriving them, or scaring them. By treating their children as accomplices in the campaign of denigration, these parents obliterate the usual psychological boundary that exists between adults and children.

In families with a history of inappropriate boundary violations, PAS may represent a continuation of maladaptive patterns begun prior to the divorce and remarriage. Treatment with these families is generally more difficult, because the PAS is embedded in a long-standing enmeshment between the alienating parent and child.

This article has presented some of the dynamics often found when PAS occurs in the context of remarriage. It has been shown how PAS can arise in remarried families from motivations other than custody-related concerns. By recognizing the potential for PAS, therapists consulting with stepfamilies will be in a better position to help prevent or alleviate the disturbance. The emphasis should be on early intervention and maintaining access between the target parent and children, while concurrently addressing the PAS dynamics in therapy sessions. As with other emotional disturbances, interventions in the early stages are most likely to meet with success. Also, work with these families is unlikely to be successful without the support of the court in enforcing access between the target parent and child, and in providing external motivation for the parties to engage in treatment.
- Warshak, Richard A; Remarriage As A Trigger of Parental Alienation Syndrome; American Journal of Family Therapy, Jul-Sep2000, Vol. 28 Issue 3
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.

Personal Reflection Exercise #10
The preceding section contained information about addressing parental alienation syndrome with children of divorce. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 17
What is a central goal of therapy with alienated children in remarried families? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Answer Booklet

 
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