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Competitive feelings toward one's predecessor in love, sex, and marriage are natural. In mild form, such feelings do not become a problem. They may, in fact, benefit the children by motivating a stepparent to do the very best job possible in raising the stepchildren. The children then gain an additional adult who protects and advances their interests.
Nelda and Ophelia were best friends. Then Nelda had an affair with Ophelia's husband and married him soon after his divorce. Nelda had no children from her previous marriage, was unable to become pregnant, and did not want to adopt any children. Ophelia's daughter was Nelda's one chance to be a mother.
Feeling intense rivalry with her now "exbest friend" Nelda pressured her husband to move to a new town, 4 hours away by car with no airport nearby. At the same time, through overindulgence, extravagant promises, excessive badmouthing of the mother, and the cooperation of the father, Nelda manipulated her stepdaughter to ask to move with them. Ophelia initially resisted, but her daughter insisted that she really wanted to move and was angry that her mother was making it difficult. Against her better judgment, and without legal counsel, Ophelia caved into pressure and agreed to the move. Shortly before Christmas vacation, Ophelia received a letter from her daughter. The girl wrote that she did not want to be forced to see her mother during the Christmas vacation. Her dad and Nelda had scheduled a trip to Disneyland, and she would have to miss it if she spent the vacation with her mother. The vocabulary and sentence structure of the letter made it clear that, although it was in her daughter's handwriting, it was composed by adults. A note from Nelda accompanied the letter. In her note, Nelda self-righteously exhorted Ophelia to place her daughter's interest before her own. Nelda pleaded with Ophelia to allow them to establish themselves as a family before pressing for contact with her daughter. Ophelia took what she thought was the high road, and allowed her daughter to go on the trip to Disneyland instead of seeing her. When Ophelia was next scheduled to see her daughter, on the girl's birthday, she received another letter. In this letter, her daughter expressed her resentment of what was now being called "forced visitation" and added that, instead of seeing her mother, she wanted to spend her birthday with her family. Nelda and her husband had succeeded in twisting this girl's mind so that she no longer thought of her own mother as part of her family! When the author first became acquainted with Ophelia, she had been waiting 2 years and had still not seen her daughter.
Ophelia's error, all too common among parents who find themselves the target of alienation, was to wait too long before taking action This generally results from an inadequate understanding of the dynamics and course of PAS. Some parents, who recognize that their children have been manipulated, still find it difficult not to take the rejection personally. They may respond with hurt and anger and counter-reject their children. Other parents hope that patience will pay off and that the children will come to their senses and spontaneously recover positive feelings.
It is very important that target parents understand that the absence of contact with their children creates a fertile habitat for poisoned messages to take root and crowd out loving memories of the parent-child relationship. It isolates children from information and experiences that might enlighten them by contradicting the programming to which they are exposed. And it makes the children more dependent on the parent promulgating the alienation (Clawar & Rivlin, 1991).
Some therapists contribute to the process by recommending postponement of parent-child contact while they conduct traditional individual psychotherapy with the child. The hope is that therapy will result in the reemergence of the child's positive feelings for the target parent. An analogous situation would be to recommend that a school-phobic child be allowed to stay home until therapy succeeds in helping the child overcome his or her anxiety. Therapists should be aware that such an approach to PAS is not likely to meet with success. As Lund (1995) points out, "If contact is stopped between a parent and a child, a pattern is likely to develop such that it will be difficult to mend the relationship" (p. 314). There are no reports in the literature of effective treatment of moderate-to-severe cases of PAS that does not include enforced contact between the children and the target parent (Clawar & Rivlin, 1991; Dunne & Hedrick, 1994; Gardner, 1998; Lampel, 1986).
If a target parent consults the therapist in the initial stages of PAS, the advice should be to maintain contact with the children, and work to gradually assist the children to understand the manipulations to which they are being exposed and how to resist these manipulations. When consulting with parents, such as Ophelia, whose children are resisting spending time with them, or access is being restricted by the former spouse, therapists should advise the target to reestablish regular, face-to-face contact as soon as possible. Early intervention is critical. As with all cases of PAS and other emotional disturbances, interventions in the early stages are most likely to meet with success. The longer the alienation continues, the more difficult it will be to undo. In Ophelia's case, nothing short of a court order to enforce her access to her daughter could begin to resolve the problem
In working with excessively competitive stepparents, therapists can try to help them appreciate that they can carve out important roles for themselves with a child without having to undermine the child's attachment to the other parent. It may help to frame the role of healthy stepparent as including the ability to successfully support the child's relationship with the nonresidential parent. Successful treatment will assist stepparents in accepting their competitiveness and finding healthier ways to express it. Also, anything the therapist can do to help strengthen the new marriage can lessen the stepparent's need to compete with the nonresidential parent. If a stepparent has poor relationships with his or her biological children from a previous marriage, taking steps to improve these relationships may reduce the sense of competitiveness with the out-of-home parent of the stepchildren.
Often the nonresidential parent fears that the children will come to love the stepparent more. This fear is exacerbated if the children begin using terms similar to mom or dad when referring to their stepparent. Because younger children are more apt to seek and accept a quasi parent-child relationship with the stepparent, they are particularly at risk for exposure to bashing and brainwashing of the stepparent. And they are more likely to be influenced by negative programming because of their increased suggestibility (Ceci & Bruck, 1995). For example, a father may tell his young son that his stepfather was sent by Satan. Even if the boy does not believe this, he begins to feel uneasy in his stepfather's presence.
Older children may feel more initial reserve and resentment toward a stepparent. Instead of helping their children adjust to the transition, competitive exspouses sometimes welcome their children's nascent negative feelings about the stepparent and use these transitional feelings as a foundation for a campaign of alienation. When confronted about their manipulations, such parents will usually reply with some variant of, "I can't help the way my child feels about her stepparent. But I'm not going to stop her from expressing her true feelings."
One mother with whom I worked demonstrated how parents can put their children's interests above their competitive feelings. Patty worked hard to resist strong impulses to disparage her daughter Rachel's stepmother. Through a combination of inadequate legal representation, convincing lies told by her husband, and a bad court verdict, Patty's involvement with Rachel was drastically curtailed. When her husband remarried a week after the divorce, he delegated most of the responsibility for raising Rachel to his new wife. Patty naturally resented the fact that another woman was raising the child that she had carried in her womb for 9 months and taken care of for 5 years. Her resentment acted as a filter when it came to evaluating the stepmother's parenting skills. Criticisms came easily; positive thoughts about her rival took decided effort. When Rachel complained to her mother about the stepmother's treatment, Patty felt some secret pleasure--which she kept secret. Though her rivalous feelings were gratified, she knew that the stepmother was doing a lot for Rachel. And she knew it would not benefit Rachel to develop a bad relationship with her stepmother. So Patty listened to Rachel's complaints, but did not respond eagerly. As far as the girl was concerned, bad-mouthing her stepmother was not the way to her mother's heart. Patty set an inspiring example of a woman whose love for her child outweighed strong impulses to engage in destructive criticism.
It is easy to appreciate how tempting it can be for some parents to try to undermine their children's relationship with their stepparent. Therapists can help alleviate destructive competition by emphasizing the deep foundation of attachment between most parents and children and reminding parents of the many experiences that formed the foundation of the relationship. Parents can be invited to consider their own attachment histories. In most cases, new affectionate relationships do not replace earlier attachments. Most of us retain our love for our parents regardless of how many other people we come to love. Without negative programming, children's new relationships will not usually undermine existing ones. It may help parents to talk to other parents whose children have maintained strong love for them while still getting along well with the stepparent.
Adults who attempt to foster alienation must be helped to see that instigating and supporting conflict between the children and a parent or stepparent will make life more difficult for the children. This will, in turn, make life more difficult for all the adults, because they will have to cope with angry or depressed children and the associated behavioral sequelae.
Reflection Exercise #9
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Skinner, O. D., Sun, X., & McHale, S. M. (2021). Links between marital and parent–child relationship in African American families: A dyadic approach. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication.
Steinbach, A., & Augustijn, L. (2021). Children’s well-being in sole and joint physical custody families. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication.
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