From Handshakes to Hugs

March 3, 2009 at 9:51 pm 1 comment

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By Amy Belair

There is nothing more devastating for parents than their own children being used as weapons against them. The worst part is that many men never see it coming. Few expect the cute, sweet woman they fell for to be the devil in disguise – willing to do whatever seems necessary to punish – but it happens. Unfortunately, in this situation, the children often become the victims as much as their dads.

Take for example a real story of Dan and Rhonda, who were married when Rhonda became pregnant three months into their relationship. The marriage was doomed from the beginning, as Rhonda was jealous and resentful of just about everything in Dan’s life, including his son from a previous relationship. As the marriage disintegrated, the couple lived under the same roof, but separated from the marital bed. One day, Rhonda took off with the child, now five years old, not telling Dan where she was going or how she could be reached. Dan called everyone he knew, and searched until he finally located her and his child.

Rhonda began a classic pattern of what is known as “parental alienation” – when a custodial parent turns his or her children against the non-custodial parent. She reluctantly agreed to allow Dan to see his daughter, but on her terms only. For a while, Dan was allowed to visit the child at the mother’s house, but the mother insisted on being present during the visitation. Then, Rhonda changed her mind and would only permit Dan to see their daughter in a public place for an hour or so once a week. During this time Rhonda would sit at the same table with Dan and their daughter and glare. Phone calls were not allowed between father and daughter. Rhonda taught the child that her father was a bad man and was to be feared. The child was not permitted to hug or kiss her father during visits and instead only extended her hand for a handshake.

Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Richard A. Gardner first identified and labeled Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) in the 1980’s. PAS is the programming or brainwashing of a child by one parent to denigrate the other parent. It is compounded by the child’s own contributions to support one parent’s campaign to alienate the other parent. The child may be rewarded by the alienating parent for a job well done, with the bestowal of toys, a coveted video game or an extra hour of television watching.

It is believed that PAS parents have become stuck in the first stage of child development, where survival skills are learned. Since these parents do not know how to please others outside of themselves, they must instead exercise complete control over others. The struggle for control is life and death for them. The concept of allowing their child liberal time with the “enemy” and trusting that the child will return happily and willingly to them afterwards is utterly foreign to them. This explains Rhonda’s insistence on a constant vigil over Dan and their child during his brief visitation

One of the more common – and heinous – manifestations of PAS is when one parent will falsely accuse the other parent of physically and or sexually abusing their child. Often, this tactic is used by one parent to gain leverage in a custody dispute. The use of false sexual abuse allegations to win custody suits has become almost a standard tactic in some cases. In recent years several controversial cases have brought the issue of false abuse allegations in custody disputes to the forefront.

One of the most high-profile and most frustrating custody decisions (at least for fathers’ rights advocates) involved a former Playboy Playmate Bridget Marks and millionaire casino mogul John Aylsworth. In 2005 the New York Appellate Court found that Marks had coached her twin 5-year-old daughters to make false sexual abuse allegations against their father, Aylworth, and still awarded her custody. There is no argument from the Appellate Court that the abuse allegations were false. In fact their ruling states: “There is ample support in the record–that the mother coached the girls to make false accusations that their father sexually abused them.”

While this outcome may seem outrageous and discouraging to parents facing false abuse allegations, it should be noted that the Appellate ruling reversed a lower court ruling that had granted the father sole custody of the twin girls because of the mother’s alienating behavior. So many courts do recognize PAS and punish parents who engage in this kind of behavior, but it is often an uphill battle.

The problem is, the concept of PAS is a relatively new one, and not all mental health professionals are able to identify it when it is occurring. Some judges miss the signs of PAS and, along with a number of social workers, frequently jump on the alienator’s bandwagon and believe the false allegations against the alienated parent. With a network of support, personal and professional, including a dedicated, competent lawyer, the alienated parent can prevail and the child and he can be reunited with liberal visitation, or even a change of custody to the formerly alienated parent.

But, depending on the extent of the alienation and the resulting hostility of the child against the alienated parent, PAS can be difficult to reverse. It is unlikely that the alienator will change, particularly if their pathology is extreme. The goal would then be to re-introduce the child to the alienated parent and gradually restore an affectionate relationship between them. This can be a frustratingly slow process, but it can be effective.

Yet many non-custodial parents have successfully maintained their parent-child relationships. In fact, after less than one year of successful litigation, Dan now has regular, frequent, unsupervised visits with his daughter. He has taken her on many weekend trips out of town, plus vacations, with his son, her half-brother. Dan and his daughter speak on the phone to each other every day before her bedtime. She expresses her love for her dad regularly, both verbally and with spontaneous hugs. He attends her basketball games and cheers the loudest at her achievements. His daughter is a sweet, spunky ten-year-old who shares her dad’s love of animals.

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Entry filed under: Custody, Parental Alienation Syndrome. Tags: , , , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. mike jeffries  |  October 24, 2009 at 11:32 pm

    Excellent recap Amy. Parental alienation affects countless parents, children and extended family members every year. The best way to save others from the pain and heartbreak Dan and his child experienced is through education. Articles like your will help legal and mental health professionals recognize parental alienation, understand what drives the alienating parent, and develop steps to protect the parent/child bond.

    Keep up the good work.

    Sincerely,

    mike jeffries
    Author, A Family’s Heartbreak: A Parent’s Introduction to Parental Alienation

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