Organising when children spend time with their separated parents can sometimes be a challenging process. Children may prefer spending more time with one parent or one household than the other parent/the other household. This can be a natural inclination due to things like personality, location or interest compatibility – and such inclinations are often apparent prior to separation.
What’s going on though when a child had a pretty good relationship with a particular parent prior to separation and this changes, sometimes quite suddenly and unexpectedly after separation?
The research tells us that it can be the case that a parent somehow (either overtly or unknowingly) influences a child to say they prefer being with them and, by default, not with the other parent. Further, a child can be influenced to say they only like/love one parent and not the other. The possible reasons for this vary and can be incredibly complex. Interestingly, the parent who the child likes/wants to be with, will say they want their child to spend time with the other parent and have a good relationship with them. What has been found, however is that the child “knows” at some level that this is not their truly held wish, so they will make statements that align with what they think the favoured parent wants or needs to hear.
It is important for parents to remember that a child’s developing identity is enriched if they are free to enjoy a positive relationship with both parents. The Family Law Act, in part, seeks to ensure children are afforded the opportunity to have a meaningful relationship with both parents. If you, as a parent, do not do your part to ensure this occurs, you may be viewed as an alienating parent.
How do I know if I could be viewed as an alienating parent?
The following list is not a complete or definitive list of criteria that underpin dysfunctional alignment, and, of course, there can be some legitimate reasons why some children do not want to spend time with a parent. However, it has been found that the following behaviours can place the child in a position of feeling as though they are not (emotionally) free to love both parents equally. This then results in them being at risk of alienating one parent. Have you ever engaged in any of the following?
- Routinely allowed the child to talk negatively or disrespectfully about the other parent.
- Arranged tempting alternatives that would interfere with the other parent’s time with the child.
- Given the child decision-making power about spending time with the other parent – especially in spite of court orders or parenting plans to the contrary.
- Act hurt, betrayed or rejected if the child shows positive feelings towards or makes positive statements about the other parent.
- Used the child as a courier, messenger or spy.
- Asked the child to mislead or lie to the other parent or betray the parent’s trust in the child.
- Shared the details of the property settlement or court experiences/processes with the child. Informed them of legal proceedings using the pretexts such as “they have a right to know” or asserting they are “mature enough” to cope with legal information.
- Shared details of private information about the other parent – eg, results of drug tests, information about past so-called dubious behaviour (from pre-parenting days), information about the other parent’s family (as a means of discrediting the other parent).
- Repeatedly reminded your child of certain behaviour that your partner engaged in prior to separation – especially when such behaviour did not directly relate to the child (for example, extra-marital relationships, unscrupulous business dealings, use of pornography), knowing that the child would likely be disapproving of such behaviour.
- Made comments about not being able to afford to do something (go to Dreamworld, get tuckshop, buy shoes, go for a holiday and so on) because the other parent doesn’t/didn’t provide you with the funds to do so/doesn’t pay sufficient child support.
- Allowed the other parent to worry needlessly about the child (eg, not provided information about the child’s whereabouts, not disclosed details of accidents or injuries).
- Infringed on the other parent’s time with excessive phone calls or scheduled activities.
- Told a child to “block” the other parent on social media/phone.
- Interpreted court orders that increase your time with the child and decrease the other parent’s time with the child.
- Prior to a reunification of supervised visitation, given covert messages that the child is in harm’s way when they are spending time with the other parents. Comments such as “be brave”, “this nice lady will keep you safe”, or “it’ll be over soon”, “I’m so sorry sweetheart but the judge says you have to do this”, give the child the message that spending time with the other parent is problematic in some way.
- Taken your child to see health or psychological professionals – without input or permission from the other parent – to validate your position about the child’s stated wishes.
Remember, your experience with the other parent is/will not be the same as your child’s experience.
Behaving in ways that encourage your child to align with your position in the face of their desire (at some former time) to enjoy a positive experience is a form of emotional abuse and could have long-term detrimental consequences for your child.
If you recognise that your behaviour could be alienating, seek professional guidance about ways to modify unhelpful behaviour and prioritise a functional co-parenting experience for your child.