Amy J.L. Baker Ph.D.

Caught Between Parents

Parental Alienation and Three False Dichotomies

It's not always black or white.

Posted Mar 30, 2016

In my coaching practice I often come across targeted parents who fall prey to false dichotomies.

False Dichotomy # 1: The High Road and the Low Road

The first false dichotomy is the belief that the only way to respond to an alienating ex is the high road or the low road. The high road refers to refusing to ever say anything bad about the other parent to the child and the low road involves mud-slinging ugliness that will certainly backfire and cause the child to defend the alienating parent even more fervently. What this dichotomy overlooks (because it is easy to miss) is the vast number of creative ways to respond to an alienating parent that do not involve allowing oneself to be maligned and attacked by that parent (the high road) nor do they involve retaliating in kind (the low road). A number of examples are provided in my e-paper “Beyond the high road” but a few are offered here. To a parent who says something untrue to you in front of your child, you can politely and with dignity respond “I have a different memory of what happened that day” or “I see that very differently than you do.” In this way you are showing your child that there is another side to the story without engaging in specifics in front of your child, which is most likely not appropriate. You can always offer to your ex to discuss the issue some other time, so that it doesn’t look as if you are trying to avoid the details.

False Dichotomy # 2: Discipline Your Child and Lose Him/Her or Allow “Bad” Behavior

Many targeted parents fear disciplining their child because of the concern that the discipline will be experienced as “draconian” by the child and spark a refusal to visit, especially once the alienating parent gets wind of what a terrible thing that targeted parent did (such as confiscating the cell phone, grounding the child, and so forth). With the risk of loss so high, many targeted parents shy away from disciplining their child but then suffer with the guilt of not properly guiding the child and the resentment that the child has too much power in the family. This can be especially problematic if there are step-siblings who are not alienated and are treated differently. I spend a lot of time in my coaching sessions helping targeted parents figure out how to set appropriate boundaries without setting off world war 3. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but usually there is a way to address discipline issues that don’t result in the child severing the relationship. For example, you can invite your child to brainstorm consequences with you, you can offer a menu of consequence options, you can choose to not impose a consequence at all and focus instead on discussing with your child why his/her behavior was problematic for you.

False Dichotomy # 3: Receive “Justice” from the Family Court System or Feel Wronged and Exploited

If you are like many targeted parents, you may experience extreme frustration and outrage that you did not receive “justice” from the family court system. The custody evaluator may have not seen your side of the story, the judge most likely did not sanction the other parent when he or she violated the court orders, the parenting coordinator most likely cut the other parent too much slack when he or she obfuscated the issues. In my experience, if you are expecting “justice” you will forever be frustrated and angry. In my opinion, it is far better to accept the reality that the family court system is an approximation of justice that falls far short of delivering actual justice. Once you accept that reality, you can let go of some of the anger that itself can cause undue stress on your mind and body. Letting go of the anger does not mean that you think what happened was “ok” or fair, only that you accept that this is the way the world works, sometimes.

As a targeted parent, I encourage you to see beyond the black and white and find a way to live in the grey zone. That's where reality lies.