Instead of just undoing the harm done downstream from a polluted river, best to halt the dumping of toxic pollutants upstream into the water. Similarly, prevention is key to ending parental alienation, a particularly damaging form of child abuse in which one parent causes a child to reject the other parent. In a recently-published article in Family Court Review, Judge Philip Marcus, former head of a major city family court system, suggests a three-pronged prevention strategy. If all who read this post were to take at least some of the steps Judge Marcus suggests, the strategy could have a significant preventive impact.
What triggered Judge Marcus's interest in alienation?
As head of his city's family courts, Judge Marcus witnessed firsthand far too many parents who wanted to hurt their ex-spouse by blocking their children from enjoying a positive relationship with him or her.
Alas, in addition to inflicting great emotional pain on their ex, an alienating parent inflicts major suffering and long-lasting harm on their children—yet typically acts oblivious to this damage.
Prevention is vital.
What might you do to help? One key to prevention is the recognition of the pathology as the first signs begin to emerge.
I have asked a number of the alienated parents with whom I have worked in my clinical practice, most of whom are mature, intelligent, and loving folks, "How did you let the alienation develop so far?"
Consistently the answer has been some form of, "I didn't understand what was happening." If they had known about the syndrome, they would have had a name for what was happening to them. They then would have been able to seek professional help early on, read up on the syndrome, engage the courts at the earliest signs of their ex's defying their divorce agreement, and participate in groups like Parental Alienation Study Group and Family Access—Fighting for Children’s Rights that keep members informed of the latest developments in how to protect children from an alienating parent.
Like noticing odd, dark, mottled spots on your skin and not realizing that these could be signs of skin cancer, alienation becomes increasingly harmful when allowed to continue over time. Early recognition and intervention, though, depend on the awareness of the syndrome, its early warning signs, and how to respond.
Judge Marcus proposes three areas of preventive interventions.
In which of these areas might you be willing to take action?
1. Public consciousness-raising about parental alienation
When people were unaware of the damage done by smoking, many blithely enjoyed their cigarettes. By contrast, public education about smoking has radically reduced the number of people who smoke. Similarly, spreading awareness of the phenomenon of alienation will help to halt its spread.
What might you do to foster public awareness of parental alienation? For starters, consider talking about alienation when you gather with friends and family, especially if you have seen signs of alienation in someone they know.
Explain what alienation is, and the harm it does to children. Explain especially that an alienating parent can very convincingly spread false narratives about the targeted parent to turn family members and friends against him or her.
After discussing what alienation is and does, ask family members and friends if they have heard ever of such situations. I myself have found that virtually everyone—maybe 90 percent of people with whom I have broached the topic—suddenly open their eyes wide. "Oh, that happened in my family when I was growing up." They may even be aware of an adult sibling alienation situation: "My older sister is doing that now to me over our inheritance, alienating me from the rest of our family by telling lies about me."
Another option can be to write to newspapers, magazines, and websites—and to post on social media—about alienation. Re-post your favorite articles that explain alienation. If you or someone you know has been a victim of alienation, suggest the story to writers who might be interested.
Judge Marcus's article adds a vital cautionary message, however. Beware, he says, when describing a specific alienation story of insisting that all courts, judges, lawyers, psychological evaluators, and child welfare representatives are incompetent, corrupt, or worse. Some of these professionals clearly do make mistakes. Still, over-generalizations cause the author to look less credible. This mistake could invite rejection by the very readers whom you want to be educating.
2. Professional education about alienation
If you are a therapist, how knowledgeable are you in regards to recognizing and properly treating alienation? Most therapists with whom I have discussed alienation have only a vague notion of what alienation is, coupled with dangerously naive notions of how to treat it. Individual therapy for the child, for instance, only deepens the alienation. Huge mistake.
Hopefully, this summary of what therapists need to know about alienation can help.
Equally important, as Judge Marcus points out, training programs for therapists of all types and professionals who work with them—psychologists, social workers, religious counselors, family doctors, lawyers, etc.—must add information about the phenomenon of alienation into their basic required curriculum. If the training program you take or have taken does not yet include this topic, request that the topic be added.
3. Relationship education
Marital education that teaches healthy communication habits accomplishes two vital purposes. First, it increases the odds that the partners will interact in constructive ways. Second, knowing what respectful, open communication looks like enables a spouse to recognize when their partner is interacting in a way that is out-of-bounds for a healthy relationship.
Emotionally unhealthy ways of talking, managing emotions such as anger, and making decisions together suggest a partner who is at risk for becoming an alienator, especially if the marriage should end in divorce. Look out especially for selfishness (it's all about me and what I want), criticizing, controlling, blaming, frequent anger, and raging. While all marriage partners who show these problematic behaviors do not become alienators, virtually all who become alienators do.
A healthier spouse who can recognize the potential writing on the wall can follow the age-old dictum of "Be prepared!"
The bottom line is that marriage is a high-skills activity. If you know of a couple who is heading toward marriage, a couple in the early years of their marriage, a couple struggling with turbulence in their relationship, or even a couple facing post-marital co-parenting, suggest that they read, do workbooks, learn online, or find in-person courses in their community to learn the skills they need for success.
Thank you, Judge Marcus, for outlining these parental alienation prevention options.
I invite all readers to take seriously the challenge of looking at what you yourself might do to contribute to the public, professional, and personal prevention of alienation. Even small contributions can make a difference. Thousands of small acts of prevention could contribute significantly to a major wave of change.