Willingly or not, divorced parents will end up influencing their child’s opinion of other relatives, including their other parent. The negative opinion of the parent can become the child’s, and that is where parental alienation comes into play. The textbook definition of parental alienation is the process and result of a parent’s psychological manipulation of their child to turn them against the other parent, or that parent’s relatives.
Though a serious issue, many seem to underestimate the effects that this causes throughout a child’s life. In 2006, my parents divorced, leaving my brother and me to navigate through the difficulties of joint custody. A common thing to hear in the household were subtle insults toward each parent and their relatives, many of which we were too young to understand. All my brother and I knew was that mom was bad, dad was a liar, môma and pôpa never wanted to spend their given one-long-weekend-per-six-weeks with us, and we shouldn’t believe what grandpa tells us. Parental alienation should be considered criminal because that's exactly what it is: a form of emotional abuse that strains familial relationships, creates unnecessary guilt, and can cause potentially severe anxiety and many insecurities.
Parental alienation doesn’t only cause rifts between parent and child; it affects every single familial relationship by having the child question whether or not the alienating parent is telling them the truth about their relatives. A few years after my parents’ divorce, it was decided that my brother should go see a therapist. He’s older than me by two years, so he had a better understanding of why mom and dad didn’t live together anymore. This made my parents concerned about how their divorce and our new living situation was affecting him. Some months after starting these sessions, we were at my paternal grandparents’ house, and my brother mentioned something that made my grandmother livid. It wasn’t hard to understand why: apparently, my brother’s therapist thought that grandma was a “black hole that sucks away happiness.” This shocked me; how could she have such an opinion about someone she’d never met? I knew that my brother absolutely loved grandma and would never say something like that about her, but she had to have gotten this observation from somewhere. It’s taken me some time to see it, but now I know that this could have been one of the first steps my mother took to try to alienate that side of my family, and it almost worked: for a time, whenever I looked at my grandmother I’d have those words echoing throughout my mind.
Children don’t heal from a situation like this quickly. A statement like this, coming from a trained professional, takes time to heal from because they can’t help but question themselves about what is true and what is a lie, causing tension between family members. Close family is affected by parental alienation, but so are newcomers. Newcomers would quantify step-parents, step-siblings, and family friends. My mother started dating my step-father when I was three or four, and my father’s side wasn’t hesitant of making their dislike of him obvious. My grandfather had a nickname for him, and though he never told us what it meant, I have no doubt that it was something derogatory. Even something small and seemingly insignificant as this had a big effect on my brother and me. When a parent doesn’t like a step-parent, it’s difficult for the child to cultivate a proper relationship with said step-parent, as they’re constantly worrying about what their parent and relatives would think. This can also cause a child to try to isolate themselves instead of having to feel guilty about creating these new relationships. Out of all the repercussions of parental alienation, the guilt that comes with it can be considered the worse factor. With parents pitting children against one another, a child feels guilty about loving them both.
A few years after my parents divorced, my mother and step-father moved to Calgary, which was where he worked. This meant that my father had us throughout the school year but summers were spent with her. I began to notice a pattern: when we’d get home, all my brother and I would talk about was the time we spent out there, and I could see the sadness it brought my father hearing us speak so fondly of her. After a while, we learned to keep the events of our trips to ourselves, so as to not make our dad feel sad. This pattern continues still to this day; when I go to Canada for a visit, I don’t talk about anything involving my mother, because I feel guilty enjoying my time with someone my father so clearly detests. Most children, at the very least, care for their parents, so situations like this, where they can’t freely express their love, can be quite damaging to their psyche. The guilt that comes with loving someone others tell them they shouldn’t is a heavy burden to bear, and it can lead to many insecurities and sometimes cases of severe anxiety. Children who experience parental alienation are very like to develop some form of anxiety, ranging anywhere from minor to severe. Because they are constantly second-guessing themselves, it’s not uncommon for them to have insecurities that can be traced back to parental alienation either. There is also a possibility that these children are “followers” rather than “leaders,” as they’ve been conditioned to accept anything they’re told without questioning it. I grew up feeling perpetually guilty about loving my parents equally.
This guilt has festered over a period of fifteen years, but it’s now lead to anxiety, for myself and, I would assume, my brother. I’ve had to go see a few therapists because of this, and sometimes I’ll have panic attacks brought on by what seems to be nothing. The anxiety one can develop from this is incredibly damaging, and in some cases even lead to depression. Parental alienation is a form of brainwashing; a parent manipulates their child to fear, hate, or mistrust their other parent. In all accounts, it is a form of emotional abuse, and should, therefore, be criminal. Courts will recognize parental alienation in custody disputes, but it’s not something that you could be arrested or even fined for. This isn’t just something that disappears during adulthood; the effects of it can be seen throughout one’s entire life. It’s true that not all cases of it are extremely severe, but for those that are: shouldn’t the parents behind it have to pay for their actions? I encourage you to research this topic and ask yourselves: should parental alienation be considered criminal?
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