As educators, we are mandatory reporters, and that means that we must be competent in all forms of child abuse. Knowledge is so important, and I believe that as educators, we owe it to our students to continually learn and grow in our understanding of complex issues such as psychological abuse. Today, I would like to talk about one form of abuse that is effecting students around the globe each and every day—Parental Alienation. First, I would like to preface by saying that I am not a psychologist. I am simply sharing what I have learned through my own research, and personal experiences. My goal as an educator, is to share with other teachers, school counselors, support staff, coaches, and administrators knowledge and awareness, and provide tools to help prevent Parental Alienation within our school systems.
What is Parental Alienation?
This is a commonly used term to describe the process and the result of psychological manipulation of a child with the purpose of destroying a parent-child relationship.
"Parental alienation is a form of abuse that affects more than 22,000,000 parents in the US and many more around the world. Parental alienation causes depression, anxiety, self-harm behaviors, substance abuse issues, suicides and murders; making it a very urgent world health crisis." (Wendy Perry)
Essentially when an in-tact family splits, the family is no longer united, but is instead bound only by their child(ren). Sometimes one parent will express his or her anger toward the other parent by using the child(ren) as a pawn. This process may include, but is not limited to: limiting or denying contact, manipulating a child into fearing his or her parent, bribing the child in order to interfere in the parent-child relationship, or ultimately, attempting to erase the parent completely from the child’s life.
Let’s Get Technical for a Moment, Shall We.
Dr. Craig Childress, Psy.D. describes a child rejecting a parent as an Attachment Related Pathology. “The attachment system is the brain system governing all aspects of love and bonding throughout the lifespan, including grief and loss. A child rejecting a parent is a problem in the love and bonding system of the brain; the attachment system.”
He explains that “attachment related pathology is always caused by Pathogenic Parenting (patho=pathology; genic=genesis, creation). Pathogenic parenting is the creation of significant psychopathology in the child through aberrant and distorted parenting practices.” (www.drcachildress.org)
While many forms of abuse are easy to spot, the process of Parental Alienation can be very covert. As educators, we can play a crucial role in preventing this form of abuse, that often creeps its way into our schools.
How does this show up in schools?
We need to understand that in the case of Parental Alienation, the parent has an agenda, and that often means getting others to view a situation from his or her perspective. Often times, this shows up in the form of a parent badmouthing the other parent. He or she may create false stories, or exaggerate a parent’s minor flaws in order to be viewed by others as the all-good, nurturing parent that is simply seeking to honor their “child’s wishes.”
As an educator, we need to be careful about listening to only one side of a parenting situation. If a parent is attempting to block the other parent, a step-parent, or extended family member from school pick up or volunteering, we need to be aware of any court orders, such as a restraining order, before simply agreeing to a parent’s wishes. A parenting plan should be on file with the school. If there are any court orders, they should also be on file. Sometimes a family will split mid year, in this case, ask the parent to submit the parenting plan. I would also suggest that your school administrator review the parenting plan with you.
You might be thinking,
I don’t have time to review parenting plans for all 100+ of my students.
BUT We take the time to review 504 plans and IEP’s for all of our students; a parenting plan should be no different. We owe it to our students to understand if only one parent has sole educational decision making, or if both parents have joint decision making. When the court orders a parenting plan, they have determined what is in the best interest of a child, and we have an obligation to ensure that we follow through with what is outlined in regard to educational decision making. That means that if both parents have a right to make a decision for their child, we need to include both parents. For example, if the school counselor or school psychologist sets up a meeting for an IEP or 504, we must invite both parents. We cannot rely on one parent to pass along the information, because most likely in cases of Parental Alienation the other parent will never know there was a meeting.
What if the parent isn’t interested in being involved?
In the cases of Parental Alienation, the parent is seeking to be involved, but is continually being denied access. Most likely the parent is being kept uniformed and is doing his or her best to stay involved. The parent doing the alienating may try to convince the school that the other parent doesn’t care or doesn’t want to be involved. However, we have an obligation to reach out to both parents rather than just take the word of one parent as gold.
Many times the process of parental alienation is covert.
We may be unaware of ways that a child is being alienated from his or her parent. For example, a child might be kept home during a school awards ceremony or even sporting events, if the alienating parent suspects that the other parent will be present. We might not even notice that the child was absent that evening.
Other times, we might notice situational anxiety.
Many times a child being alienated will evidence a severe anxiety response toward the targeted parent. For example, a child might be angry, upset, or sad or depressed on days when he or she will be spending time with the targeted parent after school, during the weekend, or on breaks. This anxiety is cued by the anticipation of spending time with a parent that they have been brainwashed to believe is all bad, and are therefore being “forced” to spend time with. The child may express that they would rather spend time with the other parent instead, and cite trivial reasons for not wanting to spend time with the targeted parent.
As educators, What should we do?
If you suspect Parental Alienation, bring this to your school counselor or administrator. We are mandatory reporters, and Parental Alienation is child abuse as recognized by a DSM-5 Diagnosis of:
309.4 Adjustment Disorder with mixed disturbance of emotions and conduct
V61.20 Parent-Child Relational Problem
V61.29 Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress
V995.51 Child Psychological Abuse, Confirmed (pathogenic parenting)
Secondly, document, document, document.
In many high conflict divorce cases, a custody evaluator or guardian ad litem may be appointed by the courts. Documenting is so important.
Where can I get more information?
I encourage you to dig deeper into learning about this form of abuse, and to share this knowledge with your colleagues. You can learn more here:
Again, I am not a psychologist, but am an educator that cares deeply about our students and parent-child relationships. I believe that children deserve all the love they can get, and we as educators can do our part in protecting parent-child relationships.