“Mummy is always busy with work and hardly sees you. Your Tok Ma is the one who takes care of you anyway. Why don’t you stay with me instead?”
It may sound like a harmless conversation between a father and his child, but it is one form of manipulation that makes a child favour one parent over the other. This tactic is called parental alienation and is common in non-amicable divorces and custodial cases.
What is Parental Alienation?
Dr. Richard Gardner first introduced the term Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) in the 1980s to describe a child’s unjustified denigration against a parent. This happens when one parent brainwashes a child to turn against the other “targeted” parent for no valid reason.
Whenever there is hatred or anger for the other parent, children are often used and taken advantage of to turn against one another. The child will start having negative views toward the target parent and eventually choose sides.
Typical Parental Alienation tactics
There are several tactics alienating parents use when turning their children against the other parent. Here are some examples:
- Forcing your child to choose a parent
- Preventing your child from seeing the other parent
- Not allowing items from the other parent into your home
- Provide unnecessary details about the divorce (e.g., affair, monetary problems)
- Comparing the other parent to your new partner
- Badmouthing the other parent
- Claims supposedly from your child on refusing visitation from the other parent
- False claims of abuse and neglect by the other parent
- Not involving or informing the other parent of events related to your child (e.g., medical history, after school activities)
Does it affect children?
Malaysian Mental Health Association deputy president Datuk Dr. Andrew Mohanraj agrees that parental alienation can be considered child abuse in a psychological form. “They typically develop low self-esteem and may be predisposed to anxiety. Some may also turn to alcohol and substance abuse later in life,” he says.
According to a podcast interview with clinical psychologist Alex Ng, alienated children will go through an identity crisis, which might carry on into adulthood depending on age. They grow up going against their own identity and learn to mask themselves in hopes of pleasing their parents. He mentions a case of a female patient who grew up with parental alienation, experienced emotional problems in relationships throughout adulthood, and ended up filing for divorce.
Dealing with parental alienation
There are currently no laws in Malaysia on parental alienation. Pertubuhan Memupuk Asas Ikatan Keluarga, Kuala Lumpur (PEMALIK) believes that this should be punishable in the Family Court Act and the alienating parent should be denied visitation with their children until the child is no longer alienated.
However, lawyer Honey Tan in a podcast interview said, there are enough laws in Malaysia, and it is the judges that should be trained on how to deal with parental alienation cases.
With that being said, here are some ways to deal if you feel you are being alienated:
1. Focus on your emotional health
Fighting what may seem like a losing battle can be emotionally draining. Always take things in stride as these attacks are usually due to resentment. Talk to other parents who are going through the same ordeal, or engage a counselor. If there is a need for face-to-face communication, consider having the presence of a family member or friend to avoid unnecessary fights.
2. Control your reaction
Whenever you feel attacked, take deep breaths and pause before reacting. Learn to control your emotions in front of your child, as retaliating would only confirm all accusations made against you. Do not let it out on your children since that is how the alienating parent would want you to react.
3. Seek Help
An alienating parent might react by breaching court orders and not complying with visitation schedules. Document any occurrences that could be used as evidence and seek legal advice. It is important to have your child’s interest at heart, and remember that they deserve affection from both parents.
4. Communicate with your child
Your child might ask intimate questions about your divorce, or delve into unnecessary details as told by the alienating parent. They might ask, “Is it true that Uncle is the reason you and Daddy divorced?”. Be honest with your child, and admit your faults. Keep letting them know that they are loved equally by both of you regardless of what has happened.
Step-parents and Parental Alienation
It is common for parental alienation to occur amongst separated biological parents, but it is also happening within blended families. Step-parents are often judged as insisting on taking up the role as the new mum or dad. Some have even been accused as the reason for a couple’s divorce.
If you are a step-parent, try reaching out to the other parent and let them know that you are not replacing them in any way. If the children are under the custody of your spouse, acknowledge that you have no intention of being their new mum or dad, but would like to be seen as a new family friend. Let the child themselves decide when they are comfortable accepting you as part of the family.
Parental alienation does not get enough attention, but it is real and happening around us. Parents should understand that depriving your child of the love of another parent is detrimental to their emotional health. Keep the resentment between adults and never use your children as pawns to get back at each other. If you and your child are victims of this unfortunate situation, ensure you have a support system in place, and seek appropriate help should things get out of hand.