"Kids, it’s time to stop having fun; your mom’s here to pick you up!" I heard the unmistakable sarcasm on the other side of the door that was putting another crack into the increasingly fragile relationship I shared with my children.

My daughters, ages three and six, heard harsh words about me from the moment my husband and I separated. While there were times his anger was justified because of my choices, he went overboard in his reaction. His sarcasm was often laced with other forms of alienation, especially during his annual six-month custody period. There seemed to be no limit to the ploys he devised through the years, sabotaging the development of my girls’ natural bond with me. Eventually they became so detached, they treated me more like a distant relative than their mom.

The cost of divorce

Some experts say that as many as 90 per cent of kids from divorced homes experience some form of mental poisoning against the other parent, within the range of mild (subtly casting doubt about the other parent’s character or motives) to moderate (heat-of-the-moment bad-mouthing) to severe (systematic character assassination). While there are certainly times when a parent needs to protect a child from the other parent (because of physical or mental abuse), the situations described here are those in which two fit parents go on the attack with one another. The attacks may be done either subconsciously or deliberately. Either way, the psychological effects on kids can be devastating. In fact, unless caught early and prevented, extreme forms of mental poisoning are considered brainwashing; its effects are difficult to reverse.

Look at yourself

Most divorced parents have entered this war at some level, even unintentionally, but what’s at stake? In 1 Kings 3:16-28, two women – both mothers – came to King Solomon, fighting over a child. Solomon settled the dispute by offering to cut the child in half with his sword and give each her equal share. When we fight for our kids’ devotion to the point that we poison them against the other parent, in a figurative sense, we’ve cut their hearts in half. Even though my ex’s poisoning falls under the severe category, through the years, I’ve also been guilty of milder forms, something I wish I could take back.

The question is, which parent will you and I be? The one motivated by vindictive entitlement, who agrees that cutting the innocent victim in two would be fair? Or the parent who, motivated by pure love, willingly offers to give up her half so the child isn’t harmed? In other words, we must give up the practice of cutting our kids in two by our bitterness and begin doing our best to help them become whole.

Damage control

Psychologist Douglas Darnall argues that prevention, rather than damage control, is crucial because reducing the effects on children, or even adult survivors, is difficult. We must do everything possible to shield our children from this type of behaviour – even if it means protecting them from ourselves.

In order to help my kids exit the mental and emotional tug-of-war, I chose what I thought was the right path – to remain silent. Then I watched in agony as they slipped away from me. In recent years, I’ve learned, surprisingly, that while retaliation is completely the wrong choice, neither is silence golden.

Psychologist Richard Warshak explains that when you are the target of unfair, malignant criticism, it’s time to voice careful criticism of the other parent. "I’m not advocating open season on your ex," Warshak writes in Divorce Poison. "Before criticizing, you must be convinced that it is primarily for your children’s welfare, and not for your own satisfaction, and that the disclosure helps your children rather than hurts them."

What about older children who have already been poisoned, whether moderately or acutely? The sometimes angry or detached psychological condition of these children is called parental alienation syndrome (PAS). According to Darnall, you need to be proactive with kids affected by PAS, realizing they are victims of emotional abuse. Suggestions include staying as involved as possible in their lives, even if they seem to reject you; keeping your anger under control so as not to fuel the alienating parent; focusing on keeping your relationship positive; and trying to get the court to understand what is going on. The court’s support may increase mandatory visitation or introduce required family therapy.

Pray for healing

We can never underestimate the power of continuous prayer to heal our children’s hearts, even if the professionals paint a bleak picture. Remember that the two women went to the king expecting a favourable decision, and one was not disappointed. The earthly king restored the child to the mother who loved selflessly. As parents praying for and entrusting our kids into the hands of the truly good eternal King, we can ask the same.

Children are in danger of being poisoned if one of their parents:

  1. Expresses anger openly toward the other parent
  2. Tells too many details about the divorce or blames the other parent
  3. Won’t allow children to transport personal belongings between homes
  4. Refuses flexibility or fairness with the other parent’s time
  5. Uses children to spy or keep secrets
  6. Sets up "fun activities" to lure children away
  7. Shuts children down when they talk positively about the other parent
  8. Undermines the other parent’s authority and rules
  9. Frequently contacts children when they are visiting the other parent
  10. Compares them to negative characteristics of the other parent

Your children may be affected by parental alienation syndrome if they . . .

  1. Make absurd or unfounded complaints against the (target) parent
  2. Believe the alienating parent can do no wrong
  3. Cite events that they were too young to remember or that didn’t happen
  4. Avoid the target parent or display fear (or hatred) for unjustified reasons
  5. Believe the target parent is not qualified to care for or make decisions for them
  6. Make numerous covert calls to the alienating parent when they are with target parent
  7. Spy to collect financial or personal information from the target parent
  8. Become violent or physically aggressive toward the target parent
  9. Form alliances with the alienating parent against the target parent
  10. Show no remorse for poor treatment of the target parent

Julie Ferwerda is an author and speaker based out of central Wyoming. She continues to pray for restoration in the relationship with her teen daughters.

Julie Ferwerda was an author and speaker based out of central Wyoming at the time of publication.

© 2009 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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