While many divorces are settled amicably between ex-spouses, some divorces involve long battles over property division and custody arrangements. If these become too heated, some spouses resort to bad-mouthing their ex in front of their children. This cycle of one parent turning their children against the other parent is commonly known as parental alienation, and the consequences can be devastating for everyone involved—especially for the couple’s children.
Trying to parent a child who has been conditioned to believe you are a bad parent is extremely difficult. If you think your ex has swept you and your children up in a vicious storm of parental alienation, there are ways you can escape the cycle and re-establish a healthy, loving bond with your children.
1. Follow the Directions of your Attorney
You will first need to know what you can and can’t say to your child about the case. Your attorney may advise you not to discuss any part of the case with your children. This is especially true when an attorney is appointed to determine the best interest of the child or children.
2. Address Lies and Rumors Head-On
Sometimes, conventional wisdom states that we should ignore the lies and untrue rumors we hear about ourselves. Unfortunately, this can hurt alienated parents even more in the long run. If your child tells you that you left home because you don’t love her, don’t remain silent. Tell her that you love her, and the divorce was an adult problem that had nothing to do with her.
Focus on simply stating the truth with an emphasis on your love and support for your children. Be careful about attempting to discredit the source of the rumor and do not lash out at their other parent, especially if you’ve been advised to avoid discussing the case by your attorney. Anything negative said about the other parent reflects poorly on your children, it can even extend and exacerbate a feud.
If your ex falsely accuses you of abusing your child, you may want to seek the assistance of competent legal counsel. Rumors involving physical, sexual, or emotional abuse can have serious legal consequences for you and your family, so you will want to address any of these rumors with the help of an attorney knowledgeable about family law in your state.
3. Encourage Your Child to Speak to You Directly
Make sure your child knows they can ask you about things they’ve heard about you from other people. Encourage your kids to come to you if they have questions about your relationship with them. Remember not to discuss the case with your child if your attorney has advised against it.
All kids need to be able to speak to their parents directly without using other people as a go-between. Even if your child doesn’t believe your answers at first, at least they are hearing your side of the story directly from you and can decide what type of relationship to have with you over time. Your efforts may not seem to make a difference right now, but they may give your child reason to reach out to you on their own in the future.
4. Control Your Emotions
Although it’s normal to feel defensive and angry when your ex is spreading lies about you, it’s extremely important that you manage your emotions around your kids. If your ex tells your kids that you’re out of control and then you act angry and frustrated around your kids, you’ll just bolster your ex’s allegations. If you need emotional support, seek out the assistance of adult friends or a therapist. It may also be helpful to join a support group for parents affected by parental alienation. Parental alienation support groups take place in person and on the internet all over the world.
It can be difficult to resist the urge to retaliate, but instead, try to focus on yourself and your own values. What may bring you greater peace of mind than an attempt to get back at your ex is to remember the values you have to offer your children. The values you pass on to your children will remain with them for the rest of their lives. For example, demonstrating empathy, kindness, strength, stability, and love in the face of ugly behavior on the part of your ex allows you to show your kids which values are important to you, and it allows you to model appropriate behavior for them. By engaging in pro-active parenting, you are basing your actions on what is best for your child.
If you can show yourself and your children consistent, unwavering strength through the process of living with integrity, you may be able to minimize the damaging influences of the other parent. This may be one of the most important things you can do for your children.
5. Keep in Contact With Your Child
Even if you no longer have custody or your child refuses to see you, don’t stop letting your child know you are there for them. Send cards, texts, and attend school events. You may not get a response, but by reaching out, you’re letting your child know that you care and that you want to be his or her parent. Over the years, these actions on your part may help your child to develop their own feelings about you.
It may be difficult to continue contacting your child if they respond negatively to you. They might be rude, hostile, or indifferent to your phone calls or text messages. Make sure you are in a good frame of mind before you reach out to him or her so that you don’t overreact to any negative behavior they might display. You cannot expect to win your children’s affection by yelling at them or fighting with them. Any aggression that you show will only bolster your ex’s case.
6. Realize That Healing Takes Time
Rebuilding your relationship with your child may take months, years, or even decades. Look for signs of how well your child is adapting to the divorce and give them extra support where needed, but be realistic. Your child may be an adult before he finally reconnects with you for good. The important thing to remember is that your child needs a steady parent on his side with his best interests at heart. It’s your job to be the mature adult in a situation that is very difficult and confusing for your child.
It’s not easy to co-parent with someone who is hostile towards you, and it can be even more difficult when you want to keep your negative feelings about your ex from reaching your kids. How you handle the situation speaks to your maturity and dedication as a parent. Regardless of what your children think of you today, they will remember your actions—and reactions—to this difficult situation for the rest of their lives. Make the best choices you can.
Alfredo Ramos is a writer specializing in issues important to parents and families – leveraging his experience in divorce, adoption, and other cases through work with the Ramos Law Group. In the past, he has served in the US Navy as the Medical Department Head with the primary mission of mobilization readiness of reserve personnel.