Can you imagine how incredibly difficult it is for children who love and trust their parents to hear each say contrary and belligerent things about the other parent? Can you imagine the stress these children who are in the middle of a battlefield experience as drones and rockets explode over their heads?
I am seemingly exaggerating, using the similes and metaphors of warfare to make my point. But for young people whose lives are dependent upon the support and approval of a parent lofting accusations and invective, you can imagine how upsetting and terrifying that situation is. Further, imagine yourself, as the custodial parent of these young children, listening to them parrot the remarks made by the other parent that you have heard your divorcing spouse make about you. How do you protect these children?
In the nearly forty years of my practicing divorce law, the most difficult and stressful cases I have handled concern parents who use their children as weapons against their spouse. The term that I have become familiar with is “parental alienation”. For our purposes, this is the actions of a parent who deliberately alienates their child from the other parent. The practice employed by such a parent is reprehensible. The child who has experienced this type of conduct can be damaged. Therapists that I have worked with refer to this type of conduct as child abuse which may impact the child’s later relationships.
Now that I have defined the malignancy, what do you do about it? Some doctors and therapists acknowledge that children of parents who are divorcing may experience new difficulties that you as parents never detected. The child may be failing to do homework; the child may be failing the weekly spelling or math quiz at school; the child’s attitude may change from a sunny disposition to one who is reticent and surly.
Children whose parents are divorcing and who are showing the affects may benefit from counseling. A good child therapist may offer a safe haven for a child to ask the questions and react to the stress being experienced by the child. Doctors and therapists opine that children who are being subjected to a curriculum of parental alienation could benefit such counseling and a safe environment, more than children whose parents are merely divorcing.
The practical difficulty with getting children into counseling when you are in the midst of divorce is getting your spouse to agree. In “tooth and tong” child custody warfare, I have had opposing counsel respond that the children in question do not need counseling, and that it is my client who needs to see a shrink, not the children. So while the damage to the children is occurring, the other spouse is refusing to cooperate. To further complicate matters and cause delay, there is a presumption that exists for shared legal custody for divorcing parties.
If you are embroiled in a highly contested custody/ parenting plan dispute, and there is an inability for you and your spouse to communicate for the benefit your children, seeking sole legal custody may be an option. Moreover, if control of the children is the overriding theme of your divorce by your spouse, your having a Guardian ad Litem appointed by the court to do an investigation and ultimately make recommendations concerning custody and a parenting plan are important elements for the entry of orders for the protection of these children.
An elementary question that I used to ask myself was why a parent and a soon to be former spouse would do this? Why would a parent want to cause such damage? The answer is sometimes obvious: “he/she left me for another person; it was the only thing I could do to hurt him/her”. Another answer which is equally obvious: “if I have sole physical custody, I will not have to pay child support”. Whichever the rationale of that parent who is causing the damage is, that conduct must stop.
In my practice, I do not tolerate a client’s actions nor those of opposing party that damage the children. In the practice of medicine, aspiring physicians take an oath, known as the Hippocratic Oath. They pledge fealty to their patients, and they further pledge to “do no harm”. I feel that the pledge to do no harm is particularly apt for divorce attorneys. People who are suffering come to me, bleeding, their wounds needing to be dealt with. For your own self-protection and for that of your family, please be vigilant in your selection of your legal representative. The ultimate resolution of your divorce should be that you and your children are protected, minimizing harm to them or you. That is my philosophy on the subject.