Dr. Richard Warshak is the author of Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing, a book that gives parents powerful strategies to preserve and repair loving relationships with their children.
Internationally renowned lecturer and authority on divorce, custody, and the psychology of alienated children, Warshak is a clinical, research, and consulting psychologist and a clinical professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
He also wrote the chapter on Parental Alienation Syndrome for the Expert Witness Manual, a guide for attorneys and judges dealing with expert testimony.
Read on for the two-part Q&A with Warshak about parental alienation, the signs of it, how to deal with it, and how to restore your relationship with an alienated child. (Note: Click here to read Part 2.)
DadsDivorce.com: For someone who is entering a divorce or in the throes of it and are concerned about parental alienation happening at some point, how can they prevent it or can they prevent it from happening?
Dr. Richard Warshak: There are certainly things you can do to reduce the likelihood of it occurring. Some of it depends on your spouse but one can certainly maintain regular contact with children and keep arranged schedules of contact consistent. It’s also important to not badmouth the other parents and to not give the kids the third degree.
Don’t overreact, don’t allow your contact to be interrupted, and hang in there. If the child expresses distorted views of you, provide the information to help clarify issues when appropriate. You’ll need to exercise great patience if the other parent is alienating.
Some common mistakes parents make is overreacting, trying to talk the children out of their feelings, withdrawing from the child, and accusing the child of merely parodying the other parent’s complaints.
You don’t want to jump to conclusions and conclude that the other parent is always trying to turn the child against you. Innocent situations may turn out to just be innocent situations. Don’t immediately assume alienation is occurring.
However, if you feel the other parent is intentionally alienating, it’s important to discuss your concerns with them if you’re on civil terms. If you aren’t on that level, you need to seek counseling with a third party.
DD: I’ve heard often from parents who don’t even realize they are a victim of parental alienation. Then when you describe what it is, they suddenly go “that’s exactly what is happening to me.” So is there any way of knowing how prevalent this is?
RW: Many of the readers of my “Divorce Poison” book say they haven’t been aware they were hurting children that they weren’t doing it deliberately. It’s helped them appreciate how damaging it is to badmouth a parent.
Once parents read about it, they came to recognize they and their children are victims of it. There’s no way to know for sure due to the variations of research studies in determining the severity of alienating behavior, but it’s believed there are between 20,000-250,000 new child victims each year.
DD: So we talked about the “before,” and attempts to prevent alienation from happening. What about how to act during this stage when parental alienation is occurring? How should you act if you know your ex is alienating you?
RW: If the purposeful alienation extends to denying contact, it’s very important to get legal assistance so you know what your rights are and how orders can be enforced. You cannot allow your contact with the child to be interrupted. Time and space is the beginning to the end of the relationship.
DD: Say one parent has alienated a child. How can the other parent successfully restore that relationship with the child, or how likely is it that the relationship will ever be restored?
RW: It really depends on the circumstances. If you’re still able to gain contact with the child, you may be able to show your children through your behavior that you aren’t this demon being portrayed. Sometimes children are filled with such distortions that you’ll need professional programs to help children live with parents they claim to dislike and reject as a result of alienation.
When it’s more severe, it’s very important to have some legal intervention because the favored parent will say, “There’s nothing I can do. The child just doesn’t want to see you.”
It’s hard to overturn a child’s attitude, so use the court to enforce contact with the child and get them into counseling with you.
Note: Click here to read Part 2.