When a parent makes attempts to damage a child’s relationship with another parent it is called parental alienation, which leads to rejection of a parent by a child later.
Jennifer Harman, a Colorado State University social psychologist who studies parental alienation and its consequences, has published new research showing that mothers and fathers use slightly different tactics when engaging in these destructive behaviours.
Harman’s latest analysis, published in the Journal of — Family Violence — examined gender differences in many types of alienating behaviours.
Examples of direct aggressions can include when the alienating parent hits the targeted parent at child exchange time.
Also, alienating parent blocks parenting time with the child, alienating parent sends hostile emails and texts to the targeted parent, alienating parent blocks or changes phone numbers so the targeted parent cannot reach the child, and the alienating parent makes unilateral decisions about the child, in violation of court orders.
By contrast, indirect aggressions can include when the alienating parent badmouths the targeted parent to the child, alienating parent calls the police to get the targeted parent arrested based on a false claim, and alienating parent turns friends and family against the targeted parent.
Also, alienating parent tells children false stories from the past about the targeted parent, alienating parent tells children details about the court proceedings, alienating parent yells at the targeted parent in front of the children, and alienating parent lists stepparent as the biological parent on school records.
Harman also noted that if mothers and fathers tend to alienate differently, gender biases in custody cases can result; for example, indirect aggressions like spreading false rumours, perpetrated by a mother, might go unrecognised by a lawyer or judge.
When such behaviours are successful and the child’s relationship with the targeted parent is damaged, they can create what social psychologists call an “enmeshed identity” with the alienator, resulting in the child essentially acting as a proxy for the perpetrator.
The researchers thus considered alienated children’s acting out on behalf of the perpetrator as another form of direct aggression against the targeted parent.
“Indirect behaviours are more circuitous,” Harman said. “Alienators lie to manipulate, spread rumours and make false claims.” Such claims might be grounded in truth, but details are twisted or exaggerated and can be challenging for a custody evaluator to unravel.
The study includes work by co-authors Demosthenes Lorandos, a Michigan-based legal scholar; Zeynip Biringen, a professor in the CSU Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and psychology graduate student Caitlyn Grubb.
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