Family is the heart of the society both today and before. Each family is unique, but at their fundamental core, all of them are bound by love and sharing. Modern times bring many changes and challenges to family life. Today, there are different types of families – parents living together, divorced parents, parents who have never been married, one of the parents having a new partner, families with same sex partners, widowed families, foster families, adoptive families, and so on.
In the three days of the 3rd European Conference of EAPAP (European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners) on the alienation of children from their parents in high-conflict divorces and parental separations organized by the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center (16th to 18th September 2020), which brought together more than 400 experts – participants from around the world and 18 foreign and 14 of our lecturers – experts, it has been shown once again that our Center follows good practices in the world in child protection.
Alienation is ubiquitous – children need urgent and adequate protection
Although the concept of parental alienation (PA) has not yet been introduced as a diagnostic criterion by the World Health Organization, experts at the conference agreed that alienation is ubiquitous and that children exposed to parental alienation behaviors need urgent and adequate protection by experts and the system. for the protection of children.
We all agreed that alienating a child from the other parent is simply unnatural, not biologically normal (unless the other parent is abusive and harming the child), but is actually a psychological splitting and trauma of the child. This is not about arranging contacts between children and parents and assigning care, but about protecting children. Personally, it was important for me to hear from European and American lecturers, renowned experts, that alienation is often an emotional abuse of children by the alienating parent, given that our clinic has been working in this way for about 15 years, and that we recognize alienated children as emotionally abused children and that we ask the social welfare and justice system to take measures in the direction of child protection, as well as for other abused children.
Abuse of Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child
I also found it very useful to discuss Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that a child has the right to express his or her opinion, will and desire on matters concerning him or her. This article is really important in protecting children’s rights, but for years I have been saying that this article is abused when parents, relatives and various “experts” ask a child who he/she wants to live with and who he/she loves more, and mom/dad, mom/dad relatives “teach” what to say. This brings a child who has not yet been alienated into a conflict of loyalty, and with an alienated child who is already fused with the parent – the alienator, we will hear the voice of the alienating parent, and not the authentic opinion, will and desire of the child. I find this issue to be abusive for children, and that is why I have been warning for years that the burden of the decision should never be on the child’s back because, as one child told me, it is “the most difficult question in the world”. The child should certainly be allowed to express his or her will and desire, if he or she so wishes, but it is the experts and the court who must assess whether the child’s will and desire is in accordance and in his or her best interest.
It is up to us adults to find out through our expertise and our professions, multidisciplinary, what is the authentic will and desire of the child and what is the best interest of the child.
Expert responsibility: “Waiting for a child to say he/she wants to live with an alienated parent is contraindicated.”
Unfortunately, in my practice so far, I have heard that “experts” have advised alienated parents to give up seeking contact with an alienated child, to let the child come to them only after they reach the age of majority. During the conference, Karen Woodall, our colleague, educator and supervisor, emphasized that waiting for a child to say they want to live with an alienated parent is contraindicated. The child cannot say this, and we experts who do not notice the real problem do not protect the child from emotional abuse but continue to be part of the alienating process. Rather, instead of being part of the solution we become part of the problem. And our dear colleague, the German psychiatrist Wilfred von Boch-Galau, emphasized that experts are the ones who can facilitate the process of alienation or interrupt it, and that the biggest mistake is to wait for the child to return to the alienated parent on their own.
Why do alienated parents have to prove to the system that they are perfect?
Sietske Dijkstra from the Netherlands pointed out that alienated parents are required to be perfect, and in fact they should only be parents. Unfortunately, I know a lot of alienated parents that children reject under the influence of alienating parents. Some of them had to prove to the system for years that the parents were flawless, in order to be able to see the child at all. For years, experts would have wondered what was wrong with that alienated parent when the child rejected that parent, instead of wondering what was wrong with the alienating parent, whether and what psychopathology was present in that parent with whom the child was pathologically fused, so that child more it has neither its own desire nor its own need but depends solely on the desires and needs of that parent, perceiving them as its own. Then the child declares, for example, “I don’t need anyone but my mom/my dad” “my mom is an angel and my dad is the devil”, “my dad is my king and my mom is the worst in the world”, “I hate my mom, I love only dad”, “I hate dad/mom the most in the world” … In such cases it is evident that the child resorts to psychological splitting as a defence mechanism, ie in order to survive emotionally.
Psychological basis for later psychiatric disorders
A large part of the conference was dedicated to the issue of splitting, splitting, ie idealization of one or demonization of the other parent, given that splitting is a psychological basis for later psychological/psychiatric disorders. Unfortunately, I have seen many parents who enjoy complacency if their child completely rejects and completely alienates himself from the other parent, considering it proof of his good parenting because of which “the child chose them.” And in fact the opposite is true: the child bows to that parent by rejecting the other, because he knows it is a condition of his love, in order to overcome the anxiety and threat of rejection by the alienating parent.
The alienating parents often tried to convince me that the child had just decided that he did not want to see the other parent, that he was afraid of them and that they did not want to force the child to do what he did not want. a five-year-old child only decided that he wanted to see the other parent only once a week for two hours. Of course, their children, after becoming alienated, recite the same sentences and with the same facial expression that an alienating, manipulative parent has. So a 5 and a half year old child recently told me, “I came to tell you that I don’t want to live with my dad but to see him once a month, because moms are for living and dads are for playing. And I remembered that myself because I have the right to my opinion. ”
Psychopathology of alienating parents: They see themselves as protectors of the child-victim from the other parent-persecutor, which does not correspond to reality
I will never forget the child who, describing how he felt, before he was alienated and psychologically merged with the alienating father so aware of his feelings, drew bruises on his soul “which no one sees because they are not on the body.”
Therefore, it seemed to me an extremely important lecture by Danijel Crnković, PhD-MD, who spoke about the psychopathology of alienating parents and emphasized that it follows from this psychopathology that the alienating parent puts the child in the role of the victim and himself in the role of protector, which does not correspond to reality, and that experts must not silent observers.
I would add to this, from my experience, that alienating parents and professionals try to drag us into this toxic triangle, expecting us to stand with them in the role of protector of the “victim” child from the other “persecutor” parent. When we do not do this, but recognize their abusive behaviors, then they turn their anger and hatred towards the other parent, whom they consider a “persecutor”, towards the expert. There are accusations against experts, calls for lynching and slander…, especially on social networks.
The problem we share with the world: protecting professionals from accusations and slander on social media by alienating parents
The protection of experts was also one of the topics at the conference because the same accusations and slanders on social networks occur in all countries experts who protect children from abuse, especially in cases of alienation or emotional abuse, when there are no visible bruises and witnesses.
Listening to the conference of such experiences of colleagues from different countries and continents, we were strengthened by the knowledge that we experts from different parts of the world, from different systems who are together in the mission of child protection, have the same challenges, very similar experiences. And we are not giving up on our mission, ultimately the legal obligation, to protect children.
All of us in the system of health, education and social care, when there is alienation from parents, cannot do anything alone without the justice system that needs to take on the role of “supervisor”. As a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, I responsibly argue that parents should not be given a chance to improve their parenting competencies for years, providing them with numerous counseling and therapies, while there is no appropriate sanction for emotionally abusive behaviors. Therefore, these abusive behaviors of the alienating parent continue, and all the while we give him a chance to “fix” the child grows alienated from the other parent, so instead of sanctioning the parent, the child is included in psychological treatments. The alienating parent thereby “buys time” to solidify his or her position of merging with the child, counting that over time the child will only continue to fight the other parent on his or her behalf. We need to be aware that some parents never get an insight into their abusive behaviors and only function under the pressure of the system.
We also heard at the conference that Brazil passed a law in 2010 that defines and punishes alienation as a form of child abuse. According to my experience in Croatia and the region, all child protection systems still lack knowledge about this issue, the processes take too long, children are sent for questioning, processing and expertise, and during that time they live in a war zone, sometimes most of their lives. In doing so, some of them have either very little and “forced” contact with the other parent, or no contact at all. And for a child in such situations, time is the enemy.
The child’s fundamental right is the continuous presence of both parents in his life, growing up and upbringing
The child has a fundamental right to the continuous presence of both parents in their life, growing up and upbringing (of course, except in the case of abuse), and yet it happens that some children exercise this fundamental right to both parents only after a final court judgment.
If we allow the child to become alienated in the meantime, and if we respect the child’s alienated will and desire rather than his best interest, it may be too late. A child is left without another parent and literally lives with half of himself, since by rejecting one parent he has also rejected half of himself, and develops many negative consequences, especially in adolescence.
Namely, if a child hates the other parent and rejects the other parent as bad, inadequate, if he perceives him as completely black, “as pure evil”, the child actually hates half of himself who represents the other parent in him, because we are all half mom, half dad . Thus, the child is at risk of not becoming a mature, emotionally stable person who can combine good and bad in his parents, in himself, and in the people around him, because that is exactly the task of growing up.
I believe that we will succeed in recognizing alienation both in the public and in the profession as a form of emotional abuse
Although the conference was virtual, there was a strong community of participants – there was a lot of discussion, and during breaks, a lot of concrete questions, practical ideas… And each day extended beyond the scheduled schedule. It was very clear why we chose this call.
At the end of the conference, we all had a strong sense of enthusiasm that alienation would become universally recognized by both parents and professionals and the public, that it would become indisputable that alienating a child was not love between a “good” parent and a child and proof that the other parent was “bad” , rather than being an emotional abuse of a child that requires an urgent and adequate response from both the child’s environment and child protection system professionals.
I remembered the time when I started talking about the protection of sexually abused children 25-30 years ago, when there was no hearing about it at all, nor was it desirable to talk about it in public, when it was thought to be happening somewhere else. Today, the attitude of the public and the laws have changed, sexually abused children are much better recognized and better protected (although still insufficient) than when this issue was not recognized by either the profession or the public.
Therefore, in my closing speech, I repeated the words of Israeli expert Benjamin Bailey “that this is not a short race, but a marathon”. And that I firmly believe, after this conference more than ever, that we will run it successfully.
Disclaimer: This is unofficial translation provided for information purposes. Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center cannot be held legally responsible for any translation inaccuracy.