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In Croatian Radiotelevision show Studio 4, the host and editor Petar Vlahov hosted on March 26th, 2019, the Center’s psychologist Mia Roje on the issue of manipulation of children in divorce and alienation from parents (see video of the entire show):
Vlahov: The case of Pag has shown how children are actually threatened in their own families, often experiencing a real drama, exposed to manipulation and abuse. This case has also shown the vulnerability of a system that often fails. Does the system encourage the manipulation of children in the family?
Roje: The system is getting better at recognizing the manipulation of children; it recognizes it as a form of emotional abuse. However, we still seem to recognize it inadequately, and even when we recognize it, people are eager to close their eyes. A child who has been emotionally abused has no bruises or wounds to be seen, and people then say “so let’s give parents another chance, maybe something will change” … While we give parents a chance to continue emotionally abusing children, we actually take the opportunity and chance from children. So, it’s not a matter of knowledge whether it exits. Manipulation exists. The reaction is the key.
Vlahov: How much do you meet with parents manipulating the child in your daily work?
Roje: I would say that we are facing that situation in the Center every day, because we work with that kind of problems. Not every divorce is high-conflict divorce, nor is there manipulation in every high-conflict divorce. The population with which we work is unfortunately very often like that, and what I’m sorry to say is that children often come to us when it’s too late for some kind of prevention. So, children come when they already have problems, when they have emotional difficulties and when it is needed to react, when they need some sort of treatment. And it would be better if they came earlier, when preventive action could have been taken, so no more serious mental health consequences arise.
Divorce itself is stressful for a majority of children, however, how the child will adjust to divorce depends mostly on what kind of communication parents will develop after divorce or separation. So, not every divorce is an automatic abuse of a child. However, the problem arises when parents cannot leave their conflicts, their disagreements, their feelings towards their partner on the side, and when they cannot devote to child’s best interest, instead of each other. Then, unfortunately, children become active participants in the conflict because parents put them in the middle, manipulate their children, fight in some way over a child, and ultimately end up in such a way that one parent tries to alienate child from the other parent.
As an illustration of how an emotionally abused child feels, Mia Roje has shown a drawing of a child growing up in such situation:
The child named the drawing “a crazy child” and described how emotionally abused child feels. Therefore, it doesn’t have to be physical, it doesn’t have to be sexual abuse, this is an emotionally abused child who hears, e.g. “your mom is terrible, your mom is not good” and this child is saying “half of me is terrible, half of me is not good”. As a child is a genetic half-mother-half father, so it is in an emotional sense. This child says about himself that children who are emotionally abusive are also: “awful, crazy, childish, stupid, bad, black, loose, small, lazy, and dead”. That is the emotional experience of these children. Since when do we have the right to close our eyes to the emotional abuse of children, to give in under various pressures so it is the public very often in these cases says who is right, who is wrong, whether or not the abuse has happened. Therefore, it is important to listen to the profession, so the profession can react, but also that the profession stands up for what it does.
I also brought a letter showing what each child really wants or needs in their parent’s divorce. When I ask children, what is your greatest wish, the child will tell you, “I want my dad and mom to be together”. Almost every child wants it. And if we say ” what would be your other wish”, the children then say “for them to love each other, to be friends, to agree very well”.
We have a letter from one of our children who says: “Children want parents to be happy, and parents should also wish the same for their children. Do not be angry at a child for loving mom and dad. If you no longer want to be husband and wife then at least be friends”.
And indeed, the greatest gift that parents can give to their child is that they are in decent communication, to actively encourage a child’s relationship with another parent, instead of undermining it.
Vlahov: Can the child be asked with which parent would he want to live?
Roje: To a child, it is the most difficult question in the world. Imagine yourself as an adult and someone asks who do you love more- mom or dad, with whom you want to live with, mom or dad, especially when it is done in front of the parents, unfortunately we often have such cases as well. There are many different ways to examine the authentic desire and will of the child. Unfortunately, Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child – that the child has the right to express his / her will, will and opinion in all legal matters that concern him, is sometimes abused. So, then we say us adults cannot agree, the court does not know what to do, the Center doesn’t know what to do, let’s ask the child, and then it’s as if what the child says is supposed to be a verdict. So, the child has the right to be asked in a professional way about his will and desire, without emotional pressure. However, decision makers are always adults, and if there are signs of emotional abuse adults are the ones who need to protect the child from this abuse.
Vlahov: How do you recognize these signs and get professional help as soon as possible?
Roje: I have brought one letter to show you what is in the heart of a child who is alienated. When I say alienated, this means that a child, under the influence of one parent, has dismissed the other parent.
Vlahov: Does the time the child is spending with one parent have anything to do with it?
Roje: Alienation and manipulation are mostly about power, and power is usually achieved in such cases when the child spends more time with one parent, when child lives with one parent. So as soon as parents are divorced, it would be a good practice for a child to spend nearly the same amount of time with parents as much as it is possible in a particular case. We at the Center, with the support of the City of Zagreb, are very much educated about this complex issue. When people say there is no scientific research about it, that’s not true. This is a topic that is very well-scientifically substantiated. However, if we set science aside – let’s see how the child experiences it. And how the child shows his heart. So this is a classic splitting in a child – a black and white world. Here in the top part of the drawing is – hate, difficult for the child, the child is sad, the child is angry. This is what we see, the heart in the upper part of which we see a single child who has a strange reaction, reaction of hate towards one parent. And then the child draws the line and in the other completely isolated part of the heart stands “love” and “I miss that parent”. And that is how the child actually feels from the inside. Through treatment we work to come to this part.
However, while there is a constant impact of the toxic parent on the child, we cannot do that. Then we only see this peak where the child rejects the parent. And contrary to what people think, “a child will go to the better parent”. No, the child will adhere to the parent whose love he has to deserve, whose love is not safe. When we talk about alienation, when it is already happened, the child will stay with the parent whose love is to be earned, not with the parent whose love is safe. This can be counter-intuitive. Let’s imagine, however, that we have an emotional abuser who has focused all the hatred on another parent and system employees. The child sees this hate and sees his anger, the child is naturally afraid that this hatred and the anger of that parent would turn to him, so the child would actually indulge to that parent who he is afraid of. So that is a targeted violence of one parent to another parent, which may have a disastrous effect on the child’s psyche.
Sometimes a parent consciously forbids and obstructs the contacts and says that the other parent is bad, but it can be very subtle, so the parent says, for example, “sweetheart, come to mom” while simultaneously crying or showing concern. These nonverbal messages are even more dangerous.
“I hear one thing, I see another. How do I trust you? If I cannot trust my parent, how can I trust anyone?” These children are very sad. These children are used to the leadership of this abusive parent. And then when they come to us in the Center, say, in adolescence, and the parent asks why did my child end up in bad company, or why was he in a violent relationship and looking for an abuser who would abuse her and tell her what to do, why the child used alcohol or drugs, why doesn’t he come home when I tell him … If a child is used to deciding with whom is he going to live at 7,8, or 10 years, how are you going to tell this child at 15,16 or 17 years old when to come home?
Vlahov: You said that there are scientific papers that talk about manipulation, but somehow in our society it is considered that the father is an abuser and the mother is a victim. Of course, in most cases, that is how it is, at least according to what we see in the media. But that’s not always the case.
Roje: The partnership and parental relationship should be separated. So, it is quite certain that there are many women who are victims of a kind of partner violence by their partner. But we have to look at what kind of person they are, what kind of a parent they are. So, if it was a case of family violence where they hit each other, or where he hit her, it was terrible and it should not have happened, that woman should be given a lot of understanding and support for what happened. However, let’s say that happened while she was pregnant. And then the child comes and says, “My dad has beaten my mum while I was in the tummy. I know that because I remember it, my mom did not tell me. ” Then that is using what happened to induce a child. Some people, some of their fathers are indeed violent and impulsive, but that does not mean that they do not have to be in the child’s life unless they are dangerous for the child. There are meetings under surveillance, so there are various ways to ensure this. As long as a parent does not actively endanger life, health and safety of a child, it is better for a child to have that parent in some form, which is in the best interests of a particular child so that the child can integrate both the good and the bad sides of the mother and the good and the bad sides of the father. So, it can integrate a picture of himself, so there will not come to this splitting that I mentioned to you and to numerous psychiatric disorders.
I would like to read to you another test of incomplete sentences. We start a sentence for a child, and it must complete it as soon as it comes to his first memory. So the child says:
With my mom I love to- talk, with my dad I love- nothing.
With my mom I do not love- me and my mom do not do anything I do not like.
That’s not what any child would actually tell you.
I do not like to-see my dad
If I could change anything in my mom’s mind-nothing
If I could change anything in dad-everything
And that is exactly the heart I have shown you, where the child’s world is black and white, it is a child who suffers a great deal, who is at a high risk of developing psychiatric disorders in the future.