Dr. Domagoj Štimac, psychiatrist and deputy director of the Child Protection Centre of Zagreb presented our Centre in Strasbourg at the 21st meeting of the Network of Contact Parliamentarians to stop sexual violence against children, held in the Palais del Europe of the Council of Europe on January 27, 2015, as part of the "One in five" campaign, which promotes protection of children from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.
Večernji list published an interview with the Director Prof. Sc. D. Gordana Buljan Flander on Amendments to the Family Law from 2015, namely the provisions on divorce and parental care. The author of the article is Marinko Jurasić:
“Under the necessary modifications to the Family Law from 2015, the provisions on divorce and family care stand out. Even though the number of conflict divorces is allegedly going down, it is actually a fiction originating in a parental plan that parents agree to so they wouldn’t be labeled as uncooperative in cases where one parent gets the custody of the child. And then, after the divorce, they ask for a new parental plan. Here is what Gordana Buljan Flander, prof. Ph.D, child psychologist, psychotherapist and expert witness, says about this legal solution.
Low conflict divorces are a worthy goal, but is the reality something else?
The law is written in good faith that most parents will readily agree in matters pertaining to child upbringing. I myself assert that it is in the best interest of the child that the parents agree, as well as that court proceedings are short and seldom, so the child could establish a balance as soon as possible after the divorce. But the fact is that many parents can’t or don’t want to agree and, in that case, it is necessary for system to take responsibility. I think it’s wrong that the court can’t make a decision about equally shared parenting when parents can’t agree.
What if that provokes new conflict?
Even if such verdict would cause additional conflicts, I think it is important to consistently encourage parents to cooperate and show them that the option of their long-term impaired relationship which is harming their child – is not an option. When I asked the people involved in the making of the new Family law to explain the reasoning behind this solution, they answered that the system will recognize the potential manipulation of the child and give custody to the other parent. I wonder why wait until manipulation, parental alienation and child suffering instead of acting preventively. I also wonder what is that institution and what kind of tools do they have to search for signs od manipulation in every family and then start new proceedings. Time is the enemy in these cases and giving opportunities to parents and waiting for long court proceedings is usually taking the opportunity from the child.
How should we solve this problem than, from your profession’s point of view?
Research and clinical practice show that alienation is connected with the division of power, that is the parent with more power is the one manipulating the child. That is why I think the practice should be that the parents have an equal amount of power as much as it is possible. Power is manifested in the amount of time the child spends with the parent, making important decisions for the child like choosing school, activities and the like. That doesn’t mean that the solution for every family is that the child spends half of its time with mother and half with father. Child is not a percentage and it’s not appropriate to “calculate” like that. The idea is that, taking into consideration individual characteristics of the child and objective circumstances (place of residence, parental work schedule, child’s activities etc.), and immediately, at the very beginning of the divorce process, find a solution where both parents are approximately equally involved in child’s life. The right of the child to both parents (except in cases where the parent is harmful for the child’s health, safety and life) is above any parental right. That way no one can act like the child’s owner and decide, for example, to “let” the other parent see the child and use that as a tool of conflict or to achieve some goal over their ex-partner.
What are the consequences of long-term high-conflict divorces for the child?
Children who spend a lot of time in the middle of parental conflict are often neglected, their emotions aren’t recognized and their needs aren’t met. These children learn how to please each parent separately, to act and feel according to their parents’ reactions, and not paying attention to their own needs and feelings. I often say that those are the children who “aren’t there”, at least at first impression, so it takes a lot of time to reveal the authentic child who was alone for such a long time, invisible and hidden deep inside. I have heard many times that when asking the child about their greatest wish, the child answers: “That mom and dad love me more than they hate each other”. Children who witness their parents’ hate being stronger than love often feel unworthy of love, they are insecure and lonely. They have worse self-image, more symptoms of depression and anxiety, more likely to abuse narcotics and act out. They also self-harm and attempt suicide more often.
They seem to scream: “I am here, notice me, love me”, but no one hears them. Alienated children have very similar symptoms, but their emotional state is often even worse and carries more long-term risk for their mental health. If one parent asks them to completely denigrate and reject the other parent, they actually ask them to denigrate and reject half of themselves. Every child is half mom and half dad, genetically as well as emotionally. Children start to adopt black and white thinking, so that one parent is completely perfect and good while the other one is completely bad, and later that is how they perceive themselves as well as the rest of the world, other people and relationships. That cognitive distortion is called splitting and it is the source of numerous disorders like for example borderline personality disorder.
How is that reflected on their development, once they grow up?
When they grow up, they can’t integrate positive and negative aspects of themselves, other people and life situations, they live in between idealization and disappointment. The problem is also that those children have a hard time recognizing their needs and emotions later in life, they are searching for someone to “lead” them so parents often wonder how they fell into “bad company”. Their parental authority has been knocked down and once their children reach adolescence, they often stop respecting parental rules and boundaries. Finally, they live with one very simple message “I can’t be loved “. That message comes from living in a distorted reality where one parent presents the other as bad, dangerous and harmful for the child, ie teaches them that that parent doesn’t love them. Alienating parent conditions their love on child’s readiness to reject the other parent so their love also isn’t real and unconditional. If children feel like neither parent loves them, or at least not in the right way, they will not feel like there is something wrong with the parents but like there is something wrong with them and that they can’t be loved. Alienated children, like children whose parents are in high conflict divorces, are sad and lonely children who don’t just need a reaction but also a prevention from the system. This is why equal shared parenting should be a standard by Family law, so that wouldn’t depend on the good will of the parent.”