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No Matter What: Me and My Family

Understanding

Almost all divorces have some degree of stress, anxiety and even conflict. How these issues are addressed may be as important as the underlying issues themselves. Many child professionals suggest that how a child adapts to a divorce is largely dependent on the actions of each parent and particularly their actions towards one another. A child whose parents are frequently in open conflict with one another may feel pressured to take sides in the conflict in an attempt to gain favour or approval of whichever parent they are with at the time. Parents who put the other parent down often make the child feel put down as well. In this type of situation, a child is not free to express their love of both parents, which in turn can give rise to a myriad of emotions.

It may be helpful for parents to understand the benefits of maintaining a positive, respectful relationship with their child’s other parent. Focusing on the best interests of the child rather than conflict between parents can provide a child with a sense of security. Behaving in a respectful manner can teach children this important value and provide the child with a positive role model. How parental conflict is managed can influence the ways in which the child will manage conflict in their own life and demonstrate useful techniques.

With this in mind, there are some general things to keep in mind. Parents should not…

  • speak badly about the other parent in front of their child
  • force the child to choose sides in a parental dispute
  • use their child as a messenger or go-between
  • treat the child as a pawn to hurt or punish the other parent

While some conflict may be inevitable, what is referred to as high conflict divorce is different. It is characterized by verbal and physical aggression, overt hostility and distrust. While it is very difficult to generalize such cases, it is not uncommon for parents involved in high conflict divorces to have strong opinions about the other parent’s ability to properly care for their child and very different views about parenting practices generally. In this setting, parents are often incapable of making decisions based on the best interests of the child.

In extreme cases, what has been described as parental alienation may occur. Although the terminology may be relatively new, the behaviour, unfortunately, is not. Parental alienation involves situations where one parent targets the other parent, through subtle or overt actions, to the extent that it alters the child’s love for the other parent. A court in a recent Saskatchewan case put it this way… “parental alienation occurs when one parent convinces the children that the other parent is not trustworthy, loveable or caring – in short, not a good parent.”

Courts have consistently pointed out the devastating impact such behaviour can have on a child, in some cases going so far as to say it is a form of emotional abuse that may require drastic measures to undo.

The time has arrived for the parties to end their prolonged hostility and mistrust of each other. The children will only flourish when the conflict ceases and the parents give the children the license, freedom and encouragement to have meaningful relationships with both parents without fear of disloyalty or reprisal. – 2006 Saskatchewan Judgment

Understanding

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