We might joke a lot here at exEXPERTS about not talking shit about your ex, but underlying our jokes is a tinge of truth. Shit-talking your ex can feel harmless and cathartic at times for you, sure, but it can lead to a much bigger issue down the road, even becoming a legal issue at times if it gets out of hand. And if your kids are constantly exposed to this, it can shift into parent alienation – which is a major issue in high-conflict divorce.
Cherie Morris, former divorce lawyer and Dear Divorce Coach, joined T.H. and Jessica in discussing parent alienation throughout various stages of divorce. Her former work as a family attorney, combined with her current practice as a divorce coach for both individuals and couples, has given her an extraordinary perspective in this field, and she has the answers that we know a lot of you are looking for.
What is Parent Alienation?
Cherie defines it as “it is really when one parent works to damage and even eliminate their child’s relationship with the other parent, and it occurs without legitimate justification.” Talking shit about the other parent can hurt a child because they’re part of that other parent, so in a sense, your insult can also be interpreted by your child as being directed at them. But we’re not discussing those offhand comments about the other parent you might make, saying, what a jerk, but more about the systematic attempt to sever the relationship of your child with your co-parent.
It wasn’t until recently that the American Psychological Association actually recognized this as a legitimate issue, and as there begins to be more data collected on this, we can start bringing awareness to the issue at hand and what we can do about it.
There are a variety of reasons a co-parent goes down this route of extreme bad-mouthing. “It happens to people for a lot of different reasons, including that your former spouse has a personality disorder, is extremely toxic, they have a belief that you have a real problem – unjustified, most likely,” Cherie explains. “It can happen for complicated reasons, and how we deal with it makes a difference, and how they are dealing with it makes a difference.”
Can the Court Even Stop This?
We know you’d rather not be in court if you can avoid it. And yes, sometimes you can avoid it. But there are some extreme cases where it is required, and if you do sense that this is an issue, get legal advice on what you should do before taking any action that could potentially put you in harm’s way.
“With my clients,” Cherie starts, “because I’m no longer giving legal advice, I coach them to keep journals, capture text, screenshots, emails, and be very clear about the evidence they have.” You’ll need actual evidence with proper documentation.
But They’re Doing This Behind my Back
So how do you put together evidence against something not explicitly being done in front of you?
Cherie’s biggest coaching tip is to de-escalate ourselves. “It’s really important we separate the threads of what’s going on with kids developmentally, and what’s happening because of a co-parent.” There might be reasons other than a co-parent that your child is pulling away from you. Kids go through different stages in life as they grow up, and they might be pulling away having nothing to do with a co-parent, but if we’re used to aligning in a negative way with that co-parent, we may be quick to blame them.
“A conversation with your child is always a good place to start,” recommends Cherie. “Show curiosity.” You don’t need to mention your co-parent, but you can ask your child how they’re doing, that you’ve noticed a shift in attitude, and if they’re okay. Then, if you’ve tried this and there’s still no change in your child’s behavior, get your child some support, a neutral third party to help out. The problem with parent alienation is that oftentimes, your co-parent will refuse to allow your child to go to therapy. If this is your situation, where a co-parent is refusing to get your child help, then that might be where you can start to get legal support in the matter.
Another big red flag is if your child starts talking about you directly to you in a disparaging way. Now, teenagers start doing this kind of thing too, where they get highly critical of you, your habits, and your personhood, but it is something to watch out for in case this language is coming from your co-parent through your child.
T.H. has dealt with her own son doing this to her. “I literally could hear his father’s voice behind the words,” T.H. recalls. “The way that he was speaking to me is exactly the way I had been spoken to in my marriage.” When she confronted him about this, she didn’t bring up his father but made it clear that it was not okay to speak to her like that, to bully his own mother. Sometimes, especially if your kids are younger, they might be repeating things without even realizing the meaning behind what they say. But even in these cases, it’s valuable to teach your kids why they need to be careful with their words and give them new tools to have those discussions.
What If They Blame Me for the Divorce?
Let’s say that you initiated the divorce, and your co-parent is saying you ruined the marriage. Now your kids blame you and won’t speak to you.
This is heartbreaking, and unfortunately, this does happen quite frequently. Cherie’s first question is how that parent is trying to reach out to their kids. Which interactions work? Which ones don’t? Are they attending to the boundaries set by the kids? This isn’t to place the blame on you or say this is your fault, but it’s important to recognize that your kids can set their own boundaries. Especially if your kids are grown up because as adults, you really have no say in their actions.
So how do you repair this relationship?
Cherie does recommend attempting to periodically reach out to the kids to see if anything has changed. “I’ve seen cases in which it has taken years to even have a dialogue,” Cherie admits, “But if there are ways they are willing to speak to you, even if it’s only via text, take those opportunities.”
Jessica knows of one such tragic situation. “It’s painful to watch,” says Jessica, as a parent and daughter she knows haven’t been in touch in several years. “On one hand, I can’t help but think to myself what kind of issues are going to be exposed later when you don’t have a relationship with one of your parents, because there has to be baggage that comes along with that. But also, on the side of the parent who’s trying to reach out and is being rejected, how long can you keep trying and keep bringing the pain on yourself?”
Cherie recommends still persisting, but don’t just look to fulfill the parent-child dynamic you once had with them. It’s not easy, but if you can accept that things are changing and try to work within that realm, it may be the best way to approach them. And who knows? Your child might have an epiphany, a change of heart, and realize that they were missing out on a relationship with you and come back with open arms. But you need to make it known to them that they can come back to you at any time. And make sure you’re not showing any resentment to them for the hurt they’ve caused you with this alienation, because that can damage any chance of a relationship if they ever do reach out.
There is no quick or easy solution to stop parental alienation, but if it is something you are experiencing, you are not alone.