As divorce rates continue to rise, Provincial and Federal Acts are changing processes to make it easier for families with children to come to agreeable terms of divorce earlier. The Moving Ontario Family Law Forward Act, 2020 proposes to align more closely with the Federal Divorce Act so to modernize language around terms used in processes of custody and access. Any updates in legislation that minimize the emotional injury caused by separation and divorce on children is always a good thing. Families are worth fighting for, and many people have repaired what at first might appear to be failing relationships.
In more recent times, “parental alienation” has emerged as a clinical term designed to capture the detrimental impacts on child-parent relationships caused by a persistent campaign of denigration aimed at discrediting the love, care, and compassion of one parent by the other. Research has found consistent indicators of this long cited phenomenon in children that results in an overall unbalanced perspective of one parent in favour of another by one or all children involved. It is possible that only one child in the divorcing family shows evidence of parental alienation even where siblings continue to hold fair perspectives of both parents. Over time, this persistent denigration takes hold, and one or more children reject the second parent in favour of the alienator.
The reasons for one parent to actively denigrate and injure the reputation of a child’s second parent are complex, and normally link back to the fundamental reasons for separation and divorce in the first place. Relationships built on unhealthy and insecure attachment styles are prone to years of distrust, ongoing emotional testing, and poor personal boundaries that can sadly permeate the family relationship style as well. You are likely going to handle your divorce emotionally in a similar manner that you handled your marriage. If you were open to regular dialogue and honest interchange while happily married, then you are more likely to want to talk about serious problems with your spouse that may or may not result in divorce. If you had a high conflict marriage, then the odds are higher that your separation and divorce will be likewise.
Adults seeking divorce following extramarital affairs are often implicated in active parental alienation of one parent over the other. Children may be exposed to details related to sexual infidelity for which they are not emotionally mature enough to understand or process without support. Emotionally injured and grieving parents may unconsciously engage in role reversals with their kids thereby expecting emotional support and nurturance from their children, rather than maintaining their role as care-provider for their children. Depending on a parent’s ability to cope and recover after their marital break-up, many adults turn to their children and family, rather than trusted adult friends or professionals to work through their pain.
So many people share details about an affair or marital break-up with people at work, in their community, or in the family that they later regret they had. The compulsion and need to share is a natural and healthy one designed to keep you from experiencing a full mental or emotional breakdown. Finding the appropriate person to share your emotional pain is important to your health and to the wellbeing of your children. A skilled counsellor, mental health practitioner, social worker, or psychotherapist will help to create a safe place to talk about your feelings, identify emotional roadblocks, and re-build important personal boundaries following martial separation.
An unexpected impact of parental alienation is the general collateral damage caused to Moms and Dads across society. There appears to have been a gradual and increasing denigration of parenting over time, whereby children are more often referred to a Kids-Help service before checking-in with their own Mom or Dad. In my opinion, it is important that clinical social work with children and adolescents always include the option of bringing Mom or Dad into the identified problem, and more importantly into possible solutions. Services that forgo parents as primary care providers risk further damaging the most fundamental relationship in a child’s life. If we are truly aiming to build a better and safer world for our children and grandchildren, then we need to make a better effort at being loving and respectful people with one another.
Updating legislative processes to adapt to adult decisions in ways that minimize emotional harm to children is a grand plan, learning early to make healthy adult decisions for your entire family may be an even greater one. Divorce hurts us all, behave responsibly.
Dr. Lisa Romano-Dwyer RSW, Owner Lakeside Wellness Therapy Affiliates
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