Parental alienation damages your children and is often driven or exaggerated by depression.
What is parental alienation?
Parental alienation happens when Parent A unduly badmouths Parent B in front of their child, damaging the quality of their child’s relationship with parent B. It spans various degrees of marginalization, and even when no damage is intended, children tend to internalize and reflect views expressed by their parents. In some extreme and especially damaging cases, one parent pressures the children into terminating their relationship with the other.
What isn’t parental alienation?
It’s not parental alienation when Parent A speaks honestly and less than glowingly about Parent B in the face of actual abuse or neglect that B’s responsible for. Real, honest talk like that is something else.
It’s also not Gardner‘s controversial Parental Alienation Syndrome, which is different.
How does parental alienation hurt your child?
Parental alienation can depress and isolate your children, lower their self-esteem, make them anxious, and stunt their emotional development.
When children believe one parent is bad, they begin to in part perceive themselves as bad, because they tend to see themselves as extensions of their parents. When children feel something is wrong with them, they feel insecure, doubtful, and threatened.
First, children are (sometimes indirectly) told by the alienating parent that they’re not emotionally safe with the other parent. Second, it sometimes even makes them wonder whether they’re emotionally safe with the alienating parent. This can then disconnect them from both parents, leaving them wondering who they can trust.
Many children end up getting depressed themselves as a result of ’emotionally’ losing one or both parents, feeling all alone. Unable to feel safe with one or both parents, children also can become anxious and begin diverting energy normally used for emotional growth to emotional survival instead.
How you can help your children.
As long as the children are safe in their other parent’s home, avoid making any derogatory remarks to the children about that other parent. Vent to your support system away from your children’s ears. Friends, other members of family, and therapists are all fine. Just keep it away from your kids.
Don’t expect perfection. As long as your child’s other parent is “good enough,” encourage your child to maintain a relationship with them. An imperfect relationship with a parent is far healthier for a child than no relationship at all.
Okay, but how is parental alienation related to depression?
Parental alienation and depression may be much more closely connected than you ever imagined. Depression is a common stage in the process of recovery from the loss of a marriage and its associated lifestyle. Unfortunately, some people get stuck in depression, which contributes to resentment and bitterness toward a former spouse. This impacts the messages that one parent conveys to the children regarding the other parent.
Some parents are still depressed and agitated over the divorce and assume no responsibility for their role in it. They blame their ex for everything that went wrong, paint them to be awful people, and encourage the children to share that view.
Don’t be one of those parents.
Assess whether you’re depressed.
If you are, don’t wallow: do something about it!
Are you depressed?
You’re probably at least passingly familiar with depression, so I won’t patronize you by defining it. However, as strange as this sounds, it’s been my experience that many people who are depressed and don’t even realize it. You might be depressed if you recognize within yourself some of these signs:
- Negative view of past, present, and future.
- Decreased energy levels.
- Eating habit changes.
- Sleep pattern fluctuations.
- Physical discomfort: stomach pain, headaches, joint pain, etc.
- Senses of powerlessness and hopelessness.
- Self pity.
- Low self-esteem.
- Self doubt.
- Tearfulness – sudden crying without any apparent reason.
Practical ways to cope with depression
Each of these things will help you feel a little better right away. Sticking to ALL of them will help you recover much faster.
- Exercise: a 30 minute walk will release endorphins which will improve your mood.
- Laugh: laughter helps healing.
- Journal: journaling serves as a ‘mental vacuum cleaner’.
- Sun: 20 minutes of solar exposure (not during peak hours) without sunglasses increases the brain’s Seratonin levels.
- Self talk: remind yourself that your feelings are temporary.
- Structure: the more structured your day, the more in control you will feel.
- Fix your circadian rhythm: sleep and wake up around the same time (within a 30 minute range) every day.
- Set new goals: write down baby steps with deadlines.
- Therapy: refine your coping skills for dealing with life transitions.
Children rightfully deserve balanced parenting between a mother and a father who love and care for them unconditionally. Children need to know that their parents do what is in their best interest. When a parent is depressed, s/he has a responsibility to the children to get help. Children need happy parents. They need parents who communicate that when there is a problem, there is a constructive solution.
My step daughter recently told me she sometimes hates visiting her mother. She made her mother a gift once, and while she was making the gift (at her aunts), her aunt let her make me one too. This angered her mother so much that she yelled and cussed at my step daughter.
I am glad my husband has custody of the kids and they spend the majority of the time here.
I have role played with the kids to help them come up with things they can say or do to protect themselves from her when she is like this.
It's hard to prove this kind of behavior is abuse in court, and the courts here tend to be very lenient on the mothers who do things like this, and harder on fathers who do things like this.
I talk to them a lot about forgiveness. They are at an age where they are now asking if they can refuse to visit her. IT breaks my heart that their mother has caused them to resent her. I feel so bad for them, but I feel so upset with her. I cannot stand her for doing this to them.
And what is so frustrating is if they have a good visit with her, all is forgotten and they think it's going to be better. But eventually, she's at it again and crushes their spirits.
Anyway, it's hard to digest sometimes and it definitely makes me upset with their mother and hard to like her or respect her.
Thank you for sharing your story and your frustration. It sounds like you are an incredible step mother. Your children are fortunate to have you in their lives. A step parent can be a healing agent for the children, and that is what is happening in your family. Your stepchildren are taking care of themselves by asserting that they want to set limitations on their visits with their bio-mom. I would validate their feelings and wishes to limit visits with her. As they get older, children are able to see parents more clearly. They know who has their best interest in mind and who doesn't. Keep up the good work.