Parenting: When the Children are Caught in the Middle
Written by Alainna Hanson based on the presentation series of Mike Hodson, MS, LMFT
A healthy family structure can be a challenging thing to maintain. Over the years, families are faced with new obstacles and can react in a multitude of ways. Some reactions can impact the family negatively. It is important to understand that how parents treat each other affects the children involved and the entire family dynamic.
What are Family Systems?
The Family Systems Theory indicates that families function as a system. Each family member plays a specific role. Family is made up of interconnected individuals trying to maintain homeostasis–a stable environment. This can get challenging as new transitions arise over the years such as marriage, children, and divorce. In order to maintain a healthy family system, families must adapt to these transitions. This allows appropriate levels of intimacy to develop while maintaining sufficient structure and boundaries.
Dysfunctional Family Systems
However, sometimes during these life transitions, the family members do not adapt correctly. Other family members may end up taking on roles that are not suited for them. This is called a dysfunctional family structure. In dysfunctional family structures, children tend to develop symptomatic behaviors that serve to stabilize the family structures in risk of collapse due to the family’s inability to adapt to a new challenge. For example, let’s say the parents are fighting a lot and are on the brink of separation. The child may start to misbehave or self-harm. The child is causing new chaos at home in order to draw negative attention on themselves to shift their parents’ focus, thereby delaying the potential separation of the parents. This is how the child maintains homeostasis. Parents may then think the child has an individual problem and try to get them in therapy, but this tends to be minimally effective because only the child’s symptoms are being addressed rather than the entire family unit, even though the child’s actions are a result of serving a purpose within the family system as a whole. Understanding the source of a child’s actions is important to know so that you can get the proper type of help and support.
What is Parental Alienation?
Parental alienation is a set of family dynamics in which a child is influenced by one parent into rejecting a relationship with the other parent, who is otherwise a normal-range and affectionately available parent. Parental alienation can occur in both intact and separated family structures. It is most often passive-aggressive statements to or around the children about the other parent. There is a sense of triangulation in parental alienation and often the child plays a third party in the parental conflict. The child may speak about the non-alienated parent in high regard to make the alienated parent feel further inadequate. An example of this is if the child wants something that the alienated parent will not allow, the child will talk about how the non-alienated parent allows it, making the alienated parent feel inclined to allow the same thing. This allows the child to get what they want. Almost all children will use this triangulation tactic at some point, but a parental alienated child will use it persistently since they are learning from the non-alienated parent how to manipulate the other into getting their own way. This dynamic creates the child becoming an elevated position of influence at or above the parents in the family hierarchy.
Parental alienation is often used in families going through a divorce (as the example below illustrates). However, intact families can also participate in parental alienation. When one parent is upset with the other parent they may inadvertently vent to their child. This can be as simple as complaining about the other parent’s cleaning habits, lack of communication, time management, or anything that gets under their skin. When a child repeats these types of undesired behaviors they may even hear, “You’re just like your father/mother.” These remarks, possibly intended as small jabs at the other parent, can have negative impacts on the child.
An example of Parental Alienation. The mother places the child in a no-win scenario by stating it is up to her. Father does the same by stating parenting time is court-ordered and mother should be encouraging it. Both are putting the child in the middle and should not be doing this in front of her. You can tell this is a reoccurring thing and can see just by the child’s expression how uncomfortable it makes her.
Causes of Parental Alienation
There are many factors that can cause parents to engage in parental alienation. Parental anxiety is the main cause of parental alienation. Going through a new transition in life can be challenging and may evoke anxiety. Children can sense a parent’s anxiety. It has a trickledown effect onto the child. Another cause of parental alienation is feeling threatened by the other parent’s relationship with the child. This threatened feeling may cause the parent to try and weaken the other relationship in hopes of strengthening their own. Challenging life transitions like divorce may cause parents to develop a fear of abandonment. After feeling abandoned by their partner, they may start to fear the same will happen with their child and resort to parental alienation to solidify their own relationship with the child. Often parents who engage in parental alienation are people whose own parents used parental alienation. These parents may unintentionally engage in this behavior purely because it was what they were exposed to in their own childhood and thereby all they know.
Possible Results of Parental Alienation
Parents may not see the inadvertent effects parental alienation can have on the child themselves. Parental alienation can cause poor boundaries between child and parent resulting in role reversals, intrusiveness, enmeshment, and spousification (parents turning to children for emotional support while ignoring the child’s developmental needs). This can lead to an increased risk of emotional abuse since the parent may be depending on the child to meet unmet emotional needs. Because the child has been preoccupied with caring for their parent’s needs they can develop codependency which interferes with the child’s ability to develop autonomy and self-reliance. This lack of development will increase the chance of the child violating boundaries with their own future partners. Parental Alienation can also cause the child to feel negative about themselves. Since a child is the product of their parents, hearing negative things about one parent can lead them to believe that half of who they are is negative as well. Hearing something like, “You’re just like your father,” can start to be taken as an insult. Watch the video below to see how this man struggled with self-confidence due to Parental Alienation.
One person’s real-life example of the effects of Parental Alienation.
Since many of the causes are brought on by a parent’s own internal conflicts, it is important that parents seek their own individual therapy and healing. A parent’s ability to address and remedy their emotions (such as anxiety, fear, and jealousy) is an effective way to make sure they are not pushing any of their own worries onto their child. However, children (minor or adult) also can utilize therapy. Addressing the entire family picture can help the child process the family dynamics. This therapy can help ensure the child learns healthy relationship patterns moving forward. Families can also look into group therapy to address larger family issues.
Another essential thing for parents is to try and stay present in their child’s life, regardless of how much things are twisted by the other parent. This can be especially hard for an alienated parent to do because the child may already have some negative feeling towards them. One way to try and get past this is to engage with the child in non-optional joint activities (cooking, things you need help with, etc). Doing things together that can end up being enjoyable and can strengthen the bond. A great way of choosing activities is giving the child options and letting them decide. This way not only are they more likely to enjoy the activity, but it shows the parent values their opinion and validates them as an individual. The more enjoyable time spent together, the harder it will be for the child to think negatively of the parent, regardless of what the other parent has to say.
One of the hardest (but necessary) things to do is to not make a big deal about if the other parent is engaging in parental alienation. Even though it can be hard, agree to disagree with accusations and remain neutral and empathetic when your child discusses the other parent and be mindful of your tone and bias. Addressing the alienation, even with a reasoning viewpoint, does not help the situation, it just puts the child further into the middle and creates more tension and resentment. Instead, the parent should continue to make their space be a space of peace for the child. Let the child know that there will be no drama or negativity. If a parent continues to show who they really are in a positive, non-confrontational manner, the child will make their own decision about the parent, regardless of what the other parent is saying.
It is imperative to keep children out of parental conflict. Even small side comments should not be made and confrontational conversations should not be had around the child. New partners/step-parents may take on a large role in the child’s life, but it is important for them to also stay out of the bio-parent conflict and continue to help make sure the children stay out of the parental conflict as well.
Children pick up on more than parents realize, so it is important to try and keep spousal/parental problems between the parents and not involve the child in any way directly or indirectly. This is why relationship and individual therapy are incredibly important in these types of situations. Try to have a healthy conversation with your (ex)partner in order to help your child live their best, healthiest life!
Children are not meant to bear the weight of adult problems.