The Covid-19 lockdown has divided many families, as they had just days to decide who would live where, and with whom.
Some parents found themselves in a tug-of-war over the children, and with courts closed, travel restricted and lockdown regulations it became harder to enforce custody agreements.
Unfortunately, this is the perfect situation for those trying to alienate their children from their other parent.
Shando Theron, a local Divorce and Custody Attorney at divlaw.co.za, shared with Parent24 that he has seen parents in the midst of a divorce, using the Covid-19 pandemic to frustrate contact between the child and the non-custodial parent.
"I have a current matter where the custodial parent is a medical doctor who sees patients daily but denies the father, who works from home, contact with his child for “fear of infection” and who has convinced the minor child that the father’s home is “dirty” and that should the child visit him, she will most certainly be “infected”," he told us.
"Words fail me to describe how my heart breaks for this child," Theron said. "Parental alienation should be an act of domestic violence and the perpetrator should be punishable under the Domestic Violence Act."
What is parental alienation?
Parental alienation is a recurring problem that affects many families who are experiencing high conflict, separation and divorce.
It is the situation where a parent (the alienating parent) teaches the child to reject the other parent (the target parent), to fear that parent and to avoid having contact with that parent.
It is the process whereby the one parent undermines the child’s previously intact relationship with the other parent.
This rejection and fear appear baseless based on the child’s experience of that parent and this runs alongside the child’s strong alignment and enmeshment with the alienating parent, Theron explained.
The defining feature of parental alienation is contact refusal by the children.
Parental alienation during lockdown
According to Theron, there exist three main categories of parental alienation in lockdown:
- Mild cases, where the child has un-reluctant phone contact;
- Moderate cases, when a child does not want to visit; and
- Severe cases, where a child will bluntly refuse contact and even flee from the target parent.
The child will justify their behaviour with false or hugely exaggerated stories of neglect or abuse by the target parent.
Criteria of parental alienation
According to Theron, parental alienation can be defined by the following criteria:
1. The alienating parent conducts an active campaign of criticism and denigration against the target parent. The alienated child will have a litany of complaints against the target parent, most being false, irrational or trivial;
2. The alienated child denies ever having experienced having good times with the target parent;
3. The alienated child will avoid the potential for reconciliation;
4. Frivolous rationalisations by the child of their criticism of the target parent;
5. A total disproportion and the unjustified hatred and scorn by the child towards the target parent;
6. The child claims to be fearful of the target parent, but when examined rational reasons for such fear are absent.
Additionally, two or more of the following factors may be found:
a. The child idealises the alienating parent and devalues the target parent;
b. The child self-righteously declares that their decision to reject the target parent is their own and denies influence by the alienating parent;
c. The automatic support for the alienating parent in any disagreement between the parents;
d. The total absence of guilt over the exploitation and mistreatment of the target parent. The children are often rude, disrespectful, oppositional and even violent towards the target parent with scant remorse;
e. The child makes rehearsed statements often involving alleged incidents that they have no direct memory of;
f. The child’s hatred in respect of the target parent may extend to the target parent’s extended family.
The immediate consequences of parental alienation
Theron stresses that this reults in the utter destruction of the child’s relationship with the target parent.
"The negative and long-lasting effect on the psychological development of the child is brutal and enduring," he told us.
"Eventually, the child loses trust in both parents and are left alone, insecure and defenceless against many of life’s challenges and easy pickings for predators who prey and exploit alienated, (abused), children."
Ultimately, he says, parental alienation is a profound loss for a child and akin to the death of a parent, and that such a loss is imposed only makes matters worse.
This fact on its own can cause severe psychological harm to a child and cause major feelings of guilt.
"Parental alienation seriously harms children, period."
How to repair the damage done?
Theron says parental alienation can be combated by the alienator acknowledging their destructive behaviour and desisting with the alienation.
This usually only happens if both parties agree to attend Family Unification Therapy, with the children, he told us. Here the behaviour is exposed and isolated, and alienator and the children are taught different strategies and behaviours.
"It is a lengthy and emotional road," Theron warns.
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