When children become weapons

19 May

Broken heart

As children continue to be murdered by parents caught up in divorce, separation and custody battles, courts and counsellors struggle to establish environments that put the child’s needs first. This can be an impossible task when some parents, blinded by their own emotional turmoil, use their children as heavy ammunition to win a personal battle against a spouse they perceive as the enemy.

Murder is the extreme point on the continuum of co-opting children as weapons. Far more common, though regarded as contentious among some mental health and legal professionals, is a concept known as Parental alienation syndrome. This is a term used to describe a situation in which a child is encouraged to identify with one parent and alienate the other. The child’s behaviour reflects the emotions and perspective of the alienating parent, rather than his or her own feelings. It’s thought to emerge as a consequence of separation and divorce, however it’s apparent in some on-going dysfunctional relationships in which the mother or the father attempts to garner support for his or her position against the other parent from the child. These are general PAS criteria as defined by some psychologists:

Children who succumb to the pressure and ally themselves with one parent against the other often exhibit a set of behaviors that have become known as parental alienation syndrome: 

(1) The first manifestation is a campaign of denigration against the targeted parent. The child becomes obsessed with hatred of the targeted parent (in the absence of actual abuse or neglect that would explain such negative attitudes). 

(2) Weak, frivolous, and absurd rationalizations for the depreciation of the targeted parent. The objections made in the campaign of denigration are often not of the magnitude that would lead a child to hate a parent, such as slurping soup or serving spicy food. 

(3) Lack of ambivalence about the alienating parent. The child expresses no ambivalence about the alienating parent, demonstrating an automatic, reflexive, idealized support of him or her. 

(4) The child strongly asserts that the decision to reject the other parent is her own. This is what is known as the “Independent Thinker” phenomenon. 

(5) Absence of guilt about the treatment of the targeted parent. Alienated children will make statements such as, “He doesn’t deserve to see me.” 

(6) Reflexive support for the alienating parent in the parental conflict. There is no willingness or attempt to be impartial when faced with inter-parental conflicts. 

(7) Use of borrowed scenarios. These children often make accusations towards the targeted parent that utilize phrases and ideas adopted wholesale from the alienating parent. And, finally, 

(8) The hatred of the targeted parent spreads to his or her extended family. Not only is the targeted parent denigrated, despised, and avoided but so too are his/her entire family. Formerly beloved grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins are suddenly avoided and rejected. When children exhibit these 8 behaviors the most likely explanation is the manipulation of the favored parent.

On the other hand, accusations of PAS are seen as frivolous and dishonest by some opponents of the syndrome. Some go so far as to claim that a court’s acceptance of PAS causes children to be exposed to on-going abuse from the so-called “targeted” parent. In reality, they claim, the “alienating” parent has attempted to protect the child from the parent perceived as harmful, and the symptoms of PAS are also consistent with those exhibited by children who are enduring real abuse from the targeted parent.

There is no clinical research into the syndrome, and it remains anecdotal.

I’v seen situations in which children have lost contact with a “targeted” parent, and that parent’s family. I’ve seen situations of dysfunction when the parents don’t separate, but the hostility and hatred of one for the other is conveyed through the indoctrination of the children against one parent. The “target” parent is alienated from his or her offspring within their own household, usually most acutely during the process of an adult dispute. Children take the alienating parent’s part, and when the fight has been temporarily resolved and the parents have made up, they are then permitted to re-engage with the targeted parent. The emotional chaos this causes in the children is enormous and long-lasting.

It’s surprisingly easy to persuade children to take against a parent, particularly when they’ve been taught that the “alienating” parent is the only one who really loves them, and the only one who will look out for them. The target parent is constructed as anything from incompetent and unreliable to dangerous and threatening, while the alienating parent presents as their competent and loving protector.

However, distinguishing between so-called PAS and abuses actually perpetrated by the “target” parent can be difficult. Evidence of abuse can be hard to establish if it isn’t blatant. Too often it comes down to which parent is the most articulate, can tell the most convincing story, and has the best lawyer. Children are collateral damage in such circumstances, as the parental focus makes it “all about me” with scant if any regard for their child’s well being.

I’ve known circumstances in which a “targeted” parent has walked away from his or her family rather than fight the wrath of the “alienating” parent, and continue to live with the acute distress they experience when a child or children turns against them on a regular basis. As well, the targeted parent can feel that his or her continued presence in the family will only serve to confuse and distress their children, and in an effort to prevent their children being further emotionally torn, they give up and leave the alienating parent in total control.

The targeted parent is then described as having abandoned the family, and as confirming the alienating parent’s position that he or she is the only one who really cares about the children. After years of clinical practice there’s no doubt in my mind that these are relatively common practices to varying degrees, between parents caught in conflict and dysfunction.

Parents don’t have ownership over their children. We have a responsibility to do our best for them, but we don’t own their feelings and their hearts and minds. Children are entitled to form and enjoy relationships with their family members, especially both parents. To sever the connection between one part of a child’s family is to do violence to that child’s knowledge of him or herself, and to their sense of belonging. Alienating a child from any family member without good cause is emotional abuse and emotional violence, regardless of whether it is identified as a legitimate mental health syndrome or not.

While the murderous extremes of parental manipulation make headlines, children daily suffer greatly in ways that go unrecognized and unacknowledged. The tragedy is that this suffering has long term consequences, and can be generational. One manipulative parent can tear an entire family apart, leaving children without access to grandparents and extended family members. It’s tough being a kid.

8 Responses to “When children become weapons”

  1. PAUL WALTER May 19, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    Well, what a cheerful post.
    Takes one back to the good ol’ days of one’s own childhood. It is difficult as a kid. In my case, my mum and I reacted to my dad, in a sense we saw this as survival. Take the time dad booted the idiot box out of the lounge and into the kitchen. I suggested we use a coathanger for a temp antenna, until mum got a pair of rabbit’s ears for the thing, which wasnt bad thinking for a nine or ten year old kid.
    Over the years, I’ve learnt that dad was a creature of his environment and upbringing, too and very unfortunate for the circumstances that made him what he was, at worst.
    I suppose the piece concerns the long standing debate over custody, access, etc post break up. Blokes seem not very good at close quarter “emotional” stuff on the domestic front, clumsy and awkward in our abilities to discuss issues with others, it seems often true. It comes as a surprise to them that others are not so happy with the nuclear family deal, blokes always wake up to things too late. But looking back on my parents marriage, I can’t fault mums decison to walk away from something that was untenable for her and for reasons I well understand, as a spectator for all those years.
    In the end they were two people utterly incompatible to and for each other, but the proof had to found in the pudding and therein lies the problem with nuclear marriage.
    It’s just a shame they didn’t find out ’till it was too late also, although I must say they both got up and got with their lives and did the best they could for and with what they had and who they were.


    • Jennifer Wilson May 19, 2011 at 2:27 pm #

      Both my parents were terrifying, which left me very disinclined to attribute domestic violence solely to either gender. This annoys some feminists, but hell, I know what I know and they aren’t taking that away from me!


  2. Jim Moore May 19, 2011 at 10:41 am #

    Even if PAS was real it can never be an excuse to murder your child. Full stop.

    Mixing murdering your child and PAS in this article implies that you think it is. And the violent men who throw their children off bridges and the nutsos that think that it is acceptable to climb bridges to protest over a court’s decsion will think it is too.

    If I was a judge and had to decide on verbal evidence between a vengeful mother and a potential violent father then I too would side with the mother. Emotional abuse is never worse than being killed. You can’t recover from the latter.

    The best alternative for children in these situations is to be placed in a loving State care environment with monitored visits from the individul parents if and only if the child wants these to happen. And then let the child decide in their own time if they want to change this arrangement.


    • Jennifer Wilson May 19, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

      Jim, I don’t agree that I implied “PAS” is “an excuse to murder your child.” I don’t know how anyone could find anything an excuse for child murder.

      Neither did I make “PAS” a gender issue, as have you – anecdotal evidence suggests either parent can use this form of manipulation.

      I pointed out that while the extremes of child murder horrify us, there are daily and on going abuses of children that we hear little if anything about that have serious long term consequences.

      There is no purpose in making facile comparisons between murder and emotional abuse, and I don’t understand why you find it necessary to make them in response to this post.


  3. gerard oosterman May 19, 2011 at 1:27 pm #

    Well, one good thing is that I have been promised a piece on The Drum about screwdrivers, caulking compounds and condoms. Something MTR can chew/stew about.


  4. PAUL WALTER May 19, 2011 at 9:00 pm #

    Social dynamics of sorts come into play, since we talk of nuclear families in the advanced West, against the longstanding mainstream, mode of village life and extended families with shorter life expectancies and everyday physical suffering a reality relative to ours. Jim’s point, well-answered by Jennifer Wilson, highlights that the grim realities of life don’t evade us that easily, tho. All that accumulated guilt as part of a strange civilisational experiment connected with the imperatives of technology through to industrialism and modernism to our opaque post modernism, mediated through human nature and conditioning, that hob gob of a situation we know as capitalism and its handmaidens imperialism, militarism and the like (sorry, Samantha).
    Emotional abuse. Well, talking to someone I know who suffers from something called borderline syndrome, which is to do with impulsivity. and the thread right through this person’s narrative is the origins in some disastrous personal events when a kid.
    do we need a species pain metre to finally determine if the current levels of stress or trauma this generation are different to previous ones or whether human experience, both the painful and rewarding, remains a constant across the millenia, a world in which so much of the trappings of civilisation are actually delusory for their employers. Any way its a good meaty piece and hope others find it thought provoking also, because it deserves a bit of thought-time for a fair yield.


  5. gerard oosterman May 19, 2011 at 9:29 pm #

    Almost all the cases whereby children were murdered are linked to parents unable to agree on the separation and then going to Family Court. The Family Court, despite trying out less adversarial methods to get the couple to resolve the issues still have to obey the Westminster system of justice which, as we all know is based on the adversarial system of ‘winning’ above all else.
    When barristers at over $ 4000.- a day with experts, psychologists, psychiatrists and others are engaged, easily trebling the cost, it becomes a battle to the bitter end.
    A four day duration at court with all the other legal costs of drawing up affidavits, calling for subpoenas, experts ET all, are called upon, total costs can easily go over $ 100.000 for each party.
    Often this then becomes driven by hatred and no-one seems to be able to stop it.
    It should be obligatory for intending couples to attend a session at Family Court. That’s were ‘true love’ often ends up and…. those poor children, the poor children.
    I sometimes wish that all legal people, especially all lawyers could be banned from Family Courts; but that would be fought tooth and nail.



  1. In a nutshell « bigdaddyshouse - July 14, 2011

    […] pasted from another blog because she had the most concise definition I have run across. The link is https://noplaceforsheep.com/2011/05/19/when-children-become-weapons/ . I just thought this would be […]


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