Tag Archives: Parent

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.

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Linda Burney’s punitive stand on surrogacy.

6 Feb
Dibujo del perfil de Nicole Kidman

Image via Wikipedia

If Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban had hired an overseas surrogate to carry baby Faith Margaret while living in any of their NSW homes, and then returned with their baby,they would be subject to fines and jail sentences, under the terms of  the amendment to surrogacy legislation introduced by NSW Minister for Community Services, Linda Burney.

On March 1 2011 NSW legislation on surrogacy will pass into law, making commercial surrogacy illegal in the State.

Linda Burney has added an extra territorial amendment to the original surrogacy bill, extending the criminalisation of commercial surrogacy to those who employ overseas surrogates.

The penalties for using an overseas surrogate will be a fine of some $110,000, and/or two years jail.

As well, the child parents bring home will have no legal rights and protection, as do all other children in NSW, regardless of the method of their conception.

Parents may apply for parentage orders for their children, however in doing so will run the risk of criminal prosecution, with fines and possible jail terms.

This would seem a powerful disincentive to applying for appropriate orders, leaving the children in a right-less and unprotected limbo.

As well, Burney’s amendment assumes that all those seeking overseas surrogacy arrangements will look for underprivileged women who need the money.

There are many commercial surrogates overseas who are middle class women, and who make an informed choice to carry a child for another woman.

The Minister’s justifications

Minister Burney’s justification for the extra territorial clause is that she wishes to, in her language, punish those who “take advantage of women who hire out their bodies because they are poor.” Criminalizing those who have been unable to find altruistic surrogates in NSW and turn instead to women overseas is the realisation of Burney’s desire to punish.

It is unrealistic in the extreme to expect this criminalizing of a minority group of NSW citizens will make any dent at all in the exploitation of women in countries where commercial surrogacy is legal. One might as well criminalize everyone who buys a t-shirt made in a Bangkok sweatshop by six year old children who are paid 20 cents a day for their labours.

Or what about the Australian citizens who travel overseas for say, a kidney transplant to a country where the traffic in human organs is unregulated and people sell the parts they can live without for an income? Are we going to criminalize those citizens and prosecute them when they come home with their new illegal part on board?

A divisive issue

Commercial surrogacy is a morally divisive issue. Those against it argue that it results in the depersonalisation of pregnancy and childbirth, and that it treats both women and children as commodities. Wealthy couples can “rent a womb” from financially vulnerable women, and this, in the eyes of some, is exploitation of the worst kind.

Commercial surrogacy is felt by some to be degrading to both women and children. It is perceived as morally offensive, and as treating other human beings merely as a means to an end.

There are potential emotional difficulties on all sides, including that of the child.

The argument for (briefly)

Those who argue for commercial surrogacy point out that it is a matter of personal autonomy for all the adults involved. If a woman wishes to act as a surrogate that is her business, they argue, and she is entitled to remuneration for her time and work.

If commercial surrogacy is permitted and regulated in NSW, then it will lessen the need for couples to go overseas and into situations of possible exploitation, they claim.

To proscribe commercial surrogacy on the grounds that it’s harmful to those undertaking it is interference by the State in personal matters that are not the State’s business, and that belong in the realm of the private conscience, some argue. It is not acceptable, this argument continues, for the State to impose and enforce one moral aspect against private actions that do not harm others.

What is Burney’s amendment good for?

It seems highly unlikely that Burney’s amendment will prevent couples seeking commercial surrogacy overseas. What it will most certainly achieve is the legal alienation of the resulting children in this State. It will cause parents to conceal their activities, perhaps even from their own families, for fear of prosecution.

It will cast an unacceptable and permanent cloud over such families and their children. It will drive those having no option but commercial surrogacy, underground.

And for what?

To satisfy Burney’s need to take a moral stand against the laws of other countries.

Moral stands are often good and necessary things, but only when they’re realistically weighed up against their usefulness, and their consequences. In this case the usefulness of such a moral stand would seem to be minimal. The consequences, on the other hand, are horrible and permanent for the families concerned.

The reality is that couples needing the services of a surrogate are going to find one, somehow, somewhere.  Those of us, who like Ms Burney have not needed to take this drastic action in order to create our families, need to be especially careful when prescribing for and judging those less fortunate in that respect.

It is an especially weighty responsibility for Burney, as she is in a privileged position. She has the power to create a situation in which those less fortunate than herself are criminalized, and their children cast into a legal limbo.

Burney’s extra territorial amendment could well be seen by some as an abuse of her power. Perhaps it isn’t a politician’s role to punish those he or she disagrees with, on moral grounds that are far from unanimous in the community.

Perhaps it is especially distasteful when a politician acts on a personal desire to punish constituents who are already struggling with the fraught issue of creating their family.

Surrogacy in NSW Law Reform Commission Discussion paper

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