Divorce can be a difficult, ugly, and complicated situation. Divorce can come with intense emotions and that means it can also come with a lot of conflict. With conflict can come alienation and in the mast several years, family courts have become far more aware of this family dynamic.

Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is “defined generally as the problem of children’s unjustified rejection of a parent in response to inter-parental conflict and loyalty issues.” (Baker, 2013)

While it is a VERY good thing the courts are aware of this all-too-common problem, it quickly becomes complicated when there is also an element of estrangement, which is justifiable rejection of a parent.

So, for example, a son is rejecting his father because the son claims his dad has made derogatory comments toward him for being gay (estrangement). Mom reinforces the rejection by not making her son go to Dad’s when he is scheduled to as a way of supporting her son who feels demoralized around his dad. Here’s the problem—it’s easy for this to become a case of alienation depending on how Mom responds to her son.

Here are 5 things you can do to support your child AND avoid being identified as the alienator.

  1. Reframe: Hear what your son is saying and reframe it in a way that is encouraging of a relationship with his dad. “I know it feels like your dad doesn’t accept you when he says these things, and the only way to make it better is to let him know how much it hurts you. Talk to your dad. Give him a chance—he’s growing too.”
  2. Speak kindness (or maybe just don’t trash talk): It would be very easy to say your son’s dad is a  and he did the exact same thing to you—”he tears you down and makes you feel small so he has all the power”. It is not appropriate to identify with your child. Your child has his own story, let him decide how he feels based on his experience—not yours. ALWAYS choose kindness, and if you can’t be kind, then just be silent.
  3. Encourage: Communicate to your son that things can get better. Remind him his dad is putting in the work too. Things might be hard and hurtful right now, but people can change. And remind your child that just because bad things happened between you and their dad, it doesn’t mean they can’t have a great relationship with their dad. It’s okay to love and have a relationship with both parents. Help your child feel free of any kind of loyalty conflict. They will never lose the love of one parent if they want to maintain a relationship with the other.
  4. Utilize the System: If your child is feeling demoralized and if your child’s voice is not getting through to his dad, then it’s time to utilize a professional. Reunification therapy is intended to support families through divorce—to avoid alienation, to reintegrate an alienated parent, and to help heal estranged relationships. If there is any kind of mental and emotional abuse, the clinician should be able to detect that and voice that to the courts.
  5. Learn how to CoParent: Whether you like it or not, come to terms with the fact that your ex is going to be in your life. If it’s easier, think of them as a business partner, coordinating logistics, productivity, and work-place morale. Keep the emotional distance you need, but for the sake of your child, make the effort to have a positive working relationship with your ex.

At the end of the day, it will only benefit your child to have a healthy relationship with both parents. Even if you and your ex agree on nothing else, most parents will say they only want what’s best for their child. Yes, there’s often conflict around what “the best” looks like, but do your best to work with what you have. It’ll take time, and with effort on both sides, things can get better.

See our blog post on being a parent in relation to your child, for more information and guidance on the topic of parenting.

**The information contained herein is not therapeutic advice nor a substitute for therapy. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any mental health problem. If you are located within the United States and you need emergency assistance, please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. If you are located within Colorado, you may also call the Colorado Crisis Line at 844-493-TALK (8255).

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