Parental alienation: A silent epidemic

Author : Rakesh Kapur

The tools and techniques used by alienating parents are the same as the one used by preachers or leaders of extremist organisations in indoctrinating followers.

I first met Vidushi as a six-year-old bright and artistic child of recently separated parents, with dreams to become the “Enid Blyton of 21st century”! During that period her mother told her that her father will take her to the jungle and feed her to the tigers and had laid allegations of child sexual abuse against the father in court. I was told that for years the father fought relentlessly in courts to meet his daughter though he was fully exonerated of all charges, he finally gave up. Years later, I met Vidushi again as a 17-year-old teenager locked up in a room in a psychiatric facility. She had the extreme fear of venturing out of the house, a history of having cut her wrists twice and, in search of a “soulmate”, had undergone two abortions in the last three years. She hated her mother and blamed her father for “abandoning” her.

To most readers, this would seem to be a bitter husband-wife feud wherein the child is collateral damage or a gender disparity dialogue depending on whose side of the story you hear or “identify” with. It is neither: This is a case of patent child abuse by the mother in the present instance, recognised by psychiatrists as psychological abuse, recognised as a civil and criminal offence by law by countries like Brazil and Mexico and known to laypersons as “Parental Alienation” or PA. Though, this is typically seen in broken marriages, if we look around us, we can see it in some discontented marriages too.

Make no mistake, the tools and techniques used by alienating parents are the same as the one used by preachers or leaders of extremist organisations in indoctrinating their followers. Alienation usually starts with subtle manipulation, like showing displeasure whenever the child has fun with the “Target Parent”, but may rapidly progress to throwing away gifts, not allowing target parent to meet the child, not sharing child’s school or medical records etc. Some parents may actively badmouth the other parent, feed false stories to the child, change the name and address of the child, defy court orders or make false allegations of abuse against the target parent. The alienating parent plays a cat and mouse game with the child wherein withholding love, gifts and treats are used as tools initially followed by threats and emotional blackmail. In the endgame, the child is compelled to reject or express hatred towards the target and may even end up cooking up stories of “abuse” by the target parent to win over the affection of the alienating parent. The alienating parent is sometimes unaware of their alienating behaviour, however, in most cases, they do this as revenge for perceived wrongs against themselves or suffer from a personality disorder.

Just like we brushed domestic violence and domestic sexual abuse up to the 1980s under the carpet, we have not learnt our lessons and are now brushing aside this severest form of emotional and psychological abuse of our children, which has disastrous consequences for our children, hence the nation and society. There is considerable documented research available which shows that alienated children grow up to suffer from low self-esteem, severe depression, are more likely to abuse drugs/alcohol, display suicidal tendencies and are unable to form or maintain relationships leading to loneliness, divorce and alienation from their own children. Dr Richard Warshak from the University of Texas found behavioral, cognitive and emotional impairments in these children which may be irreversible, unless acted upon in early stages. The American Psychiatric Association in its official statement states, “Children who had been psychologically abused suffered from anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, symptoms of post-traumatic stress and suicidality at the same rate and, in some cases, at a greater rate than children who were physically or sexually abused. Among the three types of abuse, psychological maltreatment was most strongly associated with depression, general anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, attachment problems and substance abuse.”

It is enlightening to hear the Supreme Court of New Hampshire in its judgement titled, “James J Miller vs Janet S Todd”, state: Across the country, the great weight of authority holds that conduct by one parent that tends to alienate the child’s affections from the other is so inimical to the child’s welfare as to be grounds for a denial of custody to, or a change of custody from, the parent guilty of such conduct… It is the duty of each parent to foster and encourage the child’s love and respect for the other parent, and the failure from that duty is as harmful to the child as is the failure to provide food, clothing, or shelter. Perhaps it is more harmful because no matter how well fed or well clothed, a child cannot be happy if he or she feels unloved by one parent.

Parental alienation is not a family issue but a human and child rights issue! It is in gross violation of Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on Rights of Child (UNCRC), 1989 which makes it incumbent upon states/governments to prevent, identify, report and treat mental abuse or maltreatment of our children while in the care of parent(s) or legal guardian(s). European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has fined many of its member states in the past 15 years for failure to act against Parental Alienation.

Divorce rates in India are rising rapidly and are comparable to Iran (14 per cent), China (22 per cent) and Brazil (21 per cent) and has been empirically found that parental alienation is found in mild to severe form in ~75 per cent of them, which by very conservative estimates means that ~ 82,000 children are being added to the alienated pool every year. This is a silent epidemic which if left unchecked would lead to a psychologically dysfunctional society. Though our judges acknowledge its presence, they are unaware about its consequences and management, making it incumbent for medical professionals, child rights activists, sociologists to educate our judiciary, so that a framework for protection of our children can be devised. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, being the nodal body for ensuring compliance of the UNCRC charter, must be empowered and equally held responsible for preventing, identifying and managing this silent epidemic.

In the words of former President A P J Abdul Kalam: “If a country is to be corruption free and become a nation of beautiful minds, I strongly feel, there are three key societal members who can make a difference. They are the father, the mother and the teacher.”