How to deal with 'toxic' parents
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Tue Jun 12, 2012 12:05 am (PDT) http://www.parentcentral.ca/parent/article/602350
to deal with 'toxic' parents
March 14, 2009
SOME RED FLAGS FOR PARENTAL
Proving parental alienation can be
very difficult, and assessments must be done to ensure the child isn't turning
their back on a parent with whom they used to have a loving relationship
because of neglect, physical or sexual abuse. But here are some red flags:
Constant bad-mouthing of one parent by the other.
Spying on one parent by the child at the behest of the other.
Your ex-spouse starts giving the
child the power to choose: "It's okay, Mom. I'm not coming home for the
weekend. Dad has something more fun planned for me."
There are no pictures that
include you in your ex-spouse's house, which is meant to give the child the
message that you no longer exist and they shouldn't be thinking about you.
The child starts referring to
you by your first name, rather than Mom or Dad.
The other parent starts
undermining your authority on your own time with the child such as, say, buying
them a TV to put in their room at your house knowing you are opposed to that
notion. It sets you up to be the villain and creates the sense your rules are
Interfering with communication:
You get hung up on and your letters and gifts aren't passed on to your child.
This is especially damaging for parents who live too far away for frequent
face-to-face outings, making that contact especially important.
Your child is complicit with
your ex-partner in keeping secrets from you: He or she has booked a special trip
with your child during your holiday time and then convinces the child there's
no need to tell you until the last minute, for fear you'll interfere with the
Your ex-spouse gets upset when the child has any kind of contact
with you. The "classic example" is when both of you show up for your
son's soccer game and it's clear your child is reluctant, or even afraid, to
talk to you in the presence of the other parent.
Your child is being told highly
personal information about you, aimed at diminishing you in their eyes:
"Mommy did drugs in high
school." "Your dad is too small." Comments aimed at making the
child feel angry with the one parent or feel sorry for the other.
When Toronto lawyer Brian Ludmer
speaks about the suffering caused by parental alienation, the words come from
his head and his heart.
He's seen the devastation of a
mother's orchestrated campaign to make her children hate their father, or how a
dad can use a 4-year-old as a weapon against his mother in the ugly aftermath
Ludmer is, by training, a
corporate lawyer. But he's being "swamped" by desperate parents
looking for help reconnecting with their children. "Experts in this field
will tell you that they've never met a lawyer who understands this the way that
I do," says Ludmer.
That's because he's also lived it.
"Parental alienation is a
plague. It's rampant out there," says Ludmer, 48, who declined to talk
about his own case for fear of upsetting his children. "This stuff has
been going on for a hundred years. It's just that now it has a name."
Later this month, Ludmer will
address the first international conference on parental alienation in Toronto.
He'll join the growing chorus of parents, judges, lawyers, social workers and
mental health professionals who believe the courts are ill-equipped to deal
with "toxic" parents.
"Canada seems to be a hotbed
of parental alienation court activity," says Amy Baker, a New York-based
researcher who's written two books, one chronicling the emotional suffering
that travels in parental alienation's wake.
"I think there are some very
brave judges who are willing to really think through the implications of
alienation and really try to deal with it.
"The bottom line is that to
turn a child against a parent is to turn a child against himself."
Two months ago, a Toronto judge
stripped a mother of custody of her three daughters after a decade-long
campaign to keep the kids from their father. She was ordered to pick up the tab
for a U.S. program aimed at helping the girls, ages 9 to 14, reconnect with
This week, an 18-year-old from
Mississauga asked to be awarded custody of his two younger brothers caught up
in a decade of family "warfare." He also asked that parental
alienation experts, such as psychologists Randy Rand and Richard Warshak, be
forbidden from further contact with the boys. He called programs, such as their
controversial Family Workshop for Alienated Children, "voodoo
But there's so much concern about
the snail's pace of the overloaded family court system and the lack of
treatment facilities in Canada that Ludmer has been working with a group of
professionals on plans for Toronto's first Family Reunification Clinic. They
hope to have the facility open within a year, offering treatment based on the
work of Rand and Warshak.
"The most important part (of
undoing alienation) is the after care," says Ludmer, who's handled more
than 50 parental alienation cases in the last four years. "We don't want
to be bundling kids on a plane and sending them off to the United States. This
will make it easier and less disruptive to get the whole family the help they
The planned centre is sure to set
off a storm of controversy among those who consider Warshak and Rand's work
cult-like "deprogramming" and question whether Parental Alienation
Syndrome isn't just an excuse for bad, or even abusive, parents.
"I think the therapy often
does way more harm than any so-called parental alienation could do. It
demoralizes kids, it makes them feel like they're not being listened to and
involved. It demeans them," says Joyanna Silberg of the U.S.-based Leadership
Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence, a group of health
"One of the reasons this is
so controversial is because it's become an industry a money-making industry
where purveyors of these so-called therapies and evaluation procedures are
using things that the scientific community doesn't automatically accept, but
know that judges are accepting in court to affect children's lives in an
Veteran family court judge Harvey
Brownstone sums up the growing debate best: "The jury is still out on the
whole issue of parental alienation. When a child adamantly refuses to see a
parent, it is not easy to know why. It could be they're bored, or that they
don't like the parent's new partner. The situation is usually layered and
If there is a growing certainty
about one thing, it's that these cases need to be dealt with quickly.
"Time is the enemy of the
alienated parent," says Baker, whose book Breaking the Ties that Bind,
chronicles the difficult lives of 40 adults who were alienated as children.
Since the books, she's met hundreds of others, including one who went as far as
plastic surgery to wipe out the shame of looking like his father. "These
cases should be fast-tracked because alienating parents exploit the ability for
the courts to delay things to their benefit. The more time they have with the
kid, the more time that kid is going to resist reconciliation."
Veteran family law lawyer Jeffery
Wilson who was involved in Ontario's first court case around alienation in
1981 and is representing the Mississauga teen fighting for his brothers
believes it's time for more drastic measures. It's been estimated that some 60
per cent of litigants in "high-conflict" divorces suffer from
personality disorders that can turn a discussion of "Who gets the kids for
Christmas?" into a months-long power struggle marked by what Ludmer calls
"bad messaging and bad-mouthing."
Wilson is calling for a
government-funded "High-Conflict Response Team" that could step in
before these cases hit the courts. They would have the power to sort out
complex disputes, impose binding judgments and get the kids and their parents
counselling and treatment.
Family Solutions is a North
York-based team of well-respected psychologists and social workers who started
meeting five years ago to compare notes on difficult cases. Now they offer
everything from mediation to intensive counselling in high-conflict divorces.
They've seen a significant growth in parental alienation and have had some
success with clients who've worked with Rand and Warshak.
"There's a lot of work we
still need to do," acknowledges Linda Chodos, a social worker with Family
Solutions. "We don't yet have a lot of evidence-based research that shows
what kind of intervention works best."
Rand and Warshak are based in
California and Texas respectively and, in the first phase of their workshop,
meet the children and the alienated parent for "educational" sessions
that can include simple outings where they start to get reacquainted. (Rand
apparently travelled to meet the siblings of the 18-year-old in a Montreal
hotel room, but their mother, who claims to have been alienated by the father,
gave up a day later when they refused to participate in the four-day session.)
"It's to give the child a
break a chance to catch his or her breath and to give them just a few days
not to be torn between the two parents," says Ted Horowitz, a veteran
social worker with Family Solutions.
The alienator is brought in as
part of the second part of the program, all of which is aimed at making them
aware of the damage they are doing and the need to form a new partnership
"There is no deprogramming
and never has been," says Jacqueline Vanbetlehem, a mental health
therapist with Family Solutions. "You have to really look at the
circumstances of the family before you even recommend such a program. Sometimes
the court intervention is a relief to these children because they don't have to
choose (between parents) anymore."
Warshak told the Ontario Bar
Association's annual meeting last month that 17 out of 21 children who have
completed the "expensive" program have forged good relationships with
the other parent that continue more than two years later. The results are
currently undergoing peer review.
"One of the misperceptions
around this is that it's meant to shift allegiances from one parent to the
other," says Horowitz.
"The idea is to balance the familyto pull
them together. Both parents need to be part of the treatment, and the children
need to see their parents working together."