The words "parental alienation" strike fear in the hearts of many a divorced parent. It can be terrifying to think that your ex might be able to turn your children against you! And it's devastating to feel powerless to protect our precious 'babies' from emotional harm.
Luckily, you have more power and influence than you may think. Your best defense is to stand tall, with both humility and pride, squarely inside your own skin. Warts and all. When children notice that you are not afraid, not hiding, and not counter-attacking, they quickly learn to see through the illusions into the truth.
This may sound simple, but it's not easy! When your kids come home reporting what their other parent said about you, your job is to remain calm, cool, and collected while listening. Act as if they are talking about the weather. Then tell them how neat you think it is that everyone can have their very own opinion about things. "I see things differently than your dad a lot of the time. I think it's fun to hear other people's ideas -- sometimes they tickle my brain!" (For older kids or teens, you might say "make life more colorful" or "expand my mind.")
Now here comes the really important part: Ask your kids what they think, and make it completely safe for them to tell the truth. "Now that I know my opinion, and your dad's opinion, I wonder what your opinion is! Tell me what you think about _______." (Fill in the blank with anything ... my car, my boyfriend, my job, my house, my attitude, my communication, my love, my parenting.)
If your child raises a valid concern, thank him for sharing it with you, and then address it head on. For example, if he is upset that you were late, take responsibility for your behavior, empathize with his feelings, apologize, and talk about how you will make a new plan that works better next time.
If she complains about something that is not negotiable, connect with her feelings rather than being too quick to explain why what she wants can't happen. "It sounds like you really hate it when I'm not home to tuck you in at bedtime. Tell me more about what it feels like when you are trying to get to sleep on those nights."
Sometimes kids are hiding a little bit behind the other parent's opinion, sort of testing the waters to see if it's safe for them to express their own. Make it safe. Tell them that there's no topic that's off limits, and that you'll do your best to keep an open mind and work on solutions with them.
When we don't try to pretend we are perfect, we are far less vulnerable to criticism and attack. Instead of saying, "Why would your mom say that?! It's just not true!!" we can just say, "Yes, I can see how your mom might think that, and it's okay with me that she has a different opinion than I do." A child who hears this kind of tolerance will feel safe telling you anything. And THAT is your very best insurance policy against attempts to alienate.
In a nutshell: Don't get so lost in anger, defense, or counter attack that you forget to show your child who you really are in every possible moment.
Funnel your energy into being the best parent you can be when your child is with you. Let the truth of who you are ring clear, and don't allow anger, defensiveness, or revenge to pollute your relationship with your child.
This is one of the most emotionally vulnerable situations that parents can face after a divorce. If you'd like some guidance and assistance as you navigate these difficult waters, I'm available by phone and email for parenting consultations. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.karenalonge.com/forclients.htm for more information.