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The Leadership Council Responds to Alec Baldwin's Phone Message

Monday, April 23, 2007

A private phone message was recently released to the media that Alec Baldwin left for his 11 year old daughter. A family law judge was so alarmed after hearing the tape, that she temporarily barred Baldwin from having any contact with his child. Baldwin has reportedly apologized to his daughter for the phone call. He also issued a public apology, claiming to "have been driven to the edge by parental alienation for many years now. You have to go through this to understand." Baldwin and ex-wife Basinger have been locked in a custody and visitation battle over their daughter since the couple divorced in 2002.

This disturbing message from an upset parent to his child illustrates many important points about parenting, custody disputes, and parental reactions when they have limited access to their child.

From the outset, we want to underscore our concern for the privacy of those involved. We are especially saddened that the child involved was exposed to the public humiliation of a private message being broadcast internationally. Consequently, we will not repeat or refer to the exact content of that message here. However, we feel that this situation, which has received extensive national attention, provides a good opportunity to respond to common issues that may arise in custody disputes.

Isn't it natural for parents to get frustrated when they don't get to see their children as much as they feel they should?

Good parenting, even in the midst of a terribly ugly divorce, involves keeping the child out of the parents' warring and, to the extent possible, fostering for the child a continuous relationship with each parent.

While it is understandable that a parent who feels rejected by their child will feel hurt and frustrated; they should take care not to blame the child or take out their frustration on the child. Instead, they should use the moments they do have to help their child feel loved and wanted. When a parent responds by name-calling, bashing the other parent to the child, threatening the child or humiliating them, they are engaging in the kind of behaviors that may lead children to naturally reject that parent.

But don't some children reject parents who have not been abusive to them?

Studies show that rejection of a parent has multiple determinants, with both the aligned and rejected parents contributing to the problem, in addition to vulnerabilities within children themselves.

However, the Baldwin tape illustrates the most classic pattern found in the literature--children reject parents that bully, humiliate them, and generally make them feel bad. 

Still, abusive conduct is but one of the many reasons that a child may appear to reject one of their parents after a divorce. There are many components that make up a child's preference for one parent over the other, both in intact families and those torn apart during divorce.

Reasons a child may resist visitation after divorce include:

  • Anger and hurt at the parent's decision to divorce, and the manner in which they left the family
  • Moral indignation at the parent's behavior
  • Worry and sympathy for the left-behind parent
  • Loyalty conflicts
  • Disruptions to school and peer activities.
  • Boredom when visiting a parent
  • Jealousy and resentment about the involvement of new partners and step-siblings.

Johnston, J. (2005). Children of divorce who reject a parent and refuse visitation: Recent research and social policy implications for the alienated child. Family Law Quarterly, 38, 757-776.

Could the Basinger-Baldwin case be an example of PAS-"Parental Alienation Syndrome"?

Unfortunately, accusations of "parental alienation" have become a fashionable legal strategy in numerous divorce cases where child resist contact with a noncustodial parent. Rejected parents who rely on this strategy, typically use it to blame the other parent for their child's resistance to visitation. In most cases, they claim that the other parent has vindictively brainwashed the child to reject them

This strategy is popular with bullying or abusive parents because it distracts attention away from the rejected parent's own behavior toward their child, by focusing instead on the alleged shortcomings of the parent that the child appears to prefer. The PAS ("parental alienation syndrome") model, developed by Dr. Richard Gardner, also posits that the "cure" is removal of the child from the assumed "alienating" parent and full custody should be given to the estranged parent..

It is widely recognized by both legal and mental health professionals that PAS has no scientific legitimacy, and labeling a child with "PAS" or "parental alienation" does not add any information that would enlighten courts or clinicians regarding the cause of a child's behavior. (see e.g., statement by the National Council of Family and Juvenile Court Judges).

The problems with relying on overly simplistic syndromes such as PAS to understand the complex emotions that divorce can invoke in children was outlined in a 2005 paper by Janet Johnston. Johnston, a researcher who has studied children's reactions to divorce, finds that the syndrome is not supported by the data. She writes:

"The main problem is that PAS focuses almost exclusively on the alienating parent as the etiological agent of the child's alienation. Gardner's proposition as to the cause of PAS is rendered tautological by the following kind of circular reasoning: an alienated child (who is supposedly distinct from an abused child) has by definition a brainwashing parent; hence if a child is alienated, then a brainwashing parent exists and is the sole cause..Gardner's singular focus on the aligned parent as primarily responsible for the child's alienation is overly simplistic and not supported by available data. Indeed, our research shows that the problem of children's rejects of a parent is a family system's pathology exacerbated by an adversarial legal system, and not an individual psychiatric disorder."

Johnston, J. (2005). Children of divorce who reject a parent and refuse visitation: Recent research and social policy implications for the alienated child. Family Law Quarterly, 38, 757-776.

As noted previously, research shows that many factors influence a child's relationship with their parents. However, one of the most striking research finding has been that showing that rejected parents often appear to be the architects of their own rejection:

"Rejected parents, whether father or mother, appear to be the more influential architect of their own alienation, in that deficits in their parenting capacity are more consistently and most strongly linked to their rejection by the child" (p. 169).

Johnston, J. (2003). Parental alignments and rejection: An empirical study of alienation in children of divorce. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 31, 158-170.

What happens when a person with a pattern of bullying and coercive control gains access or full custody of a child?

This can be harmful to the child emotionally, affecting their self-esteem, sense of well-being, and emotional growth.

While Gardner's PAS theory placed most of the blame for alienation on vindictive mothers seeking to alienate their children from the father, research by Janet Johnson suggests that violent men are the most likely to engage in alienating behaviors. This type of psychological control of the child can be viewed as an extension of physically abusive and controlling behavior.

see: Johnston, J. (2005). Children of divorce who reject a parent and refuse visitation: Recent research and social policy implications for the alienated child. Family Law Quarterly, 38, 757-776.

Sometimes individuals with patterns of domestic violence and bullying behavior attempt to limit access of the child to the other parent as a way to punish the former partner, or because of jealousy of the child's feelings toward the loving parent.

It should also be noted that in cases where children have sustained or witnessed abuse, they can become pathologically attached to the perpetrator leading them to reject an innocent victim parent.

In these situations, the abusive parent seeks to limit the child's access to the nonoffending parent by threatening the child when he or she expresses love for or tries to reach out to the other parent. The child may be threatened with physical harm, or the controlling parent may threaten that the child's personal items will be destroyed or pets killed. For example, the Leadership Council has reviewed a case of a child whose favorite teddy bear was cut up as punishment for talking to the other parent.

Deprived of any meaningful contact with a loving parent the child may form a defensive identification with the aggressor. Exposed only to coercive control and threats of violence, the child may give in to the controlling parent's demand to reject the other parent. This process is facilitated by the fact that the child often feels betrayed by the loving parent's failure to protect them from the controlling parent's abusive behavior.

This is similar to "Stockholm Syndrome" a psychological response sometimes seen in an abducted hostage, in which the hostage can show signs of having feelings of loyalty to the hostage-taker. It should be noted that this type of parental rejection is very different than the way Parental Alienation Syndrome has been conceptualized and often involves violent threats or acts.

During divorce, why do some parents treat their children with so little sensitivity?

During an acrimonious divorce, some parents may see the child as an extension of their former partner. In these cases the needs of the child become completely secondary, as the parent engages in the same pattern of bullying control, and coercion that was used on the spouse without regard to the child's age or psychological needs.

Where can I turn if my child is being harmed by coercive, controlling, abusive behavior by a parent?

Try to find a competent credentialed therapist with training in family violence, trauma or domestic abuse to help your child.

When looking for a therapist, the following resources may be helpful.

Sidran Institute. To request information, please e-mail help@sidran.org - Letters can be addressed to the Resource Specialist, Sidran Institute, 200 E. Joppa Road, Suite 207 , Towson , MD 21286 . Phone calls are taken between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., E.S.T. at 410-825-8888.

A book which can be helpful in understanding the effect of coercive control on children is The Batterer as Parent by Lundy Bancroft and Jay G. Silverman (2002)

When Dad Hurts Mom: Helping Your Children Heal the Wounds of Witnessing Abuse by Lundy Bancroft

To find a lawyer in your region, you can contact:

Robin Runge ( runger@staff.abanet.org ) of the American Bar Association's Commission on Domestic Violence, which runs a list serve of quite a few lawyers around the country who handle cases involving victims of DV, many involving incest issues. 

Justice for Children - www.justiceforchildren.org

Other sources of support:

You may want to contact any local sexual assault or domestic violence groups for support and for ideas on how to protect your children.

Coalition of Family Court Justice - http://www.ncfj.org/

More resources listed on our website

http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/1/pas/1.html

 

 

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