An unusually candid discussion among a divorced couple presented on the website BonusFamilies.com illuminates an extremely common problem in shared parenting: The secret battle many divorced parents fight for their kids’ affection. In the worst cases, it may lead to something called Parental Alienation Syndrome, which is when one parent systematically tears down the other in front of the kids in an attempt to utterly destroy their relationship with the other parent.

More commonly, the “secret battle” is simply a response to each parent’s fear that they are losing their share of the children’s affection. Unfortunately, it can still hurt your kids. It may not be a legal child custody battle, but it is a battle over child custody.

According to psychologist Jann Blackstone-Ford, who wrote the article on BonusFamilies.com, many parents don’t even realize what they’re doing and how it is affecting their children. In their minds, it’s all about protecting the mother’s or father’s rights to equal time with the kids — but it can set the children up for serious psychological harm in the long term.

How do you know if you are involved in a parental alienation situation?

Perhaps you’ll recognize yourself or your ex-spouse in the experience of the divorced couple Blackstone-Ford calls “Mark” and “Lisa,” who share custody of their two sons.

  • Lisa complains that Mark won’t coordinate family rules. The boys’ bedtime is 9:00, but Mark lets the kids stay up as late as they want, even on school nights.
  • Mark bought the boys expensive dirt bikes, which they love. Lisa wants to support the kids’ love of dirt biking, but Mark won’t let them bring their bikes to her house. Lisa, possibly in retaliation, bought each boy a puppy.
  • Mark signed the boys up for dirt bike camp, and Lisa simultaneously signed them up for soccer. They couldn’t go to both.

It was the conflicting activities that made Mark and Lisa realize they had a problem, and they decided to go to mediation to help decide upon an equitable split of visitation time.

When explaining why he doesn’t enforce the boy’s bedtimes, Mark was unusually candid.

“The truth is,” he explained, “I’m afraid the boys won’t want to come over any more if I make them go to bed when they don’t want to. They’ll think my house is no fun and will want to stay with Lisa.”

Jann Blackstone-Ford explains that both parents now realize they were motivated by fear of losing the boys’ affection, and their all-too-common response was to subconsciously attempt to alienate the boys from the other parent.

When they realized what they were doing, they both agreed they didn’t want to continue doing it. So, how did they get out of the cycle?

The first step was to recognize the problem. Then, working with a counselor familiar with parental alienation, they started taking active steps to include the other parent in all of the children’s activities. Mark now lets the boys bring their dirt bikes to Lisa’s house, and Lisa has invited Mark to all of the kids’ soccer games, even when they occur during “her” time.

If you’re involved in a “secret battle” that is hurting your kids, you can make a change. The first step is to talk honestly with your ex and see if you can agree that something needs to change.

Source: BonusFamilies.com, “The Beginnings of Parental Alienation,” Jann Blackstone-Ford, PsyD