This article has been taken from the spring 2014 edition of “Apple” magazine, published by Alberta Health Services.

When high conflict enters divorce

Families can pay the price

When Mount Royal University professor Christine Giancarlo, a PhD in human services, began to study the phenomenon of parents alienated from their children, she had no difficulty finding research subjects.

Parental alienation is when one parent deliberately poisons a child’s relationship with the other parent. It’s a frequent and unfortunate result of high-conflict divorces and separations.

“I included 28 alienated parents in the study but I easily could have had 5,000,” Giancarlo says. “This is a huge issue and it has terrible consequences, both for parents and children.”

Children who are turned against a parent can experience toxic stress, which can lead to poor self-esteem, anxiety and depression, anti-social behaviour and a number of other concerns.

For example, as adults they can abuse substances, have trouble forming secure, intimate relationships and be low achievers. They are also more likely to divorce and separate and become alienated from their own children.

“To grow up and be emotionally well, children need loving, supportive relationships with both parents—even when they’ve separated,” Giancarlo says.

Alienated parents also face problems. Giancarlo’s study specifically looked at what happened when alienated parents used the courts to gain access to their children.

“One of the saddest findings was that most participants said they lost their homes or had been bankrupted because of the legal costs they incurred. They turned to the justice system as a last resort and said it failed them miserably,” she says.

Parental alienation appears to be on the rise, Giancarlo says. One estimate says 13 per cent of all divorces are high-conflict, with the children caught in the middle.

But divorce and separation needn’t be so financially and emotionally costly or turn into a court battle. One alternative is collaborative practice, which focuses on helping couples and families “restructure” by encouraging mutual respect, emphasizing the needs of children and adopting a problem-solving approach.

Ultimately, prevention is the best strategy. “The key is for parents to rise above their broken relationship and commit to their children’s well-being by cooperating as parents,” Giancarlo says.

— Greg Harris


For more information about avoiding conflict during divorce, see “Co-parenting Through Divorce” in the winter 2013 issue of Apple.

For more information on collaborative practice, visit collaborativepractice.ca.

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