The recent news about children being separated from their parents at the southern border got me thinking about how this often occurs in divorce situations as well. As a divorce mediator, I’ve seen many cases in which parents begin living separately well in advance of the divorce proceedings. This can be problematic for the children, especially when the parents fail to work out a visitation schedule ahead of time.

What is Parent Alienation?
Parental alienation occurs when a child feels isolated from one or both parents. This can cause psychological damage to the child and negatively impact his/her future relationships well into adulthood. In a divorce setting, this generally occurs when a child is spending most (or all) of his/her time with one parent, at the exclusion of the other.

Parent alienation can be intentional on the part of either parent. For example, the couple may separate, and one parent no longer wants to be involved in the child’s life. This is known as child abandonment. There are also cases in which one parent is abusive and the other parent isolates the child for his/her protection. In these types of cases, there is little that can be done other than to take the appropriate steps to deal with the situation.

Parent alienation can also be unintentional, and these are the types of cases that can often be identified and addressed early on, before it has had too much impact on the child. One of the most common examples of unintentional parental alienation would be parents who separate where the child and one of the parents remain living in the marital home. The other parent may have a busy schedule, and the spouses fail to work out a regular visitation schedule before they file for a divorce.

Weeks and months go by, and the non-custodial parent suddenly realizes he has only talked to his children a few times on the phone and only seen them once. During this time, the children start to wonder if they’re ever going to see their dad again. Slowly, they start to develop resentment and other negative emotions, which are acted out in various ways.

In these types of cases, the custodial parent does not always help the situation. Whether she means it or not, the parent who is taking care of the children may let a few disparaging remarks slip out about the other parent. Sometimes, this may be borne out of frustration over other issues regarding the divorce, but the children often interpret it as “dad just doesn’t care about us”, or a similar sentiment. Parents must always be careful what they say in front of their children, and they must make sure not to speak poorly of the other parent, no matter how frustrated they may feel.

How Divorce Mediation Can Help Mitigate Parent Alienation
If the couple in this example had sat down together and worked out a parenting plan, the effects of parental alienation would have been mitigated. This is exactly what happens during divorce mediation. With the guidance of a mediator, couples are able to develop a parenting/visitation plan that works for them, rather than a cookie-cutter schedule the court comes up with. The parents are in far greater control of the process, allowing them the flexibility to customize a plan that fits even the busiest schedules.

Another major benefit of mediation is the time it saves. Traditional divorce litigation can take several months or even a year or longer to complete. By contrast, mediation can be completed in just a few sessions. And even if you are separating but not sure whether or not you will go through with a divorce, you can still come in for mediation.

Divorcing couples with children should be aware of the potential impact of parent alienation. If you and your spouse are currently separated and considering divorce, you need to work out a parenting/visitation plan sooner rather than later. Divorce is never easy for children, but with some pre-planning, you can minimize the negative affects and allow them to more easily adjust and move forward with their lives.