Monday, February 11, 2013

Parent-child alienation: Sibling perspective

In some parent-child alienation cases, siblings are alienated to different degrees or, more rarely, align with different parents, such that the family is cleaved—one set of siblings aligning with one parent and the other set aligning with the other parent. It is important in such instances for parents and divorce professionals to consider child-related factors, not just parent behaviors, to explain why a particular family falls out this way.

For example, one child might have a special affinity for one parent’s interests and temperament while their sibling is similarly attracted to the other parent.  In the case of an adult brother and sister who were alienated from their mother as children, for instance, the brother turned back towards the mother as he moved into a professional career similar to hers. His sister, in contrast, pursued a sales career like her father’s and remained estranged from the mother: “We don’t have anything in common.”

In other cases, older siblings may have established enough autonomy to resist the pressure to “choose sides” while their younger siblings succumb to such pressure and become alienated.  The opposite is also true—an adolescent sibling who blames one parent for the divorce may become alienated while their younger siblings, na├»ve to the circumstances of the divorce, remain positively connected to both parents.  The introduction of a step-parent and step-siblings can also impact one sibling differently than another. In one family, for example, a mother with two sons and a daughter married a man with three sons.  Her sons were delighted but the daughter felt outnumbered and picked upon by the five boys. She turned away from her mother, whom she blamed for this turn of events, and allied with her father.  

Yet another factor operates when a sibling is determined to establish a unique place within the family—perhaps to establish a separate identity, perhaps to reduce competitive tensions. One divorced family had two adolescent boys, the older of whom was a nationally ranked athlete and honor roll student being recruited by several Ivy League colleges.  His younger brother, perceiving that he could not match his brother’s academic and athletic accomplishments, struggled until his father arranged for him to take flying lessons. He discovered there a talent and an interest that allowed him to achieve success without being compared to his brother—but he felt frustrated by his mother’s disapproval for an activity she deemed dangerous.  Determined not to be dissuaded, he subsequently refused to spend time with her until she accepted his newly found passion.

It is critical for parents and divorce professionals confronting the problem of parent-child alienation not to become so over-focused on the parents'  behavior that they overlook or minimize such child-related factors.  In the instance of the boy who loved flying, for example, the mother alleged the father intentionally undermined her relationship to their son by signing him up for the lessons. She softened her position, however, as she came to understand her younger son’s view of himself in relation to his older brother and how important it was for him to feel he had something unique, something special about which he and the family could feel proud.  

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