SHERIDAN — The average length of time a child witnesses their divorced parents interact with each other is four minutes per week, usually during a custody exchange, Compass Center for Families executive director Susan Carr said.

A custody exchange can be a dangerous situation for parents and children in the case of volatile relationships or domestic violence situations, but a lot can occur between parents that is hidden from organizations like Compass, the court system and the Department of Family Services. Professionals need to know what to look for to catch parental alienation and many are becoming increasingly educated about the issue.

Parental alienation is defined legally as, “the manipulation of a child to reject one parent or the other,” according to the Legal Dictionary.

Divorce can be a painful experience for many children, but for those who are caught in a case of parental alienation, the effects can last longer than a normal grieving period.

Cindy Addison has spent decades managing the experience of losing connection with her children as a result of an alienating co-parent — and is going through the same feelings of rejection again with her granddaughter.

Tactics of alienation include badmouthing, preventing or interfering with contact between parent and child, invoking guilt for loving the other parent and undermining the parent-child relationship or the parent’s role in a child’s life.

Signs can range from anger to anxiety, fear, depression, eating and sleep disorders, problems in school and substance abuse.

Carr said she resents the term, but children from “broken homes” are at a higher risk of suicide, substance abuse issues, mental health issues and becoming victims or perpetrators of domestic violence. Research supports the claim that children suffer from failed co-parenting, she said.

Carr said in her own divorce and co-parenting situation, the best advice she was given was to love her child more than she hated the other parent. A child knows they are half of each parent, so criticizing the other parent is like criticizing that half of the child, she said.

The current debate about parental alienation syndrome in psychology is whether it is a mental illness diagnosis or just selfish, poor behavior by the alienating parent, Carr said.

Alienation goes beyond the anger, sadness and hurt associated with grief and is an intentional desire to punish the other parent through children, she said. It is an attempt to completely sever the relationship between a child and adult and the exact cause is still unknown.

Whether it is a mental illness, a result of unresolved pain and hatred or exacerbated narcissistic behavior, it is damaging to children caught in the middle.

Cycles of abuse

When Addison’s husband became physically abusive toward her and she recognized she needed to flee the situation, her children became her ex-husband’s tools for parental alienation, she said. At the time, she didn’t understand what was happening.

Addison said she was fortunate to have children who recognized the manipulation they were being subjected to, though she was still separated from them for most of their childhood.

She was prohibited from attending school events or extracurricular activities. Addison said her children understood that if she participated in their lives, it would cause a severely negative reaction from their father. Addison spent years wishing and waiting for her children to become adults.

She started to unravel; forced to explain to schools and counselors why she didn’t have custody of her children despite her love and dedication to them.

For many parents who are subject to parental alienation, retaliation may come in the form of resentment or outright hatred from their children — enforced by a parent who perpetuates false or overblown characterizations of the other parent.

Some children recognize the often subtle, false messages they are being fed, Addison said. Still, in general, affection is withdrawn over time.

“If people don’t understand what is behind this sort of pathology that happens, they will normally align, sadly — the courts and counselors and everybody — align themselves with the abuser.”

On the surface, it can appear as though children are rejecting a parent because that parent must have done something wrong, Addison said.

After eight years in and out of court after her divorce, a judge recognized the abusive behavior and told her ex-husband to stop, she said. But this wasn’t until she had exhausted her financial resources.

“It’s worldwide, it sucks and kids are being damaged,” Addison said. “These children that are subject to this, when it’s as malignant as it is in my granddaughter’s situation…have to give up who they are.”

When an alienating parent defines what is true or false is a child’s life, that child is faced with the decision to combat or accept the abuser’s definition of reality, Addison said. Sometimes they choose to surrender to protect themselves.

Addison said some people in a position to stop abusive behavior don’t realize that parental alienation is a form of child abuse. It’s not a divorce or custody issue, it’s a child protection issue, she said.

Successful co-parenting

Compass oversaw 45 custody exchanges in November and maintains documentation so one parent can’t be wrongly accused of causing problems with a custody exchange, Carr said.

A supervised custody exchange can help keep children out of the conflict between adults, but isn’t always an option for families.

There are degrees of conflict between parents, from not wanting to be in the same room to outright parental alienation. Parental alienation can range from hatred to kidnapping a child and going into hiding to completely separate the child from the other parent, she said.

Carr said she has seen the wide range of conflict at Compass, but those who obtain custody exchange support at least recognize they need help to do what is in the best interest of the child.

Compass responded to requests from the legal system and Wyoming Department of Family Services for co-parenting education by incorporating the nationally-recognized curriculum Between Two Homes to teach respectful communication, boundaries and understanding the negative impacts of unsuccessful co-parenting.

“Divorce in and of itself doesn’t have to be this huge, damaging event that happens in a child’s life,” Carr said. “How you respond to that divorce is what’s making the difference from our kids healing from the separation and developing their own trauma down the road.”

Divorced parents don’t have to be best friends, Carr said. Focusing on the best interest of a child through a committed co-parenting relationship is enough.

Carr said she encourages some families to think about parenting as a business arrangement — the product is the child and both parents have a vested interest in the product’s outcome.

In her experience, the alienating parent rarely wins in court in the long run, Carr said. Most judges today are aware of parental alienation and can identify the signs. If a parent plans to use alienation as a tactic in court, it will eventually backfire, she said.

“What will happen is you will continue court indefinitely…and you’re hurting your kids,” Carr said. “Your kids are your pawn and they are becoming emotionally distraught, emotionally damaged and harmed by the fact that you would rather fight in court than do what’s in the best interest of the kids.”

Both women and men are capable of being a perpetrator of parental alienation, Carr said. Parental alienation rarely plays out with clear-cut roles of perpetrator and victim.

Long-term impact

Carr said after working with families in crisis and people who have been subject to abuse, witnessing the emotional damage done to children through parental alienation is one of the most frustrating and heartbreaking parts of her job. Often, the alienating parent refuses to engage with Compass.

“When I have to turn around and work with a family that is bent on destroying another person only because they can, or take their kids away, it is incredibly difficult to watch,” she said.

Rather than fighting back, targeted parents should continue reassuring their children that they are loved no matter what anyone else says, Carr said.

Younger children can’t always recognize manipulation tactics and may continue to resent a parent they may have been told lies about.

“In a parental alienation, when there’s active intention to destroy that relationship, some children never have the opportunity to have a relationship with that other parent so they can figure it out on their own,” Carr said.

Parenting isn’t over after the first 18 years. Graduations, weddings and grandchildren will continue to provide opportunities to co-parent. Putting a child in a position of choosing which parent can attend special life events is cruel and unfair, Carr said.

A previously successful co-parenting relationship can be challenged or disrupted by new relationships. New relationships can bring up old emotional pain associated with what was lost in a divorce.

Introducing a new person to a child should be a delicate process, to respect and acknowledge a child’s need to heal from the loss they experienced after a divorce, Carr said.

Parents who are the target of parental alienation and are losing touch with their children should reach out to their strong support systems, Carr said.

Carr encourages struggling parents to contact professionals who can help develop skills to manage feelings and ensure the people who are privy to the details of a stressful co-parenting relationship are supporting the parent and not the fight.

“When a child turns 18, they have a choice,” Carr said. “Hopefully, that person — the parent that was alienated against — didn’t fight fire with fire.”