Until a few years ago I didn’t know there was a name for the tactic my father employed in his campaign of hate towards my mother when they divorced. When I was 9 he pulled me aside to ask if I knew what cocaine was and to inform me that – he believed – my mother was a coke head. He also asked if I’d seen any cocaine at her/our house. Not only did he try to tell me my mother was a drug addict, but he hoped I would rat her out to prove his theory.
I was 9 years old. Barely older than my daughter is now. On what crazy-ass mental plane did he have to be to think this line of questioning, and information sharing, was appropriate?
The truth is, I don’t know if my mom used cocaine. Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t. It was the mid-eighties, wasn’t everyone and their grandmother using cocaine? Didn’t they dispense cocaine in those gumball machines at the grocery store?
I do know this: my mom was not an addict. However, my father was. He was addicted to his anger, to his righteous indignation and to hating my mother. Being angry made him feel powerful, it kept him from having to be vulnerable and it kept him from having to look at his contributions to the dissolution of their marriage.
He was fully committed to being as angry and hateful towards my mother as he could be, for as long as he could be. They’ve been apart for 30 years. He still hates her. Thirty years!
But that’s not quite my point, this is:
What my father was doing is something referred to as parental alienation, also known as Hostile Aggressive Parenting. As we become more aware of what this is, we also see the negative impact it is having on the emotional and mental well being of children whose parents engage in these behaviors.
See, when you intentionally attempt to make your ex look bad by demeaning, criticizing and saying negative things about them to your children, you are engaging in parental alienation. And when you talk smack about your ex-partner/husband/wife within ear shot of your kids, that is parental alienation as well.
When you do either of these things, you are emotionally alienating your child from their other parent. In essence, you are taking a sledge hammer to your children’s relationship with their other parent. And by doing so, you are making your anger, and need to have that anger validated, far more important than the well being of your children.
You hate your ex. I get it. It’s probably justified. There is, after all, a reason (or two or three) that you aren’t together anymore.
But your children do not. They love their other parent the same as they love you. And here’s the thing:
You don’t get to decide if your kids will love or hate their other parent.
You don’t get to try to make your children side with you over the other parent or fertilize their own frustrations with that parent.
It’s manipulative and self-serving. And it is also incredibly damaging to your children.
When your kids hear you spout hatred about their other parent, they feel their loyalty to the other parent is being tested. You are making them choose between loving you and loving their other parent. By outwardly bad mouthing and hating on their other parent, you turn their love for that parent into a betrayal of you. You are exploiting their vulnerability to push your own agenda of hate and that comes at the direct expense of their mental and emotional well being. The effects of parental alienation on the children are anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, self-hatred and issues with addiction. Is that what you want for your children?
And buyer beware, you may also find that you’re destroying YOUR relationship with them in the process. At some point, the children that you’ve been actively trying to brainwash into hating their other parent may realize that it is unsafe to have a relationship with you. They may realize that you are angry and hate filled and, while their other parent certainly is not perfect, the way you have chosen to handle your feelings has made a difficult and painful situation worse for them.
All those times when he called my mother a slut or demeaned her in some way did not make me hate her. And didn’t make me love him more. His pervasive hatred and anger showed me he was not a safe person. His actions and words confused me and made me feel protective of her. He put me in the middle and that is not where I belonged. Children belong in the forefront with their emotional safety and stability as THE priority. Children belong in a place where they are allowed to love and be loved by both parents.
It’s been two years since I talked to my father. And this isn’t the first time we’ve been estranged. I’m in a place of trying to heal from the damage caused by his behavior, including his parental alienation attempts, and I simply can’t have his pervasive negativity in my life while I do that. There wasn’t an argument, fight or defining moment; I’d just had enough.
And what about my mom? While my father never wasted a chance to chastise my mother, my mother never said anything bad about him. Ever. There was no loss of factual negative things she could have said, but she never did. She even went so far as to make us stop if we were badmouthing him. She didn’t do it because she loved him, or even cared about him. She did it because it was the right thing to do. She did it because she loved us more than she hated him.