LOW self-esteem, self-hatred and depression.
Kids who are treated as pawns in the fight between their parents and “brainwashed” to reject one parent, may end up with these conditions.
And it can stay with them for life.
Malaysian Mental Health Association deputy president Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj even goes on to say that parental alienation can be considered child abuse in a psychological form.
“I personally think it is because child abuse can be in many forms including physical, psychological and neglect.
“There must be awareness that it is harmful and the parent concerned should be held liable,” he says.
While parental alienation usually happens during divorce and custody battles, Dr Mohanraj says it can also happen when one partner is insecure in a relationship and manipulates the child in order to boost his or her identity.
“The strategies used can be bad mouthing, belittling, forbidding discussions, limiting contact or even making false accusations of neglect, physical or sexual abuse,” he explains.
“Children who grow up in such a situation can have short term and long term psychological problems.
“They typically develop low self-esteem and may be predisposed to anxiety. Some may also turn to alcohol and substance abuse later in life,” he says, adding that such individuals may also have depression, believing that the alienated parent did not love them. Even when they later discover that this wasn’t true, the child can develop guilt and depression for betraying the alienated parent and lash out against the manipulative parent.
“So parents who try to brainwash children to serve their own selfish needs, beware: one day your child could turn against you and you will then get a taste of your own medicine,” Dr Mohanraj warns.
As for the targeted parent, Dr Mohanraj says some could fall into depression themselves due to the pain of being ignored by their own child.
“When divorce and custody tussles are involved, the financial implications and the thought of adjusting to visiting rights, alimony and the pressure of trying to win the hearts of their children can be very stressful.
“I have seen a few parents whose lives becomes such a disarray as a result of being alienated. Many ultimately had to be treated for clinical depression,” he says.
Child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Lai Fong Hwa concurs that making a child hate his or her parent leaves a life-long scar.
“A child gets his identity from both parents. When you teach them to hate someone they’re supposed to identify with, children become unhappy. When they grow up, they’ll have difficulty forming close ties with their own kids.”
Parents in custody battles are too angry to think about the repercussions, he feels.
Advising divorcing couples to leave kids out of adult arguments, he warns against treating them like a bargaining tool or forcing them to spy on the other parent.
He says children below 12 should be sent to a play therapist to help them cope with the situation.
“Asians aren’t good with sharing their feelings. But through activities like drawing and playing, they learn to express themselves.”
Acknowledging that some parents make their children choose sides, child therapist Priscilla Ho says that it’s not just the parents who are guilty of this. Caregivers like grandparents and aunts do it, too.
“Such behaviour poses a grave and persistent danger to the mental and emotional health of a child. The impact is worse when he or she has to be in court to choose between the mother and father.
“I worked with a six-year-old who was so affected that he poured sand over his head while relating a story of the ‘little fish’ who longs to see the ‘papa fish’,” says Ho, who is also the co-founder of Creativity at Heart, a non-profit child guidance centre for youngsters.
It’s a child’s fundamental right to have a loving relationship with both parents and to be shielded from conflict, she believes. To be denied that right by one parent, without sufficient reason such as neglect, is a form of child abuse.
“A child I was working with was torn after being asked to lie about visits from a parent. Many children of divorced parents are affected emotionally. They just want their parents to be together again.”