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Resisting the Pressure to Choose Between Parents

ICSA Today, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2012, 8-13

Resisting the Pressure to Choose Between Parents: A School-Based Program

Amy J. L. Baker, PhD


One million children each year become children of divorce. Many of these children will face some form of loyalty conflict, defined as a feeling of having to choose one parent over the other. Some children exposed to loyalty-conflict situations may succumb to the pressure from one parent to become alienated from the other parent. In this context, alienation refers to the unjustifiable rejection of a parent, as opposed to the term estrangement that refers to children who experience a breach in a parental relationship for reasons that are justified (such as abuse or neglect, or lack of interest on the part of the parent) (Gardner, 1998; Kelly and Johnston, 2001). Although children-of-divorce programs have been developed over the years, none specifically focus on this particular aspect of the divorce experience. The I Don’t Want to Choose (IDWTC) program was developed as a tool for mental health professionals, parents, and schools to use to help children caught in parental loyalty conflicts resist the pressure to choose one parent over the other. Readers of this periodical may have a special interest in the IDWTC program because it has been shown that being caught in a loyalty conflict can resemble being in a cult.

Parental Alienation and Cults

Baker (2005; 2007) found similarities in the experiences of adults whose parents alienated them from their other parent and the experiences of cult members, drawing on the West and Langone (1986) definition of a cult. The research subjects in Baker’s study described the alienating/favored parent much the way former cult members describe cult leaders, as narcissistic and requiring excessive devotion and loyalty (Shaw, 2003; Tobias and Lalich, 1994), lacking humility in presenting themselves as superior to others, and using their charm and persuasion skills to exploit and unduly influence others. The alienating parents were found to utilize many of the same emotional manipulation and persuasion techniques cult leaders use to heighten dependency (e.g., Hassan, 1988; Lifton, 1989; Singer, 1996). The alienating parents seemed to benefit from the alienation much the way cult leaders benefit from the cult: from excessive control, power, and adulation. Likewise, the participants reported many of the same negative outcomes that former cult members experience, such as low self-esteem, guilt, depression, and lack of trust in themselves and others (Langone, 1993; McKibben, Lynn, and Malinoski, 2002; Singer, 1996; Tobias and Lalich, 1994).

Information about the IDWTC program is provided to ICSA members who might want to use the materials in their own families, in private practice as a mental health professional, or to implement a program in a group setting such as a school. Currently the program is developed and implemented for children of divorce specifically, although modifications could be made to adapt the program to children in other loyalty-conflict situations, including that of being in a cult.

Premises of the IDWTC Program

The IDWTC program is based on the following six premises:
Divorce is a stressor for children. All children experience loss and turmoil from a divorce (even when the divorce itself leads to a positive outcome for the children and family).
Some parents behave in a way that creates feelings in the children that they must choose one parent over the other.
It is difficult for children to sustain a divided loyalty. Choosing one parent over the other when the rejected parent has done nothing to warrant the rejection (becoming alienated) solves the problem for the child in the short term (Ellis, 2005).
Alienation as the result of loyalty conflicts occurs as a process. Thus, there is a window of opportunity to intervene, and alienation can be prevented with proper intervention.
Alienation should be avoided to prevent long-term negative outcomes (Baker, 2005; 2007).
To resist the pressure, children may need “permission” and skills from a trusted neutral third party who is not aligned with either parent (the schools).

Rejecting one parent in order to please the other parent is unhealthy for children. Although these children tend to exhibit an unnaturally positive attitude toward the favored parent, the message that they are absorbing is that this parent’s love is conditional on their rejection of the other parent. Thus, alienated children learn that the favored parent’s needs for revenge or emotional gratification are more important than their need to love and be loved by both parents. This kind of family dynamic is also harmful to children because they are raised to believe that the rejected parent does not love them and is not worthy of their love. Thus, they internalize a message that they are flawed and unlovable. Further, in such a family dynamic, the children are typically encouraged to treat the rejected parent in an extremely cold, uncaring, and arrogant manner, disregarding the basic human needs for respect that should be afforded anyone, especially a parent. Parental encouragement to disregard the feelings of the other parent results in the child adopting an entitled stance and a warped attitude about what is and is not acceptable behavior. Such children come to believe that they have a right to treat people in a harsh and uncaring manner if that suits their purposes and desires. And finally, the children are taught that people and relationships are expendable, and that when they are in conflict with another person, it is acceptable to cut that person off rather than work through the difficulty.

Clearly, rejection of one parent in response to a loyalty conflict should be avoided when possible. One part of the solution to this family dynamic is to educate all parents who are divorcing about the negative effects of loyalty conflicts on children, and to teach parents who believe that they are being targeted for rejection by their former spouse how to respond to the myriad emotional minefields and traps involved in such a situation before it is too late (see, for example, Baker and Fine, 2008). Another approach is to teach children of divorce how to use critical-thinking skills to resist the pressure to choose. Critical thinking is emphasized as an important part of the solution because it is through the use of loyalty-conflict strategies that children’s critical thinking becomes so compromised that they are susceptible to adopting false ideas and feelings about the parent they eventually reject.

Thus, enhancing and supporting children’s critical-thinking skills is considered essential to enable them to avoid the cognitive distortions being created by the favored parent.

The IDWTC Program

The purpose of the IDWTC program is to teach critical-thinking skills to children of divorce, along with three other skills that allow them to resist the pressure to reject one parent to please the other. The program is offered within a school setting, where an experienced facilitator leads 20 weekly sessions of small groups of children. Weeks 1, 2, and 20 are introductory and closing sessions. In each of the 17 remaining weeks, a family situation is presented and children are encouraged to explore the possible problem-solving approaches. Details of each week’s content are fully manualized (Baker and Andre, 2009). Each week follows the same structure: The children are welcomed and the ground rules are reviewed; a family situation is presented; children are encouraged to identify their own thoughts and feelings if they have faced this situation; they then are encouraged to explore the four problem-solving approaches; and the session concludes with a closing ceremony. The activities to help children explore the content vary and include their endorsing ideas through raising hands; stomping feet; discussing an idea and making a list; role-playing in skits; commenting on a topic with a “round robin” discussion; telling a story “round robin” style; doing guided visualizations; reciting statements; making art; and other activities.

Family Situations That Create Loyalty Conflicts

The 17 family situations identified in research as key alienation strategies (Baker, 2007; Baker and Darnall, 2006) are, from the child’s perspective, as follows:
One parent looks sad, angry, or hurt when you leave to be with the other parent.
One parent asks you to spy on the other parent.
One parent says mean or untrue things to you about the other parent.
One parent allows you to choose whether to spend time with the other parent.
One parent doesn’t want you to have pictures of the other parent.
One parent refers to the other parent by first name.
One parent suggests to you that you move in with him or her.
One parent ignores or puts down the rules and authority of the other parent.
One parent tells you that the other parent is dangerous.
One parent calls your step parent “Mom” or “Dad” and suggests you do the same.
One parent tells you that the other parent doesn’t love you anymore.
One parent interferes with your communication with the other parent.
One parent asks you to keep secrets from the other parent.
One parent doesn’t include the other parent’s contact information on school and athletic information forms.
One parent gets annoyed or angry if you pay attention to the other parent.
One parent changes your name to exclude the other parent.
One parent tells you private and personal things about the other parent.

These family situations can create a psychological wedge between the child and the other parent because they lead to the belief that the other parent is unsafe, unloving, and unavailable, while they simultaneously create a desire in the child to align with the parent who is exhibiting these behaviors. Each week of the program, one of these family situations is presented. Following a brief discussion of possible thoughts and feelings the situation might evoke or has evoked, the facilitator of the program engages children in exercises and activities to develop four problem-solving skills. The activities are presented in a workbook (Baker and Andre, 2009).

Problem-Solving Approach 1: Critical Thinking Skills

Critical Thinking is defined as the ability to examine one’s beliefs and consider the possibility of changing them. Engaging critical-thinking skills allows children to consider that they may be adopting false ideas that they need to examine and possibly discard. Questions that critically thinking children asks themselves include:
What do I believe?
Why do I believe it?
What is my evidence?
Is there another point of view?
What is the evidence for that point of view?
Could I be mistaken, misinformed, or biased?
Do I feel pressure to maintain my position, and, if so, where does that pressure come from?
Am I free to change my mind?
What are the consequences of not believing what I believe?

In participating in the program activities, the children are asked to explore their beliefs about both parents, and to make sure that the children know what they believe, and why.

Problem-Solving Approach 2: Considering Options

The second problem-solving approach in the IDWTC program is called “considering your options.” It is explained to children that, when a parent asks a child to do something (keep a secret, spy on the other parent, and so forth), it is hard to object. In most families, children are encouraged to respond to parental authority. Thus, the program teaches children how to slow down and respectfully step outside of the loyalty conflict without choosing sides. Children are taught that there are more options than obeying or disobeying, and that they have the power to find respectful solutions. They are taught to ask themselves
What are my choices?
What do I think of them?
What am I being pressured to do?
What do I think of that option?
How can I appropriately and respectfully make a choice that allows me to maintain relationships with both of my parents?

Problem-Solving Approach 3: Listening to One’s Heart

Listening to one’s heart is the third problem-solving approach; it involves getting and staying in touch with one’s own truth. Children are reminded that they know who their parents are and what they mean to them, and to stay strong in the face of pressure to change their truth. Questions they are encouraged to explore include
What do I know to be true about each of my parents?
What are my core values and beliefs?
What kind of child do I want to be?
What happens when I am not being true to myself?
What kind of relationship do I want with each of my parents?

Problem-Solving Approach 4: Getting Support

The final problem-solving approach is getting support, both from within the child and from trusted others.

Children are taught to develop and access their inner strength and courage through positive self-talk, and by taking care of themselves and listening to their bodies. They are also taught how to identify and seek support from trusted others (peers, mentors, relatives) to gain perspective and encouragement when they need it. The facilitator and the group itself is also offered as a source of support, and activities throughout the 20-week program are designed to help the group members develop confidence both in themselves and in each other.

Why the School Is an Ideal Intervention Setting

The school is viewed as an ideal setting for implementing the IDWTC program for a number of reasons. It is a neutral site that does not inherently favor one parent or the other. Thus, the information provided in the program can be viewed as outside of either parent’s agenda. The school is a safe setting where children can explore their loyalty-conflict thoughts and feelings outside the reach of either parent. A group that runs inside the school can help normalize the experience of loyalty conflicts for children and remove some of the shame and isolation they might be feeling. Further, a group program can allow children to give and receive peer support as they struggle to cope with the pressures they are facing.

From the perspective of the school, the program is designed to be a positive addition to the services provided. The program is designed to teach children critical-thinking skills that can be generalized and applied to other areas of the children’s school life (e.g., resisting peer pressure).The program is designed to prevent children from succumbing to the pressure to choose sides, which, left untreated, can affect children academically and behaviorally; this offers another reason why schools should be motivated to offer the IDWTC program.

Currently, the 20-week curriculum has been implemented in six groups. Program developers have gained valuable insight into program operations. The long-term goal is to conduct a multicohort, longitudinal, prospective-program evaluation. In the meantime, the program materials (the book and workbook) are available for use with individual children.


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About the Author

Amy J. L. Baker, has a PhD in developmental psychology from Teachers College of Columbia University. She has expertise in attachment theory, parent involvement in their children’s education, youth development, and child welfare. She is the author or coauthor of one book and more than forty scholarly articles. She also conducts research at the New York Foundling Hospital.