When there is a remarriage, children have a lot of emotional work to do. They want to feel loved and secure with each of their biological parents as well as the new stepmother.
Loyalty conflicts are inevitable but worsened exponentially if the ex-wife/biological mother has narcissistic traits such as a lack of empathy for others, self-centeredness, feelings she is special and should be admired regularly by her children, and has misguided grand images of herself including her parenting.
The stepmother is consequently in a precarious position with her stepchildren. As will be described, the kids’ biological mother sets them against not only their remarried father but consequently his new wife, the kids’ stepmother.
Adjustment in any situation of divorce is difficult for all the adults and kids involved, but it is exacerbated when one parent, especially the one who was divorced, is narcissistic.
Although the title of this article is how the stepmother is to cope, it is imperative that she understands all that I’ll explain first, before I make recommendations as to how she can reasonably live her life as a new wife and stepmother.
Description of PAS
Parent Alienation Syndrome is a psychological situation in parental separation/divorce conflicts where one parent, in this case, the ex-wife who is the biological mother manipulates the children so that they are indoctrinated with a denigrated view of their father that is a distortion of reality.
Beliefs, attitudes, and memories are manipulated by the mother who is often narcissistically self-centered until the children dislike, disrespect, and even fear the formerly loved father. The formerly caring father who nurtured and protected the child is now turned against by this child without foundation.
The alienating mother, the narcissistic ex-wife, seems to suffer no guilt as she spreads her denigration to the extended family of the alienated parent. This practice is symptomatic in high conflict custody cases.
The child suffers severe inner conflict blocking out positive memories of the alienated father, in this case, the remarried husband. The child begins to doubt his own thoughts and feelings and may cut off all ties with the alienated father out of loyalty to the mother. The child experiences fear, identification with the mother, and dependence on her.
When the child is with her father, the alienated parent alone, s/he may react positively toward him, but when the other alienating parent, the narcissistic ex-spouse is on the scene, like a light switch, the child transforms to ally him or herself with the alienator, the mother. The alienated father suffers extreme feelings of rejection, of failure as a parent, and a loss of authority.
Ignorance of this phenomenon in family courts can lead to the destruction of the mental health of the family. Parental influence processes need to be fully understood to prevent the long-term consequences of PAS.
With psychotherapy, the scapegoated father, the remarried husband, can regain feelings of positive self-worth remembering all he had done for his children.
With psychotherapy, the child may regain a realistic view of both parents. This is contingent upon both the therapist and the lawyer being familiar with this form of emotional abuse or else s/he may be co-opted by the alienating mother into the denigration.
Children impacted by this form of abuse lose the capacity to tolerate the anxiety of mixed feelings that naturally form toward each parent. They find the alienator, in this situation the former wife and biological mother, above reproach and the alienated father repulsive.
There is black and white thinking with no in-between. This may affect the child’s ability to eventually think logically with good judgment in other situations thus producing an emotionally based cognitive deficit.
In addition, as the child learns to loathe the alienated father, s/he in turn also loathes him or herself because that father is a part of them internally.
The result for the child is fragile self-esteem and possibly, especially in teenagers, an identity disorder. In the extreme, the child is remorselessly cruel to the denigrated parent such as the father believing the brainwashing by the alienator, the biological mother who is an ex-spouse, that the alienated father has been abusive.
The child involved in PAS can be viewed as both victim and victimizer. The child is turned against their inner self (Austin, 2006). Judgment is severely compromised. Self-doubt and an ineffective moral base may be found.
Some believe that PAS should be an official diagnosis in the DSM-IV which presently can be inferred under the diagnoses, Parent-Child Relational Problem, or the Disintegrative Childhood Disorder. It is thought that if PAS was a primary diagnosis, it would become more readily understood and identified by psychotherapists and lawyers in the family court system.
This would help the children burdened by deep loyalty conflicts that result in possible school difficulties and self-esteem problems.
The Legal System
Legally, alienators have sought justification for their vilification of their ex-spouse using a first amendment argument for the right to free speech with the child. The Florida Supreme Court denied such a claim. Family courts in New York have recognized the parent alienation syndrome opining the legitimacy of claims put forth that the children’s views of one parent were unrealistic and cruel.
Forensic psychiatrists reported the unhealthy cloistering of the children from a normal social life along with the alienating parent’s influence on the dismissal by the children of the good times they spent with their alienated parent.
Custody arrangements may be changed to reflect this finding. The family law system upholds the protection of “the best interests” of the children (Lorandos, 2006).
It is essential that family law professionals prevent practices that support the alienating parent from unethical behaviors that include but are not limited to filing false abuse charges and coercing children to make false accusations.
Litigation battles in which targeted parents must defend themselves against unsupported accusations need a remedy. Otherwise common practices of awarding child custody to the alienator occur. The judge hears the children say they hate their alienated parent and not knowing this is a symptom of the brainwashing of PAS by the alienator, the judge awards custody to the denigrating parent.
The Alienated Parent, The Father
The task of the alienated parent is multi-fold. It is important he does not begin believing the castigations and accusations sent his way. This is very difficult when the alienator and children request investigation by Child Protective Services as a ploy to undermine the alienated.
CPS usually does report that after investigation the case is unfounded, but during the process the self-respect and self-worth of the alienated father is hard to hold on to. First, the alienated father needs support from other parents who are friends who have seen his good parenting.
Second, the alienated father needs to not surrender emotionally to the alienating mother/ex-spouse.
This can be done by empathizing with the children about the bind they are in when they start defending themselves against accusations. That is, the alienated father can point out to his or her child how hard it is to be in a severe loyalty conflict.
The father can remind the child of the good times they had and how he took good care of them. The father who is being alienated needs to remind the children that he loves them regardless of their current views.
In this way the alienated father holds on to the connection with his child. When children visit the alienating mother then leave and return to the alienated father, they may not speak to the latter and turn their head and body away.
It is helpful if the alienated father does not read this as if he is an actual failure or is unloved and rejected. Most likely, the child is numb from the experience of the alienating ex-spouse, the biological mother, denigrating their other parent, their father whom they love.
They can’t allow themselves to feel the affection and love offered by the father they are returning to because this puts them into deep conflict. However, after a few hours pass, the children may be able to reclaim the love and affection they dismissed earlier in the day.
The Alienating Parent: The Narcissistic Mother
The alienating parent is a troubled person, often a self-centered narcissist who sees herself as the center of her children’s lives. In fact, she sees herself as the center of anyone’s life.
She loses sight of the complex nature of her children and ex-spouse and sees them in a one-sided fashion fulfilling the requirements of what she needs them to be.
This process of denigration of the ex-spouse usually begins long before the separation and divorce. The alienator has pulled at least one child away from the other parent by seducing the child into believing the other parent is malevolent, worthless, and possibly even dangerous.
The alienating parent also seeks control of his or her spouse long before the divorce. They may be the result of having come from parents who also sought to control her.
The extended family of the alienator/mother supports their adult child in her efforts to discredit the ex-spouse. This dismantling of the former son-in-law relationship may have a long history. The alienating parent and her original family may be characterized by an absence of guilt or shame as well as a lack of sympathy and empathy.
The Plight of the Stepmother
The stepmother is being ripped apart. She loves her new husband and wants to extend her love to his children. She is viewed as a pariah by the children’s mother and needs to not believe whatever she is accused of.
Like her husband, it is crucial for her to empathize with her stepchildren and let them know she will always be there for them, no matter what anyone else says. She may be able to form individual relationships with each stepchild if she is consistently empathic with them, not showing her rage at their mother in defense of her new husband.
This is difficult at best. In private, she can console her husband, continually remind him that he is a good father and that she, indeed, loves him no matter what his ex-spouse accuses him of.
This stepmother needs to be as patient as possible, even for years, giving her husband the loving support he needs as she is attempting to create a strong and loving new marriage.
The stepmother’s most difficult task is to not argue with her new stepchildren’s mother. The kids will be keenly sensitive to this new relationship. It’s extraordinarily difficult to be polite and respectful to the woman your new husband has divorced when she is self-centered and cold resenting your new part in the family dynamics.
Seeking your own therapy for continual support may become imperative. So easily yet unintentionally as the stepmother and new wife you can exacerbate all the multiple conflicts that your stepchildren and new husband are faced with if the children believe you take sides.
Empathy for the children is the key. Punishment for their misbehavior such as disrespect toward you or your new husband may be way out of line because this behavior of the children is the result of acting out their mother’s wishes.
If as a stepmother you can view any and all behavior as the children sending messages through their actions that they can’t express in words, they will believe you are on their side.
The stepmother’s new role is delicate under any circumstances, but certainly when she is faced with basically a narcissistic enemy who blames her all too easily for pulling her ex-husband away from her and this mother’s imagined belief that the stepmother wants to take her place.
Spending individual pleasurable time with each stepchild is of paramount importance so each child can get a chance to know you as a real person, not whomever their mother claims you are or have done.
- Learning to be a good listener without any judgment whatsoever no matter how caustic the children may be is your best ally.
- Listening without interruption even if you’re being yelled at, telling the children you are sad for what they feel, and reminding them after they have finished saying what is on their minds, that you are there for them no matter what is crucial.
- Letting them know that you know they love their mother and you cannot replace her in any way, but just be an additional adult to rely on as needed is essential.
- As the children see you love their father with fond affection and support when he is melancholy will set the model for how they, too, can still love their father.
- Tolerating that your new relationship with your husband will undoubtedly be marred by his ex-spouses’ behavior will take a long time, but having other supports to express your honest feelings will help tremendously, be this a therapist and/or friends.
- Being polite and courteous to your husband’s ex-spouse is the ONLY way to proceed. You cannot win arguments with her. She does not think empathically or rationally. Reminding her that her children are being hurt will only be heard as an accusation not as helpful advice, so refrain from doing that.
- Similarly defending your husband in front of the children to their mother will only further alienate the stepchildren from you. They may provoke you to do so. Do your best to not become a target, just an empathic listener. This is a huge task but it will have a positive outcome. The children will see that you don’t unravel, can maintain your respect for everyone, and are in fact a new secure adult for them to love and rely on.
While I have described the individuals in the family separately, they are each actually in an interlocking family system where one targeted parent is scapegoated to maintain a new equilibrium after the family suffers a divorce. The other victim of course is the new wife who wants to have her new husband’s children love her and hopes to be motherly toward them.
Either or both the crisis of divorce or former interlocking pathologies of family members may lead to interactions that result in PAS. For example, perhaps the child was early on too dependent on and infantilized by the mother. The child may have slept with the mother or gone out alone with that parent to activities frequently, excluding the father. The younger the child, the easier is the induction process.
During the crisis of separation and divorce that child may be pulled even closer to their mother who has already inducted the child into scapegoating the father.
In any possible scenario the seeds that pre-existed the divorce are further exacerbated by it.
In conclusion, both the mental health community and the judicial system need to become aware of the parent alienation process to help the family succeed in negotiating their changed circumstances in an emotionally healthy and legally ethical way. Overcoming ignorance of PAS is the first step.
Austin, R. (2006). Pas as a child against self. The International Handbook of Parental Alienation Syndrome. (Eds. R. Gardner, S. Sauber, D. Lorandos). Charles C. Thomas Publisher, Springfield, Illinois.
Lorandos, D. (2006). Parental alienation syndrome in American Law. The International Handbook of Parental Alienation Syndrome. (Eds. R. Gardner, S. Sauber, D. Lorandos). Charles C. Thomas Publisher, Springfield, Illinois.