Early Signs a Child is at Risk of an Emotional Cutoff and Action Required

There are early signs a child may be at risk of an emotional cutoff from a “good enough” parent. These may start off as mild behaviours that increase over time until a child refuses to see or have a relationship with their parent. A child can go from showing mild signs to severe signs in a matter of weeks. Where a child hasn’t had contact with a parent in 3 months it takes significantly more resources, private and state funded, to re-establish the parent/child relationship.

Initially when parents separate a child may be upset that they have to leave one parents home to go to another’s. They may show signs of sadness or anger. They might say unkind things to the parent or tell them about things the other parent has said.

If parents can’t find a way to co-parent amicably or the child is not given the support to love both parents, then the child will begin to display ever increasing protest behaviours. This may included the child voicing that they do not want to visit with a parent, arguing with the parent, refusing to do what the parent asks them to do, hitting the parent and damaging property. The child may also have periods where they are completely withdrawn. The parent may feel that they child is turning into their ex, who airs the same criticisms and opinions of them (a sign of enmeshment and loss of independent critical thinking).

At this stage the parent may not know what is happening emotionally to their child and may react in normal parenting ways to discipline them but the child will not respond to this as they once did and the situation may escalate.

The child, faced with constant pressure and bad feelings caused by the family conflict, may eventually emotionally cutoff (reject) the parent. They may act as if they are phobic or afraid of the parent but also act in aggressive, arrogant and haughty ways as if they have authority over the parent and display no guilt for the pain the rejected parent feels.

Action is Required When Children Display These Signs

Where a person is using coercive and controlling behaviours to manipulate a child to reject a “good enough” parent they are referred to as an “alienating parent”. Where the child is displaying mild and moderate signs the parent who is the target of the desired rejection is considered as the “targeted parent”.

At these stages it is important that the family is supported with early intervention:

  • both parents may benefit from education on the serious Lifelong Impacts on Children of Family Separation.
  • the targeted parent could benefit with learning as much as they can about this dynamic and take steps to reduce conflict within the family. It may be the other parent is not capable of making changes so it will need to be the targeted parent who expends the most effort to help their child by Dealing With Conflict.
  • when making court orders in the best interests of the child, family court judges can make clearly defined orders to ensure contact takes place, setting out exactly what is expected of parents over time. Ambiguous orders will only serve to delay/deny contact requiring further applications to family court.
  • where family court orders made in the best interests of the child are breached/not followed, judges can enforce orders and should at this stage consider psychological assessment of the family:
    • Normal range parents can follow court orders. If parents have had to return to court, one or both may have a mental health issue and it is important to know if this is the case when making decisions that impact a child’s life and prospects.
    • Even if the child is still having contact it doesn’t mean that there isn’t significant pathology in the family which will eventually lead to an emotional cutoff. It is important to get help before an emotional cutoff occurs.
  • the family may benefit from Family Systems Therapy. Traditional talking therapies will not work for families where coercive controlling behaviour is being used to psychologically manipulate a child to reject a parent.

In severe cases where a child completely emotionally cuts off a “good enough” parent, the rejected parent is no longer a targeted parent, they are now considered an “alienated parent”. Where an emotional cutoff occurs the family requires significantly more support as it is highly unlikely that the situation will be resolved without intervention by the family court or therapy:

  • if it hasn’t been ordered previously, the judge should order a psychological assessment of the family by a psychologist who can apply diagnostic criteria or someone trained to assess using the Dynamic-Maturational Model of Attachment and Adaptation. The family requires a treatment plan ASAP, the longer the emotional cutoff is in place the greater the damage to the child’s emotional and psychological development.
  • When one child emotionally cuts off (usually the oldest child first), it is highly likely that their siblings will, in time, also emotionally cutoff. It is important to get help for the family ASAP as delay has massive Lifelong Impacts on Children of Family Separation.
  • It may require a change of residence from the alienating parent to the alienated parent.
  • The family will require therapeutic support in order to give the best chance of success to improve outcomes for the children.

My theory on litigation is, if any custody case gets in front of a judge, there is a mental health problem. Either one or both of the litigants have mental health issues or possibly the lawyers do.

Mary Roby Sanders, Attorney, Erasing Family documentary 2020

When a divorce takes place the parents should have sufficient empathy for the child that they can resolve custody issues between them. That’s a healthy parent… Now with divorce, the spouses are fighting and both parents want to be with the kids so it’s understandable perhaps that they can’t reach a custody decision at the divorce event and they need to go in and get the judges opinion on the matter… At that point all normal range human beings are able to organise themselves to a court order…. If you’re back in the court because of child custody litigation somebody cannot organise or regulate to a court order – there’s your narcissistic and borderline and so we’re looking at pathology. So if it’s coming back to the judge and you got attachment pathology in the child your radar should go up, kick it out to the healthcare system, lets get a diagnosis and lets get it treated because there is pathology in the family.

Dr C A Childress, Solutions for Parental Alienation in the Family Courts, June 2021

We should protect children from psychological abuse. Psychological abuse kills the child from the inside out. It leaves scars that we don’t see. It creates pathogen. It creates pathogenic parents. If we allow children to reject parents what we’re saying is we’re going to allow this to happen to you. We don’t care about you. We’re allowing you to become pathogenic so that your children can experience the same pathology…

12 year old children, 15 year old children, 18 year old children, 25 year old children, we shouldn’t be allowing young adults and children to eliminate parents from their life. It is colluding with abusive parents and we are abusing children. If that is what you’re doing in your practice, please stop. You’re abusing children. You’re colluding with pathogenic parents to create psychopathology in the child.

Dorcy Pruter, CEO Conscious Co-parenting Institute, Solutions for Parental Alienation in the Family Courts, June 2021