Child Custody Tactic: Faking Separation Anxiety via Child Abuse

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Separation anxiety is a behavior normally found in infants and small children when a loved one is moving out of contact with them. They become worried and uncomfortable, anticipating the absence of the loved one. Often this loved one is a parent, other times it is a relative or a familiar care provider. This is a normal part of the development of children and tends to go away by the time they are around three or four years old. But not all behaviors that appear to be separation anxiety are in fact so. Alarmingly, sometimes such behaviors are the result of premeditated child abuse by the parent handing over a child to another person, particularly to the child’s other parent.

Personality Disordered Abusers Hurts Kids To Hurt Ex and Win Custody

When you’re a divorcing or divorced parent of a child you had a with a sociopath, psychopath, or other personality disordered abuser (PDA), there’s a chance you will come face-to-face with the reality that your ex is willing to abuse your child to make it look like he or she doesn’t like being returned to you. The ex wants to worsen the separation anxiety, or at least the apparent “symptoms” of it, often in front of witnesses whom will be asked to write declarations or testify in court or to talk with psychological evaluators, therapists, CPS, and court-appointed mediators. The PDA expects these reports that the child doesn’t like to be returned to you will help ensure your custody is reduced and the PDA’s custody is increased.

Screaming and Crying Triggered By Hidden Physical Abuse

One of the most common techniques to create the impression of separation anxiety or fear of the target parent is for the abusive parent to cause pain to the child as the child is being handed over to the other parent. The PDA may use a variety of simple but hard-to-detect techniques to do this. Pinching, poking, hot or cold objects, or other small and inconspicuous sources of pain are frequently used. These are generally unlikely to leave injuries severe enough to be evident after a few minutes, but they are fully capable of causing a baby or small child to scream and cry abruptly and with great intensity.

A malicious father was attempting to convince the court that his baby disliked the mother and this was showing up via crying and screaming at exchanges. He claimed the baby was suffering from separation anxiety and therefore he should have more time with the child and the mother less. The mother was fortunate enough to have access to a multiple camera surveillance system at the exchange site, something very few people have. She was able to play back the video and watch carefully and could see the father was poking the baby with something sharp to provoke the crying. If she did not have access to the video recordings, she would probably have never known for sure what was causing the crying. More importantly, she would have been unable to prove the abuse and prevent the situation from happening again.

A father who experienced a similar situation during exchanges at public locations without cameras believes that his malicious ex was pinching the baby to cause her to scream and cry, but he was never able to prove it. The father observed that his ex would hand him the baby and the baby was fine. Then she would insist on getting the baby back again, pulling the child from his arms. The baby was still fine. She would often do three or even four rounds of this handing the baby over and pulling the baby back until the baby started to scream while being handed back to the father. This was common at exchanges when the mother had her friends watching, but seldom happened other times. The father’s family members who were present at such exchanges noted that the baby showed absolutely no sign of distress or discomfort until the very last handover and that it started abruptly and with great intensity, as if the baby had felt a sharp pain.

An abusive parent familiar with nutrition or with a medical background may resort to feeding a baby foods or drinks spiked with substances with short-delay reactions to cause discomfort and crying. A baby will be unable to express the pain from the itching and burning except by crying and screaming. As crying and screaming are known to create skin redness, that symptom, which can be caused by some of these agents, won’t appear unusual. While it is possible to run medical tests that might detect this type of abuse, few doctors would ever consider it a possibility unless they are familiar with sociopathic and psychopathic behaviors in child custody battles.

Malicious parents like these are child abusers, but they are very good at hiding it. They abused their own children right in front of witnesses to create false impressions and manipulate the court and other professionals to whom their witnesses would speak. Without solid proof such as via photographs and video recordings showing the abuse, the courts are prone to reward child abusers like this for hurting the children by giving them increased custody.

Creating Emotional Discomfort With Words

Other common techniques PDAs use to cause the perception of separation anxiety involve manipulating a child with words. This probably is not so effective for school-age children who both are more independent and are able to more accurately report what a parent tells them, but it can be effective for toddlers.

The PDA will start talking at the exchange with the child in proximity, often even holding the child, about how much she or he will miss the child, how sad he or she will be while the child is away, how the child needs her or him (or vice versa), how it will be so long before they will see each other again, and other statements designed to stir up the child’s emotions. The PDA may make excuse after excuse about why the child isn’t ready to go with the other parent while continuing to rile up the child, often right in front of sympathetic friends who are so biased and incompetent that they cannot recognize the poor parenting, parentification, and emotional child abuse behaviors happening right in front of their faces.

On returns, the PDA will make a big fuss if the child does not display overt and extreme emotional attachment. For instance, if the child is busy drinking a juice box or eating a snack and doesn’t run up to hug the abusive parent and shower her or him with emotional platitudes, the PDA may criticize the child or even break down crying to “prove” to the child that his or her behavior was unacceptable and hurtful. It is emotional blackmail to force the child to show the abnormal intensity of affection the abusive parent wants to see both due to his or her own abnormal needs as well as to influence witnesses who will see how attached and affectionate the child appears to be.

Even children who do not fall for the emotional manipulation easily can get caught up in the dysfunctional behavior. One child who was subjected to this repeatedly by her mother over time learned that she must run up and hug her mother every time she sees her or else her mother will cry. The child also displayed parentification behaviors with her father, telling him that he shouldn’t cry and it will be all right when she is not with him. She did this even though he never cried at exchanges and never subjected her to emotional manipulation like the mother was doing.

Programming Kids To Express Dislike

Some children, particularly around 2 to 4 years old, are bright enough to be able to repeat what they are told so say convincingly, but not bright enough to realize they are being manipulated. A PDA can tell a child to say he or she doesn’t like exchanges, wants to go back to the PDA parent, doesn’t like the spending time with the target parent, and other similar comments.

If you suspect that this is happening, you may be able to get your child to reveal it by asking “what made you say that?” or “what do you mean by that?” The child may reply that he or she was told to say it. Other times, the parent may hear a nonsensical reply indicating a lack of understanding like “I don’t know, but I just like saying it.” A child responding in such ways is likely being manipulated.

Exchanges Should Be Smooth, Peaceful, and Devoid of Emotional Intensity

Any decent parent loves his or her children and of course misses them when they are not around. But a child of a dismantled family shouldn’t be subjected to emotionally intense events when he or she moves back and forth between the parents. A good parent will try to minimize the emotional impact on the kids, make sure the kids know they will see him or her again in a few days, and remind them to have a good time with their other parent.

For small children in particular, playgrounds can be a great place to do exchanges if you’re either not faced with a PDA as the other parent or the other parent will abide by some rules and behaviors to ensure the exchanges go smoothly. The returning parent can tell the children that it is time to go play with the other parent and that they will see each other soon. Then get the children playing at an activity that is safe at their age without arms-length supervision. Swings, slides, sand toys, and other activities are often good.

The activity should be age appropriate in its entirety and require nobody to be within 20-30 feet of the child for a minute or so. For instance, putting a 18 month old baby on a swing designed for an older child is not a good idea, but it would be fine for that child to be a bucket-seat swing from which it is very difficult to fall out. If there are siblings, get them involved, too. An older sibling can play leader for a younger one or push a swing.

Once the kids are busy playing, do the exchange. The parent accepting the kids shows up and says hello and joins them in their play. The returning parent leaves, perhaps waving goodbye as he or she exits the park.

Such exchanges are great for kids because they are fun events without emotional intensity of parents arguing and feeling like they will miss one parent.

Older kids are often best exchanged via school or camp. One parent drops them off, the other parent picks them up. They have hours to decompress from whatever a PDA may have done to them on the drop-off and will likely appreciate they don’t have to deal with their warring parents in the same place at the same time.

PDA Dislike Smooth and Peaceful Exchanges

A PDA doesn’t like exchanges like these. This is one of the ways you can recognize a PDA for what she or he is. They will often try to cause trouble at these exchanges by refusing the follow the rules, involving other people to put pressure on the children to make them upset, and even verbally insulting or physically attacking the other parent directly or via a proxy such as a friend.

They don’t like such effective and peaceful exchanges because they don’t serve their needs which include hurting the other parent and demonstrating that the children don’t like the other parent or likes the PDA parent more.

Abuser’s Friendly Witnesses

Often the PDA will bring “witnesses” to exchanges who are gullible do-gooders, friends with benefits, or worse, are malicious themselves. It is typical for them to be friends of the PDA from churches, social groups, and current or former workplaces. They are likely to have heard horror stories about you for months or years. They will often be at a distance, watching supposedly to “protect” your PDA ex from you. The PDA may have told them the court ordered this because the judge is afraid of what you’ll do without people around for protection. They are too gullible to realize that if the judge truly thought that was a significant risk, orders would have been made for the use of police officers or professional custody exchange monitors to ensure safety.

The distance the PDA will have her or his associates maintain is far enough that they cannot truly see what is going on well. Further, these people are often not objective and have been brainwashed by a distortion campaign against you to believe that any odd behaviors the child shows must be somehow your fault. They probably lack training in psychology and have no experience with high conflict and pathological divorces. They are therefore completely unable to recognize emotional and even physical child abuse happening right in front of their eyes. They are so invested in their belief that the PDA is a victim and you are the abuser that anything short of shockingly severe evidence to the contrary is ignored or rationalized away.

Pre-Verbal Children More Vulnerable

The children most vulnerable to these games are ones who cannot yet talk. That’s because they can do little to express what negative things are being done to them or how they are feeling other than to cry or scream. But older children are still somewhat vulnerable, especially to emotional abuse they cannot yet understand that makes them feel insecure and miserable, concepts they may not be able to express in their limited vocabulary.

You can get some ideas of how your children are handling exchanges by asking them how they feel and what they like and dislike about the exchanges. A child who is having trouble will probably show it via expressions and tone of voice, even if she or he cannot muster the words to explain it.

Why PDA-Style Abuse Is Particularly Evil

The abuse visited upon the child by the PDA generally is not severe, for if it were, possibly the witnesses might wise up to what is going on. However, it is still child abuse. In some ways, it is worse than emotionally charged child abuse such as an angry and out of control parent striking a child for misbehavior. That’s because the PDA premeditates the abuse, plans ways to accomplish it for maximum effect with minimum chance of detection and accountability, and is doing this not due to heated emotions in a disagreement but as a means to an end.

Parents who engage in such abusive behaviors are also likely to engage in parental alienation, another form of child abuse, due to their refusal to accept that the child needs time with both parents. If you suspect your child is being abused by a parent trying to fake separation anxiety, you should be on the lookout for other forms of abuse.

A PDA is likely to systematically repeat the abuses for months or years, sometimes at every opportunity that presents itself. This is again very different from an abusive parent who has trouble managing anger. You can see the out-of-control parent has problems easily and can see the damage they cause, but with a PDA, it is often difficult to see either except for people very close to the situation.

If you have ever watched a horror movie in which there is an evil child hurting other people (consider young Damien Thorn in the Omen movies), contemplate this parallel. A normal angry child may lash out and hurt people he or she loves — biting a sibling, hitting a parent, etc. — and then later regret it after calming down. But a PDA is like Damien Thorn, they can look calm and reasonable, even like innocent victims, while planning to hurt another person or actually doing so. Many of them feel not even an iota of regret for their actions and will hurt people again and again so long as it serves their purposes. This is why they are so dangerous to the people around them, including their own children.

Further Reading

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Counteracting Tactics for Interfering With Custody and Visitation

Co-parenting With A Sociopath (Borderline, Narcissist, etc.)

Personality Disordered Abusers in Family Law Courts

Personality Disordered Abusers in Psychological Evaluations

Defending Against False Child Sexual Abuse Allegations (Part 1)

Recovering from Personality Disordered Abusive Relationships

Separation Anxiety in Children: Easing Separation Anxiety Disorder

Harming Your Child by Making Him Your Parent


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  1. July 8th, 2010 at 21:15 | #1

    In my 21 years of working with fathers, this is something I had not thought about. I’m adding this to my material on Visitation denial.
    Http://Visitation_Rights.Dads-House.Org

  1. July 10th, 2012 at 06:05 | #1

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