How and Why Psycho Parents Manipulate Kids to Resist Custody ExchangesWritten by: Rob Print This Article
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You’ve probably heard the term “Psycho Ex Wife” if you’ve talked with a man who has suffered from the atrocities of the family law courts manipulated by a truly malevolent ex. It was popularized in part by the illegally banned website The Psycho Ex Wife. Malicious moms are deservingly labeled as psychos quite often, hence the widespread recognition of the phrase. The reality is that both men and women can behave horribly and abusively using the children as pawns in a struggle with the other parent. Often this abusiveness starts even before the filing for a divorce.
It’s hard to find a widely accepted term for referring to the kind of maliciously manipulative parents that interfere with their children’s time with the other parent. Some call them “high conflict personalities” (HCPs), others “parental alienators”, still others “sociopaths” or “psychopaths.” Many refer to Borderlines, Narcissists, Histrionics, Antisocials, Paranoids, or other personality disorder diagnoses to explain the behaviors and label the abusers. The problem is huge and really encompasses multiple groups of people with severely messed up behaviors as parents. For this article, I’ll simply be referring to them as “psycho parents” and not try to more precisely label them.
In this article, I’ll be describing some of the tactics that psycho parents use to manipulate kids to participate in resisting child custody exchanges. This is part of the overall problem of parental alienation. The psycho parent is often successful at causing children to resist custody exchanges even in cases in which the children do not actually hate the parent being attacked and still enjoy spending time with that parent.
Anybody faced with a psycho parent is likely to benefit from reading about Borderlines and Narcissists and their interactions with children. However, don’t let this mislead you into trying to diagnose one of these people and use such as a diagnosis in court. Even if you are absolutely correct in your assessment, judges almost uniformly lack the understanding of what it means and will attack you for putting a reasonable label on the bizarre and destructive behaviors because you’re not a licensed psychologist. Unfortunately, many if not most licensed psychologists are not capable of diagnosing these kinds of disorders accurately because they lack the time with the person and also, in some cases, have their own agendas and biases that make them easy targets for a psycho parent to manipulate.
Motivations of the Psycho Parent
If there’s anything truly common to all psycho parents, it’s hard to find. Although many of them were abused by one or both parents as kids, not all were. And not all abused kids grow up to be psycho parents. Many psycho parents are Borderlines or Narcissists, but not all are. Even if they do meet the criteria for BPD, NPD, or some other personality disorder, few are formally diagnosed and fewer still ever voluntarily seek treatment or honestly work on fixing their problems. So the formal name for whatever ails them is somewhat besides the point, although it is sometimes handy as an abbreviation for describing their overall behavior patterns.
What I find to be reasonably frequent features of psycho parents are the following:
- A history of insecurity during childhood. This often stems from child abuse or neglect in the home, but can also arise from other situations such as severe poverty or living in a unsafe environment such as a neighborhood with frequent violence from crime or war.
- Pervading sense of insecurity about one’s self as an adult. This flows from the childhood insecurities that were never resolved. Some might say that Narcissists don’t act like this, often touting their own superiority. But when you think about it, they really do have intense insecurities and their Narcissitic behaviors are the means to make themselves feel better or to hide their self-doubts.
- Extreme focus on self. Inside their adult bodies they are still hurt little insecure children. Consequently, they are usually unable to focus on anybody but themselves because they are so badly damaged they never learned how to do so. This shows up via narcissistic traits such as selfishness, even if the person does not meet the criteria for NPD.
- Little or no empathy for others. These people are usually unable to put themselves in another’s shoes, or to consider how their words and actions harm others. They probably don’t care. Sometimes you may see them pretend to care, but usually this is a means to manipulate others. Other times, it is simply they are following behavior patterns they have seen other more healthy people follow often without actually having any genuine empathy themselves.
- Frequent manipulations of others as a means to meet their emotional needs. Often such manipulations involve lying and distorting about the actions of others, particular the ex or the kids, in an attempt to win allies or sympathy or battles in court. But these people also play at being victims in many other venues. In a workplace, for instance, you may see them pretend to be loaded up with unfair amounts of work, that other people are taking credit for their work, or that they are being sexually harassed.
If you’ve been through the nightmare of a relationship and then breakup involving children of one of these psycho parents, I’m sure you will have dozens of other ideas of common psychological features. Think about whether they can be traced back to one of those above. If not, please leave a comment and let me know I need to add something more to the list.
From the starting points of the above common core features, you see the development of a wide range of destructive behaviors. Substance abuse, violence, criminal conduct, emotional manipulation, affairs, and more are all often seen in these psycho parents. When it comes their relationships with their children, the common element is that the children are just another means to meet their emotional needs. Such parents have no real regard for their children’s emotional health and are willing to sacrifice it to meet their own needs and desires.
This unhealthy prioritization of the psycho parent’s needs over the children’s needs is in my view a driving force behind the abusive behaviors. When the psycho parent is at odds with the other parent, you can expect to see the psycho parent use the kids as pawns in that battle. The psycho parent seeks allies and supporters at any cost to others, even to his or her own children. The psycho parent views the other parent as the enemy, and expects the children to help fight the enemy and will train them to do so. As a result, many children are forced into behaviors that are diametrically opposed to their true interests and concerns but do serve the interests and concerns of the psycho parent.
One of the foremost goals of most psycho parents is to block access to the children. They fear the other parent will “win” their love and they will “lose” that love. They view most everything as a “win or lose” contest or a “zero sum” game, not understanding that children have enough room in their hearts and minds to love both their parents.
One of the first things the psycho parent does when the family starts to break up is to interfere with the children’s time with the other parent. Many psycho parents even start this not long after a child is born, even years before a divorce is filed. The methods vary widely. Below I will describe a few of the more common manipulations used to block child custody exchanges and some adaptations that the parent faced with helping the children through these never-ending crises can use to make it easier on the kids.
We Have Something More Important To Do
Many psycho parents plan activities on the other parent’s time with the kids. When it comes time for the kids to see the other parent, they will either object themselves or get the kids to do it for them.
Sometimes this is a particularly deliberate act of aggression against you and your family. For instance, the psycho parent knows that your family is planning a reunion party and the kids would be going to it. So she puts the kids up to wanting to do something with her family on your time to encourage the kids to take sides.
You may first experience this form of aggression when your kids call you on the phone and ask you not to pick them up. Many abused parents are seldom ever be able to talk with their kids on the phone because the psycho parent won’t allow it or has the kids scared to talk with them. In such cases, when a phone conversation does occur it is usually the psycho parent initiating the phone call to have the kids object to picking you up. The reasons are often something about some plans the psycho parent has made for the kids during the abused parent’s time.
To counter this, for starters your kids need to understand that it is never OK for one parent to plan activities during the other parent’s time with them unless they have both agreed to it or to a change in the schedule.
In general, you should not cooperate with the psycho parent’s attempts to keep you from seeing the kids by planning activities. If you cooperate with this even once, you will be inviting more of it.
Depending upon the activity and your kids’ interests in it, you may choose to sometimes have them do the planned activity with you during your time. Other times, you may point out that they can do it during the psycho parent’s time. Still others, you may point out that you already made plans for something they should be able to enjoy.
What I think you’ll often find is that the kids really don’t care so much about the psycho parent’s planned activity, no matter how extreme they may have sounded on the phone as they were performing for the psycho’s approval. They are happy to see you and do something interesting or fun with you so long as they get a lot of your attention.
We’re Religious, You’re the Devil
As a specific example of the “we have something more important to do” tactic, the psycho parent plans to take the kids to church and get the kids all excited about a church play during the other parent’s time. So when it comes time they are to turn the kids over to the other parent, they will object and say the other parent is not supporting their religion or is immoral or “evil” because they don’t share the same church and/or religion. They may relent only if you agree to take the kids to the play.
Religious practices are frequently used by the psycho parent as weapons or means to interfere with the other parent’s time with the kids. They may change churches or even adopt some different religion and involve the kids in it to try to reduce the other parent’s influence, or to simply mess around with their time. So you may see bizarre practices such as a “born-again Christian” psycho parent suddenly introducing Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other religious practices into the children’s lives and then demanding the other parent comply with this.
When you run into this, you should counter it immediately. “Religion” is often used as a brain-washing tool. Just look at the many religious cults that have sprung up over the years and how much damage they do even without the involvement of a psycho parent. You should think of the psycho parent as a religious cult leader and the kids as potential victims of the cult.
Dr. Amy J. Baker, well-known researcher on the effects of parental alienation on children and adults, has often written about the parallel between cults and the alienating parent:
Cults offer a useful heuristic for understanding parental alienation syndrome. Alienating parents appear to use many emotional manipulation and thought reform strategies that cult leaders use. Awareness of this analogy can help individuals who experienced parental alienation syndrome (and their therapists) understand how they came to ally with a parent who was ultimately abusive and damaging. The analogy is also helpful for understanding the recovery and healing process.
The messages that your kids need to hear loud and clear about religion include:
- The rule is that parents are not to interfere with the other’s parents time with the kids. This includes forcing practice of a religion they don’t believe on them.
- There are many religions and many reasons for why people believe a religion, choose a particular religious institution, and so forth.
- People should have open minds about other religions, at least to the extent that they are willing to listen to the ideas and consider that just because somebody doesn’t believe the same way doesn’t make them a “bad” or “evil” person.
- Religion is often used as a means to control people for evil purposes. Explain a few age-appropriate examples. By the time kids are in late elementary school or older, you should be able to explain examples such as the Branch Davidians (David Koresh), Jonestown Massacre (Jim Jones), and Muslim extremists committing terrorist acts based upon a flawed interpretation of the Koran promulgated by extremists such as Osama bin Laden and his followers. For younger kids, it may be harder to come up with some easy examples but at least give it a try.
- Explain that when religion is used for evil purposes, it often involves the group leader vilifying another person or group so that the followers will join in aggression and other evil acts. Good religious leaders don’t put emphasis on harming other people who are not part of their group.
- Explain that even though some evil people use religion for bad purposes, this doesn’t mean all people who believe similar religions bad. There are many good Christians, Jews, and Muslims who wouldn’t dream of harming another person in the name of their religions.
Don’t directly attack the psycho parent or his or her religion. Give generic examples and explanations. Don’t just lecture. Ask questions to get them to think and discuss the issues.
You need to be encouraging the kids to have critical thinking skills, not simply to regurgitate your opinions. There is really no better defense against parental alienation, peer pressure, cults, and many other dangers than ensuring your children have very strong critical thinking skills.
Make the Kids Feel Physically Bad
On exchange days, some psycho parents will mix things up to make the kids feel miserable. They wake them up earlier than usual, then fail to feed them breakfast or lunch or both. By the time the kids are ready to see the other parent, they are wrecks from being maltreated by the psycho parent. So of course this makes it more likely any little upset will turn into a major tantrum. And then the psycho parent can claim this shows the kids don’t like the other parent.
Another technique that falls into this category involves causing direct physical pain to a pre-verbal child via some hidden method in front of witnesses. The psycho parent gets friends (really marks for a scam) to watch the exchange, then hands over the child to the other parent. As the handoff occurs, the psycho parent pinches the child or pokes the child with something sharp that isn’t enough to break the skin. The child is likely to start screaming suddenly, all timed to dupe the “friends” into becoming witnesses that the child doesn’t like to be handed off to the other parent. In fact the child doesn’t like to be physically harmed, but they are too naive to understand that is what has happened.
If you notice your pre-verbal child suddenly screaming at handoffs, check him or her for injuries. Sometimes the psycho messes up and leave a puncture mark, visible pinch mark, or other injury on the child. If you find this, photograph it. Consider taking the child to a doctor immediately, describe what happened, and get medical sign-off that this was a physical injury, not your imagination. Courts pretend that people other than doctors or government employees cannot know anything about injuries, so they often will not take your word for it even if you have photographs of such an injury and witness testimony of what occurred.
When you pick up your kids, always have at least some food and drink with you for them to consume. This can go a long way towards alleviating the physical distress caused by a psycho parent maltreating them to make them feel miserable.
If you can tell they are exhausted, suggest you all take a nap. A half hour to hour nap can make all the difference between a cranky child and one who can really enjoy the time with you. Little kids (babies and toddlers especially) cannot explain they are tired, but may act out horribly. If you’re sure they need a nap, consider driving someplace to do some activity with the realization that this is probably going to put them to sleep for a while and, if properly planned, they and your activity will benefit from it.
“Forget” The Child’s Attachment Object
Many psycho parents will play games with attachment objects. They get a child attached to a toy, blanket, stuffed animal, or some other object. This is most likely to happen with young kids, such as toddlers, but sometimes occurs even with older children in early grade school who should have outgrown such objects by that age.
Attachment objects aren’t bad by themselves. But they present an opportunity for psycho parent to create a conflict and make the child upset. Here’s how it works.
The child wants to bring the attachment object with during the time with the other parent. He or she gives it to psycho parent and asks to bring it with, or psycho parent suggest bringing it with. Either way works. Before the exchange, psycho parent talks up how it will be good to have the attachment object with the child. The child hears this and it is fresh in his or her mind. At the exchange, the child is probably distracted. Psycho parent doesn’t pass along the attachment object, then leaves.
When the child realizes that psycho parent hasn’t passed along the attachment object as the child thought was going to happen, often he or she will complain, cry, or show other emotional upset. This may manifest as “I want [psycho parent]!” or “I want my [attachment object]!” or even “I don’t want to go with you!”
The child becoming severely upset is all the more likely if psycho parent has also primed the child to be miserable by restricting sleep and food.
Methods you can use to help counter this abuse tactic include having a duplicate copy of the attachment object, if you can get one, that you keep for your own home and car. Another method is to offer another appealing attachment object from toys the child already has in your home. A third is to offer to let the child pick out a new object such as stuffed animal, blanket, or other object that can be carried around with the child for comfort.
Attachment objects are pretty normal for toddlers, but by elementary school they are increasingly unusual as most children will have developed some skills at comforting themselves without need for help from a stuffed animal or blanket.
If the child is in elementary school or older, you may also consider gently pointing out when the child is not upset that many kids grow out of carrying around stuffed animals, blankets, and other similar objects by the time they are in school. Ask if the child has noticed his or her friends carrying such objects. This may get him or her thinking about whether it is still appropriate. Don’t press the issue, just point it out once and ask a question about it to get the child thinking and then let the child sort it out on his or her own.
Tell The Child “It’s Your Choice”
Psycho parents like to trash the target parent and then “offer a choice” to the child listening to the hostilities. That choice generally goes something like this: “If you don’t want to see [insert mommy or daddy here], it is your choice. Just say no you won’t go.”
Often the psycho parent will hammer on this relentlessly until it starts having effect on the child. They use many variations such as:
- When you are older, you can go to court to say you don’t want to see [mommy or daddy].
- We could do [insert some fun activity here]… Oh, I forgot, you won’t be with me if you go with [mommy or daddy] so you’ll miss out.
- I am so sad when you leave me. You don’t want to make me sad, do you? You can choose not to go with [mommy or daddy] and stay with me and we can be happy together.
Some examples of email from The Psycho Ex Wife show just how willing such a parent can be to push and drag their children into court for all the wrong reasons, all the while trying to paint this as letting the children make a “choice” of their own:
August 12, 2008
I will say this one more time and for the last time….You will NEVER EVER EVER have primary custody of our children as long as I am still breathing. NEVER, NEVER Ever EVER. In fact, when they are old enough, I plan on taking them to court so that they can finally SPEAK for THEMSELVES.
August 10, 2009
That’s ok though because I am and always will be #1 with the kids….and as soon as [my attorney] tells me they are old enough to tell Judge Contempt how much they hate going to you (which they do) we are going back and they will be with me full time again. See you soon.
When it is apparent to any person reasonably well educated in parental alienation tactics (sadly not including most family law judges) what is going on, the psycho parent will spew deceitful drivel such as:
- It’s the child’s choice, why won’t you listen?
- Why won’t you respect the child’s choice?
- You don’t care about the child if you won’t respect his or her choice.
Eventually, the child is likely to start repeating such language of the psycho parent. When your toddler tells you to go away at an exchange and says he wants to go to court to not see you any more, it is a sure sign you are dealing with a psycho parent who is emotionally abusing the child.
Spending time with each parent is not the child’s choice any more than it is a child’s choice to go to church, school, the doctor’s office for a checkup or when sick, or the dentist for fillings for cavities. Claiming otherwise is manipulative and dishonest, and since psycho parents are habitually both it is clear why this tactic is so comfortable for them.
There are a couple of approaches that may work for countering this abusive “it’s your choice” tactic.
One is to explain to the child that it is their job to go back and forth between mommy and daddy, just like it is their job to go to school and to do their homework. There is not a choice about it doing it because it is necessary.
Another point that you should make is that it is also the parents’ job, both parents included, to make sure the kids are ready and willing to go with the other parent. Point out how you do not encourage them to not go with the psycho parent and if you did, you would be breaking the rules.
The child may ask “what rules?” and you can point out to them there are rules about kids sharing parents just like there are rules that you should not hit other people, cheat on tests, color on your friend’s drawing without permission, or break your classmate’s pencil. You will need to pick out some age-appropriate rules that your child will understand that you can list off as examples.
Then you can mention that two very important rules for parents are:
- Parents should not badmouth or lie about the other parent.
- Parents should not discourage the kids from spending time with the other parent.
Note that you should be following these rules yourself, too. I suspect that if you are not a psycho parent then you probably are following these two rules fairly well. If you slip up, apologize to your child and correct the mistake immediately so your child knows you are trying to follow those rules. Each mistake, so long as there are only a few of them, is an opportunity to point out that when you make a mistake and don’t follow a rule that you try to fix it by apologizing and doing the right thing and that is what the child should do, too.
Another approach is to try to get the child to realize that it is the child’s choice to complain and make trouble at exchanges. Point out that every choice has a consequence, even little tiny choices. And get the kids to think about that. For instance, ask them “what is the consequence if you don’t put your name on your homework?” Any kid in school should be able to answer something like “you lose points” or “you don’t get credit for your work” or “your teacher will scold you.” You can point out there are consequences for even more minor things, for instance if they choose to scribble all over their coloring book page then they can’t color in that same page nicely later as it is very hard to erase the scribbles.
So what are the consequences for making trouble at exchanges? For one, it wastes time, leaving you less time to do something fun or interesting. Ask the child, would you rather cry and scream or come along nicely and have time to read another book and eat a treat?
Try to think of some other consequences that apply to your situation that will motivate the child to behave more reasonably. Then try to formulate some questions that can help you guide the child to make the right choice. This serves at least two purposes. One is that it tries to encourage the child to realize that cooperating with the exchanges is better than not cooperating. Another is that it helps develop some critical thinking skills. Again, critical thinking skills are essential for your child to resist succumbing to the alienation tactics of a psycho parent.
Examine Your Relationship With The Psycho Parent
Possibly your best guidance to dealing with the psycho parent abusing your child is how you were abused, or still are being abused, in your previous or current relationship with this person. Psycho parents do not just abuse kids, then tend to abuse anybody emotionally close to them. They tend to have the same triggers (worries over rejection, money, not being the center of attention, etc.) and tactics.
I highly recommend that you do some reading and deep thinking about your past relationships, especially with the psycho parent, to better understand what kind of abuse tactics are likely to be used on your kids and what you can do about them.
To get started on this introspection, two past articles that I recommend for you are:
If you can better understand the workings of the dysfunctional abusive relationship you had with the psycho parent, you will be able to better prepare yourself to help your children cope with similar abuses they are certain to encounter.
Helping The Kids Resist Parental Alienation and Other Abuses
There are also a number of good books for helping kids through divorce, family breakup, and coping with menace of emotional, physical, and substance abuse that are often present when psycho parents are involved. Several such books are mentioned in these articles:
The parental alienation video Welcome Back Pluto can provide an excellent start to helping your kids understand they should not be encouraged or forced to pick sides between their parents without creating any appearance that you are attacking the psycho parent. In my view, this video is best used in cases in which alienation is not severe. Get it early and watch it with your kids, especially if you see any signs of custody and exchange interference such as mentioned in this article. It’s important to get them to open up to the ideas in that video before they start to succumb to alienation. Once they are aligned with the psycho parent, it is much harder to open their minds and to combat the effects of the emotional abuse they are experiencing.
Because the family law courts fail to understand how to manage and put boundaries on psycho parents, it is unlikely that the psycho parent will be painted into a safe corner. You will be left to cope with an abusive, manipulative, and destructive parent who thinks nothing of hurting the kids in order to hurt you and “help” herself or himself to a false sense of emotional security that these people derive from abusing their children.
That means you are going to be faced with years of conflict coming from the psycho parent, often with the courts colluding with the psycho parent in the abuse. Your children’s future mental health literally depends upon you learning how to help them cope with the never-ending drama, manipulation, and abuse. Kids of psycho parents have a vastly higher rate of mental health problems, including becoming psycho parents themselves or falling into relationships with people having problems similar to the psycho parent. Anything you can do to help them learn that you are not the enemy, that kids should be able to love and spend time with both of their parents, and foster development of the critical thinking skills that are needed to avoid being manipulated will be of great aid to them all the way into their adult years.