In her book, In the Name of the Child, Janet Johnston and colleagues write that high-conflict divorce cases are often characterized by “tribal warfare.” Family, friends and professionals all gang up on one parent, who then gets a “tribe” of family, friends and professionals to gang up on the other parent.
This term seems highly appropriate, when you think of how high-conflict cases escalate and involve more and more people and their family cultures. Sadly, Dr. Johnston recognized this problem over 20 years ago, when her book was first published, yet tribal warfare continues today more than ever.
For a child to avoid getting caught in this “split” would seem almost impossible – especially if one parent and his or her tribe had negative attitudes toward the other parent for years, even before the separation or divorce. Being “carefully taught” starts at birth when you live with a high-conflict parent. All-or-nothing stereotypes, splitting, implicit prejudice, and tribal warfare rarely start with a separation or divorce for an HCP parent. The groundwork has been laid for years. The child learns that people are all-good or all-bad, and that all-bad people are to be rejected – even if the child used to love them.
A reasonable parent may have learned to walk on eggshells around this behavior, which may have inadvertently implied to the child that the reasonable parent supported the HCP parent’s way of thinking and way of handling emotions and behavior. Then, when the HCP turned on the reasonable parent, it was too late. The child already had been trained to reject someone the HCP rejects – and the child expects the reasonable parent to tolerate that, as he or she has always tolerated this all-or-nothing behavior.
Our society’s all-or-nothing media Culture of Blame also doesn’t help. Any child who watches television these days is constantly reminded, through functional characters and real people in the news, that voting people off the island or killing off bad guys is reasonable and ordinary behavior. It’s not surprising that a child would come to believe that eliminating a parent is a reasonable and ordinary event in our culture’s daily life.
All-or-nothing bricks add up quickly in building the Wall of Alienation. It is one of the most striking aspects. There seems to be no gray area for an alienated child. Their brains respond to the most emotionally intense messages. For HCP parents, the power behind their all-or-nothing messages may be one of survival – drawing from insecure attachment issues rather than true danger from the environment.
For family court professionals, all-or-nothing thinking comes in the pressure to “win” the case. For our society’s Culture of Blame, this shows up in endless dramas of good versus evil. It’s not surprising that kids become alienated. On the other hand, there may be specific concerns of abuse which still must be investigated. With alienation and abuse, we must be careful to keep an open mind and not succumb to all-or-nothing thinking in either direction. Of course, don’t expect to be perfect at this or anything else. You know what that would be!