The Bribed or Manipulated Child:
Handling Your Child Custody Case

Barry Bricklin, Ph.D. and Gail Elliot, Ph.D.

One of the saddest and most frustrating situations occurs when a child has been bribed or manipulated to turn against one of the parents. The child might previously have had a wonderful relationship with the so-called "target parent." Manipulations can range from very subtle, like the parent who looks sad and distressed when the child goes off to visit the other parent, right on through the entire spectrum to the other extreme, where the parent actively damns and condemns the target parent. The parent will say things like, "It's all his fault; he deserted us," right on through to saying that the target parent has all kinds of drug problems or alcohol problems or that he or she left us to run off with some low-life.

Unfortunately, subtle forms of bribing or manipulating a child will work as well as the more blatant strategies. In fact, the subtle ways work best, because even a savvy child, who might recognize (and better deal with) blatant alienation, will not recognize more subtle forms. It might be a mother, for example, who says: "Well you know you're father; he has a drinking problem. He tries, but he really is just an alcoholic." Or the father who says, “You know your mom; she means well but is just so uptight you can't have any fun around her." These kinds of subtle strategies might work every bit as well as the more blatant ones.

First of all, the target parent must learn to recognize situations that look like a bribed or manipulated child, but in actuality is not. It is frequent for older children, for example, say from twelve years of age and up, to basically want to have one home. It simply is a matter of convenience for them. They want to be around the friends with whom they socialize.

Also, a child of older years may simply want to switch from where he or she already lives to the other house, based on the-grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side-of-the-street. This is the child who believes the "other house" is the place where he or she can stay up later, where there is less discipline, less insistence on cleanliness, less insistence on chores or homework.

Regardless of the cause of a child's not wanting to see you, the core skill needed is what we call non-adversary communication. This is a skill which we also teach to businesses. It is a very powerful tool, but very subtle in its power. It will sound simple enough when we run the rules by you, but it will take a little bit of dedicated practice to use it well.

First, you must see the value in using it. It brings two main benefits. One benefit is that it will make your own communications more powerful. Second, it is tremendously self-therapeutic. It would take us too far off point to explain this fully right here, but the fact is that any piece of "output behavior," an angry face, tight vocal-cord muscles, a tense body, accesses in you your worst and most fearful memories at an unconscious level, memories of times you felt helpless and scared. You are unwittingly hurting yourself.

The first principal is that whatever the issue is you are dealing with, you immediately seek a solution.

This next point is extremely hard for most people to implement. It simply states that you never blame or make the other person wrong, not even in the slightest way. No matter how angry, hurt, or vindictive you feel, you do not use a time where some problem needs a solution to air your anger. There are not only blatant ways of making the other person wrong e.g., "You idiot! You never understand anything!" There are also subtle ways. The use of the word "but" is subtly making the other person wrong. If you tell me your position, and if I answer you, even in a very gentle and warm voice, with a phrase that starts with the word "but," you know that shortly thereafter I am going to make your position "wrong."

Suppose one of my children says to me: "You always talk to me in a loud voice."

Suppose I answer: "But honey, it is so hard to get your attention."

The third point is to learn to not give more than one (short) explanation of your own position. To do so is not only strategically ineffective, but self-damaging. When you spend a lot of motor-output time trying to justify your position, that is, trying to get the other person to accept the wisdom of your explanation, you are accessing in yourself, at an unconscious level, all of the memories of when you felt helpless, vulnerable, misunderstood and "on the carpet." Here are some brief examples of non-adversary statements. Instead of saying "You're late every time you drop Mary off,” (making the other person wrong), say: "What can we do to make drop-offs and pick-ups work better for all of us?"

We absolutely know your thinking at this point: "You don't know my ex. He wants to hurt me! He doesn't care about solving anything!" We know this might very well be true. But what you don’t know, and we do, is the subtle, cumulative power of the strategies we want to share with you. Give us a chance. Master them, and try them before judging how you think they will work. Further, our purpose here is to teach you how to use these skills with your children, especially those from whom you may have been alienated.

This skill of non-adversarial communication is necessary to make most of the other strategies that you might use work better. It is an amazingly powerful tool when used the ways we will describe. It is so subtle that the other person might not even consciously know you are using it. But it definitely moves people off of aggressive or hostile positions. Here are some other examples. Take the, child who complains the parent speaks too loudly.

The parent might respond to such an accusation with: "You may be right. Help me to find better ways to get your full attention." Now, since the child has no position to bother defending (which would have been the case had the parent said, "You don't pay attention," to which the child would have said, "Yes, I do," and the conversation would go nowhere), the child can begin wondering what options the parent may have to get his or her attention without yelling. As long as anyone has to defend a position, no creative thinking goes on. As soon as you make someone wrong, all they will do is endlessly explain to you why they're not; we are genetically engineered, one might say to "defend our territory." It is an almost irresistible urge.

The final strategy, but one which we recommend you do not use until you have thoroughly tried the others is to seek help through the legal system. This is something you definitely would like to avoid, unless there are no other options available. You will have to initiate these steps through your attorney. There are two important pieces of information you may need, since not all attorneys are aware of the mental health options that may be available and not all options will be available in every state.

The best overview of all the helpful roles of a mental health professional may be court-ordered to perform, are summarized in a paper by Lynne M. Kenney and Diana Vigel, entitled "A Lawyer's Guide to Therapeutic Interventions in Domestic Relations Court" (Arizona State Law Journal, Vol. 28, No.2, pp. 629-672).

Here are some of the roles mentioned in this article:

  1. Consultant to the Court
    Helpful at the lowest level of conflict, in this role the mental health professional (MHP) develops a working relationship with the court and consults about procedural issues, family dynamics, psychological risk factors, making referrals to mental health experts, and evaluating the work of other mental health experts.
  2. Special Master
    The Special Master is appointed by court order, and performs as a case monitor to whom the parents go with disputes that arise after the case has been decided in a court. The Special Master is charged with collecting data, evaluating its worth, and making decisions after hearing all sides of a dispute. The Special Master's decisions generally are binding unless appealed by either party.
  3. Arbitrator An arbitrator serves as a binding decision maker without serving in the fact finding and evaluative role.
  4. Mediator
    A mediator serves as a neutral person with the goal of assisting parties in reaching mutually acceptable agreements.
  5. Conciliation / Divorce Counselor
    A conciliation/divorce counselor is a MHP who serves with the aim of helping couples navigate issues at the time of separation, dissolution, and divorce. The conciliation/divorce counselor does not play a formal role in the legal process.
  6. Treating Clinician for Parents or Children
    The treating clinician is a licensed MHP who provides assessment and treatment to families and children. This role may be court ordered depending on what is going on in the case.
  7. Therapeutic Re-contact Clinician
    The therapeutic re-contact clinician is a MHP experienced in child maltreatment, which assists families in re-establishing contact between caretakers, siblings, and children after some form of separation.
  8. Therapeutic Reunification Clinician
    The therapeutic reunification clinician is a MHP with training and experience in child and adult maltreatment, child trauma, adult psychopathology, child psychopathy, offender dynamic, and family therapy. The MHP treats and manages the family during the reunification process. The aim is to move the family toward being able to follow the visitation plan as written in a court order. This would be a legally mandated response to a situation where a child has been bribed or manipulated to shun a particular parent.
  9. Therapeutic Supervised-Visitation Clinician
    The therapeutic supervised-visitation clinician is a MHP who supervises visits so as to insure the child's physical and emotional safety. It may also involve therapeutic intervention, such as teaching a parent how to be a better parent.
  10. Case Stabilization (“ECS") Clinician
    The ECS clinician has the highest level of training and expertise of all of the previously defined therapeutic roles. In order to serve in an ECS role, the clinician needs to be a good therapist, and thoroughly understand all the legal issues involved. The MHP here operates under an emergency order from the court, and advises the court regarding the necessity for further evaluation or treatment or other intervention.

An article that directly addresses a whole graduated series of interventions for use with bribed and manipulated children is by Peggie Ward, Ph.D. and J. Campbell Harvey, J.D. It is titled "Family Wars: The Alienation of Children" The Custody Newsletter, Issue No.9, Village Publishing. The strategies offered are "strong" and very specific.

Do you want more information about child custody? Access over 200 child custody publications click here.

Dr. Barry Bricklin is a psychologist in private practice, Adjunct Associate Professor at Widener University and has previously served on the faculty of Jefferson University and of Hahnneman University. He is past president of the Philadelphia Society for Personality Assessment and the Philadelphia Society of Clinical Psychologists. He has authored books and articles many topics related to custody evaluations. For over 25 years, Dr. Bricklin has developed various data-based approaches to the decisions which must be made when parents divorce. He is the Chair of the Executive Operating Committee of the Professional Academy of Custody Evaluators (PACE).

Dr. Gail Elliot is Head, Child Development and Family Processes Research, Bricklin Associates, the Vice Chair of the Professional Academy of Custody Evaluators and a psychologist in private practice. She has served as a consultant to public and private schools and coordinated multidisciplinary treatment plans. She has authored and researched numerous works related to custody evaluation. To learn more about the more than 200 custody publications they have developed for people struggling with custody battles, click here.

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