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: