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Tough Love from Texas with Richard Warshak, PhD

Tough love from Texas

February 9, 2010 Susan Pigg
LIVING REPORTER

 

 
 Psychologist Richard Warshak offers intensive and controversial programs to help children who have suffered parental alienation during divorce. “Love your kids more than you hate your ex-spouse,” he says

 

When Richard Warshak whisked into Toronto last week from his native Texas, he brought along some tough-love advice for both divorcing parents and family court judges.

 “Love your kids more than you hate your ex-spouse,” the renowned expert on parental alienation said.

 Be firm and fast at pushing toxic custody cases through the clogged courts, he advised judges attending a day-long seminar at the Four Seasons Hotel.

 The psychologist runs the controversial Family Bridges, a Texas-based “educational workshop” aimed at undoing the damage of parental alienation – orchestrated campaigns of hate and hurt in which one parent turns their children against the other in bitter divorce battles.

 Critics have decried his work as “deprogramming” but for the past year, Warshak has been working with two Ontario psychologists and says a third is due to join him soon. He’s teaching them how to run similar programs here to tackle what Toronto psychiatrist Sol Goldstein describes as the “scourge of parental alienation in Canada.”

 Warshak’s aim is to make the intensive therapy more affordable – with airfare to Texas it can hit $20,000 (U.S.) – and ease the optics of Canadian kids being whisked away from nasty parents and flown off to the United States for what skeptics label as brainwashing.

 “Every day I get letters from parents with very, very tragic stories in which they’ve lost all contact with their children – in some cases for years,” Warshak says. “It’s heartbreaking to see so much pain, but it’s enormously gratifying when you’ve been able to restore a child’s identity and help them recover a lost relationship.”

 The key, stresses Warshak, is for parents to know that badmouthing their ex-spouse, fixating on their flaws and blaming them for the divorce in front of the kids, can doom children to a life of anger, depression and a divorce of their own later in life.

 Since these bitter marrige breakdowns often end up in court, judges need to get tough before things spiral so out of control that the only solution is expensive and intensive therapy, says Warshak.

 “Judges can help these families by making very clear and unambiguous (custody and visitation) orders, by having very clear expectations about what will happen if the orders are violated and by moving on these cases very early rather than allowing the problems to reach the point where expensive and intensive (therapy) is necessary.”

 He’s determined to make parental alienation as socially unacceptable as sexual or physical abuse of children.

 His 2001 book on the topic, Divorce Poison, has been updated and was re-released last month. This spring he’s coming out with a new, self-help DVD (Welcome Back Pluto, which he hopes to sell on his website http://www.warshak.com/for $19.95 U.S.) for parents struggling to reconnect with kids who’ve been poisoned against them.

 During an hour-long interview with the Star, Warshak talked about Family Bridges. While acknowledging that it’s financially out of reach of most families, he says it’s treated 103 children in the past 18 years.

Of the 23 kids he’s personally helped reconnect with an alienated parent since 2005, 18 still maintain a relationship with both parents. Eight of those 23 children came from Canada.

 “Some parents don’t really realize what they are doing – they are so preoccupied with their own anger and disappointment over the failed marriage that they fail to understand how harmful their behaviour is to their children,” says Warshak.

 “Others deliberately turn their children against the other parent as a way to express their anger. (The alienation) can happen literally overnight and turn into what we call `tribal warfare.’ I’ve talked to relatives who say that as soon as the divorce was announced, their nephews and nieces stopped talking to them.”

 Family Bridges isn’t for everyone and it’s critical for family law lawyers and judges to be sure the alienation isn’t because of “realistic estrangement” – a parent who is abusive or neglectful or has a new partner, for instance, whom the child doesn’t like.

 It’s aimed mainly at children who have been so alienated that a judge thinks there should be a change in custody to give the rejected parent time to reconnect.

 “We teach children how easy it is to develop a distorted view of someone, a hatred that has no sense, and we teach them how to overcome that, to think for themselves, have a compassionate view of both parents and help them understand that all parents make mistakes and that in most cases children are better off having both parents involved in their life,” Warshak says.

 Family Bridges is meant to be a getaway, in every sense. The child and rejected parent are sent to a hotel or a resort (in rare cases the treatment takes place at home) for four days of intensive therapy – 64 hours of treatment that’s the equivalent to about a year of regular therapy, although there’s lots of time to just hang out and swim. Two mental health professionals work with the parent and child.

 “We find that most children under the age of 8 don’t really need this kind of program to make the transition.

 “Even though they’ve been taught to hate or fear a parent, all it really takes in most cases is to be around that parent long enough to see that they are not what they’ve been led to believe.”

For more information about Dr. Warshak’s program, visit http://www.warshak.com/services/family-bridges.html

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