Parental Alienation: A Family Divided

What is parental alienation? Well, parental alienation is when one parent discredits the other parent to their child or accuses said parent, whether simply or in a severe manner in an attempt to distort the child’s perception of the other parent to alienate the parent no matter what the relationship was like previous to the alienation.


Parental Alienation can effect families for generations


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Parental Alienation is Extremely Damaging to Relationships

Parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome is one of the least discussed but more impactful actions taken in the development in children. It is important to have a full understanding of the meaning of parental alienation, the impact it has on children, how to find signs/symptoms and what can be done effectively to prevent/combat parental alienation.

So, what is parental alienation? Well, parental alienation is when one parent discredits the other parent to their child or accuses said parent, whether simply or in a severe manner in an attempt to distort the child’s perception of the other parent to alienate the parent no matter what the relationship was like previous to the alienation.

No matter whether the accusations are factual or done with intentional malice, the child-parent relationship begins to suffer, which can lead to psychological implications towards the child’s future. Some examples of parental alienation (which is hurtful and impacts the relationship with the child) is when one parent who is going through a divorce or break-up with the other parent tells the child that the parent that is moving on/loves/prefers a new family more or doesn’t love the child enough to stay.

Often, no matter how good the relationship before these parental alienation tactics were imposed into the child(ren)’s lives, it affects the relationship moving forward, even when completely false and done with malice. In this instance the parent doing the negative talk is the “alienator” and the other parent is the “alienated”. The child in this instance is labeled as “the programmed child”.

Most children in these situations want to be raised by both parents. Studies show that most children will tell you that the worst part about a divorce is that they do not get to spend enough time with both parents. Usually it’s a weekend/weekday split in some form or fashion.

There is a shift in time management because now responsibilities of home life are now dominant by one parental role instead of two, which leaves the child with even less time from either parent than desired or needed. Children tend to report being unhappy only seeing one parent on weekends or every other weekend. Children want and need a continuum or dialogue with both parents and parental alienation hinders this want/need. This can lead an unhealthy view of the child no longer craving contact with the alienated parent and no longer caring about being juggled between two places of residence.

Having a better understanding by definition helps us move forward into the signs and symptoms of parental alienation syndrome. Since the 1980’s, parental alienation syndrome has been largely studied by series of psychologists whom have determined these are clear signs and symptoms of this occurring.

One is that although there isn’t strong evidence or justification in the child’s unfair criticism of the alienated parent, the child still expresses such. This is professionally referred to as a campaign of denigration.

Another sign is the child has no guilt about said feelings of criticism towards alienated parent nor about mistreating or ignoring alienated parent while having support from alienator parent about this criticism and actions. The child’s feelings aren’t mixed, they no longer care to discuss or remember anything other than the criticism. There is a lack of ambivalence when it comes to the alienated parent. In this instance, the lack of ambivalence means the child no longer has any positive emotional connection with the alienated parent.

Further signs are when the child(ren) tends to use phrases and terms that clearly sound as if they came from an adult, almost regurgitated in a sense. These often are said almost word for word as told to the child by the alienator parent.

These feelings tend to also trickle over into the alienated parent’s relatives as well. The child will form an unfounded resentment and dislike for that side of the family based on everything the child was told and newly perceived. The child actually believes this is their own thinking, as if they independently remembered things this way but it is manufactured by the alienator parent. Professional observers have noticed a commonality of problematic transitions when it came to custody shifts. This means that when one parent is bringing the child to the alienated parent to give them time with the child, the child appears unhappy, uncomfortable and unwilling.

Some further signs that parental alienation may be taking place is when the alienator parent starts to keep information from the alienated parent, such as medical appointments, medical reports, school events, the name of the child’s friends and so forth. This adds to the alienation and prevents the alienated parent from being able to bond and know about things that are directly relevant to the child’s well-being. On the flip side of secrecy is using the child for gossip and to ask questions that aren’t relevant to the parenting style or safety of the child.

The alienator parent then responds to the child’s reporting back to them with negative comments to further manipulate the child into believing that whatever the other parent is doing is not as good as whatever the alienator is doing.

The alienator may also reveal information that isn’t something a child should have to shoulder, such as affairs, arguments or financial disparities the parents may have had. This is maliciously done to further alienate the alienated parent. The alienator may also use finances as a tool to assist in the alienation process, such as saying things to the child like “we can’t afford to do _____ because your (father/mother) left and now we don’t have money to do activities like we used to”.

The alienator also encourages the child to express themselves in an unhealthily manner when it comes to debates/arguments with the alienated parent instead of offering healthy solutions. In this instance the alienator parent would be encouraging the child by telling the child things such as “You know if you don’t want to go with (alienated parent), you don’t have to. Just tell them and I’ll make sure you don’t go”. However, this is after the alienator already has manipulated the child(ren) and set up a very unhealthy perception of the alienated parent.

One of the unhealthier actions is the prevention of the child from seeing or talking to the other parent. This could be done with running late intentionally to handoffs, then to set a stage of slowly but surely removing the child from the alienated parent as much as possible in steps. The first step can be by saying someone is sick and the child is unable to go to the alienated parent.

The following step is to blame the child for not wanting to go and the alienator parent telling the other parent they do not want to “force” the child to go where the child does not want to go and the ultimately, just outright not bringing the child around but then blaming the alienated parent for lack of interest or being too busy for the child. This also is done by the alienator parent making plans on the days the child is supposed to be with the alienated parent.

The alienator may use whatever it is the child enjoys as leverage to manipulate. For example, if the child is a Marvel superheroes fan, the alienator may tell the child that they have tickets to see the latest Marvel movie, but it falls on the day they are supposed to be with the alienated parent. This can assist in manipulating the child to not wanting to see the alienated parent.

If custody guidelines are in order legally, the alienator will still find ways to bend or break them. They will use a cousin’s birthday party or a neighbor’s birthday party, even if it lands on the day of the alienated parents time with the child.

The alienator parent is often controlling of the alienated parents time and activities, they inquire about conversations between the two and intercept text messages and so forth.

What is often ignored is the fact that parental alienation syndrome can be used to cover any forms of abuse by the alienator parent by shifting all negative attention and dialogue towards the alienated parent. They will also manipulate the child into the child thinking that it is always more fun at the alienator’s home and anytime it isn’t, it is because of some fault of the alienated parents. A continuing damaging action is to jump to conclusions about any bumps or bruises the child may have and to even try to get the child to believe that somehow it was the alienated parent’s fault.

Another element to parental alienation is when relatives impose their opinions unfairly to the child about the alienated parent, which does two things, the first thing it does is that it reinforces the negativity the alienator is imposing to the child(ren), even if done with malicious intent. The second thing it does is that it further pushes the perception the child(ren) have of the alienated parent into an area that can make the child(ren) feel unsafe with their own parent.

If a child is only hearing about how horrible a parent is, or how much the alienated parent doesn’t have time for the child, this reinforces the already manipulated perception into a position of defiance. The child may openly defy the alienated parent, not only because they believe what the alienators are saying but also because the child wants to impress the alienators.

These relative alienators are at times the only consistent “love” outside of their alienator parent. This can weigh heavily on the child(ren) to do what the child believes the alienator would deem acceptable. Think about this, if a child is dominantly being told how bad their alienated parent is by the constant exposure of the alienator parent and the alienator parents’ siblings, parents, etc., this is an almost impossible situation for the child(ren) to ignore or deem untrue.

This area of alienation is not as popularly discussed and must be taken into account.

With all these areas, it is important to be able to identify the characteristics of severely alienated children.

Alienated children tend to express polarized views of their parents. They offer little if any when it comes to the positivity of the alienated parent. It is as if the child has re-written history in their own manipulated mind. They have a newfound intent to avoid the alienated parent and even go as far as avoid the extended family on the alienated parent’s side. This all trickles into emotional, behavioral and cognitive areas.

Alienated children tend to treat the alienated parent with neglect, hostility, defiance and/or withdrawal. They may steal from the alienated parent, break something without remorse or even vandalize their property in some manner. They rarely defy or treat the alienator with these behaviors, even though the alienator is the abusive parent in this scenario. The manipulation has taken over.

Cognitively and emotionally, the thoughts and verbal expressions from the child about the alienated parent are delivered without love, without appreciation or any affection whatsoever. The statements are often trivial and empty with a strong sense of inauthenticity to it, especially when expressing any form of complaint. They are unable to bring up positive memories and not because they didn’t exist but because of the imposing manipulation from the alienator. The child(ren) tend to harbor irrational disdain for the alienated parent and often is unable to develop their critical thinking skills. They are too caught up in embracing manufactured memories and false interpretations by the alienator that they are not nurturing their ability to become effective critical thinkers.

Additional effects on children unfairly placed in this situation go beyond the disrespect towards the alienated parent but can even go into how they behave in school settings. You have to understand that a child used to being loved by two parents and trusting two parents to have everything they believed be manipulated into a completely different story can unravel them in ways the alienator doesn’t take into concern. 

This impairs their trust in teachers, their ability to engage and play well with other students and ability to listen to adult figures, especially if the figure says or does anything that may remotely remind them of their alienated parent. This not only can damage their educational standpoint but also, can alter their outlook on healthy relationships with others in general. 

Severely alienated children are more likely than not to manifest serious conduct disorders and can display very inappropriate behaviors. This is not limited to unwarranted rage, hostility and hatred towards not just the alienated parent but other people in general. This also does not limit sabotaging time with the alienated parent, making up lies to support already manipulated versions of the relationship with the alienated parent.

The child can display low self-esteem which can even go as far as self-hatred. Depression often accompanies alienated children as well as large levels of mistrust in self and others. Longer effects show that these feelings tend to lead alienated children to drug and alcohol abuse as well as divorces and alienation from their own future children. This can become a generational act.

In a series of studies done both empirically and qualitatively, it is known to show that alienated children may also exhibit disregard for authority (can lead to arrests) and intentional disrespect to any social norms for rebellion. They deal with a pseudo-maturity and can deal with unhealthy compromised interpersonal functioning. They often have illogical cognitive procession and have distorted interpersonal perceptions along with poor impulse control. In school, they are unfairly labeled “problem children”.

In some cases, the alienated child ultimately rejects both parents and tries to find the missing trust and love in the harshest places.

In trying to prevent parental alienation syndrome, it is important for both parents to understand their roles and to understand that even if the divorce is painful, the child’s well-being is integral and warrants immediate nurturing from both parents. There are times that the alienation is done from a place of hurt but isn’t immediately done to hurt the alienated parent long-term but just done because the alienator doesn’t know how to deal with the severing of the relationship.

The alienator has to be able to recognize when they are imposing this alienation, they are also injecting a long-term fuel of misguided neglect, anger and even hatred in your child’s relationship with the alienated parent and their future relationships in general.

Apologizing for things said in anger is important, no matter how the child interpreted what was said originally. Both parents must explain in detail the importance of the relationship with the other parent, no matter the hurt the parents feel about the divorce/break-up.

In reality, there are few worse things in life than a parent being alienated. Family court is not suited for the best results when it comes to this and yet they unrealistically assign allotted days and times for child-parent engagement which is not sufficient in most cases. It is unfair and unrealistic to think that allowing a parent to only see their child(ren) every other weekend, (which amounts to being with their child 52 days out of 365 days) to have an equal impact. This does not fill the same want/need for the child.

That alone is why it is incredibly important for both parents to be vigilant with rectifying any situation that led to any form of alienation. The parents must prevent chaotic scenarios, not create them. Divorce/break-ups already causes enough grief, why add this to the child?

If you suspect the child is displaying any form of being an alienated child, you must act to the best of the child’s well-being immediately because this may be happening, and you may be completely unaware.

Both parents must work diligently to rebuild trust in their child(ren) and not assume apologizing is enough. There will be needed steps such as not delaying time with the other parent, asking with excited expressions about their time and hoping it went well and they had fun. Remind them of fun activities the child once liked with the other parent and even suggest it (after talking with the other parent), this way, there is a continuum of support for the child, even in hand-offs.

When it comes to working with alienated parents or the alienator parent, it is recommended to work with counselors/social workers who can offer support and the proper guidance through the situation. There must be a level of encouragement coming from somewhere that enables the parents to not only look at their individual behavior, the behavior as parents but also the relationship with the child and its impact on the child.

It is also recommended that alienated children should also be seen by a social worker/counselor or psychologists to further be free to express what it is they are individually dealing with. The professional may ultimately be a positive additional role model in a time of need where alienation has caused confusion.

Never be afraid to acknowledge truths that are hurtful because allowing them to linger in hopes that they resolve themselves will most likely never occur. Remember the child doesn’t have the same level of understanding as the parents do and it is the job of the parents to lovingly guide the child(ren) through these times.