What Is Parental Alienation?
Parental alienation is when a child rejects a parent, resists contact with a parent, or shows extreme reluctance to be with a parent. The child’s rejection of the parent occurs because of alienating behavior by the other parent, either done unconsciously or intentionally. Many experts consider parental alienation a form of child abuse.
The definition of alienation is when someone is isolated or detached from a group or activity to which they should
belong. Parental alienation is not natural. It’s a phenomenon seen almost exclusively with high-conflict divorce or separation cases.
Children have an innate desire to have a relationship with both of their parents. Decades of research overwhelmingly show that children who have a secure, close relationship with both of their parents are better-off emotionally, physically, academically, and socially. Children who experience parental alienation can face a lifetime of harm from things like depression, drugs and alcohol, failed relationships, multiple divorces, or estrangement from their children later in life.
Signs of Parental Alienation
Parental alienation looks different in every family, depending on the personality of the child. Some alienated children may rage at the rejected parent, yelling and screaming at them, or treating them with open hostility and defiance. Others may not say a word. They may just cut themselves off emotionally from the rejected parent, interacting with them as if they are a stranger.
What is common in parental alienation cases is that the breakdown of the relationship between parent and child isn’t rational. The alienated child’s thoughts about the rejected parent are highly skewed and polarized and can sound almost word-per-word like something the favored parent says about the alienated parent.
The alienated child forms a close alliance with the favored parent and blames the rejected parent entirely for the divorce or breakdown of the relationship. The alienated child may refuse visitations with the rejected parent, as well as relationships with extended family. The alienated child will deny that they ever had a positive, close relationship with the alienated parent. The child will view one parent as perfect and capable of doing no wrong, whereas the other parent is always awful and wrong, no matter what he or she does.
Why Parental Alienation Occurs
Unfortunately, parental alienation happens because the parents have feelings of anger or hatred toward one another. The alienating parent makes derogatory, demeaning, and belittling comments about the other parent. The alienating parent uses his or her children as pawns to get back at their former partner or spouse. The alienating parent starts stonewalling the other parent, refusing to communicate or cooperate, to hurt the other parent, which includes purposely not sharing information about their child.
Some parents may not realize their behaviors are alienating the other parent and child. The parent is just so emotionally devastated by the breakup of the relationship that they aren’t using good judgment. Other times, the alienating parent is well aware of what they are doing. These parents almost always have narcissistic or borderline personality disorders. They are self-absorbed, hyper-focused on themselves, and have no capacity for considering what is best for the child.
Some purposeful behaviors that alienating parents use to drive a wedge between the other parent and child include purposely not complying with court-ordered visitation, undermining the other parent’s authority, using the child as a spy, and sharing intimate details about the relationship or divorce that are inappropriate for the child’s age, such as infidelity, sexual issues, finances, or abuse.
What to Do About Parental Alienation
If you feel like you are experiencing parental alienation, it’s critical to address it right away. Intervention by a trusted friend or therapist may help a parent who is unintentionally alienating a child recognize their behavior and correct it.
If the other parent is intentionally hostile, it will be more challenging. You likely will need to engage the help of a legal counselor. You should carefully document in your parenting plan, all the suspected alienating behaviors, particularly non-compliance with visitation. If possible, have a friend or family member with you to witness the alienating behavior during exchanges or when you have to meet face-to-face with your other parent.
Combating parental alienation is emotionally draining. Consider working with a counselor yourself or joining a support group for other parents affected by parental alienation.