Parental Alienation: What is it, Who Does it, and How it Affects Children

Parental alienation is an issue that I am seeing more and more in my practice. The basic principle in parental alienation (PA) cases is that one parent (the alienator) turns a child, or children, against their other parent (the target). This usually occurs when one, or both, of the parents are unable to separate from their own emotional response to one another, causing an inability to co-parent in a healthy and effective way. Parental alienation is subtle to overt psychological manipulation, and the resulting unwarranted fear, hostility and disrespect toward a parent or family member after separation. This is most prevalent in divorce cases, though this can also been seen in children caught in the family law system in other ways such as foster care or adoption. The concept of parental alienation syndrome was developed over 20 years ago by Dr. Richard Gardner, who defined it as

"...a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child's campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent's indoctrinations and the child's own contributions to the vilification of the target parent."

Parental alienation can be so insidious that parents may be doing it without truly knowing just how damaging this can be.

PA is not a result of custody issues or the divorce, but rather a highlight of deeper family systems issues and dysfunction in the home prior to the divorce, which likely contributed to the separation. I have found that parental alienation may even start long before a divorce or separation as one parent undermines or creates hostility with another parent while both parents are still living in the same home.

While one parent is most often the alienator, this role can extend to family or friends of the family as well as close supports in the child’s life choose “sides.” This list can include grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, neighbors, etc. and creates chaos and turmoil within a child’s system and alters their ability to trust once trusted individuals, leaving them with far less support than before.

One of the reasons that PA isn’t discussed more is that it can be admittedly hard to distinguish from realistic estrangement in which a child has a justified reason for not wanting to spend time with one parent. It’s important to make the distinction between the two as the treatment for the child and family varies greatly depending on these two differing dynamics. As a professional, when conceptualizing suspected PA I have to ask a lot of questions and keep a very open mind throughout my time working with the family. I often rely on other professionals working with the parents together or individually, or working with the family in a different way to help ensure that I am seeing the whole picture.

Realistic Estrangement-This occurs when a child, as part of the family system, has seen or been exposed to behaviors by one parent (the one which they do not want to spend time with) which has contributed to a child’s lack of desire to spend time with that parent. This may occur when one parent has been less involved in child rearing, may have a quick temper, poor emotional regulation, or poor communication/social skills. The child may have perceived the relationship with the estranged parent as being “less than” or with challenges prior to the separation. Though there are certainly cases in which it is not in a child’s best interest to spend time with an estranged parent, the other parent and family members should not say disparaging words or encourage dissent against the estranged parent. There should be room for reconciliation as long as the estranged parent is capable of learning new skills and techniques which would increase the quality of the relationship with their child.

Pathological Alienation- This type of alienation involves a parent manipulating a child into believing the target parent is “bad,” “unsafe,” or otherwise unstable or incapable of being a quality parent. This may be conveyed to children through “bad mouthing” the target parent, undermining or discrediting the target parent’s rules, or withholding time with the target parent. This type of parental alienation involves poisoning the child against one parent where there is no justified reason, and it seems uncharacteristic based on role or involvement of target parent in the child’s life pre-divorce.

I have seen PA occur most frequently with mothers as the alienator against the father, though both parties can be guilty of being toxic and poisoning children against the other parent. Knowing what PA is, how it can be avoided, and the harmful affects on children, will hopefully help you or others going through divorce or separation avoid these pitfalls so that your children don’t suffer as a result. Here are the three types of alienators:

Unaware- These parents are mostly, if not completely, unaware that they are acting as an alienator, and they likely have their child’s best interest in mind. This may be an anxious parent who wants the best for their child, and who may be struggling with letting go during co-parenting time, or may be desperate to “protect” their child from the other parent. This need for protection may be disproportionate to the situation, putting the parent in a situation of unknowingly acting as an alienator by undermining the other parent, or allowing fear and disrespect of the other parent to be tolerated or even encouraged.

Angry- Angry alienators act out of an emotional space, allowing anger or even rage toward the other parent to influence their communication with or in front of their children. Angry parents may make disparaging statements often or seek out validation from others through social media, friends and family that their actions are justified. Anger may be a result of the other parent being in a new relationship, resentment held over from the marriage, or division of assets and financial resources after the divorce. Angry alienators may pretend to have their child’s best interest in mind, but have been consumed by emotion about their ex-spouse for which they cannot disconnect.

Pathological- In rare circumstances, a parent knowingly sabotages the relationship between their child and their co-parent, causing, at times, irreparable damage to the parent-child relationship and psyche of the child. Pathological alienators do not have their child’s best interest in mind, but instead, have become obsessed with cutting their co-parent out of the child’s life. This type of alienation is the most detrimental and severe for the child.

Children who are exposed to parental alienation experience side affects both at the time of the alienation and for years to come. PA is seen as a form of psychological abuse, especially when the alienator is pathological and the child is not allowed to see parents for years. The longer a child is stuck in unhealthy thought patterns and fear of targeted parent, the harder it is to mend those relationships.

Children and teenagers who have experienced parental alienation may suffer with anxiety, depression, lack of self esteem, poor social skills, poor academic performance and lack of concentration, trouble forming healthy relationships, lack of trust in others, or drug and alcohol abuse. These symptoms can be carried into adulthood, especially if a child/family does not receive timely treatment, and may also lead to poor physical health, higher rates of divorce, and alienation of a co-parent themselves.

Divorce isn’t easy for anyone. There are a myriad of emotions and thoughts that come along with this hard decision. As co-parents, please make sure you love your child more than you hate your ex-spouse, and take whatever steps necessary to ensure a healthy relationship between them if possible.