One of the most serious and pervasive forms of child abuse is finally – but slowly – being recognized and acknowledged all over the world. This abuse, called Parental Alienation, is defined as when a child aligns with one parent and rejects the other parent for reasons that make absolutely no sense. This problem affects the child, their parents and family, and society as a whole.
Psychologists need to be aware of the presence and severity of parental alienation when working with families – especially the children – experiencing this form of abuse.
Who are the people alienating child(ren) from one of their parents?
While either parent can alienate their child(ren) from the other parent, the larger, extended family can also be responsible for making the child(ren) choose up sides. It’s important to understand that not all alienation is caused by brain-washing from the other parent. Sometimes kids reject one parent without any encouragement from the other parent – in these cases, the rejected parent may bear the responsibility for the rejection. Whether you are responsible or are the target of alienation, it is important for you own your actions and take steps to heal the relationships with your child(ren).
Targeted parents (mothers or fathers), as well as immediate and extended families experience a great deal of psychological distress as a result of alienation. That said, family therapy and counseling must be part of the solution.
Characteristics of Parental Alienation
Alienating parents use many tactics to damage the relationship between the child and the targeted parent. A number of family court systems across the country and around the world have identified anywhere from 7-17 characteristics that define parental alienation. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Ed. (DSM-V), lists the following criteria in identifying Parental Alienation Disorder:
- The child – usually one whose parents are engaged in a high-conflict divorce – allies him/herself strongly with one parent and rejects a relationship with the other, alienated parent without legitimate justification. The child resists or refuses contact or parenting time with the alienated parent.
- The child manifests the following behaviors: (1) a persistent rejection or denigration of a parent that reaches the level of a campaign, and/or (2) weak, frivolous, and absurd rationalizations for the child’s persistent criticism of the rejected parent.
- The child manifests two or more of the following six attitudes and behaviors: (1) lack of ambivalence, (2) independent-thinker phenomenon, (3) reflexive support of one parent against the other, (4) absence of guilt over exploitation of the rejected parent, (5) presence of borrowed scenarios, and (6) spread of the animosity to the extended family of the rejected parent.
- The duration of the disturbance is at least 2 months. The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, academic (occupational), or other important areas of functioning.
- The child’s refusal to have contact with the rejected parent is without legitimate justification. That is, parental alienation disorder is not diagnosed if the rejected parent maltreated the child.
What are the targeted parent’s responsibilities?
It is the issues from our own psyches that are involved in any relational dynamic. When you are being rejected by your children, it is important to own your responsibility in the dynamic. This is not victim blaming; it’s taking responsibility.
- The alienated parent may be rejected because they weren’t strong enough to instill self-respect and confidence in the children to help them overcome the onslaught of mind-control the other parent was throwing their kids’ way.
- If you – personally – have low self-esteem and confidence, you have likely been disrespected by your ex-spouse (partner) and possibly by your children. There is no judgment here, but this greatly contributes to the problem – and it is in your power to change.
- First and foremost, we as parents need to emulate and model the love and respect we want to see for our children. A strong parent – not a bully – possesses the integrity and ability to show our kids that respect is earned and deserved. A parent who presents as a victim – weak and helpless – makes it easy for the kids to reject and disrespect them, particularly if the other parent reinforces bullying behaviors toward the targeted parent.
- Some alienated parents may dissociate or use other forms of avoidance of reality, such as denial of a problem. They may just check out and become oblivious to what is happening to their relationships.
What can you do to improve the situation?
Start by analyzing yourself, your children, and the other parent. Document all incidents that you perceive as abusive in your family – for example, write down every time the other parent is rude to you in front of the kids, encourages the kids to be rude to you, or implies that you should be disrespected, and so on. This type of journaling can be very effective when introduced in family counseling sessions or chats around the dining room table. As in most family dynamics, open and honest communication is instrumental to problem-solving
How can Parental Alienation destroy a parent?
Parental Alienation causes long-term damage to children, and it also destroys the parent being targeted. Numerous clinical studies have documented that parental alienation has the following effects on targeted parents:
- Severe depression
- Social isolation
- Self-loathing and inward-directed anger
- Deterioration of executive control (ability to stay organized and focused)
- Symptoms indicating the presence of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD)
Imagine being in a situation where you’re watching your children suffer, watching them being deceived and turned against you, watching custody orders being blatantly ignored, and throughout all of it, you’re helpless to do anything to stop it because of an unconcerned family court judge.
Even worse, the harder you fight, the more your children are pressured, threatened, and bullied by the alienator.
Targeted parents can feel this conflict hurting their children and take all that pain into themselves. Many targeted parents, realizing that the family court is never going to truly intervene, choose to walk for no other reason than to spare their children any additional bullying and alienation abuse.
The legal system will sort of involve itself, but only to the extent that a targeted parent can keep adding every available penny they have into the custody process. This can grind on for years, or until the targeted parent runs out of money. In the end, people often blame alienated parents for failing their children.
When it’s all said and done, targeted parents have lost everything: their home, their savings, their children, and themselves. The only thing they get out of this torture is a monthly reminder of what they’ve lost – a child support order that threatens imprisonment if a payment is missed or a penny short.
The ongoing pressure, stress, despair, shame, grief, and sadness is overwhelming and unrelenting. It’s too much, and in the end the targeted parent turns the anger inward. Suicidal ideation and attempts are not uncommon.
Parental Alienation is no joke!
It’s a devastating form of psychological abuse and domestic violence, made so in no small part because family court pathology enables and empowers it while holding targeted parents relatively powerless to do anything to stop it.
Steps to stay healthy in the face of rejection by your own child(ren)
Manage your expectations. As in all relationships, you can’t expect your children to change overnight. You can, however, explain to them that since you’ve split from the other parent all of your lives have been inevitably altered. Help them to understand that change can be a good thing, since it allows us to repair any damage caused by the split.
Ask your children what their thoughts and feelings are. Ask them what they need or want from you, and why they are rejecting you. Consider how much of what they say is based on brainwashing by the other parent, and how much is within your power to change.
- Make your time spent with them about them, not about you or your hurt feelings.
- Look them in the eye and be affectionate.
- Think of ways to enjoy your children. Let them be part of the planning! You might be surprised to realize how much fun they can be!
- Don’t bring your emotional needs to your children. Take care of them outside of that relationship. Seek out therapy or support from trusted family and friends.
- Have self-compassion. Be kind to yourself and always forgive yourself. Don’t over-analyze every little thing you think you did wrong as a parent. No parent is perfect and children don’t need to have perfect parents in order to be kind.
- Model the respect you want to see from your children. Acknowledge their space, validate their feelings, and set empathic boundaries. Don’t spy on or stalk them – communicate. Lying is absolutely off-limits.
Remember that it’s important for you to focus on yourself. Try to evaluate your life based on how you feel and what you want and need. Don’t place the responsibility for your happiness on others.
As you live a happy, well-adjusted life, your kids might notice and if they have rejected you they may start feeling left out of the awesome life you’re living. It is better for them to want to be with you than for you to make them be with you.