Parental Alienation Awareness: Is Alienation Going On In Your Divorced / Blended Family?
April 25th is Parental Alienation Awareness Day (PAAD), part of a global awareness campaign to raise awareness about the devastating effects of parental alienation. If your family has gone through a divorce or separation, or through the process of blending in new partners, and there is animosity between the biological parents and/or a history of abuse in the relationship (verbal / emotional or physical), then there is a high chance that parental alienation could occur, if it hasn’t already.
Parental Alienation is the term used to describe family dynamics in which one parent (referred to as the alienating parent) engages in behaviors to foster a child’s unjustified rejection of the other parent (referred to as the rejected or targeted or alienated parent).
“In the US alone, over 22 MILLION PARENTS are being erased from their children’s lives after divorce and separation.”-Erasing Family
17 Parental Alienation Strategies
- Badmouthing / denigrating the other parent: This happens when the alienating parent speaks ill of the parent being alienated, sending out negative messages to the child, resulting in a bad rap within the community.
- Limiting contact: The alienating parent interferes with the amount of face-to-face time the child spends with the other parent such as coming early for pick-ups and late for drop-offs; doesn’t show up with the child at all for the other parent; or shows up during the other parent’s time and monopolizes the child’s attention.
- Interfering with communication: The alienating parent makes it difficult for the child and targeted parent to speak on the phone (or communicate by other means) during periods of separation. Or the alienating parent may text non-stop with the child during the other parent’s parenting time.
- Interfering with symbolic communication: The alienating parent makes it difficult for the children to think about, talk about, or look at pictures of the other parent during periods of separation. They may eliminate photographs, do not discuss the other parent (unless bad mouthing); or discourages the child from thinking about the targeted parent.
- Withholding love and approval from the child: In order to keep their attention directed towards themselves (common with narcissistic personality disorder), the alienating parent becomes emotionally cold and distant when the child shows positive feelings and thoughts toward the targeted parent.
- Telling the child that the targeted parent does not love them: The alienating parent encourages the child to falsely believe that the targeted parent has done things that are hurtful and selfish because that parent does not really care about or value them; also conflating the end of the marriage with the end of the targeted parent’s love of the children.
- Allowing / forcing the child to choose between parents: By offering desirable alternatives to visitation and/or psychologically pressuring the child to forgo parenting time with the targeted parent, the alienating parent creates situations in which the child will feel compelled to reject the targeted parent. (in other words, buying them over, or rewarding them with things they want when they engage in the behaviors the parent wants them to).
- Manifesting the impression that the other parent is dangerous: The alienating parent does and says things, such as planting false memories of harm or misinterpreting events to falsely create this impression, that suggest or imply that the other parent has, or will cause harm to the child.
- Confiding in the child: The alienating parent shares personal information with the child about the targeted parent that induces the child to feel anger or shame about that parent and protective of the parent who is engaging in the behavior.
- Forcing the child to reject the targeted parent: The alienating parent creates situations in which the child will personally inform the targeted parent that he or she has been excluded from important events in their lives.
- Asking the child to spy on the targeted parent: By such requests as asking the child to look through the targeted parent’s mail, cell phone call log, desk drawer, etc., the alienating parent encourages or induces the child to betray the targeted parent’s trust.
- Asking the child to keep secrets from the targeted parent: By involving the child’s self-interest (e.g. don’t tell your father we are going to take a vacation next week because he will try to stop us), the alienating parent encourages the child to withhold important information from the targeted parent despite that parent’s having a right or need to have access to that information.
- Referring to the targeted parent by their first name when speaking to the child and/or encouraging the child to do the same: For example, “Steve is on the phone” or “You just need to tell Steve that you are not going there this weekend.”
- Referring to a stepparent as “mom / dad” and encouraging the child to do the same: Replaces the targeted parent with a stepparent and conveys to the child that the alienating parent’s new family is the only real and important family to them. For example, “This is your new daddy” or “your dad and I…” when the mother is speaking of herself and her new husband
- Withholding medical, social, or academic information from the targeted parent and keeping that parent’s contact information off relevant forms: The alienating parent does not share team lists, class lists, rosters, schedules, homework, assignments, and the like with the targeted parent and does not put that parent’s name and number on enrollment and contact forms.
- Changing the child’s name to remove the association with the targeted parent, or encouraging them to do so: The alienating parent uses her maiden name or her new spouse/boyfriend’s last name as the child’s last name. Or, encourages the child to and/or supports them in changing their last name to the new spouse/boyfriend’s last name.
- Undermining authority of the targeted parent / inducing dependency on him/herself: The alienating parent does and says things that encourages the child to believe that he or she is the only authority figure and that the rules, regulations, and values of the targeted parent are not valid or important.
Child’s Behavioral Manifestations of Parental Alienation
Not all children exposed to these behaviors succumb to the pressure and reject the other parent, but when they do, they exhibit telltale signs (referred to as the behavioral manifestation of parental alienation) and they can be considered as having the parental alienation syndrome, or being an alienated child.
When these behaviors are present, the parent-child relationship is seriously ruptured, often for years. The breach in the relationship is a source of significant pain and suffering for the targeted parent as well as the child. In-depth exploration of the experience from the perspective of adults who were alienated as children clearly demonstrates the devastating short- and long-term negative consequences for the child’s well-being, feelings about him-/herself, and ability to function in the world and forge healthy adult relationships (as detailed in Amy J. Baker’s Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome).
- Campaign of denigration: The child behaves in a rude, arrogant, disrespectful and entitled manner towards the targeted parent. The child has no qualms about denigrating that parent to others in the community. The child has difficulty recalling or acknowledging any positive memories of the targeted parent. They tend to “rewrite” their history with that parent.
- Weak, frivolous, or absurd reasons for rejecting the targeted parent: The child will offer reasons such as the floors being scratched or not liking the hairstyle or clothes of the targeted parent as an excuse to stay away, and sometimes, they offer no excuse.
- Lack of ambivalence toward his/her parents: The child claims to worship the alienating parent beyond what is appropriate, necessary, or realistic (displaying enmeshment and putting them on a pedestal), while claiming to despise the targeted parent. Both responses are unrealistic and show an inability to see each parent with balance, as a mix of good and bad qualities. This is very rigid black-and-white way of thinking with no room for shades of grey.
- Independent thinker phenomenon: The child strenuously insists that the alienating parent played no role in his/her rejection of the targeted parent despite the alienating parent’s clear influence.
- Lack of guilt regarding poor treatment of the targeted parent: While behaving in a rude and callous manner, the child fails to manifest awareness of, or care about, the pain being inflicted on the targeted parent.
- Reflexive support for the alienating parent in all parental conflicts: The child sides with the alienating parent, no matter how absurd, illogical, or inconsistent that parent’s position is.
- Presence of borrowed scenarios: The child uses words, phrases, and concepts that are not understood, cannot be defined, and are readily attributable to the ideas and beliefs of the alienating parent.
- Spread of animosity to friends and family of the targeted parent: The child cuts off and/or denigrates formerly beloved friends, neighbors, and family based on their association with the targeted parent.
The Alienating Parent and Alienated Child Blame the Alienated Parent
Sadly, the alienating parent will commonly justify the child’s behavior and blame the alienation on the alienated parent, saying things such as “you brought this upon yourself,” or “you deserve it.” What they may not realize is they can’t separate their own tumultuous emotions (leftover from their marriage) and their own needs from that of their child(ren). They also fail to take any personal responsibility in the contribution of how the child views the alienated parent, or how the relationship took a fall. They also fail to take responsibility for how they contributed to the negative dynamics of the family post-divorce. It’s all the alienated parents fault, and they have a million reasons and examples to justify it, which brings in victim blaming mindset.
Just as the alienating parent, the child will also blame their behaviors and the alienation on the alienated parent. They are also unable to see how their other parent helped contribute to their negative feelings of the alienated parent. Everything tends to be black and white with the child (all or nothing thinking). They used to love that parent, and they were a great parent, now they hate them and they’re the worst parent ever. Again, t’s very extreme thinking, There are no shades of grey, no balance.
Impact of Parental Alienation
Parental Alienation is considered a form of child abuse. When exposed to these behaviors, some children eventually and unjustifiably reject the targeted parent altogether, and when that happens the child is said to be alienated.
The greater the number of behaviors endorsed, the lower the self-esteem of the child, the greater the likelihood of their developing an insecure style of attachment, and the greater the likelihood of harmful psychological symptoms. There are eight behaviors (above) that are consistent with unjustified rejection.
These behaviors are distinctive and highly unusual for children to display in the absence of a strong external impetus. Even horribly abused children who have been beaten and molested by their parents do not exhibit these behaviors. They are typically seen only in children who have been exposed to parental alienation behaviors by one parent in order to foster a child’s unjustified rejection of the other parent.
Enmeshment is a common problem between the alienating parent and alienated child. It is often an unhealthy codependence. Good Therapy explains, “While many families value closeness and intimacy, enmeshment goes beyond the bonds of a close family. Enmeshment may mean a parent centers their actions or emotions on the child(ren) and their successes or mistakes, attempts to know and direct all of the child’s thoughts or feelings, and relies heavily on the child(ren) for emotional support.”
How to Handle and Live with Alienation
The targeted (alienated) parent reports experiencing a range of emotions throughout the unfolding alienation drama, and for those fortunate enough to reunite with their child, they can also feel this over the course of reconciliation. Common emotions are similar to that of grief, denial (shock), anger, frustration, bargaining, agony, pain, confusion, fear, depression, loneliness, sadness, loss, and yearning for their absent child(ren).
Nonetheless, you can learn to cope with these unending negative feelings through the help of professional support. Find a therapist who has experience dealing with families post-divorce, and you’ll find that parental alienation is of the utmost importance.
Developing a plan of engagement can help you feel not so powerless. You can do this with the help of your therapist and even a lawyer or divorce coach, especially if the child(ren) are minors. Fighting for your children can allow you to feel like you are doing and trying your best, despite the paralyzing circumstances. One parent shares, “What helped me is that I am a very persistent person with a lot of fight in me. I spent nearly every waking minute thinking about how to rescue my daughter,” while another parent said he “launched into the fight of my life.”
Patience is your friend. Look to the hope of the future and take the long view. Another parent exercised enormous patience while waiting for his ex wife to eventually reveal herself to the courts: “She was a master manipulator, but I was patient. I believed that if she were given enough rope, she would eventually hang herself.”
Being careful can also help. Part of being patient is also being careful not to ask for too much, not to push too hard, and not to be too intense. As a mother noted, inside she was screaming, but outside she was calm, cool, and collected. She was careful not to overwhelm her child with questions, demands, or emotions for fear of scaring her away.
Another mother wrote of how careful she was to maintain her boundaries, respect her daughter’s need to set the pace, and not upset the “demon” of the alienation.
Be grateful for any time with your children or any steps towards reconciliation. Sadly, many parents never get to reconcile with their children, or have to wait years and years to do so. Balance the bad and negative feelings by focusing on the good and positives in life such as: health, family, friends, love, forgiveness, hobbies, significant others, vacations, etc.
Take care of yourself. Practicing self-care and self-love is probably the best thing you can do for yourself during these difficult times. The amount of pain and stress is enormous, and you may neglect to prioritize your own well-being. Don’t forget the simple things: keep up with hygiene, exercise, enough sleep, eating properly, hydrating, and applying coping skills such as distracting yourself, giving yourself more down time, and allowing in more social support. Relax and unwind via meditation, deep breathing, massages, bubble baths, soothing music, and other pampering activities.
Check in with yourself to see how you’re doing and feeling. Be sure to validate and empathize with your feelings. Most likely it makes complete sense why you’re feeling the way you are! Tell yourself it’s okay to feel this way, and then get it out of your body and mind in some way. If you allow it to sit there and ruminate, it will grow and get bigger, causing you more pain and misery.
Try using the Serenity Prayer, create your own, or develop a mantra. Remembering what’s in and out of your control can help. Try using different prayers/mantras until you find one that works for you. Consider typing it up or writing it down and posting it around your house so that you are face-to-face with it several times each day.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Call on a helpful image. Some parents have found it helpful to use a guiding image or metaphor to refer to when they feel consumed with anger or hurt at the behavior and rejection of their child, or behaviors of the other parent. An image or metaphor can help remind the parent that their child is a victim, not an abuser. For one mother, it was an image that a demon had possessed her child. Anytime her daughter did something she didn’t like, or did something that didn’t seem like herself,, she conceptualized it as a demon acting, not her child. This allowed her to remain steadfast in her love for her daughter despite her daughter treating her coldly and cutting her out of important life events — including her wedding. For other parents, the image is a puppet being controlled by the alienating parent.
Validate your identity as a parent. Some targeted parents find that they no longer feel or are perceived by others as a true parent once their child(ren) have cut them off. Their children have devalued them and these parents can sometimes internalize the negative messages that they are not worthy people and are not real or true parents.
It’s easy to take this all personally, but do yourself a favor and, just, don’t. It is through maintaining your identity as a good, loving parent that you will find the strength for your parental alienation journey. It is through knowing that your children are still your children and that they need you, even though they cannot tell you and may not always know it themselves, that you can get through this. At the end of the day, give yourself a lot of love, understanding, compassion, and empathy. You’re going through a lot.
Feel your feelings. In doing so, be mindful of the impact these feelings have on you, and on your loved ones. The more you focus on something, the more it grows, just like watering a plant. You may need to start kickboxing (or something physical) to get your frustrations and stress out!
Change your perspective. Look at this as an opportunity to heal, grow and take the high road. Or maybe look at this as a new spiritual path. You can try to view your child and your ex as “healing angels” as you grow and heal. Try your best to find compassion. The Loving kindness meditation, or metta meditation, may help: send them the four loving kindnesses on a daily basis, but you must first have love and compassion for yourself.
Zoom out and look at the big picture. If you’ve tried everything and you don’t know what else to do, think to the future. Maybe things will be different in a few years when your children are older and perhaps gain some distance from the alienating parent, such as when they go off to college. Or perhaps when they gain some perspective from their own life events, such as when they become parents themselves, or even become divorced themselves, they realize how difficult it all is. Sadly, many children who have have experienced parental alienation become alienated parents themselves.
Hope for the future?
The effects of parental alienation on the parents, children and family as a whole (both old and new) are devastating to say the least. Nobody should have to go through this. Divorcing your partner is one thing, but nobody should have to “divorce” their child, too. They were a “good enough” parent during the marriage — so what’s changed? It all comes down to how the parents feel about each other, and sadly, divorce ends with so much pain, hurt, bitterness, anger, grudges and resentment. These feelings can heighten when a new partner (stepparent) enters the picture, with the added emotion of jealousy, especially for mothers when a new stepmother comes along. It seems to be, for the most part, (and I know there are exceptions) much more tame for fathers when a new stepfather enters the picture.
This often results in wanting to “punish” your ex-partner, and the most hurtful way to do that is to brainwash and help turn the children against them, and to use the children as a weapon and convince them that they must choose sides and align with your side (polarization). No child should have to choose sides or choose between parents, although they often receive this message consciously or unconsciously. The only side is the side of LOVE. In my opinion, if there wasn’t any abuse between the parent and child, and the parent is healthy and doesn’t use drugs/alcohol in an abusive way, and they are a good parent that provides for their children and spends time with them, they are deserving of repair and to have some sort of relationship with their child. Children deserve both parents.
The alienating parent should help the alienated child and alienated parent repair and improve their relationship. However, sadly, many alienating parents support their child’s decision to alienate, cut off from, and even go as far as completely replace the other parent. That was their subconscious goal, and they’ll likely never admit it, but they’re happy this happened. However, if the tables were turned, and this was happening to them, they’d be whistling a much different tune. And maybe they’d finally have some compassion and empathy for the alienated parent.
This isn’t so much a problem between parent and child, even though many alienated children and alienating parents would disagree. It’s a problem between the ex-partners. So much more needs to be done in order to prevent this and keep families together after divorce and blending. Prevention is key. We need to strengthen family bonds after divorce, not erase them.
- There needs to be more awareness and education. This impacts millions of families!
- More therapists and mediators need to be educated on this topic so they can learn how to spot parental alienation warning signs before it occurs and when it is occuring, as well as coach alienated parents and help to facilitate repair. (For example, I went to grad school for Marriage and Family Therapy and sadly never learned about parental alienation.)
- Courts and lawyers need to educate parents about the possibility of the parental alienation (the 17 strategies, warning signs, risk factors, impacts on children), and the high risk of it occurring when there is animosity and unresolved conflicts between ex-partners.
- Courts should mandate couples and family therapy post-divorce AND emphasize the importance of family therapy when new spouses are brought into the picture.
- Parents really should go to couples counseling post-divorce to work on their unresolved issues and conflicts, for the sake of the children.
ERASING FAMILY DOCUMENTARY
There are amazing organizations that are spreading awareness and helping reunite erased parents and family members with the alienated children. ERASING FAMILY investigates family bond obstruction from multiple perspectives: “Children whose moms or dads have been erased from their lives and siblings who can’t see each other. Part emotional roller coaster, part investigative expose, we follow the money to expose why loving moms and dads are erased from their kid’s lives by divorce courts.”
Erasing Family has a documentary coming out this year and shows that happy endings are possible! The film ends with children and parents being reunited on-screen and will inspire other kids to reach out to #erased parents, siblings and grandparents. Watch the trailer below.
Sources and Resources
Erasing Family documentary, coming out in 2019.
Parental alienation expert: Dr. Richard Warshak. He has books, articles, and programs to help reunite alienated children with their alienated parent, and help them repair.
Dr. Richard Warshak recommends for you to remind your child(ren) of the good times you had, as they may have re-written history and can’t / refuse to recall any positive memories or be grateful for anything you’ve done for them.
“Surviving Parental Alienation: a journey of hope and healing” by Amy J. L. Baker and Paul R. Fine.
Parental alienation expert: Dr. Amy Baker. She offers coaching for alienated parents, and has books, workbooks for children, and a blog.
Dr. Baker and colleagues are pleased to offer a new service for targeted parents and their adult alienated children: The Restoring Family Connections Program. The program is designed to be implemented by licensed mental health professionals on an outpatient voluntary basis. The manual is available for purchase at this website.
Now I would love to hear from you.
Have you been impacted by parental alienation? Do you know someone who has? How have you coped? Would you be open to sharing your story? Let me know in the comments below and I look forward to connecting and going deeper with you. Sending much love, self-care, and gratitude.
P.S. As tempting as it is, it’s probably best to NOT share this post with the alienating parent and/or alienated child. It will just make them angry and feel blamed. This post is not meant to be blaming. It’s meant to educate and spread awareness, as this is a huge reality of divorce and bitterness between exes. It is what it is. Hopefully both parents can take responsibility for the conflict they have co-created in their family, including within the parent-child relationships. Maybe one day they can see what they’ve both helped co-create and take responsibility for their part. And hopefully one day, the alienated parent and child will be able to reunite, repair, forgive, see the parent for who they really are (imperfect, containing both negative and positive traits) and start fresh.