Parental alienation is a big – and controversial – topic and I can only scratch the surface here. The term Parental Alienation Syndrome was first coined by Dr Richard Gardner, a (controversial) American child psychiatrist, back in the 1970s. Almost 50 years on we still can’t agree on what it is or what to do about it, but here’s my take on it. (Please note that these parents are normally referred to as the alienating parent and the target parent, whereas I prefer the abusive or brainwashing parent and the protective parent.)
What is it?
Parental alienation is the brainwashing of a child by one parent which turns them completely against their other parent. It is child abuse. And, like snake poison, brainwashing works quickly and a loving child can turn, almost overnight, into an unrecognisably rude and aggressive one who now hates you.
Alienating a child from their parent robs the child of their sense of self, and the love of their other parent. The child also comes to realise that the love they have for one parent is dependent upon their rejection and vilification of the other.
As well as having immediate effects on things such as school performance and their self-esteem, it means that the child will, later in life, be much more susceptible to mental health problems, delinquency, drug and alcohol abuse, difficult relationships etc.
The child is placed in an impossible position. At some level they will know that there is no truth in what the abusive parent is telling them about the protective parent. But they are hearing it so loudly and so often that in the end it’s easier for them to believe it, to go along with the lies, and ally themselves completely with the one parent to avoid all the conflict between the two of them.
What it isn’t
Some parents do an excellent job of alienating their children all by themselves, without the other parent needing to say or do anything. They are usually abusive – either to their child, or to their child’s other parent, and sometimes to both. But instead of looking at their own behaviour, they accuse the innocent parent of turning the child against them ie they make false allegations of parental alienation.
Whilst the parents were together, the protective parent will have insulated the child from much of the abusive behaviour of the other parent, and the child will probably have kept out of their way as much as possible. But once the parents are separated, the abusive parent will demand as much contact as possible with the child … who will not want to go, and may protest vehemently and vote with their feet. But this is not parental alienation, however much the abuser shouts that it is.
Other children struggle terribly with their parents’ separation and some really can’t cope with the transition between their parents and the two homes. Some suffer from separation anxiety. These children will behave differently to usual and may appear withdrawn, or say they don’t want to see their other parent. But they are not being alienated, they just need help and a lot of reassurance to come through this huge change in their lives. Or they may need the dynamics between their parents to change. But again, this is not parental alienation.
Who does it?
Angry parents who want revenge, and parents who have a personality disorder. Often parents who had a poor or absent relationship with at least one of their own parents.
Occasionally a parent may be so angry with their ex about something they’ve done (or not done) that they are unable to separate that from their parenting.
Sometimes a parent can be so wrapped up in their child’s life that they’ve lost their own identity and feel threatened by their child’s relationship with the other parent, so they try to destroy it. Or they are just so insecure themselves that the fear of the child preferring the other parent takes over.
More usually, it’s done by a parent who has a personality disorder (usually undiagnosed) such as borderline personality disorder, paranoia, or narcissistic personality disorder. There will always be at least an element of narcissism as these people have no empathy for anyone, even their own children who they are damaging so badly by their alienation.
What do family courts do about it?
Usually they label the case as being “high conflict” and often judge both parents equally responsible for what is happening. I have a little sympathy for this as it’s very hard to see who is the protective parent and who is the abusive one because both are fighting equally hard: one to protect their child, the other to destroy the other parent. But drawing the line down the middle does nothing to help the psychologically abused child, or the alienated parent.
If the abusive parent is narcissistic and manipulative they will be able to persuade the professionals (social workers, Cafcass, lawyers ..) and the court that residence of the child should be transferred to them. And once the child is living with them 24/7 it doesn’t take long for the brainwashing to be complete, and for the child not to want any further contact at all with the protective parent. If there is no court order defining future contact with the protective parent (because it is deemed best to leave it up to the child who has made their view so clear) it is unlikely that the child will see that parent again.
Cafcass has developed an ‘impact of parental conflict’ tool which I was rather sceptical about, but I have just seen it used really well in a report. Up to a point. The Family Court Advisor has seen right through the child’s complaints against her mother and says that she “describes one parent entirely negatively, the other entirely positively”, which is typical in parental alienation. But nowhere does she state that it is parental alienation and, worse still, she says the child is “actually lucky to have two loving and capable parents”. I take issue with that: a loving and capable parent does not alienate his daughter from her mother, however much he may hate her himself. The FCA also states that the issue is parental conflict; it’s not, it’s parental alienation by a narcissistic parent. But since the tool she’s using has ‘parental conflict’ in the label it’s probably not surprising and why I was sceptical in the first place. So Cafcass still has a way to go.
Karen Woodall, a somewhat controversial UK expert in parental alienation, says: “The problem that we have in parental alienation is that for five decades it has been wrongly characterised as a problem about ‘contact ‘ when in fact it is a mental health issue arising in the post separation landscape in which the child suffers induced psychological splitting as a result of pressure placed upon them, in this case by the unresolved childhood trauma of a parent.”
What often happens is that the court, being very short of time, takes at face value the brainwasher’s allegations that the protective parent is harming the child, and deprives the child of an important and loving relationship.
What can you do about it?
Firstly, be kind to your child. I know it’s hard not to retaliate when a child is being beastly, rude and obnoxious to you, but it’s not their fault and they don’t deserve even more abuse. They are as much a victim of the brainwasher as you are, and they’re just a child.
My advice to clients who complain about their ex badmouthing them has always been not to do the same, however tempting. Which was fine, as far as it went. But having now read “Divorce Poison” by Dr Richard Warshak, I realise that my advice was woefully inadequate and that the other thing that you must not do is …. nothing. Do not ignore the brainwashing and hope it will go away: it won’t.
Your child is being abused by their other parent. It is very unlikely that you are going to be able to stop them having contact with their parent, so you need to help them cope with it, just like you’d help them cope with bullying at school. Their reality is being distorted by the constant brainwashing and you need to counteract that and help them find the truth. They can’t do this by themselves.
For example, if your child has decided that you are all bad, and their other parent is all good, you can help them to understand that we are all human. That means that even those of us who try to be good and kind and do the right thing all the time will make mistakes sometimes. We might have lost our temper and shouted when we shouldn’t have done, or forgotten an important date or event we should have remembered. But these incidents don’t wipe out all the good and loving things we’ve done before, they just mean we’re not perfect. If you can give examples of positive and negative things that both you and your ex have done you can demonstrate that no-one is all good or bad, and that it’s ok to have mixed feelings about people.
If you child has been told a lie, you need to deal with this. But encourage your child to think for themselves rather than refuting what the abusive parent has told them as that’s just going to entrench their position. So instead of saying “he’s wrong” or “what really happened was …” ask “what do you think?” or “is [what you’ve been told about me] what you’ve seen for yourself in the past?” or “do you think that’s how I normally behave”.
The brainwashing is often more subtle though but it still needs to be picked up on and dealt with, and you can help your child by telling them that it must make them feel confused, upset etc.
If you think you’re being alienated from your child I would highly recommend that you read “Divorce Poison” by Dr Richard Warshak. It gives lots of examples of the action you can take to prevent and deal with alienation. It’s quite long but easy to read with lots of stories of parents and children who’ve been through this. It comes with my usual caveat for American books though – any reference to what happens in court in the US does not apply here in the UK. ‘Custody evaluators’ translate as Cafcass – but only roughly.
If you’re not sure if you’re being alienated, there’s a checklist here …. of things your ex may be doing.
If you need any help with parental alienation please don’t hesitate to give me a call or send me an email.