A Child Torn
by Melanie Anders, University of Antwerp, Belgium
Parental Alienation is one of the most insidious, but least obvious forms of child emotional manipulation and abuse. What makes it so hard to detect is that the resultant estrangement between child and parent is perceived by the child, even into adulthood, as a rational decision made independent of parental manipulation.
For the adult child who might wonder: if more than 6 or 7 of the following behaviors are part of your history, then you will want to read on, and may want to consider seeking the assistance of a counselor/psychologist. The listed behaviors are garnered from actual litigation on the issue of parental alienation.
-Parent/stepparent avoids/denies/terminates counseling that disagrees with parent/stepparent, eventually will find “supportive” counselor
-Parent/stepparent made a child feel guilty about liking/trusting the other parent/stepparent
-Parent/stepparent made a child feel guilty about wanting to spend a special occasion with the other parent/stepparent
-Parent/stepparent informed/involved a child in legal issues with the other parent
-Parent/stepparent informed/involved a child in financial issues with the other parent
-Parent/stepparent actively advocated/promoted a stepparent as equal to the biological/custodial other parent in the eyes of a child
-Parent/stepparent actively considered/discussed with the child adoption of the child by the step-parent,
-Parent/stepparent shared information with a child about the other parent/stepparent’s legal issues
-Parent/stepparent involved the child in discussions about the other parent/stepparent’s legal issues
-Parent/stepparent involved the child directly with the other step-parent’s former family
-Parent/stepparent gathered information about the other parent’s relationships through questioning the child
-Parent/stepparent negatively criticized the profession of the other parent/stepparent
-Parent/stepparent negatively criticized the financial structure of the other parent/stepparent’s household
-Parent/stepparent prevented a child from taking the child’s personal belongings back and forth between two households
-Parent/stepparent sent verbal messages about finances/moneys owed through the children
-Parent/stepparent placed a child in a situation that divides their loyalties
-Parent/stepparent commented on their perception of the other parent’s commitment as a parent
-Parent/stepparent made the child decide an issue if the parents can’t agree
-Parent/stepparent questioned the child for specific details of the other parent/stepparent’s daily activities.
-Parent/stepparent criticized the religious practices of the other parent/stepparent.
If you have answered 7 or more, ask yourself this:
What would be the long term impact of such continued behaviors, especially in the formative years, on a relationship with a parent/stepparent, and on possible adult relationships in the child’s future?
What would be the intent of the parent/stepparent who displayed such behaviors?
What is parental Alienation?
There are two manifestations most indicative of parental alienation. First, a rejection of the “target” parent that is excessively disproportionate to the real, or even perceived behaviors of that target parent. Second, a rejection of the extended family – anything or anyone associated with the target parent is included in the rejection. The separation is total.
This article will discuss the possible motivations for, and processes and consequences of parental alienation.
The motivations behind the active alienation of a parent are usually fairly basic. Hurt at being left, or if the alienating parent is the leaver, the processes often address the emotional insecurities of the perpetrating, or alienating parent. The parent who left the relationship may sometimes feel the need to validate that action and can do so by denigration of the target parent. The alienating parent, or even a new partner of the alienating parent, displays an insecurity about the role he or she plays in their new relationship, and in the children’s lives. The alienator or their new partner perceives the former partner as a threat to their new relationship, and a threat to their relationship with the children of that former partnership. A threat to be minimized at least, or eliminated if possible. These insecurities are often heightened if and when the former partner, now the parent targeted for alienation, is or becomes involved in, a new relationship.
If another child is born to, or already exists in a new relationship of either former partner, the need to eliminate the target parent becomes exacerbated. In the minds of the alienating parent or step-parent, a new step-brother or –sister in the target parent’s household constitutes an “attraction” to the children of the alienator and former partner (target parent). To the alienator, it becomes something the “other side” has, a new step-parent, brother or sister for their children, but not one the alienator has access to, nor control over. The alienator must attempt to level the playing field.
In the case of a new child in the alienator’s household, the target parent becomes the “attraction” that the shared child has, but the new child does not. “Cindy and Adam have two households, they get to go neat places with their dad or mom, while my child does not. I want my new child and me to have “exclusivity” in terms of being considered family witness or live with the difference in life arrangements.”. Mere presence of the target parent is perceived by the alienator as an “advantage” for the target parent, a source of comparison for the new child in the alienator’s relationship. Therefore, the target parent must be eliminated to maintain the alienator’s supremacy of primary parenthood.
It often boils down to a deep insecurity –“ I am no longer with the targeted parent, I have a new relationship, and I want my new partner to be my child’s dad or mom”. Or, the alienator’s new partner holds the view that “I am in this relationship, and I must establish my domain over my new family”. The only way to accomplish that is to somehow eliminate the former partner from the child’s life.
The processes involved in the effective alienation of a target parent are quite subtle, allowing the children to believe that they are arriving at their own conclusions. Many of the alienating behaviors are cloaked in the guise of transparent interaction with the child, such interaction usually being selective and self-serving. The alienating parent creates a façade of “choice” in the child’s mind, then subtly directs the child to make the “right” choice, the one that serves their agenda. This approach is extremely effective. Even into adulthood, the child believes that his or her perceptions of the targeted parent or step-parent are independently arrived at, and that the rejection of the targeted parent is justified. The alienator then leans back with agenda completed, and sympathetically commiserates with the child about the “unworthiness” of the targeted parent.
Language is a highly effective tool for the alienator. Selective application of words over an extended period can easily develop a perception in a child’s mind. Exclusive application of words such as “home” and “family”, applied solely to the alienator’s situation implies to the child that what they experience with the target parent is not truly “home” and “family” – those things only exists at the alienator’s location.
Even tone of voice used by the alienator or their partner will affect the child’s perception. If every reference or discussion about the targeted parent occurs with a negative tone of voice, the child develops an underlying sense that there might be “something wrong” with the targeted parent.
The role of a step-parent is a very difficult one. Step-parents can be loving, caring, nurturing, supportive, but when it comes down to it, in situations where both parents remain or wish to remain involved in their children’s lives after a divorce, the step-parent is not the parent – the child already has two. It is sometimes thankless being a step-parent -all the work of parenting, without perhaps the societal recognition of the role. Unfortunately, it is often the insecurities of the alienating parent or their partner step-parent that push them toward promoting the step-parent’s importance, while minimizing the targeted parent’s validity in the child’s life.
The terms “mom” and “dad” are highly emotional. Promoting that a new partner be referred to, or even considered as the “mom” or “dad” is highly confusing for a child. This is often exacerbated when the alienators conducts themselves as if their new partner is indeed an equal to the child’s existing parent. The new partner of the alienator should not be promoted as a “replacement” for the existing parent. All references made by one parent to the child about parenting and its major decisions should include the former partner, the child’s other actual parent. The alienating parent develops a scenario where they present their new partner as their co-parent to both the child and the targeted parent, often using the term “we” when discussing parenting issues with both the child and with the targeted parent. Discussions with the children about adoption by the partner of the alienating parent often occur. Ideally, when both biological parents maintain a major role in a child’s life, the only “we” a child should hear surrounding major parenting issues is in reference to both of their biological parents. When “we” is used to “promote” the new partner, and subtly exclude the targeted parent, the alienating parent creates confusion in the child’s mind as to who they are to consider as responsible for them. Most manipulative is when an alienating parent does not use the terms “your mom” or “your dad”, but instead further minimizes the target parent by referring to him or her by name.
The alienating parent will often denigrate the target parent and his or her new partner in subtle and indirect ways. A child may be subject to reasonable-sounding, but negative nonetheless, comments about the “other side’s” profession, religion, finances, parenting skills, house, or activities. Overall, the alienator “helps” the child “understand” the target parent, subtly presenting to the child a self-serving image of what is right (alienator’s positions and beliefs) and what is wrong (target parent or their partner step-parent).
What effective alienators do not understand (or worse, do understand but don’t care) in pursuit of their agenda is that when they disrespect the other parent to the child, they disrespect the child. In a child’s mind, if the negative things they are told about the target parent are true, then the child must be partly “bad” too, because he or she is a product of that parent.
A child naturally wants to be loyal to both of their parents. The alienator often puts the child in situations of divided loyalty by involving them in parental issues: emotional , financial, logistical and legal. The alienator often justifies this by claiming that it is the child’s “choice”, and that involving the child is somehow an altruistic effort to be “open and honest”. Putting a question like “where do you want to spend Christmas?” or “which school do you want to go to?” places extremely uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing pressure on a young child. The targeted parent is often left with an untenable choice – either respond to the positions of the alienating parent and in doing so, deepen the child’s angst at being in a conflict of divided loyalties, or do nothing, and let the alienator’s position or version stand valid in the child’s mind.
The most insidious applications of this are through expressions of resentment or hurt by the alienating parent when a child expresses loyalty, pleasure, or affection for the targeted parent or step-parent. A child quickly learns that he or she is not to express any positive feelings for, or relate positive experiences with the “other side” to the alienating parent, as it will be met with hurt and resentment. This further aggravates the child’s loyalty conflict.
In a very concrete sense, the alienator sometimes uses material issues as part of their process. Discussions with the child about money, not allowing free passage of the child’s possessions between households, even something as relatively innocuous as in which household birthday and Christmas gifts end up will further create a sense of division in the child’s mind.
Long term impact
The processes behind a successful alienation of a parent are very subtle, again allowing the child to develop rejecting behaviors believing that they are acting independently. As they get older, a revised history is created in the child’s mind, usually supported by the alienator: minor everyday conflicts with the targeted parent are remembered as major traumas, disagreements take on critical status, and in the worst cases, any large conflicts are painted as abusive in the child’s mind, such revisions supported and often encouraged by the alienating parent.
The subtleties of alienation create a “fixed idea” in the child’s mind, where everything the target parent and any new partner has done, every behavior, real or perceived is viewed as “bad”. The child, even as an adult, becomes incapable of perceiving or remembering the good things about the targeted parent, and about their life with him or her. In the child’s mind, the alienator becomes the only parent who is “good” and can be trusted and believed.
The ultimate rejection of the targeted parent takes on monumental consequences for the child, well into adulthood, and for the rest of his or her life. It has the potential to negatively impact future relationships as a partner or parent, it denies the child the support of a caring parent, and eliminates one of the most fundamental relationships a child has – with a parent.
It creates a further loyalty conflict when there are siblings involved. A sibling who does not “join in” the rejection of a parent may be portrayed as being disloyal to the rejecting sibling, usually a perception subtly encouraged by the alienator.
The alienator remains “supportive” in what the child believes is their own independent decision, allowing and secretly welcoming the rejection of the targeted parent, and offering an understanding shoulder, an “I told you so” position toward the target parent, and continues to commiserate with the child’s seemingly independent assessment of the targeted parent as “unworthy”.
For those children and parents who are victims of the alienation process, there is an uncertain future. As the child gathers distance and time from the events they perceive as justifying the rejection of a parent, and as the influence of the alienator wanes as adulthood continues, the child may come to realize the control and manipulation to which they have been subject. Such realizations come with a cost – resentment at the loss of years with the target parent, resentment of the alienator – regardless, a traumatic experience. It is also possible the child will never recognize the alienation. The cost then is the permanent loss of a fundamental relationship, the loss of an extended family, and the impact that loss will have on the child’s future personal relationships.
For the targeted parent, there is only time and hope.
If you are an adult child who believes that you may have been the victim of Parental Alienation, please seek out professional counseling from a qualified therapist in child psychology.
This brief article is a simple overview, garnered from research, and interviews with adult children who have reconciled with their alienated parent. Much professional research has been done in this area, and below are several links to sites and articles dealing with Parental Alienation.
- Parent-Child Reunification After Alienation (psychologytoday.com)
- Parental Alienation Expert Dr. William Bernet Discusses The DSM-5… (medfinder.wordpress.com)
- An Unfortunate Example of Effective Parental Alienation (topicofthemoment.wordpress.com)