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Parental Alienation

NOTICE:  This post contains generalized information and resources about parental child alienation; however, the author is not a mental health professional and this post is not intended to offer any medical or mental health advice.  Parental alienation is a controversial topic amongst parents, medical and mental health professionals, lawyers, and judges.  This post does not seek to answer all of the issues raised by the topic nor should it be read to dispense a diagnosis nor medical or mental health advice.

What Does Parental Alienation do to a Child?

Parental child alienation affects children and their parents in dramatic and profound ways.  For an alienated parent (sometimes also called the “targeted parent”), the damage or loss of the parent-child relationship can lead to depression, alcohol, and other substance abuse.  The alienated child can be permanently impacted well into adulthood suffering from low self-esteem, trust issues, depression, and relationship issues.

Does Parental Alienation Begin Before Separation or Divorce?

Parental alienation usually begins before the divorce.  Because of work, careers, life challenges, and falling into patterns (even dysfunctional ones), the groundwork for parental alienation can grow in gradual and subtle harmful ways.  The footprint most often begins before the separation.

The alienated parent may look to the separation as a way he or she can reclaim the parent-child relationship and act like the parent he or she knows exists without the overbearing intrusion of the other parent.  But the alienating parent often uses the separation to put more pressure than usual on the child, and the child usually lacks the resources to resist this parent’s emotional tug.

What Are the Signs of Parental Alienation?

Parent alienation occurs when a child allies more strongly with one parent (the “preferred parent”) and rejects a relationship with the other parent without a legitimate basis for the rejection.  That the rejection occurs without any genuine legitimacy is a crucial marker of parental alienation.  If there is a legitimate basis for the rejection, the damaged parent-child relationship is usually referred to as parent estrangement rather than alienation.

Five Identifying Factors of Parental Alienation

Researchers have identified five factors that are indicators of parental alienation.[1],[2]  These factors are:

  1. The child actively avoids, resists, or refuses a relationship with a parent.
  2. There was a prior positive relationship between the child and the now-rejected parent.
  3. There is an absence of abuse, neglect, or seriously deficient parenting on the part of the now-rejected parent.
  4. The preferred parent utilizes multiple alienating behaviors.
  5. The child exhibits behavioral manifestations of alienation.

Seven Characteristics of Parental Alienation

The behavioral conduct referred to in factor 5 manifests in seven categories.  These seven characteristics of behavioral manifestations[3] of parental alienation include: (1) campaign of denigration of the targeted parent (2) weak, frivolous, or absurd reasons for the rejection of the targeted parent; (3) lack of ambivalence towards both parents in which one is viewed as all good and the other as all bad; (4) lack of remorse for the poor treatment of the targeted parent; (5) reflexive support for the favored parent; (6) use of borrowed scenarios; (7) the “independent thinker” phenomenon; and (8) spread of animosity towards the friends and family of the targeted parent.

Denigration can be identified when the child repeatedly complains over and over about the targeted parent, usually without being able to offer any justification, and complains to family members, friends, and third parties.  These children deny any positive past experiences with the targeted parent and have difficulty acknowledging any positive memories of the targeted parent.

The reasons for rejection are weak or frivolous.  When the child is asked about the reasons for his or her intense hostility toward the targeted parent, the explanations offered are not reasonable, or the child cannot articulate any reasons, or may deflect an explanation by saying, ‘I’ve said all of this before; it’s pointless to repeat it.’  When pressed, the child’s complaints about the targeted parent may be trivial complaints about the parent’s appearance, meal preparation, manners, and the like.

Ambivalence is defined as having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas.  Lack of ambivalence refers to circumstances where the child claims to worship the preferred parent beyond what is appropriate while claiming to despise the targeted parent.  Each representation toward the parents is illogically one-dimensional and illustrates that the child does not view each parent as a mix of positive and negative qualities.

Lack of remorse can be demonstrated by the child’s harsh and spiteful treatment of the targeted parent without any guilt, regret, or sorrow.  For example, gratitude for gifts, favors, or child support provided by the targeted parent is nonexistent.

Reflexive support can be shown when the child sides with the preferred parent, no matter how absurd the preferred parent’s position is. There is no willingness by the child to be impartial when faced with conflicts between the parents.  Any logic or rationality presented by the targeted parent is rejected out of hand by the child.

Borrowed scenarios present themselves when the child tells a story about an event and their story uses the same words and phrases as the preferred parent uses when telling the same story.  When pressed, the child sometimes cannot provide detail to support their re-telling of the event.

Independent Thinker phenomenon presents when the child insists that his or her rejection of the alienated parent is a decision made entirely from his or her own free will and the preferred parent had no influence over the decision.

Animosity spreads to the targeted parent’s family and friends.  The child avoids and rejects grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins with whom the child once had positive relationships.

Can You Sue a Parent for Parental Alienation?

In seeking solutions for parental alienation, a parent and his or her lawyer should thoughtfully examine how entrenched the alienating behaviors are.  Treatment, parenting plans, and court orders should be targeted to address the severity of the alienating behaviors.  There is no “one-size fits all” and no “form” order, parenting plan, or solution for parents and children dealing with alienating behaviors.

Mild Alienation.  If the child and the targeted parent have contact, even if the child resists, and if the parent and the child have a good time when they are together despite the initial resistance, a combination of therapy, a detailed court order, and the utilization of a parent coordinator may break the cycle.  For example, the parents and the child may be ordered to participate in counseling and therapy with a psychologist with expertise with high-conflict parenting.  The parents and the child may have separate mental health counselors who each cooperate and collaborate.  A parent coordinator can be appointed to ensure the parents are complying with court-ordered parenting plans and treatment plans.  Parenting plans may utilize “parallel parenting” techniques which prohibit the child from contacting or having any communication with the non-custodial parent during the time the child is with the parent exercising parenting time.  Parenting plans may be crafted to limit as many transitions between homes as possible.

Moderate Alienation.  If the child resists contact and is persistently oppositional during parenting time with the targeted parent, the alienation is more severe and thus more challenging for parents, lawyers, and family courts.  A form of “reunification therapy” may be implemented which involves specialized mental health professionals, a family therapist, parent coaching, and parent coordinator, in addition to a strong and detailed court order.  Intervention usually focuses on behavioral awareness and changes by the parents and the child.  Plans are implemented that reduce the interaction between the parents and eliminates flexibility in parenting plans and decisions.  In some cases, a reduction in physical custody time from the preferred parent to the targeted parent is appropriate, or a temporary change of physical custody from both parents to a third party may be temporarily beneficial.

Severe Alienation.  In these cases, the alienation was long-held and entrenched before the separation occurred. In these cases, the child persistently and adamantly refuses contact with the targeted parent.  If forced to visit the targeted parent, the child may run away or hide, or stay closeted in his or her room, be obstreperous, or violent.  In these severe cases, the preferred parent may have lost all insight into his or her behavior and instead can be intent on destroying the other parent’s relationship with the child. These cases are the most challenging and difficult.  A change of custody to the targeted parent with a complete prohibition of parenting time with the alienating parent, except in supervised settings, is an option.  A Court Order that orders the child to attend a residential camp or specialized program are also options.  In these more extreme circumstances, expert witness testimony will be essential in order to give the family court judge the basis to make such a decision.

Parental alienation is excruciatingly difficult for parents.  It is likewise challenging to lawyers, mental health professionals, parent coordinators, judges, and anyone else who works with divorcing parents.  There are no easy solutions.  All of the solutions require hard work, insight, patience, adaptability, courage, and compromise during a time when all of those qualities are in short supply.

The preferred parent is not suddenly going to wake up and say “my goodness, I’ve been unreasonable and I’m causing harm to my child by encouraging him to reject his other parent.”  The targeted parent is not going to suddenly wake up and say, “unraveling these dysfunctional dynamics is going to take time.”  The child isn’t going to wake up one morning and say, “I’ve got it all wrong.”

The child has a version of reality that involves the targeted parent as having done something terrible that caused the child to reject his parent.  The targeted parent’s reality is that the other parent manipulated the child into rejecting him or her for no good reason.  There is no shared understanding and no shared reality between the child, the targeted parent, or the preferred parent of what led up to the fractured parent-child relationship.

Rehabilitation of the damaged parent-child relationship can occur.  Ideally, parental alienation will be identified and addressed in its early stages when it is mild and more easily treatable.  Even with the most severe cases, success has been achieved with the assistance of skilled professionals.

[1] Psychiatric Times .

[2] Parental Alienation — Science And Law, By Demosthenes Lorandos, William Bernet, Published 2020.

[3] Social Work Today.