Parental alienation is a set of strategies that parents use to undermine and interfere with a child's relationship with his or her other parent. This often but not always happens when parents are engaged in a custody battle over the children.
There is no one definitive set of behaviors that constitute parental alienation but research with both parents and children has revealed a core set of 17 primary parental alienation strategies, including bad-mouthing the other parent, limiting contact with that parent, erasing the other parent from the life and mind of the child (forbidding discussion and pictures of the other parent), forcing child to reject the other parent, creating the impression that the other parent is dangerous, forcing the child to choose, and belittling and limiting contact with the extended family of the targeted parent.
Taken together, these 17 parental alienation strategies work to create psychological distance between the child and the targeted parent such that the relationship becomes conflict ridden and eventually non-existent, as the child is empowered to cut that parent off completely. Each of these strategies serve to A) further the child's cohesion and alignment with the alienating parent; B) create psychological distance between the child and the targeted parent; C) intensify the targeted parent's anger and hurt over the child's behavior; and D) incite conflict between the child and the targeted parent should the targeted parent challenge or react to the child's behavior.
Parents who try to alienate their child from his or her other parent convey a three-part message to the child: (1) I am the only parent who loves you and you need me to feel good about yourself, (2) the other parent is dangerous and unavailable, and (3) pursuing a relationship with that parent jeopardizes your relationship with me.
Children who succumb to the pressure and ally themselves with one parent against the other often exhibit a set of behaviors that have become known as parental alienation syndrome:
(1) The first manifestation is a campaign of denigration against the targeted parent. The child becomes obsessed with hatred of the targeted parent (in the absence of actual abuse or neglect that would explain such negative attitudes).
(2) Weak, frivolous, and absurd rationalizations for the depreciation of the targeted parent. The objections made in the campaign of denigration are often not of the magnitude that would lead a child to hate a parent, such as slurping soup or serving spicy food.
(3) Lack of ambivalence about the alienating parent. The child expresses no ambivalence about the alienating parent, demonstrating an automatic, reflexive, idealized support of him or her.
(4) The child strongly asserts that the decision to reject the other parent is her own. This is what is known as the "Independent Thinker" phenomenon.
(5) Absence of guilt about the treatment of the targeted parent. Alienated children will make statements such as, "He doesn't deserve to see me."
(6) Reflexive support for the alienating parent in the parental conflict. There is no willingness or attempt to be impartial when faced with inter-parental conflicts.
(7) Use of borrowed scenarios. These children often make accusations towards the targeted parent that utilize phrases and ideas adopted wholesale from the alienating parent. And, finally,
(8) The hatred of the targeted parent spreads to his or her extended family. Not only is the targeted parent denigrated, despised, and avoided but so too are his/her entire family. Formerly beloved grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins are suddenly avoided and rejected. When children exhibit these 8 behaviors the most likely explanation is the manipulation of the favored parent.
Once children exhibit these behaviors much of the damage is done. Prevention is critical as it is easier to stop children from becoming alienated than it is to undo the alienation once the children have adopted false ideas and feelings about the rejected parent. For this reason, parents who are concerned about the use of alienation strategies on the part of the other parent should become educated as quickly as possible about different options for responding to parental alienation.
Resources for targeted parents are available at www.amyjlbaker.com.