Children and parents who have undergone forced separation from each other in the absence of abuse, including cases of parental alienation, are highly subject to post-traumatic stress; thus, reunification efforts in these cases should proceed carefully and with sensitivity.
Alienated children often seem to have a secret wish for someone to call their bluff, compelling them to reconnect with the parent they claim to hate; despite strongly held positions of alignment, alienated children most often want nothing more than to be given the permission and freedom to love and be loved by both parents (Baker, 2010).
Yet the influence of the alienating parent is, in many cases, too strong to withstand, and children’s fear that the alienating parent may fall apart or withdraw his or her love holds them back. Research has shown that many alienated children can transform quickly from refusing or staunchly resisting the rejected parent to being able to show and receive love from that parent, followed by an equally swift shift back to the alienated position when back in the orbit of the alienating parent (Fidler and Bala, 2010). Thus, while children’s stated wishes regarding parental residence and contact in contested custody after divorce should be considered, they should not be determinative in cases of parental alienation.
Reunification efforts after prolonged absence should be undertaken with service providers with specialized expertise in parental alienation reunification. A number of models of intervention have been developed, with the best-known being Warshak’s (2010) Family Bridges Program, an educative and experiential program focused on multiple goals:
- allowing the child to have a healthy relationship with both parents
- removing the child from the parental conflict
- encouraging child autonomy, multiple perspective-taking, and critical thinking
Sullivan’s Overcoming Barriers Family Camp (Sullivan et al, 2010), which combines psycho-educational and clinical intervention within an environment of milieu therapy, is aimed toward the development of an agreement regarding the sharing of parenting time, and a written aftercare plan. Friedlander and Walters’ (2010) Multimodal Family Intervention provides differential interventions for situations of parental alignment, alienation, enmeshment, and estrangement. All of these programs emphasize the clinical significance of children coming to regard their parents as equally valued and important in their lives, while at the same time helping enmeshed children relinquish their protective role toward their alienating parents.
In reunification programs, alienated parents will benefit from guidelines with respect to their efforts to provide a safe, comfortable, open, and inviting atmosphere for their children. Ellis (2005) outlines five strategies for alienated parents:
- Erode children’s negative image by providing incongruent information.
- Refrain from actions that put the child in the middle of conflict.
- Consider ways to mollify the anger and hurt of the alienating parent.
- Look for ways to dismantle the coalition between the child and alienating parent and convert enemies to allies.
- Never give up on reunification efforts.
As much as possible, Warshak (2010) recommends, alienated parents should try to expose their children to people who regard them, as parents, with honor and respect, in order to let children see that their negative opinion—and the opinion of the alienating parent—is not shared by the rest of the world. This type of experience will leave a stronger impression than anything the alienated parent can say on his or her own behalf, according to Warshak.
As Baker (2010) writes, alienated parents acutely feel the hostility and rejection of their children. These children often seem cruel, heartless, and devaluing of their parents. Yet it is important to realize that from the child’s perspective, it is the targeted parent who has rejected them; they have been led to believe that the parent whom they are rejecting does not love them, is unsafe, or has abandoned them.
Thus, the primary response of the alienated parent must always be one of loving compassion, emotional availability, and absolute safety. Patience and hope, unconditional love, and being there for the child are the best responses that alienated parents can provide their children—even in the face of the sad truth that this may not be enough to bring back the child.
With alienating parents, it is important to emphasize that as responsible parenting involves respecting the other parent’s role in the child’s life, any form of denigration of a former partner and co-parent is harmful to children. Children’s connections to each parent must be fully respected to ensure their well being—as children instinctively know, at their core, that they are half their mother and half their father.
This is easier said than done, of course, as alienating parents are themselves emotionally fragile, with a prodigious sense of entitlement and need to control (Richardson, 2006), and thus pose significant clinical challenges. Yet poisoned minds and instilled hatred toward a parent is a very serious form of abuse of children.
When children grow up in an atmosphere of parental alienation, their primary role model is a maladaptive, dysfunctional parent. It is for this reason that many divorce specialists (e.g., Fidler and Bala, 2010) recommend custody reversal in such cases, or at least a period of separation between a child and an alienating parent during the reunification process with an alienated parent.
I have come to believe, however, that the means of combating alienation should not themselves be alienating, and that a non-punitive approach is most effective, with co-parenting being the primary goal. Thus, engaging and involving the alienating parent in reunification programs, whenever possible, is critical (Sullivan et al, 2010).
Finally, it is often quite difficult to discern who is the alienating and who is the targeted parent in alienation cases. Thus, equal or shared parenting is clearly preferable to primary residence or sole custody orders in potential alienation cases, as courts are ill-equipped to assess the dynamics attendant to parental alienation, and co-parenting is preventive of alienation.
Baker, A. (2010). “Adult recall of parental alienation in a community sample: Prevalence and associations with psychological maltreatment.” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 51, 16-35.
Ellis, E.M. (2005). “Support for the alienated parent.” American Journal of Family Therapy, 33, 415-426.
Fidler, B. and Bala, N. (2010). “Children resisting postseparation contact with a parent: Concepts, controversies, and conundrums.” Family Court Review, 48 (1), 10-47.
Friedlander, S. & Walters, M.G. (2010). “When a child rejects a parent: Tailoring the intervention to fit the problem.” Family Court Review, 48 (1), 98-111.
Richardson, P. (2006). A Kidnapped Mind. Toronto: Dundurn Press.
Sullivan, M.J. et al. (2010). “Overcoming Barriers Family Camp.” Family Court Review, 48 (1), 116-135.
Warshak, R. (2010). “Family Bridges: Using insights from social science to reconnect parents and alienated children.” Family Court Review, 48 (1), 48-80