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Parental Alienation

Signs of Parental Alienation

When grief turns to retaliation.

Key points

  • Parental alienation, a controversial concept, is not in the DSM-5, yet many mental health professionals observe it as a family dysfunction.
  • "Parental alienation syndrome" (PAS) is a disturbance in the parent-child relationship during a conflictual divorce.
  • PAS is a small group dynamic that describes how one parent targets the other in attempt to undermine the child's bond of love with that parent.
  • PAS occurs through the psychological mechanisms of splitting and projection by the "alienator" parent.
 Ulrike Mai/Pixabay
Source: Ulrike Mai/Pixabay

Parental alienation was first described by Richard Gardner, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who observed this psychological dynamic within the context of high-conflict divorce. Although a controversial concept many parents and mental health professionals still find it useful in understanding certain family dynamics.

What is parental alienation?

Gardner describes an emotional situation where a vindictive parent indoctrinates the couple’s child by relentlessly blaming and denigrating the other parent to the child. Gardner calls this Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), which he says runs along a continuum from mild to severe. This destructive dynamic can ebb and flow in intensity and be the result of a mother or father’s antisocial behavior.

Through intimidation, coercion, and sometimes subtle means—one parent relentlessly leverages unjust criticism at the other parent. By doing so, the "alienating parent" cultivates an emotional climate in which the child feels compelled to support that parent’s derogatory views of the other parent. Such views reflect the aggrieved parent’s distorted and hateful perspective of their former spouse. The alienator can hold such a strong influence because the child is impressionable and his or her interpersonal boundaries porous.

When accused of sexual abuse by Mia Farrow, Woody Allen counterclaimed that the child in question had been brainwashed, an assertion that dovetails with Gardner’s concept of alienation.

Gardner describes some common personality traits of an alienating parent or what he also calls the “programmer.” These characteristics include a sense of grandiosity or an inflated and unrealistic sense of importance and prestige. Grandiosity is usually accompanied by a sense of entitlement and suggests an individual with some degree of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

In line with this exaggerated self-image, the indoctrinator considers herself or himself the superior parent while the "target parent" is construed as defective, inattentive, neglectful. Examination of the alienation phenomenon can be broken down into several psychological actions that occur within an interpersonal context, that is, between two people: notably splitting and projection. The target parent is demonized as a result of the process of splitting in the alienator parent.

Splitting is a psychological mechanism from earliest childhood that allows a person to depict another as either all-good or all-bad, idealized or devalued, god or demon. This occurs when a person is unable to integrate contradictory feelings and is, rather, overwhelmed by them. In place of integration, a binary system is created between two opposites: good/bad, love/hate. The unfavorable side of the polarity is then projected onto the target parent, who becomes the repository of these split-off feelings rather than being seen in a more complex and nuanced way. This dynamic of evacuating difficult feelings onto another—purging them onto a target person—is fueled by anger and often, beneath that, inconsolable grief.

An alienating parent is full of rage, argues Gardner, and vents this bitterness on the scapegoated parent in a spectacle of vengeance. This can become an ongoing campaign to degrade, shame, and humiliate the target parent. The ultimate aim of the alienating parent is to destroy the psychological bond of basic trust and love between the child and the former spouse.

What Gardner describes is a small group dynamic formed in the triangular relation between the two parents and their child. The same kind of ruthless revenge is played out on a bigger scale in prejudice among large groups of people during warfare, especially when the element of "ethnic cleansing" is operative.

How parental alienation affects the child

The alienating parent lacks empathy not only for the other parent but also—more importantly—for the emotional welfare of the child, who is victimized by the indoctrination that demeans the former partner. The alienator may even experience unconscious gratification in the suffering brought on the other parent and the feelings of superiority bolstered by devaluating the former spouse.

At the same time that there is a lack of empathy, there is paradoxically an over-identification with the child. In other words, the alienating parent imposes his or her own internal dependency needs onto the child through a close identification. For example, such a parent may share personal email communications with the child from the estranged spouse or say the other parent “broke up the family and left us,” blaming them for the divorce—without realizing any self-responsibility. The alienating parent may take excessive pride in the accomplishments of the child as if they belong to the parent as well and dramatically enhance their self-image.

Through a symbiotic tie with the child, the alienator tries to convince their offspring to align with one parent’s experience and convince them that they must be safeguarded from the target parent. In other words, the programmer is overprotective of the child and instills a sense of distrust in the environment when the child is with the other parent. Any normal mishaps of childhood, such as scrapes, minor cuts, and bruises, are played up as a result of the target parent’s “neglect” or imputed failure of love.

The message given is that the child is in danger when left with the other parent and safe only through the provisions of the alienating parent. In many circumstances, the target parent may actually be a good and loving guardian. The derogatory attributions are undeserved, and a situation of benevolent care is distorted into negligence and apathy.

Finally, an alienating parent, or one who attempts to indoctrinate the child against the other parent, uses the psychological defense of denial. The alienating parent refuses to realize how hurtful such actions are to the child. Every child carries internalized images of both parents within. So to hate or distrust one parent is, for the child, to abhor and disavow a part of oneself.

Gardner notes that frequently a child in such a situation comes to recognize that if he or she shares with the alienating parent happy interactions with the target parent, the child will suffer the disapproval and displeasure of that parent. The child is inhibited from feeling and speaking freely with the parent who is full of grievance and is coerced to choose between the two caregivers.

How to cope with parental alienation

One of the main ways of counteracting attempts at alienation is to have the child spend more time with the parent who is the target. Many court cases involving alienation resolve by restoring custody to this parent.

Gardner's concept remains disputed in the mental health profession, and PAS is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Yet many parents and mental health professionals continue to emphasize the veracity of parental alienation as a psychological phenomenon, including psychologist Janet Robertson, who gives helpful strategies for countering this kind of manipulation, beginning with trying to work things out with your former spouse for the purposes of co-parenting. Not possible? Robertson also suggests gaining the support of other parents in a similar situation.

Additionally, it's helpful for the alienated parent to encourage his or her child to communicate directly—rather than through the former spouse, who will distort messages and interactions. Keep reaching out to the child in a loving way despite his or her confusion and expressions of hostility. Often, as a child grows older and individuates from the family, he or she develops healthy emotional independence and is able to gain a more realistic perspective on who each parent is.


Parental Alienation Education

Gardner, R. A., MD. The Parental Alienation Syndrome: Past, Present, and Future. keynote address presented to the International Conference on the Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), Frankfurt/Main, Germany, October 18-19, 2002.

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