What Is Parental Alienation?
Parental alienation occurs when a child refuses to have a relationship with a parent due to manipulation, such as the conveying of exaggerated or false information, by the other parent. The situation most often arises during a divorce or custody battle but it can happen in intact families as well.
The perpetrator may leverage a variety of tactics. A father could tell his son that his mother hates him and never wants to speak to him, when in reality the mother calls to speak to the child every day. A mother could convince her daughter to report—or even believe—that her father physically abused her. Offenders may blame the other parent for the collapse of the marriage, punish the child for wanting to pursue a relationship with the parent, or move away so that maintaining a relationship is extremely difficult.
This phenomenon often originates with the parent who is less emotionally stable than the other. They may be motivated by a desire for revenge against their ex or they may need an outlet so desperately that they transfer their pain and rage to the child. The victimized parent often cannot fathom acting the same way, which unfortunately makes it more difficult to sustain a relationship with the child.
This experience can also be deeply upsetting for a child. He or she may feel confused, sad, and lonely after the loss. Children may feel puzzled as to why they still feel love toward one parent if the other "hates" them so intensely. Yet they have no evidence to counter the other parent’s lies. They also cannot fully grieve their lost relationship because estrangement is uncertain and potentially prone to change.
Parents can fight alienation in court, but they need to provide a rigorous level of proof. A court may then mandate a reunification program, in which the child spends time with the alienated parent under supervision to rebuild the relationship. Treatment may also be needed to address the child’s trauma. Some relationships fractured by parental alienation will heal with time, but many are never repaired.
The clinical understanding of parental alienation is evolving. It is not listed as a disorder in the DSM-5, but some suggest that it could fall under “parent-child relational problem” as one of a set of concerns that may merit clinical attention. Some researchers argue that the experience is a form of emotional child abuse and family violence.
How to Navigate Parental Alienation
Parental alienation is deeply painful, but ostracized parents should know that they are not alone. Although it can be frustrating, they should aim to express only compassion and kindness for the estranged child, remaining calm rather than responding to the injustice with anger or rage. They should turn to friends, family, or mental health professionals for support as they navigate the strain.
Parental alienation is difficult to prove in court. But concrete evidence that the other parent is intentionally driving a wedge between a child and parent can bolster a case. Other solutions may emerge with time through systematic changes to the legal system, such as designating alienation as a form of abuse, establishing shared parenting as a foundation of family law, and promoting treatment through reunification services, prevention programs, and trauma care.