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Amy J.L. Baker Ph.D.
Amy J.L. Baker Ph.D.

Surviving Parental Alienation, Part 2

The parental alienation tipping point

This is the second of three blogs that provides an overview of a recent book on parental alienation entitled, “Surviving parental alienation: A journey of hope and healing.” In that book several stories written by targeted parents are analyzed in order to say something larger about the dynamics of parental alienation. In the second section of the book, four stories are presented, each describing the unfolding alienation drama. With the benefit of hindsight, the stories are deconstructed in order to understand the alienation “tipping point” from moderate to severe alienation. Malcolm Gladwell explores tipping points for a variety of social phenomenon and his approach is applied to alienation. Using this framework, parental alienation tipping points can be described as containing a “sticky message,” an effective delivery of that message through a powerful and persuasive alienating parent, and a social and familial context that supports the message.

A sticky message is defined as a particularly compelling idea that takes hold inside someone and cannot easily be shaken off. The message tells a story about how something works or why something happened and shapes the individuals understanding of everything that comes after it. Once that message is laid down, all subsequent information is filtered through that message. In parental alienation the sticky message is that the targeted parent is unloving, unsafe, and unavailable to the child. The message is delivered via the 17 primary parental alienation strategies (badmouthing, limiting contact, and the like). The message is usually packaged as a narrative presented to the child about why the family divorced, or what the marriage was really like, or what kind of parent the targeted parent really is. The message is sticky because in some way it resonates with the child’s own experiences of the targeted parent. That is, the alienating parent crafts a message that includes just enough facts in it to make it appear to be wholly true even though it is not.

The sticky message is delivered to the child through the use of six persuasion tactics of the alienating parent. These are the essential elements of the art of influence. The first is the rule of reciprocity in which the alienating parent appears to make a sacrifice for the child which results in the child feeling indebted towards the parent. The second is the rule of commitment in which the alienating parent induces the child to make initially small acts of rejection of the other parent which results in the child becoming committed psychologically to that position. Third is the endorsement of the social group, in this cases friends and family of the alienating parent and any legal and mental health professionals who fail to hold the alienating parent accountable. The fourth weapon of persuasion is likability, a factor that alienating parents appear to have plenty of. Fifth is authority. Alienating parents are able to create the appearance that they are all-knowing and the ultimate authority on whom their children should solely depend. And, finally, is the appearance of scarcity. When the alienating parent periodically withholds his or love and approval, the child becomes preoccupied with regaining that parents acceptance, and hence more susceptible to the sticky message.

The final element of the tipping point is the social context within which the alienation occurs. The alienation cannot fully take hold in the absence of the failure of the legal and mental health communities to inadvertently support and enable the alienating parent.

The combination of a compelling (yet untrue) message delivered through a persuasive alienating parent in the context of not being held accountable by friends, family, and the court, can readily tip alienation from moderate to severe. This framework provides a useful heuristic to understanding alienation as well as offers insight and direction for prevention and intervention.

About the Author
Amy J.L. Baker Ph.D.

Amy J.L. Baker, Ph.D., is an author and the director of research at the Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection at the New York Foundling.

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