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Denigrating a CoParent: Alienation or Boomerang?

Put downing your coparent hurts you more than him in your children's eyes

Conflict between parents is strongly linked to psychological problems among children whose parents live apart – and whose parents live together too.

I first concluded this in a paper published in Psychological Bulletin in 1982. Three decades of subsequent research, some by me and much more by dozens of social scientists around the world, shows how interparental conflict can be toxic to children’s mental health.

So do three decades of clinical and life experience.

When I give talks to mental health or legal professionals, I often demonstrate the power of conflict to damage. I pick some unsuspecting member of the audience, and I scream at him to pay better attention. When I do, the entire audience freezes and focuses. (I often do this after lunch, when the audience is tired. This wakes them up.) If I had people wired to psychophysiological devices, I could document changes in their heart rate, blood pressure, and pupil dilation, not to mention increased feelings of surprise, fear, and anger.

And that’s how experts respond to just one second of conflict.

Imagine what ongoing conflict between parents does to children. Consider not only children’s reactions to their parents’ anger, but also problems like inconsistent discipline, loyalty dilemmas, and children’s efforts to calm their parents’ fights – distracting them by behaving very badly, or being very good, or perhaps by becoming a 10 year old mediator.

Together with my former graduate student, Jenna Rowen, I recently have become very interested in investigating an aspect of interparental conflict that has largely gone unstudied: When one parent puts down the other to or in front of their children.

“Your father is a self-absorbed narcissistic. He doesn’t love you. He only loves himself!”

“I can’t buy you this. Your greedy, bloodsucking mother robbed me of all of my money!”

You get the picture, sadly.

Some experts call comments like this, “parental alienation.” Their hypothesis is that, when one parent disparages the other to their children, the put downs have the effect of “alienating” or distancing children from the parent who is put down.

The idea of parental alienation has been around for a couple of decades. Right now, parental alienation is a very hot topic among child custody evaluators, who view alienation as a very important consideration in child custody cases according to research by Bow, Gould, & Flens, (2009) among others. And testimony about alienation can and apparently does have an important impact on many judges’ child custody decisions.

Yet, here is a surprise for those who believe a “diagnosis” of parental alienation can be made with any degree of scientific certainty. According to a review by Saini, Johnston, Fidler, & Bala, zero high quality studies of parental alienation had been published as of 2013. Of the 39 published studies they identified, 82% were of low or very low quality.

Jaws should be dropping in the judicial world where parental alienation is sometimes viewed as a scientifically-established fact.

I do not doubt that too many children reject one (or both) of their parents as a result of divorce dynamics. Clinically, I have observed instances where I attributed children’s rejection of a parent to the other parent’s disparagement of that parent.

But the idea that disparagement equals alienation is a hypothesis that needs to be tested, not an established fact. For this reason, Rowen and I refer to parental put downs as “denigration.” This term describes the parental behavior, but does not presuppose its effect children’s relationship with the denigrated parent (alienation).

Testing the parental alienation hypothesis is important not only because the idea of alienation can have a huge impact on child custody contests. Empirical tests are critical, because the alienation hypothesis and interparental conflict hypothesis offer conflicting predictions.

The alienation hypothesis sees denigration as one-sided. One parent alienates the children from the other. The interparental conflict hypothesis sees denigration as two-sided. That’s the definition of conflict, right?

And there’s another huge difference in predictions. The alienation hypothesis sees denigration as distancing children from the parent who is denigrated, while drawing them closer to the parent who does the denigrating. In contrast, research on interparental conflict shows that conflict distances children from both parents.

Contrasting predictions like this make for great a research opportunity.

Of course, studying denigration is tricky. For obvious reasons, parents probably are not very good informants about their own denigration. Young children may have a hard time sorting out the truth of parents’ claims or discerning their parents’ motivations. So, as a starting point to studying this important topic, Rowen and I decided to study young adults, college students, who should be less intimidated by their parents’ behavior. Young adults also should have more insight into what happened to them during their childhood.

In 2014, we published a study (led by Rowen) of 676 college students’ reports of parental denigration in the journal, Couple and Family Psychology. We found quite a bit of denigration in married families but, unsurprisingly, more in divorced families. We also found that denigration was reciprocal. When one parent put the other down, well, the other parent returned the favor. And perhaps most importantly, we found that children exposed to more denigration reported feeling more distant from both parents. In contrast to the alienation hypothesis, in fact, children reported feeling more distant from the parent who did the denigrating than from the parent who was the object of their denigration.

Rowen calls this a “boomerang effect.” The stuff you throw comes back and hits you.

I like the boomerang term. It reminds me of what a Dad once told me about his ex’s denigration. “What goes around, comes around.”

Now, I would never conclude based on one study that alienation doesn’t happen. As I said, based on my clinical experience, I believe alienation can happen. (Rowen agrees.)

In fact, Rowen and I searched for individual cases of possible alienation in our sample of 676. We identified 9 cases where young adults reported one-sided denigration. One parent put down the other a lot, but the other parent did not return the favor. In six of these nine cases, children reported feeling much closer to the parent who was denigrated than to the parent who did the denigrating, consistent with our overall results. In two cases, children reported feeling distant from both parents, also consistent with the group findings. In one case, the young adult reported feeling closer to the parent who did the denigration. So, maybe that one case in 676 supports for the idea that alienation can happen.

There are other qualifications that we acknowledge about our study. Maybe younger children are more easily tricked by parental denigration. Maybe young adults’ retrospective reports are flawed in some way.

We are at work doing more and hopefully better research.

In the meantime, here is my bottom line. I think our research should give pause to the idea that denigration equals alienation. We have evidence that, the vast majority of time, the opposite occurs. Denigration distances children more from the parent who does the denigrating than from the parent who is put down.

So, it seems to me that custody evaluators need to have good evidence if they want to argue that a case is not an example of the boomerang rule but an exception to the rule – a rare example of alienation.

I also encourage parents to stop and think if you have an impulse to denigrate your coparent to your kids. The dirt you throw may boomerang, not because your ex will get even, but because your put downs diminish you, not your ex, in the eyes of your children.

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