Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Why Parental Alienation Is a Form of Domestic Abuse

Children used as pawns or weapons, and not only by narcissists.

Key points

  • Parental alienation is not just a post-relationship phenomenon.
  • In parental alienation scenarios, children are objectified and treated like currency.
  • Parental alienation robs children of social power and autonomy, fostering self-doubt.

We often think of parental alienation as a post-relationship phenomenon. In fact, it’s something that happens within the context of ongoing relationships every bit as much as it happens after a relationship ends. In either case, it is a manufactured manipulation that hurts everyone—except, of course, the alienator—from the abused partner to the children who are weaponized.

At its core, parental alienation, where one partner or post-partner turns everyone in a family’s orbit against the other partner, is a form of domestic abuse. We sometimes mistakenly believe domestic abuse happens only inside intact families. In fact, as long as the fabric of the family is maintained—despite a change in its context, such as through separation or divorce—the ground of the relationship remains fertile for sowing the seeds of discontent. Children are typically the glue holding this dysfunction together and, as such, quickly become the currency of alienation.

Within this context, children may also become the currency of abuse. The abuser uses them—their affection, their availability, and even their loyalty to the abused parent—to leverage the parent who is the target of alienation. They become weaponized. Emotional abuse is a much more powerful—and damaging—tool than physical, financial, and even psychosocial abuse, and, given our attachment to our children, that much more devastating.

The collateral damage here is the kids. Alienators may have high levels of narcissistic traits and may be bent on power and control. They do not consider collateral damage. Rather, they consider outcomes that serve their needs. In the case of parental alienation, that need is primarily to inflict pain on their partner or post-partner because of their perception they have been dismissed or devalued.

Fair enough, in the world of the narcissist, but that notion in no way mitigates the consequences of those choices, for the children or the alienated partner. One of the most profound implications of this kind of family system is the children’s disconnection not just from the alienated parent, but the alienating parent. Kids know. Even children co-opted into a parental alienation construct who buy into it recognize something’s not right, which sets them up for profound relationship difficulties in later life.

One of the other consequences of parental alienation for children is a loss of trust in both their memory and themselves. From a memory standpoint, they can lose perspective based on context. This, in turn, can cause them to doubt their decision-making and rob them of a sense of social power and autonomy. Ultimately, this can result in a lack of social connection and success in creating lasting social relationships.

Parental alienation serves one person—the alienator. For everyone else drawn into the dynamic, the impact is insidious. For the alienated partner, it causes immeasurable stress, leaving them in a state of almost constant tension and anxiety. For the children, it destroys family connection, a sense of place, and a sense of self they carry into their adult lives. For the extended family, it introduces a subtle undercurrent of inescapable tension and threatening chaos.

We can’t control the actions of another person, but an awareness of the agenda and its consequences could help us better manage the situation and our reaction to it.

Facebook image: Anna Kraynova/Shutterstock

advertisement