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"Weaponizing" a Child Through Parental Alienation

The child becomes a spy and the enemy within.

Key points

  • Parental alienation is a process resulting in extreme estrangement.
  • Parental alienation can be considered a form of child abuse.
  • The court must take a strong role to help the child.

Parental alienation occurs when one parent deliberately turns his or her child against the other parent. For a mother or father who becomes a target of this hugely destructive process, little can be more painful.

A positive bond that has existed for years can be severed in a matter of months by a parent who maliciously and successfully mounts a campaign of constant denigration. A frequent outcome is that the boy or girl refuses to spend time with or even to speak with the parent. The child becomes convinced that not only is he is better off with just one parent but also that the other is toxic.

If he has the financial means, the devastated targeted parent is likely to seek redress through litigation. If a judge becomes convinced that alienation is occurring, he may address it by ordering an increase in the time the child spends with the parent who is being shunned. A court may initiate a process of “reunification” that involves a therapist who will meet with the alienated child and the targeted parent. Unfortunately, in many cases that effort fails. The child becomes even more resistant because she resents being compelled to spend more time with the parent whom she has come to detest.

The alienated child exploits the visitation time by converting it into an opportunity to gather information about the targeted parent and feed it back to the alienator. It is as though the child has now become a spy, recruited by the alienator. The result is that the alienating parent accumulates more ammunition to fuel her allegations while denying any responsibility for her child’s rejection of the other parent.

A judge established a schedule of gradual increases in time that Priscilla would spend with Mr. Sturgis, her father.* After several months of daytime visits, she would spend overnight one weekend a month at his apartment. With a reunification therapist overseeing the process, father and daughter were to be reconciled.

What happened was the opposite. Priscilla would return to her mother after each visit with a litany of complaints. Ms. Sturgis would repeat her daughter’s grievances to the father and to the therapist. Publicly taking the position that Priscilla’s future relationships with men could be affected unless she had a good relationship with her dad, Ms. Sturgis actually saw not one redeeming feature in this man with whom she raised Priscilla for eight years prior to their divorce. With the judge and therapist, Ms. Sturgis assumed an air of innocence and declared that Priscilla’s resistance to spending time with her father was based on the child’s own experiences and opinions.

Almost nothing her father did met with Priscilla’s approval. She had a sharp tongue and a critical eye. If he didn’t buy her an expensive pair of shoes, she claimed he didn’t care about her and was being cheap. If he took her to a nice restaurant, he was spending too much money and trying to impress her. When it came to extracting money from her father, she was cordial while approaching her birthday, Christmas, and other special occasions. She asked him to finance special activities that would interfere with the limited time they were scheduled to spend together. If those activities involved performing in a play or concert, she told her father not to attend. Mr. Sturgis paid for an expensive overnight camp and wanted to drive Priscilla to it on a weekend that coincided with her visitation. Priscilla insisted that her mother had to take her because it was a camp for girls.

When Mr. Sturgis encouraged his daughter to invite friends over, Priscilla rebuked him saying he embarrassed her. But if she asked to visit a friend and he declined to take her because he had planned something else, she castigated him as selfish and said he was forcing her to become a hermit.

Among the innumerable situations in which Priscilla became her mother’s informer were the following:

· If her father spent 15 minutes on his computer, Priscilla claimed he refused to pay attention to her. This was despite the fact that she constantly tried to freeze her father out by playing computer games, even at meals.

· When Mr. Sturgis inquired about school and her grades, she told her mother he was overbearing. If he failed to ask about school, Priscilla would claim he was not interested.

· If Mr. Sturgis issued a mild reprimand, she would complain to her mother about his “yelling.”

· No matter how clean his apartment was, she would tell her mother it was filthy and she feared getting sick.

Mr. Sturgis reached a point where nothing he could do met with his daughter’s approval. Priscilla maintained that she felt unsafe with him because he was a poor driver, but if she wanted to go somewhere, she demanded he transport her. Priscilla refused to spend even one night at his apartment because he didn’t have furniture she liked. However, she rejected outright his proposal that the two of them go shopping together so she could help select the furnishings.

Meanwhile, Ms. Sturgis was taking in every one of Priscilla’s complaints and savoring them to bolster her case that Mr. Sturgis was an unfit father.

In cases where a child spends significant periods of time with the targeted parent, she believes that loyalty to the alienating parent requires her to report back what is going on. Her cell phone becomes a weapon as she clandestinely texts, emails, or calls her other parent to issue reports. She may refuse to get in the car, sulk in her room, and reject overtures to engage in activities that she actually likes because she is focused on remaining loyal to the alienating parent.

No judge can compel a child to be affectionate to a parent. However, a judge should reprimand the alienating parent and threaten legal sanctions if she continues to interfere with the child’s relationship with the targeted parent. In addition, a judge should order the alienating parent into counseling with a professional who will focus on the damage that is being done to the child.

*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality