Learning to Cope With Parental Alienation
Individual and community practices for constructing communicative resilience
Posted Jan 25, 2020
Regardless of their configuration, families are the fundamental social foundation in every society. Indeed, both scholars and the average person consider family relationships as some of the most enduring ones they will have. To some extent, every culture has a system by which parents and/or adults raise and socialize their children. Yet—what happens when this unbreakable institution fails to be resilient?
One group of people who ask this question are parents who have been alienated by their children. Parental alienation occurs after parents divorce, and one parent intentionally or even unintentionally persuades their children to distance themselves from or reject the other parent. Although this might sound atypical, representative sampling reveals that 13.4 percent of parents identify as being alienated by at least one or more children.
Alienated parents must deal with a myriad of stressors, including, for example, a divorce, lengthy custody hearings, legal battles, and sometimes even court-appointed reunification interventions pertaining to the alienation. Furthermore, alienated parents must learn to cope with the fact that their children are engaging in at least one of these behaviors: (a) feelings of hatred for the alienated parent, (b) refusing to visit the alienated parent, (c) holding irrational beliefs about the alienated parent, (d) experiencing no guilt or remorse, and (e) being unwilling to forgive the alienated parent for past indiscretions (Darnall, 1998).
In light of this burden, alienated parents engage in a variety of behaviors to help them cope with the alienation. A recent study by Scharp, Kubler, and Wang found that alienated parents engaged in four resilient practices at the individual-level and three at the online community-level. Specifically, they conducted in-depth interviews with 40 parents alienated by their children who had an experience, at least in part, with seeking support in an online support community.
They found that at the individual level, parents remained resilient by (a) crafting normalcy, (b) foregrounding productive action while backgrounding negative feelings, (c) maintaining and using communication networks, and (d) putting alternative logics to work. To craft normalcy, alienated parents adopted new behaviors, initiated new relationships, and developed new routines that helped them stabilize their life and provided them with a sense of control. Next, even though they were experiencing many negative emotions, resilient alienated parents were able to push those feelings to the background by engaging in productive actions that they believed would change their situation.
Third, alienated parents relied on important others and even sought out new relationships when they needed support. Finally, they put alternative logic to work in two ways by refocusing on self-preservation and the external factors (instead of the personal factors) that contributed to their situation. By moving away from the desire or belief that they, personally, could control their situation, some alienated parents were able to relinquish their “responsibility” to more amorphous powers, such as time, hope, and/or God.
At the online community level, alienated parents engaged in three communicative practices/processes to create new normalcies: (a) sharing in the experience, (b) sense-making collectively, and (c) communicating to provide support. First, alienated parents found strength in sharing in the alienation experience in two different ways; they learned they were not alone and expanded their own perceptions about alienation by learning from people who were very different from them (via race, gender, country of origin), but also had the same experience.
Second, when individuals did not understand what was going on or what they could or should do, social support groups served as a way for people to make sense of their particular experience together. Finally, providing and receiving support from people “who get it” was important for alienated parents in the resilience process. This emerged in two types of social support: (a) emotional support and (b) informational support.
Findings from this study suggest that both individual-level and community-level resilience practices were an important part of coping with parental alienation. Indeed, findings from this study suggest that the downsides to individual coping might be compensated for by community coping, just as the downsides to community coping might be compensated for by individual coping. Nevertheless, it is important to know that parental alienation is a common occurrence, and there are many strategies for coping available.
Darnall, D. (1998). Divorce causalities: Protecting your children from parental alienation. Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing.
Scharp, K. M., Kubler, K., & Wang, T. R. (in press). Individual and community practices for constructing communicative resilience: Exploring the communicative processes of coping with parental alienation. Journal of Applied Communication Research