Parental Alienation: How and When Does It Start?
Discover surprising answers from early marriage and parenting.
Posted Feb 18, 2020
During 40 years of being a child and adult psychiatrist, and 20 years as a forensic child psychiatrist, I discovered one of the unsavory ways automatic living plays out. This occurs in parental alienation (PA).
Parental alienation begins long before divorce occurs. In this blog post, I will talk about why PA is prominent in divorce; the characteristics of alienating parents, whether mom or dad; how to break the cycle of alienation; the problems that arise for children; the problems the court system experiences.
Relationship of Alienating Parent and Child Before Divorce and Alienation Begin
With the birth of a child, each parent forms a bond, or attachment, to the baby. For the alienating parent this bond is based on the parent having his or her needs met by the child. Mostly these are emotional needs. The relationship reverses from one that meets the needs of the child to one that meets the parent’s needs.
When divorce begins, the alienator puts more pressure than usual on the child to muster lots of support to this parent. The child finds the situation difficult. He or she is unable to resist this parent’s emotional pull for symbiosis––enmeshed thoughts and emotions that go along with what the alienator desires. The child becomes the emotional caretaker and the parent the emotional care consumer.
The child parrots the alienating parent’s venom about the other parent, the targeted parent. Eventually the child believes the alienator’s viewpoint because to support this parent, the child must do so. Not emotionally supporting this parent is something this child has never learned to do since birth. Parental alienation is underway.
Why Parental Alienation Shows Up During Divorce
When a marriage ends, commonly one parent has more anger over the disruption of the status quo. In a number of divorce situations, anger causes this parent to lash out, seeking to punish and blame the other parent. The weapon for this vengeance is the children, because they have a high value. The alienating parent uses the children as instruments to batter the targeted parent for disrupting the status quo of the marriage.
When vengeance is added to the symbiosis that already exists between alienating parent and child(ren), the storm of parental alienation gathers. Homer B. Martin, MD and I discuss these parental roles in our book, Living On Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships.
Characteristics of the Parent Who Alienates
Dr. Martin and I discovered that these alienating parents have certain commonalities; they have what we call impotent personalities or roles. Keep in mind that much of this is an unconscious role in which the alienating parent demonstrates the following:
Alienators easily become angry and lash out, blaming the spouse for the failed marriage, even if the alienator wanted the divorce. The alienator also becomes anxious at the prospect of disrupting 24-hour contact with his or her children, who are in roles of emotionally caretaking this parent.
Alienators want to punish and get retribution for the marital breakup of the perfect cocoon they believed they were in. They are determined to have vengeance in the way that most upsets the other parent. They also want to ensure their children continue to deliver emotional care to them.
Alienating parents badmouth the other parent. They also scapegoat and project onto the targeted parent by telling the children falsehoods, like what an unreasonable, inappropriate, or unloving parent the targeted parent is. Alienators appear even more emotionally needy than usual to their caregiving children. Sometimes they convey to their children they cannot live without them, and they will die if they do not get full custody or if the children do not live with them as much as the alienator wants.
The alienating parent projects onto the targeted parent what the alienating parent may be doing. An example is a parent who has difficulty managing the household, especially when the children are with him. He or she will not cook for them or do their laundry, takes them late to school, and doesn’t ensure the children get homework done. He projects these deficiencies onto the other parent saying, “She (or he) doesn’t care properly for you. She doesn’t love you. She’s a bad mother. She can’t even keep up her house.”
This confuses the children. They do not know whom to believe or who is telling the truth. The psychological pressure is so great that the children succumb to the alienator’s way of portraying the situation.
In Living On Automatic we write about the childhoods of people in impotent roles, the roles of alienators. We discovered they are reared in such a way that they believe and behave as if they are helpless and must be inert in the way they conduct relationships. By age three they are emotionally conditioned in this impotent role. They go through life expecting little of themselves. Instead they are skilled at expecting and manipulating others to gratify them by meeting their needs, desires, and expectations.
The hallmark experience of their childhoods is that they are overindulged and catered to by almost everyone. This emotional conditioning affects the ways their emotions are displayed, the thoughts they have about themselves and others, and the behaviors they show throughout their lives. In parental alienation they are superb at demanding and manipulating their own children to get the constant emotional support they crave and the revenge they seek on the other parent.
What is the best way to get an alienating parent to stop the alienation?
- A court order for the children to live with the targeted parent.
- Individual therapy for each child and targeted parent and family therapy for all the children and targeted parent.
- Individual therapy for alienating parents.
- Slow introduction of supervised visitation between children and alienating parent as children and targeted parent discover what has happened to each of them as a result of the parental alienation.
- Later on, introduction of therapy with alienator and children to allow children to confront the alienator’s misrepresentation of reality and psychological pressure to comply with the parent’s desires to separate them from their targeted parent.
Problems for Alienated Children
In any relationship, the expression “It takes two to tango” is accurate. Alienators must convince their children to participate in their desire for alienation from the other parent. Children describe the pressure they feel to accommodate to their alienators’ agendas. Alienators are the parents children most worry about crossing, upsetting, and making angry. They are also the parents that children see as most needing to have their way and who, in a role-reversal fashion, the parents see as most needing emotional support from their children.
Eventually, under constant pressure, children comply with alienating parents’ agendas to denigrate and not visit or live with the targeted parents. In these situations children sacrifice themselves emotionally to the alienating parents’ desires rather than dissatisfy them, invoke the alienators’ wrath, and experience self-devaluation and guilt.
The children’s accommodation to alienators’ pressure is complete when children say they hate, do not love, and never again want to visit or live with their targeted parents. At this point, they have taken up the alienating parents’ destructive mantra.
In therapy, children need to grapple with how they let this parent dictate their thoughts and behaviors. They need to work on breaking the symbiosis with the alienating parent and discover how to listen to their own desires and perspectives.
Problems for the Courts
When caught up in parental alienation, parents seek help from the court system to sort out what is best for their children. Courts handle this with wide variation in all the countries of the world. Mostly they handle these situations poorly and make egregious judgment errors in their legal decisions as to custody and visitation arrangements.
Legal and judicial professionals are not trained in the complex interpersonal issues of either family life or divorce—who does what psychologically and to whom, and how it affects children. This lack of knowledge is compounded because courts rarely appoint highly trained and skilled mental health counselors who regularly work with parental alienation to assess and help make decisions for involved families.
Another conundrum for the courts is distinguishing parental alienation from true parent-child estrangements. In estrangements children have legitimate reasons for not wanting to live with or visit a parent. This may be due to abuse or emotional neglect and, most often, has been ongoing before parental divorce.
Some estranged children are very vocal about not wanting to visit or live with one parent when that parent has not been a good parent to them. This stance confuses many parents and judges, as they cannot determine whether this is legitimate dislike of a parent or a case of parental alienation.
Woodall, Karen & Woodall, Nick (2017). Understanding Parental Alienation: Learning to Cope, Helping to Heal. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas Pub Ltd.
Baker, Amy & Fine, Paul R. (2017). Surviving Parental Alienation. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.