Parental Alienation (PA)
Did you know that 38% of all marriages end in divorce in the US alone?
The newest statistics even tell us that 11-15% of high-conflict divorces lead children to parental alienation. What is that?
Parental alienation (PA) is a specific family dynamic, often emerging during divorce, but can also happen in married couples. It involves one parent intentionally attempting to damage the relationship between their child and the other parent. This strategy aims to turn the child against the targeted parent and alienate them from each other.
The alienating parent achieves this goal by engaging in the following behaviors:
- excessively criticizing the targeted parent,
- defaming and disrespecting them,
- making a scapegoat out of their spouse,
- gaslighting and falsely accusing the other parent of neglect or abuse,
- restricting or denying child access to the targeted parent,
- blaming the spouse for the breakdown of their marriage,
- pressuring and manipulating their child to cut all contact with the other parent.
Let’s say that the alienating parent has difficulties in fulfilling their responsibilities when children are around.
As a result, they often fail to drive the kids to school on time, pay bills in a timely manner, or keep the house clean.
Rather than be accountable for their action or acknowledge that issue, the alienating parent might project these problems onto the other parent, painting them out to be a horrible mother/father to their children, someone who has no idea how to take proper care of them, someone who doesn’t love their children the way they should.
The children can likely feel quite confused and stressed since they don’t know who or what to believe. Additionally, they’re often pressured by the alienating parent to bend to their will and agree with whatever they’re saying. A completed parental alienation happens when the alienating parent manages to convince their children that the other parent is evil to such a point that the children refuse to spend time with the other parent.
While PA is not a diagnosable issue, behaviors involved in PA are recognized as a form of child abuse. The hallmark of parental alienation is the fact that the targeted parent is being falsely judged, criticized, and denigrated by the alienating parent. Even though there’s no actual proof or reasonable grounds to alienate the targeted parent, the behaviors of the alienating parent often effectively brainwash their child, enticing hatred toward the other parent.
The Root Causes of Parental Alienation
You might be thinking: How do these situations happen? Where does this behavior come from?
Usually the PA behaviors start due to a marital crisis and divorce, where both sides need to reach an agreement regarding their finances and custody of their child/children.
Parents who choose to alienate:
- most commonly show narcissistic traits, struggle with emotional instability, have borderline tendencies, or are generally emotionally immature,
- often seek revenge on their spouse, act out of jealousy, or attempt to extort money from the other parent,
- excessively rely on their child to support them emotionally.
Such role reversal means that the alienating parent expects their child to comfort them emotionally while failing/ignoring to fulfill the needs of that child. In times of stress and difficulties, such as going through a divorce, the alienating parent might exert even more pressure on their child than usual to support them and cater to their needs. The parent who was supposed to be the emotional caretaker of their child becomes the emotional care consumer, while the child steps into the role of their parent. The parent craves more and more support, pressuring their child to turn against the other parent as a sign of their care. And eventually, the child adjusts their behaviors and beliefs to the will of the alienating parent.
Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)
Richard Gardner, an American psychologist, first started talking about this issue in 1995 when he coined the term parental alienation syndrome (PAS), which describes the symptoms of a child, not the behavior of the parent.
From years of practice, he concluded that children with PAS show these tendencies:
- parroting the language of the alienating parent,
- relentlessly expressing their anger and hatred toward the targeted parent,
- consistently refusing to have any contact with the targeted parent
- holding beliefs, thoughts, and emotions that are deeply enmeshed with those of the alienating parent, yet viewing oneself as “an individual thinker”
- rationalizing their criticism of the targeted parent with absurd reasons,
their animosity toward the targeted parent doesn’t come from their direct experiences but from the stories of the alienating parent,
- perceiving the targeted parent in black or white, as either good or bad, without any nuance
feeling no sense of guilt over their actions and no empathy toward the targeted parent,
- in harsh cases, the child might spread their hatred to the extended family of the targeted parent.
Effects of Parental Alienation on a Child’s Mental Health
Any breakup, separation, or conflict can be upsetting. However, children of divorced couples who had to go through child custody disputes and were manipulated by one or both parents are faced with a different caliber of pain.
The immediate effects of parental alienation on the child’s mental health include:
- low mood, sadness, anxiety,
- confusion and lack of safety,
- inability to fully grieve the damaged relationship with the targeted parent,
- internalizing feelings of hatred toward the targeted parent,
- heightened risk of struggling with depression and/or substance use.
However, the issue doesn’t stop there – it creates ripples, negatively affecting children of parental alienation in their adulthood. Once these children grow up and become more independent in their beliefs, behaviors, and perceptions of the world, they might understand how they were manipulated by one of their parents to sever ties with the other.
It can be incredibly difficult to come to terms with, potentially leading to issues such as:
- intense feelings of guilt,
- low self-esteem,
- low self-sufficiency and a lack of autonomy,
- insecure attachment style,
- trust issues,
- issues with their inner critic,
- substance abuse,
- higher risk of alienating their own children and having a divorce.
Healing From Parental Alienation
Whether you’re a child with PAS or a targeted parent who’s a victim of parental alienation, here are a couple of tips for you that can foster your healing process:
TIP 1: Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings:
- Chances are this experience left you feeling deeply hurt, confused, frustrated, lonely, or terrified.
- It’s good to address these complex thoughts and emotions rather than avoiding or suppressing them.
- Try journaling about them or talking to a friend.
TIP 2: Communicate openly about your struggle:
- You might feel betrayed by your ex or your parent and want to confront them with their actions.
- Perhaps it’s more vital for you to focus on talking to your estranged child / alienated parent and rebuild your relationship.
- Keep your conversations relatively neutral and avoid talking negatively about the alienating parent.
TIP 3: Rebuild your relationship step by step:
- Healing takes time – so start by practicing your patience.
- Take your time, and don’t rush anything.
- Focus on one successful meeting at a time.
TIP 4: Seek professional help:
- Experience of parental alienation can be traumatic, and it’s crucial to explore that, preferably in psychotherapy with an experienced professional to heal.
- A psychotherapist can help you:
- identify any unhelpful beliefs,
- learn how to cope with your pain and discomfort,
- determine how to repair the relationship (if that’s what you want).
Contact us here to set up your first therapy session.