Parental Alienation, The Behaviors and the Effects
By Joan Whetzel
Most people are unaware of Parental Alienation and the growing problem of one parent or stepparent targeting children and their relationship with the other parent in the child or children's life. It is important for parents to understand parental alienation, not only for their children's welfare, but for their own peace of mind. Grandparents, judges, mediators, lawyers and mental health workers should also get up to speed on this problem, its symptoms, and the behaviors that create it, in order to keep the children safe and to protect their relationship with both parents. Understanding this problem begins with understanding the basic definition of Parental Alienation, the types of Parental Alienation, and the effects it has on the children and their families.
What Is Parental Alienation?
As far as the definition of Parental Alienation, there are two schools of thought. One school of thought defines it as a disorder that arises out of child custody disputes, where one of the manifestations is that the child is co-opted into the campaign of denigration against the targeted parent (whether the anger against this parent is justified or not) as a result of programming or indoctrination by the accusatory parent or stepparent or simply by the child adding his or her own vilification of the targeted parent. In this school of thought, the child becomes an active participant in the alienation of the victimized parent.
The other school of thought states that the child's vilification of the target parent does not begin until the accusatory parent has been denigrating the target parent for some time, and is a direct result of the indoctrination (or brainwashing) process. In this case, the child is not an active participant but more of a victim of something akin to Stockholm Syndrome, and has been so brainwashed by the accusatory parent that he or she has begun to believe the alienator's dogma.
In both cases, Parental Alienation (PA) consists of a group of behaviors on the part of the accusatory parent that either consciously or unconsciously disrupts the relationship between a child or children and the other parent. And this behavior can vary in severity, from something as minor as an offhand comment about the other parent or a minor spat with the other parent within earshot of the child, to something as severe and overwhelming as a concerted campaign to destroy the relationship between the child and the other parent. However, a word of caution should be given here. If true abuse or neglect, on the part of the target parent, has occurred it would not be appropriate to add the title of Parental Alienation as an explanation of the child's feelings or behavior, as they are acting from a position of actual abuse victimology. Other explanations for parent-child relationship problems include: failure to bond, punitive punishment, an insensitivity to the needs of the child or children, or a failure on the part of the parent to comprehend developmental issues.
Actions that Constitute Parental Alienation
In Parental Alienation (PA), one parent manipulates a child in order to harm the other parent, or to detrimentally affect the child's relationship with the other parent. Alienating parents usually have a circle of family and friends who support their views that the child or children need protecting from the target parent. The behaviors used by the alienating parent are intended to devastate the target parent as a process of revenge (for whatever reason). In general, the PA behaviors manifested toward the child may include:
· rejection or spurning.
· corrupting, denying essential stimulation.
· emotional availability.
· inconsistent parenting.
· mental health.
· medical neglect.
· education neglect.
· denigrating the other parent.
· isolating the child from the other parent and other family members.
· isolating the child from social support systems (school, friends, church and Sunday school).
· a concentrated effort to disrupt the loving relationship between the child and the other parent.
· a concerted effort to coerce the child into an affectionate relationship with the accusatory parent that excludes the target parent.
PA behaviors fall into three categories, based on their severity. The three types are referred to as Naïve Alienators, Active Alienators and Obsessive Alienators. The source of these behaviors may be the mother, father, stepparents, other relatives, babysitters, friends of the parent, the attorney hired by the parent, or even a therapist. These labels are not recognized psychiatric diagnoses, nor are they recognized by the legal system in the United States. They are simply to be used as basic classifications to help distinguish between the behaviors, and to help define the severity of the PA.
1. Type One: Naïve Alienators. These parents are described as passive about the children's relationship with the other parent, meaning they have been known to say or do something on occasion that could be deemed to be alienating in nature. However the actions are words, were not performed with the intent to alienate the children and from the other parent.
· Most divorced parents have times when they are naïve, or unaware, that they are behaving in an alienating manner toward their kids.
· They mean well, and are well aware of the necessity of a healthy relationship between the children and the other parent, and in fact, are encouraging when it comes to maintaining healthy communications and time spent between them.
· The two parents may have a disagreement, or simply say something out-of-hand about the other parent. But soon enough, it all blows over and everything gets back to normal. Most kids learn to ignore these petty behaviors, recognizing them as trivial in the scheme of things.
· They actively encourage the children to spend time with the other parent, and a mutually loving relationship between them.
· They are secure in the relationship between the children and their other parent, their other grandparents, and their extended family on their ex's side.
· They respect the custody orders and the authority it proffers.
· They allow their hurt and anger time to heal in a healthy manner so that it doesn't interfere with the children's relationship with the other parent.
· They are flexible and willing to work with the other parent when it comes to visitation and phone calls, or with shared/joint custody so long as it doesn't interfere with the children's schooling and other activities.
· They feel guilty as well as having a sense of regret, if they have behaved in a way that could have a negative effect on the relationship between the children and the other parent.
· They are willing to allow the other parent to share in major decisions about child care and child rearing, and generally recognize that there may be times when both parents may just have to agree to disagree on some points.
2. Type Two: Active Alienators. These parents know their actions or words are hurtful to the relationship between the children and their other parent, but will do them anyway out of hurt or anger. The actions and words are usually done impulsively, and the parent who knows better than to say and do such things, usually feels guilt or regret afterwards.
· They mean well, and believe the kids should have a healthy relationship with the other parent.
· They may return to court over visitation problems.
· They have problems controlling their frustration, anger, hurt. Episodes that trigger painful feelings cause them to lash out - in front of the children - in ways that reinforce the children's alienation from the target parent.
· Regret and guilt set in after the alienating parent's feelings subside and clear-headed reason returns, and the parent must try to repair the damage left behind by their little tirade.
· They are able to tell the difference between their own needs and those of their children (in the same way as the Naïve Alienators), although when they are riled up, those lines get blurred.
· Older children of this type of alienator will have their own opinions of both parents based on past experience with both, and so they are less affected by the Active Alienator as younger siblings might be, and are less vulnerable to that parent's manipulative behaviors.
· These parent's respect the court's authority when it comes to custody issue. For the most part, they have no problems complying with the custody order. However, when it comes to getting along with the other parent, Active Alienators can become rigid in their interpretation of the custody order and uncooperative when an agreement needs to be reached between the two parents. This is a passive aggressive attempt to get even for some perceived injustice on the part of the other parent. .
3. Type Three: Obsessed Alienators. These parents are on a mission to destroy the target parent and their relationship with the children, and feels no regret or guilt over his or her words and actions.
· This alienator may be the other parent, the stepparent, or even a grandparent.
· Obsessive Alienators are on a mission to align the children with their side in an effort to co-opt the children in their campaign of destruction of the relationship between the kids and the target parent.
· Obsessed alienators incorporate the children's needs and beliefs into their own as a way of taking advantage of those needs and beliefs for their own ends. This is usually done slowly, over time, in such a way that the children don't see what's happening and are unable to see it or combat this subtle manipulation.
· This parent is angry or feels betrayed by the other parent, which may be justified initially, but the angry parent never allows his or her feelings to heal. Instead the feelings intensify because they are forced to keep dealing with the other parent, and so the strong feelings become the energy they use to destroy the other parent.
· They become obsessed with destroying the relationship between the children and their other parent.
· The kids mimic or parrot the obsessed alienator rather than expressing their own feelings or thoughts about the target parent, out of fear of upsetting the obsessed alienator further, or being accused of being "just like' the target parent.
· They can't express why they feel as they do about the other parent.
· Their feelings and beliefs are irrational at times, to the point where no one, including the court, can convince them that they are wrong. In fact, anyone trying to convince them that they are wrong becomes their enemy.
· They seek support from family and any other groups that could possibly share their belief that they are the victims of the other parents and of the courts.
· They believe strongly that the other parent has victimized them and that they must protect their children from the other parent at all costs, and that they are justified in doing so.
· They use the court system as a means of punishing the other parent, by seeking court orders that will interfere with the other parent's rights to see the children, or to completely block their rights to see the children.
· Obsessed alienators don't see the needs of their children to have the love of both parents.
Alienating parents may only act out one type of alienator behaviors, or they may behave in a combination of Naïve and Active Alienator behaviors. The Obsessed Alienator doesn't usually have the self-control or the insight for the blended type of Alienating behaviors. It is also important to note that, both parents can take on the alienator role or the victim role, and may trade places from time to time.
Affects of Alienation
Parental Alienation (PA) is sometimes referred to as Hostile Aggressive Parenting because the behaviors that manifest themselves damage the mental and emotional well-being of the children, and interferes with the children and the target parent. Parental Alienation coincides with "high-conflict " marriages, separations, and divorces, though it can linger on long afterwards when one parent never heals from the hurt and anger associated with these situations. The effects of PA include the following. PA:
· causes mental manipulation or bullying of the children into believing that their loving target parent is causing all sorts of problems.
· manipulates the children into seeing the target parent as the enemy, or as someone to be feared, hated, or disrespected.
· deprives the children of their right to be loved by both parents.
· becomes a form of abuse against the child on the part of the alienating parent or third party (stepparent, grandparent, lawyer, therapist) because the behaviors are disturbing, confusing, or frightening to the child.
· robs the children of the sense of security and feelings of safety, which can lead to maladaptive emotional reactions.
· offers the children a choice (when they really have no choice because of the custody order) about visitations, which sets the children up for conflict with the parent with whom they are not living. That parent is victimized whether he or she is denied the visit or whether the children visit and they don't want to but are forced to because of the custody order.
· allows one parent to tell the children "the whole truth" about the marriage, divorce, and custody battles both destructive and painful to the children because it is intended to make the children think less of the other parent.
· does not acknowledge that the children see their clothing and toys as possessions which they may wish to transfer between one parent's home and the other's. They begin to wonder who these things belong to, them or their parent's.
· resists or refuses to cooperate with the other parent, doesn't allow access to school or medical records, or schedules extracurricular activities so that the children are always busy during the other parent's visitation periods. This is detrimental to the relationship between the children and the other parent.
· blames the other parent for financial problems, for breaking up the family, for having a new girlfriend, boyfriend, husband or wife, which portrays the other parent in a negative light and harms the children's positive image of that parent, which in turn harms their ability to love that parent.
· refuses to be flexible with the visitation schedule which could negatively affect the child's needs.
· negatively describes the other parent as uncaring and selfish, indicating to the child that if the other parent doesn't go along, that he or she love them.
· suggests a change of residence or asks the child to choose one parent over the other, which causes considerable distress because the child is, in essence, being asked to reject the other parent.
· brings up the topic of adoption or changing the child's name, which can be extremely distressing to a child because the child will be made to feel as if they must reject the other parent permanently.
· uses children to spy on the other parent or covertly gather information that the alienating parent wishes to use to demean or victimize the other parent, or to use against them in ongoing custody disputes.
· sets up tempting activities that the children cannot help but desire over the visitation or primary custody "rules" and mundane activities with the other parent, which harms the relationship between the children and the other parent by making the "tempting" parent more fun and the "mundane" parent someone the children don't want to be around.
· reacts with hurt or sadness when the children have fun with the other parent, which makes them feel guilty for wanting to spend time with the other parent.
· asks leading questions about the other parent's personal life, about their life with the other parent, about what goes on in the other parent's home, which sets up tension and conflict and tension with the children because it requires them to be disloyal to the other parent.
· physically or psychologically "rescues" the children from the other parent when there really is no clear and present danger. If done enough times, the children start perceiving danger associated with spending time with the other parent and won't want to go with that parent.
· makes demands on the target parent that contradict the custody order, which interferes with that parent's ability to effectively care for the children and causes that parent to be constantly in conflict with the alienating parent.
· listens in on the children's phone conversations in an attempt to catch the other parent saying something that can be used against them. It also makes the children start feeling that there's something to be feared about telephone conversations with the target parent.
· breaks promises with the children about visitation, picking them up, or doing fun things with them. The other parent ends up always having to make excuses for them, and may in time, become so tired of making excuse that he or she starts becoming more of an active alienator.
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