Parental alienation is a problem that most often arises when parents engage in bitter and extended child custody litigation. Although intense feelings of anger and mistrust are common when parents are beginning to transition from the tidal wave of emotions surrounding divorce into a co-parenting relationship, most parents experience less anger and anxiety over time as they make efforts to co-parent in a way that is healthier and more productive for the children.
“Parent alienation occurs when a child is influenced by one parent (often called the alienator) to completely reject their other parent (often known as the target.) In severe cases, parent alienation results in the child’s complete rejection of the target parent. Typically, the reasons for the child’s rejection are frivolous or unjustified,” explains Parent Educator and Author Christina McGhee in her book, Parenting Apart.
Due to the intensity of emotions that erupt during the often lengthy process of separation and divorce, many parents experience strain and frustration within the parent-child relationship. Some parents engage in harmful or destructive behaviors that lead to the natural consequence of the child distancing themselves from that parent.
In contrast, true parental alienation takes place when one parent unduly influences the child to respond to the other parent in a consistently negative manner despite there not being evidence of abusive, destructive or harmful parenting behaviors.
What are the most common signs that a child is being affected by parental alienation?
Here are 5 Key Signs of Parental Alienation:
1. The child views the alienating parent as the good and honest parent and expresses only negative feelings toward the target parent who is seen as all bad. This black-and- white thinking is consistently reinforced by the alienating parent until the child expresses hatred, contempt and fear regarding the target parent while not showing any guilt or remorse.
2. The child denies being coached or influenced by one parent. “Mimics accusations and opinions of the alienating parent yet insist they have formulated ideas about the target parent on their own,” explains McGhee.
3. The child’s negativity extends to the targeted parent’s extended family. The child begins to refuse visits or contact with relatives of the target parent, even if they had a warm and interactive relationship prior to the alienation.
4. The child’s contempt, hatred and rejection toward the target parent are based on frivolous and unwarranted reasons. The rejection is not based on personal experiences that are justified by abusive, harmful or destructive behaviors.
5. The child consistently rejects one parent and refuses to have contact with them. “Many parents describe having a formerly loving and close relationship with their children only to become completely leveled by the fact that their children no longer want to have any contact with them,” explains McGhee. “Alienation of affection damages the child’s core of her sense of self and her ability to form lasting, intimate relationships with friends and family. The loss of a connection with the alienated parent also damages the child’s psychological road map for understanding where she came from, since she will now lack one parent as a role model,” explains Psychotherapist and Author Aleta Koman, in her book, My Ex is Driving Me Crazy!
Since parental alienation has such destructive long-term consequences for both parents and children, it is extremely concerning that more is not being done by professionals to clarify when early stage alienation is taking place and take strategic actions to turn things around before the alienation has reached a critical stage. Unfortunately, many courts and other professionals who deal with parties experiencing high-conflict divorces are not trained about how to detect alienation early on when professional intervention could have the greatest impact.
Alienation is often hard to clearly define and legally prove and many target parents come to realize that trying to prove parental alienation in court is quite challenging, expensive and time-consuming.
Even if these parents are able to do so, many court systems are not equipped to deal with such high-conflict parenting situations that need such intensive intervention. When the courts are reluctant to deal with such cases or not able to effectively intervene in a consistently effective manner, these parents often find that the family law attorneys they consult with either minimize the situation or are reluctant to pursue the issues in court.
Complicating matters further, some parents refuse to participate in parent-child therapy or respond to guidance from a Therapist or Parenting Coordinator unless it is court-ordered and carefully monitored and evaluated on an on-going basis. In addition, since the alienating parent is usually well experienced at using litigation as a means to control the target parent, many target parents are exhausted and depleted by previous litigation and may fear that more legal intervention will only make things worse.
McGhee recommends that parents seek out professionals who truly understand the underlying dynamics of the problem, try hard not to take the child’s rejection personally and stay committed to positive co-parenting behaviors. She also advises parents to not give up hope despite the complexity of the situation. “The journey to repair your relationship with your child can be long and often requires an enormous amount of patience and persistence. In some parent-child relationships, it may take years before you will see the results of your choices and effort. Never make the mistake of thinking you do not matter to your children—you do.”