Parental Alienation: The Elephant in the Room

Parental Alienation: The Elephant in the Room

Is your child suddenly not picking up your calls or refuse to see you? Is your ex-spouse cold or seem angry, especially in the presence of your kid? Watch out. You may be dealing with parental alienation.

Parental alienation occurs when one parent, typically divorced or separated, uses various techniques to deny the other parent access to, and involvement with, their child. The favored (alienating) parent may use verbal abuse or belittling statements to undermine the other (targeted) parent. They may create obstacles to impairing contact between the targeted-rejected parent and the children.

Other alienating behaviors include unjustly depriving the targeted parent of decision-making authority for important matters regarding their children. Sometimes an alienating parent will even seek sole custody of the children to reduce further contact with the other parent.

How common is parental alienation? It is hard to know how common it is because it can be difficult to identify when each party has equal access to, and involvement with, their children (i.e., 50/50 shared parenting). In one study, about 13 percent of parents reported the problem, of which 48 percent said the condition is severe.

Causes of Parental Alienation

While many factors can contribute to one parent’s attempt to alienate the children from the other parent (e.g., anger, control, revenge), most experts agree that if there is PAS, it is caused primarily by the favored-alienating parent who has a serious distortion of how relationships work and an inability to empathize with others (including their child/children).

This failure results in their intent on preserving and protecting their fantasy bond with their child(ren) at all costs rather than trying to understand and appreciate their spouse or ex-spouse as someone separate and distinct from themselves. As such, they regard the target parent as “the enemy” who can do nothing right, and it is their mission to destroy the “alien” other-parent through a campaign of denigration.

If the alienating behavior results in a child’s rejection of the alienated parent, professionals often conclude that parental alienation has occurred. While some court professionals use this as sufficient evidence of parental alienation, not all do so.

Typically, courts require more than mere allegations by one parent against another before granting negative coercive power over parenting decisions. They also want corroborating evidence such as whether the children show signs of being coached, there is evidence that they are participating in campaigns of denigration, there is expert testimony that this is alienating behavior.

Parents who believe they are a target of alienation should work with divorce lawyers specializing in family-related issues. It can be one of the grounds for fighting for custody.

How Does One Parent Alienate the Other?

There are many techniques. Some parents use alienation “less overtly,” such as when they share untrue stories to make the targeted-rejected parent look bad when they don’t take any action in response to “inaccurate” information provided by the child(ren) about the target, or when they say nothing of being excluded from major decisions affecting their children’s welfare without protest.

Others are more aggressive, using more threatening and disparaging language toward their ex-spouse directly to their child(ren). Many dissociative parents attempt to convince the court that there is no problem because they have not said anything negative to their children about the other parent.

Yet many of these parents have actually done the majority of the alienating themselves in subtle ways that go unnoticed by court professionals, including evaluators and lawyers who are not experienced in recognizing alienation when it is found.

Signs of Parental Alienation

The best way to determine whether alienation is happening is to observe the children’s relationship with their parents. Are they actively participating in campaigns of denigration against one parent?

One indicator that this might be the case is when a child says or does things about their other parent that s/he would not say if approached by an outsider, such as:

  • Speaking negatively about their other parent
  • Saying negative things about their activities and friends
  • Criticizing decisions the other parent made after divorce (e.g., college choice, moving out of state)
  • Denying faults or weaknesses of their own while emphasizing faults and weaknesses of their other parent
  • Making excuses for why they can’t meet with the other parent
  • Avoiding the issue of not having a relationship with one parent by saying that they would like to see them if only s/he weren’t so mean

Unfortunately, there is no 100% effective way to avoid parental alienation. It can be difficult for both parents because the favored-alienating parent has so much power over their children’s allegiances, typically far more than the other parent does. Consequently, many alienated parents take steps to minimize contact with their children if they suspect or know that any co-parental alienation exists.

The best way to avoid parental alienation is not to do anything that encourages it in the first place! If you are concerned about your children being influenced by negative statements about your ex-spouse, speak positively about them yourself whenever possible – even if you don’t feel like it. This will usually be enough to counterbalance what your child(ren) hears from someone else. When the problem becomes severe, the alienated parent can always seek professional help.

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