When a separated parent convinces their child that the other parent is bad, evil or worthless.
Alienation generally means interfering with or cutting off a person from relationships with others. This can occur in a number of ways, including criticism, manipulation, threats, distorted reporting or control. One of the most widely reported forms of alienation is Parental Alienation, where a parent tries to sabotage the relationship a child has with their other parent. During a divorce, this is a common tactic for many persons with Personality Disorders, usually as a means of hurting their former spouse.
How it Happens
Some of the ways a situation of Parental Alienation is created include:
- Verbal criticism of the other parent - derogatory comments, telling stories about the other parent, portraying their bad side, picking up on their faults, highlighting their mistakes, drawing unfavorable comparisons between them and others.
- Withholding or discouraging contact with the other parent - not allowing visits or keeping visits inappropriately short. Moving to another geographic location to limit contact, forgetting or impeding visitation rights, forcing the other parent to jump through hoops or meet inappropriate criteria or conditions in order to see the children.
- Denying phone contact - sabotaging phone contact by not picking up the phone, turning the phone off, being out when the phone call comes, etc.
- Intimidating the child - making the child feel bad for loving the other parent, criticizing or mocking the child’s interest in the other parent or discouraging the child from spending time with the other parent. Forcing the child to meet stringent criteria, perform extra chores or pass certain tests in order to be “rewarded” with contact with the other parent; or, punishing the child by removal of affection or privileges after spending time with the other parent.
How it Feels
Parental Alienation is a form of emotional child abuse. Children instinctively love both parents and identify with both as part of themselves. They feel immense stress when that love is threatened. Therefore, when a child is told that one of their parents is bad, they feel as though they themselves are bad. This arouses in them feelings of shame, uncertainty, fear and guilt.
It is critical to a child’s sense of security and self-esteem that they be allowed to love both of their biological parents. This doesn’t mean you have to condone bad behavior. It does mean though that you have to allow the child to love who they love and feel what they feel without shame or punishment or control or manipulation.
It is common for divorcing parents to feel anger at the other parent. However, expressing that anger in front of the children is inappropriate. If you need validation for the way you feel towards your ex-spouse you should talk to a friend or a therapist about it - not the children.
It’s also common for people with Personality Disorders to launch distortion campaigns about the other parent and involve the children either directly or indirectly. This is toxic and highly destructive.
What NOT to do
- Don’t verbally berate your child’s other parent in front of them - no matter what they have done. When a child hears that his parent is bad he hears you say that he is bad.
- Don’t try to discourage your child’s love for their parent. Separate your feelings from your child’s feelings and allow them to make up their own mind about what they think.
- Don’t limit your child’s contact with the other parent - except when they are in danger of abuse.
- Don’t lie to your children. Be honest with them if they ask a question - but don’t take it as a license to say more than you really need to. For example, if your child asks you, “did mommy do something wrong?” you can say, “I think mommy made a mistake.” And leave it at that.
- Don’t discuss grownup’s issues with children.
- Don’t interrogate your child about what the other parent says or does. If they want to tell you something let them, otherwise remember their relationship with the other parent is essentially their own business unless there are genuine reasons to believe abuse is taking place.
- Don’t try to compensate for a parent who is trying to alienate you with gifts or strange behavior. Just be you. Your child is able to separate fact from fiction in cartoons, and they can do it in real life too.
What TO do
- Put the best interests of your child ahead of any personal feelings you may have.
- Allow your child to freely express their love for their other parent, regardless of how much they deserve it.
- Affirm your child. Tell them you love them. Praise their accomplishments; encourage them to be all they can be.
- Be consistent and reliable. Keep your promises.
- See our article on Talking to Kids about Personality Disorders.
- Document any incidents where you feel the other parent is trying to alienate your children from you.
- Consult with a competent attorney about your options. In general, courts do not look favorably on parents who try to alienate their children from the other parent. However, your complaints should be specific and unemotional, with the best interests of the child at heart.
- Communicate with the other parent unemotionally and clearly, in writing if possible. Keep a record of what you have written.
- Report any acts of violence, threats of violence or self-harm immediately to the authorities.