I have written extensively on the importance of the movement towards shared parenting. There are 55-peer reviewed studies that prove that shared parenting is best for children in separated and divorced families — when time is split approximately equally between homes — including in high-conflict situations.
Very closely related is the recognition by courts and mental health experts of parental alienation, or the psychological manipulation of a child into showing unwarranted fear, disrespect or hostility towards a parent. Parental alienation is increasingly recognized as child abuse, and the result of mental illness in the alienating parent.
This post aims to serve as a clearing house of useful information for parents who feel they have been alienated, as well as children who are victims of parental alienation.
What is parental alienation?
Parental alienation is a form of child abuse in which the actions of one parent intentionally harm the relationship the child has with the other parent. When these tactics are successful, the child suffers from Parental Alienation Syndrome. In these cases, the child rejects the alienated parent based on flimsy reasoning. Parental alienation occurs almost exclusively in cases of separated and divorced families, and one study found that parental alienation was an issue in 13.4 percent of divorced families, with nearly half being severe.
According to Vanderbilt University psychiatrist and parental alienation expert Dr. William Bernet:
“Almost every mental health professional who works with children of divorced parents acknowledges that Parental Alienation—as we define it—affects thousands of families and causes enormous pain and hardship.”
Academics define parental alienation by these signs in children:
- A campaign of denigration against the targeted parent
- The child’s lack of guilty feelings for rejecting the target parent
- When asked, the child gives irrational and frivolous reasons for the criticisms of the targeted parent
- The child paints the parents in black and white — one parent can do no wrong, while everything the second parent does is horrible.
- A knee-jerk defensiveness of everything about the favored parent
- A child who parrots the favored parent's words, often using phrases of an adult to describe the rejected parent, or citing scenario that he or she heard the favored parent speak about, but did not himself experience.
- Spread of the child’s animosity toward the target parent’s extended family or friends.
- A child suffering from parental alienation often insists that his feelings are entirely his own. The child might call his father to say: “I don’t want to come to your house anymore. Mom had nothing to do with this decision, I made it all on my own.” The alienating parent is quick to protect the child’s “right” to choose whether he wants to visit his parent.
- Children may show warmth and affection towards the targeted parent when alone with them, but then speak poorly of them to others, including the alienating parent.
Richard Warshak, PhD., another leading expert on parental alienation and is author of the bestselling Divorce Poison, How To Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing.
Warshak writes on his website of these behaviors in children suffering from parental alienation:
“Severely alienated children express extremely polarized views of their parents; they have little if anything positive to say about the rejected parent and often rewrite the history of their relationship to obscure positive elements …Severely alienated children treat the rejected parent with extreme hostility, disobedience, defiance, and withdrawal … These children harbor strong and irrational aversion toward a parent with whom they formerly enjoyed a close relationship. The aversion may take the form of fear, hatred, or both.
Alienated children’s thoughts about their parents become highly skewed and polarized. They seem unable to summon up positive memories or perceptions about the rejected parent, and have difficulty reporting negative aspects or experiences with the favored parent. They rewrite the history of their relationship with the rejected parent to erase pleasant moments.
With children who are severely and irrationally alienated, critical thinking about parents is nowhere in evidence. Instead the children demonstrate knee-jerk support of the favored parent’s position in any situation where the parents disagree.”
What tactics does an alienating mother or father use to distance a child from the other parent?
In her book Working With Alienated Children and Families Amy J. L. Baker, author of Co-Parenting with a Toxic Ex, identifies these 17 ways that a parent aims to alienate:
Alienating parent uses verbal and non-verbal communications that convey to the child that the targeted parent is unloving, unsafe, and unavailable. Existing flaws are exaggerated and non-existent flaws are manufactured.
The alienating parent violates parenting plans and/or takes advantage of ambiguities in the plan to maximize time with the child. The targeted parent has fewer opportunities to counter the badmouthing message, leading to the attenuation of the parent-child attachment relationship. The child acclimates to spending less time with the targeted parent.
Interfering with communication
The alienating parent demands constant access to the child when the child is with the targeted parent but does not reciprocate when the child is with him/her. Phones are not answered, e-mail messages are blocked, and messages are not forwarded. The targeted parent has fewer opportunities to be a part of the child's daily world and share with the child the small moments that make up a child's life.
Interfering with symbolic communication
Thinking about, talking about, and looking at pictures of a parent while away can help a child feel close and connected to an absent parent. The alienating parent creates an environment in which the child does not feel free to engage in these activities with respect to the targeted.
Withdrawal of love
Alienating parents make their approval of paramount importance to the child; so much so that the child would do anything to avoid the loss of love that is experienced when the child has disappointed or angered that parent. Typically what angers and hurts the alienating parent most is the child's love and affection for the targeted parent. Thus, in order to secure the love of one parent, the child must relinquish the love of the other. Although this is not something likely to be explicit to the child, it will be apparent to the TP that the child lives in fear of losing the AP's love and approval.
Telling the child that the targeted parent is dangerous
This involves creating the impression in the child that the targeted parent is or has been dangerous. Stories might be told about ways in which the targeted parent has tried to harm the child, about which the child has no memory but will believe to be true nonetheless, especially if the story is told often enough.
Forcing child to choose
The alienating parent will exploit ambiguities in the parenting plan and create opportunities to seduce/compel the child away from the targeted parent by scheduling competing activities and promising valued items and privileges. If both parents are present at the same even/location the child will favor the alienating parent and ignore or be rude to the targeted parent.
Telling the child that the targeted parent does not love him or her
Another specific form of badmouthing occurs when the alienating allows or encourages the child to conclude that the targeted parent does not love him or her. The alienating parent might make statements that conflate the end of the marriage with the end of the parent's love of the child (i.e. daddy left us, or mommy doesn't love us anymore). The alienating parent will foster the belief in the child that she is being rejected by the targeted parent and distort every situation to make it appear as if that is the case.
Confiding in the child
The alienating parent will involve the child in discussions about legal matters and share with the child personal and private information about the targeted parent that the child has no need to know. The alienating parent will portray him/herself as the victim of the targeted parent, inducing the child to feel pity for and protective of the alienating parent, and anger and hurt toward the targeted parent.
Forcing child to reject the targeted parent
Alienating parents create situations in which the child actively rejects the targeted parent, such as calling the targeted parent to cancel upcoming parenting time or request that the targeted parent not attend an important school or athletic event. Not only is the targeted parent being denied something that s/he truly desires but s/he is being delivered the news by the child, leading to feelings of hurt and frustration. The TP may respond by lashing out at the child, further damaging their already fragile relationship. Further, once children have hurt a parent, the alienation will become entrenched as the child justifies his/her behavior by devaluing the targeted parent.
Asking the child to spy on the targeted parent
Targeted parent usually have information in their files, desk, or computer that is of interest to the alienating parent, such as paystubs, receipts, legal documents, medical reports, and so forth. An AP might suggest directly to a child or hint that the TP has information that s/he is not sharing with the AP. The AP will likely create the impetus in the child by linking the information to the child's desires (i.e., if we knew whether Daddy got a raise we could ask for more money and buy a new dog for you). Once children betray a parent by spying on them, they will likely feel guilty and uncomfortable being around that parent, thus furthering the alienation.
Asking the child to keep secrets from the targeted parent
The alienating will ask or hint that certain information should be withheld from the targeted parent in order to protect the child's interests. Such as, “If Mommy knew that we were planning on taking a trip she would take me to court and try to stop it. Let's not tell her until Saturday, when it will be too late for her to interfere.” Like spying, keeping secrets creates psychological distance between the targeted parent and the child, who may feel guilty and uncomfortable with the targeted parent.
Referring to the targeted parent by first name
Rather than saying “Mommy/Daddy” or “Your mommy/Your daddy” the alienating parent will use the first name of the targeted parent when talking about that parent to the child. This may result in the child referring to the targeted parent by first name as well. The message to the child is that the targeted parent is no longer someone whom the alienating
parent respects as an authority figure for the child and no longer someone who has a special bond with the child.
Referring to a step parent as “Mom” or “Dad” and encouraging child to do the same
Once the alienating parent is remarried, s/he will speak of the new partner as if that parent were the only mother/father of the child. This parent will be introduced to others (teachers, coaches, parents of friends) as the “mother/father” rather than as the step-parent.
Withholding medical, academic, and other important information from targeted parent/keeping targeted parent's name off medical, academic, and other relevant documents
All important forms from school, sports, religious education, and so forth ask for information about the child's mother and father. The alienating parent will not provide information about the targeted parent in the appropriate place on the form and may not include the information at all.
Changing child's name to remove association with targeted parent
If the AP is the mother, she may revert to using her maiden name after the divorce and will institute a practice of using that name for her children as well. If the alienating parent is a mother and she remarries, she will assume the surname of her new husband and will institute a practice of using that new surname for her children as well. If the AP is the father, he may start referring to the child with a new nickname (convincing the child that s/he has always been called by this name) and in this way forge a new identity for the child in which the AP is the most important parent.
Cultivating dependency/undermining the authority of the targeted parent
Alienating children often speak of the alienating parent as if that parent dependency/undermining were perfect, exceptional, and in every way above reproach. They also behave as if they are dependent on that parent in a way that is not necessary or appropriate given their age and life experience. Alienating parents are able to develop dependency in their children rather than (as is typical of non-alienating parents) help their children develop self-sufficiency, critical thinking, autonomy, and independence. At the same time, they will undermine the authority of the targeted parents in order to ensure that the child is loyal to only one parent. Examples include instituting rules that the child must follow even when with the TP, and mocking or overwriting the rules of the targeted parents.
Treatment for parental alienation
Most experts agree that traditional talk therapy is not helpful in cases of parental alienation. Instead, the children involved are treated more like victims of cults who must be taught to think critically for themselves — and learn not to be influenced by others.
Related Wealthysinglemommy.com blog posts on parental alienation:
Recommended reading on parental alienation overview:
‘Parental alienation’: What it means and why it matters at TheConversation.com
Lost Parents: When High Conflict Divorce Leads to Parental Alienation on Huffington Post
Detroit Free Press article about a various reunification programs specifically for alienated families
Expert Richard Warshak's breakdown of leading program Family Bridges
Edward Kruk, PhD, is a leading researcher on parental alienation and co-parenting, and his thoughtful posts on PsychologyToday.com are a great read.
Parental alienation videos
Yes, Desperate Housewives did a great job illustrating the insidious, often subtle manipulation alienating parents use, with play-by-play expert break-down:
Linda Gottlieb is a leading therapist and researcher on parental alienation. This is a great interview, and one compelling point she makes: Gottlieb started her career as social worker caring for truly abused and neglected foster children. “Children who are actually abused are very loyal and defensive of their parents. When we see children who reject their parents for no legitimate reason, it is clear alienation is at play.”
Divorce Corp. is an incredible documentary that does an excellent job explaining corruption and lack of ethics in the family court system, including the financial incentive to alienate one parent. I cannot say enough good things about this documentary, except it may leave you feeling more helpless than when you started. Rent the full movie on Amazon.
This is a great one-hour presentation by parental alienation by Amy J. L. Baker, PhD, author of Co-Parenting with a Toxic Ex. Baker identifies the most common parental alienation tactics, examples of successful reunification with the alienating parent and what triggered the child to realize the truth. This thorough overview of the phenomenon and treatment includes this nugget: “One of the losses is the alienated child's loss of self: loss of positive memories of the rejected parent, loss of confidence in the truth, and rejection of the parts of themselves that are like the rejected parent.”
Helpful books on parental alienation
Like a Mother podcast interviews on parental alienation
With filmmaker and activist Ginger Gentile:
With co-founder of Leading Women for Shared Parenting, Terry Brannen:
Advice for the alienated parent
- Managing your own feelings and actions, from leading expert Linda Gottlieb. She also has a trove of academic research here.
- Blog and resource center of leading researcher and bestselling author Richard Warshak. Topics include mistakes alienated parents make, success stories of reunification, co-parenting advice, what courts can do about parental alienation.
- Craig Childress is a California psychologist and parental alienation expert whose site has a long list of academic and practical information on parental alienation.
- Ginger Gentile is director and producer of the documentary Erasing Family, about parental alienation. Her excellent Facebook page is a wealth of live videos around related topics.
- Each month, parental alienation advocates host a FREE international call in which he interviews leading experts on parental alienation:
In advance of each call:
· Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org .
· In Subject Line, enter: PLEASE REGISTER ME FOR INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE CALL.
· Provide First and Last Name.
· Provide current legal Country/State/Providence/etc., from which they will be calling. (Specific address not required).
· Provide the phone number from the specific phone the caller will be dialing in.
· Provide the specific date and or speakers name of which registering. (A participant must register for each call separately and cannot register for future calls until the upcoming call has been conducted).
Related posts on shared parenting
Related documentary and books on shared parenting:
Recommended shared parenting documentary: Divorce Corp
Blend, The Secret to Co-Parenting and Creating a Balanced Family, By: Mashonda Tifrere
Co-parenting with a Toxic Ex: What to Do When Your Ex-Spouse Tries to Turn the Kids Against You, By: by Amy J. L. Baker, PhD and Paul R Fine, LCSW
Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing, By: Dr. Richard A. Warshak
Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, noted blogger, and bestselling author. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.