Many people do not realize that parental alienation is a form of child abuse. I experienced it growing up when my parents divorced, and I was trying to co-parent with my son’s father. This subject is very sensitive because I know how it feels to experience parental alienation and be falsely accused, so I want to prevent it. And if you are being accused of parental alienation, you want to know precisely what you are being accused of because you are being accused of child abuse. That is why knowing the traits and behaviors is critical. A person can make false accusations out of anger, but lies hurt everyone, even a child. Children have rights; as adults, we assume we know what is best for the child. However, we sometimes don’t know what’s best for a child if we grow up in an unhealthy, unsupportive, or toxic home environment. We cannot parent how our parents raised us 20, 30, or 40 years ago. Each generation changes and evolves, and how we parent the newer generation matter. A person might need additional information and support to figure out how to parent differently than the way they were parented as a child. When a couple gets divorced, or a relationship ends, each parent or caregiver must consider the child’s needs. The couple is breaking the relationship with each other, not the child. The child still depends upon both parents. The child needs both parents to get along and cooperate. This is what we call being an adult and growing up. As loving adults, we can put our needs aside to support another in need, like putting on our oxygen mask first before putting it on the child. The child needs you. Without you, the child can feel lost and alone. That is why I believe children do need their biological parents or their primary caregivers in their lives. Give what you can, even if it is just a few minutes or an hour of your time. Nobody is perfect; we all make mistakes, get angry, say things we regret later, and struggle with life changes. In this blog post, I will discuss how to prevent parental alienation, protect yourself from being accused, and learn how to spot the warning signs.
What is parental alienation?
Dr. Richard Gardner first put forth the concept of parental alienation in 1985. Parental alienation primarily occurs during a high conflict divorce in which the child identifies strongly with one parent, usually the custodial parent. The other parent is hated and rejected without any justifiable reason, such as abuse. Therefore, parental alienation is when one parent attempts to turn the child or children against the child’s other parent or primary caregiver through manipulation, criticism, smear campaign, or other negative behaviors without reasonable justification. There can be a set of strategies used which can include:
- Denying the child access or communication with the other parent or caregiver.
- Criticizing and smearing so the child hates the targeted parent.
- Encouraging disrespect or defiance towards targeted parent.
- Forcing the child to cut ties with the other parent.
- Interrogating the child to gather dirt about the targeted parent.
Parents or caregivers don’t realize this form of parental alienation is a form of control. The controlled child feels unwarranted fear, hatred, and rejection toward the targeted parent. The child can be encouraged or influenced to refuse contact with the targeted parent.
Signs Of Parental Alienation
I must admit that it can be hard to not display some of the behaviors below when someone is dealing with a toxic or narcissistic person. You will understand WHY as we dive into this subject matter. Because when a person leaves or divorces a high conflict, toxic or narcissistic person, you most likely did experience some form of abuse. A person might develop PTSD from the abuse and the child witnessed this abuse during the relationship. The child might take on the role of protector or savior of the abused parent and that is why the child dislikes the abusive parent. I Googled this term, “Question: Is there always abuse in high conflict divorce cases? Answer: Abusive behavior and false allegations are common for people with high-conflict personalities, and such behavior can catch you by surprise. If a spouse has engaged in domestic violence, the risks of more violence often go up at the time of separation, not down.”
ALIENATING PARENT’S BEHAVIOR
Alienating parents frequently engage in the following harmful parenting practices4.
- General badmouthing of the targeted parent.
- Making the target parent appear dangerous or sick.
- Sharing the child custody case or child support issues with the child.
- Accusing the targeted parent of not loving the child.
- Defaming the targeted parent in front of the authorities.
- Restricting visitation or withholding contact information.
- Sharing parental conflict and marriage issues with the child.
- Making negative remarks about the targeted parent’s extended family, new partner, or family.
- Intercepting calls and messages from the targeted parent.
- Hiding the child or moving away.
THE CHILD’S PARENTAL ALIENATION BEHAVIORS
Gardner has identified seven symptoms of parental alienation syndrome commonly found in alienated children5.
1. Campaign of denigration: The child may relentlessly engage in name-calling, criticizing, and deprecating the targeted parent.
2. Rationalizations: Rationalizing why the child rejects the parent is a common sign of parental alienation. When asked, the child gives weak, frivolous, or absurd rationalizations for their criticism.
3. Independent thinker belief: The child insists that their feelings are their own, not that of the parent doing the alienating.
4. Lack of ambivalence: The child perceives the alienating parent as all-good and the targeted parent as all-bad. Therefore, they support the preferred parent over the non-preferred parent regardless of the issue.
5. Absence of guilt over cruelty to the alienated parent: Since the child feels that the targeted parent is all-bad, they have no empathy for their treatment and appear to gloat about their hatred.
6. Use of borrowed scenarios: The child uses the memories or opinions from the alienating parent as their own justification.
7. Spreading animosity: In severe cases, children actively spread animosity to the alienated parent’s extended family.
What do you do when there is a justifiable history of abuse and you want to avoid being accused of parental alienation?
If you have a justifiable history of abuse, it still does not give you the right to alienate your child from the abusive parent. You do not have the right to bad mouth the other parent or shame them in front of your child. If you need to vent and release your frustrations, do it privately. I mean, you did sleep with them and have a child together. Sometimes we need to be the bigger person and allow the family law to handle the matter. It can be challenging to not talk about legal issues with a child when fearful of a custody change. Either way, positivity and optimism are important for your child’s well-being and peace of mind.
We cannot force anyone to change. At times a person’s behaviors, actions, and words can be triggering. A child does not have the coping skills of an adult, so a child needs both parents to act like adults instead of angry little children. Putting a child first is essential, yet communicating what a child needs to an abusive person is difficult. Especially if that person is stuck in black-and-white thinking patterns. Sometimes the harsh or toxic person does not realize that their behaviors, actions, and words are unhealthy, manipulative, aggressive, and abusive. They grew up in a harmful, toxic, and abusive home. They survived it, and the child will survive it as well. Yet, wouldn’t you want your child not to walk on eggshells and struggle with anxiety, self-esteem issues, and worry if they are not good enough? Don’t you want that child to grow up in a loving home, feel safe, and there is trust, cooperation, kindness, respect, and support? Of course, you want those things for your child. Because here is the truth, when we truly love someone unconditionally, and when a child expresses concerns about a parent’s negative, scary, or abusive behaviors, actions, and words, that parent should listen. That parent is being asked to change their behaviors, actions, and choice of words, so the child feels safe, heard, important, loved, and supported. The child is asking that parent to be a responsible adult and grow up. When the parent refuses to change for the child’s sake, a silent message is still received. That silent message is always negative because the child will think, “if you really loved me, you would change. Since you won’t change, you must not love me.” The child will feel rejected, sad, and lost.
Therefore, what do you do when you are the parent that puts the child first while the other parent is not ready to be an adult?
Here is what I did with my daughter’s father. When my daughter’s father decided not to be in the picture and requested to waive all his parental rights when my daughter was four years old, I said this about him to my daughter. Everyone has a toolbox. As we get older, we acquire new tools. Some tools are fun, and some are scary. Being a parent can be scary for some people, and acquiring that tools can be challenging. Not everyone can be a parent, and that’s okay. Your dad was just not ready to be a dad. He did not have the tools in his box. It doesn’t mean he is a bad person or doesn’t love you. It just means he is not ready and might be scared. Just know I love you and am here to support you. One day he might be prepared or not. Either way, you are going to be okay. If he changes his mind, we will always welcome and support him in feeling comfortable. Do you think this sounds like a plan? I have shared this story with many people during coaching sessions, and it has helped them communicate with their kids.
What is NOT parental alienation?
A child rejecting a parent on reasonable grounds does not constitute alienation. Good reasons for the child’s rejection include:
- A history of domestic violence or the child has witnessed domestic violence.
- Child has experienced physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual abuse.
- The parent is neglectful, absent, or authoritarian and does not give the child the emotional support they need.
- The parent does not show the child empathy and guilt/shame parents the child.
- Parent struggles with mental disorders or substance abuse.
When the child has reasonable grounds to reject a parent, it’s because they feel their basic needs, such as feeling loved, protected, safe, consistent care, and life support, are not being provided. Children need structure and consistency to feel safe, protected, supported, and loved. There is a lack of trust, compassion, kindness, cooperation, and common decency when the child feels rejected by the parent. The child can develop a secure attachment with a more nurturing parent and can create an attachment disorder with an unhealthy or abusive parent. This can make things more challenging.
If a person is the targeted parent of parental alienation, please do everything you can to prove your worth. Take the high road and take whatever you can get. For example, when I was being accused and targeted, I had my phone calls recorded, my phone calls were limited, my emails were inspected, altered, and approved by the parent coordinator, and his family treated me like dirt. It was a horrible experience, but I had to play along with the game of proving myself. There where many times I could have just given up, but then I would be giving up on my son. I couldn’t do that to him. I took whatever I could get. Here is my point, some parents take parental alienation personally. I knew what was happening and why. My ex wanted me out of the picture and I refused. Even if I did not get to see our son for a holiday, I would still find some way to connect with our son. I did not want him to feel abandoned or rejected by me. I would send an email, give him a gift, request a video chat, or brief phone call. It upset my son’s father, but I did not care. I was not going to allow him to cut me out of our son’s life. Remember, the targeted parent still has rights, so take advantage of those rights and don’t give up.
Let’s move on. As the child ages, they learn the difference between right and wrong and how people should treat one another. When a child rejects a parent or primary caregiver, it is because they initially feel abandoned, betrayed, and rejected by that parent. When leaving a parent is not an easy choice for a child. It is like a mini death or loss. The child can feel like there is no other healthy option available, so the child chooses to reject the unhealthy parent because they are unwilling to change or be a better person. When the parent refuses to change, the child can think or feel that the parent is not being respectful. Some parents can think the child is delusional because it is easier to deny the abuse or trauma. The child feels and thinks the reasons behind their choice and decision are justifiable. The child has attempted to repair the relationship, but the other parent can still refuse to cooperate. Eventually, the child wants to no longer experience anxiety or negative thoughts about themselves or feel unloved. Family estrangement is often caused by the negative behavior patterns of toxic parents, which can include manipulation and mockery. The decision to cut off toxic parents is a heavy burden and brings feelings of loss and sorrow. Eventually, rejection then leads to estrangement, not alienation. When adult children initiate estrangement from one or both parents, it’s called parental estrangement. When parents create estrangement from their child, it’s called disownment. I will switch gears here and dive into estrangement, but there is a good reason why. I will explain my reasons why soon enough.
What causes estrangement?
The causes of estrangement can include:
- Shame or guilt parenting styles,
- Unaddressed mental illness like narcissism,
- Not being supportive,
- Lack of structure and healthy boundaries,
- Displaying destructive behaviors around the child,
- Substance abuse,
- Rigid ways of thinking, acting and behaving,
- Addictive behaviors.
We should also take into consideration beliefs, religion, and culture. Oftentimes, parents do not approve with their child’s sexual orientation, choice of spouse or friends, gender identity, religion, career choice, hobbies, food preferences, and or political views.
Does estrangement run in families?
From my personal experience, I would have to say, Yes. Estrangement can run in families. I am estranged from my father and he has disowned me. I tried to avoid it by having my father attend therapy sessions with me, but he refused. I saw how my grandfather disowned my father when I was an adult. Therefore, if you watched your mother cut off her mother, you may well feel estrangement is a viable choice as well. If you come from a toxic family, estrangement is common. In a persons mind, they know that they have a hurtful parent and they would like to excommunicate because the toxic parent lacks empathy, and is stuck in black and white thinking. So, if your mom did it and feels better because of it, why can’t you? History does sometimes repeat itself.
How can estrangement be resolved?
- Usually a gradual process rather than a single event is recommended. Estrangement often involves periods of distance as well as mixed times of reconciliation. Estrangement can impact mental health and well-being. That is why therapy can help you cope, comprehend your families dynamic toxic nature and, if desired, reconnect with family members.
So here is my warning. If you have a history of estrangement within your family, you can expect that it might be used against you in a custody battle. You could find yourself being accused of parental alienation like I did. If you have a history of domestic violence, you must speak up about it. Don’t be afraid or ashamed like I was. I kept silent for so long to protect my children and family from threats of harm, but it backfired. I should have spoken up before it was too late. Anything that was listed above, you must find justifiable evidence to support your claims of estrangement. For example, why I am estranged from my father is:
- History of domestic violence – witness and victim.
- Narcissistic traits and behaviors.
- Guilt trips and shame are weapons of choice in order to control and manipulate.
- Boundaries not respected and violated.
- Mental, verbal and emotional abuse.
- His actions and behaviors gave me PTSD.
- Threats and passive aggressive tendencies.
- Lack of support, kindness, compassion, and empathy.
- Black and white thinking. We cannot agree to disagree.
- Unsafe parental role model for my children.
- The estrangement was mutually agreed upon.
- I am not treated like a daughter with common decency and respect.
I know it sounds sad and it is sad. My older brother did the same thing and that can be additional proof. Yet, my father was my greatest teacher of LOVE, compassion, kindness, cooperation, truth, acceptance, and forgiveness. I love him, I just do not like him. He is not a bad person. He just doesn’t know how to connect with me or how to love me. Let’s move on.
There is a distinction to all of this information. Accusations of parental alienation and abuse are prevalent in high-conflict divorce cases in the family court system. For example, one parent will accuse the other of manipulating the child so they will reject them and the other side argues it is done in the best interests of the child, to protect them from the abusive parent. If there was abuse in your relationship, that is your proof. Gather that information and get your child into a trauma specialist. It can be traumatizing to witness your primary caregiver being abused. Remember, all behaviors is a form of communication. If your child is acting out with “reactive behaviors”, that is still a form of non-verbal communication. If the child has witnessed anything listed above, It can create a sense of fear. Fear that it the other parent might hurt them, a sibling, and/or the other parent again. But where is the proof? That’s why I do not recommend asking your child a lot of questions to gather your proof. Have a licensed professional help you and the child gather the proof you need. If you can find verifiable proof from the list above, present it in family court. If not, it can backfire. It cannot be hearsay or false accusations. You need a list of facts (who, what, when, where, how), dates, times, and any witnesses. You need to ask yourself if the child shared what they witnessed or experience with other adults, and/or do you have it in writing? If you do have it in writing, make a copy of it. I had a journal that went back and forth during visitation. In that journal was a year and a half of verifiable written evidence of child abuse and my ex destroyed it. When my ex took me to court, it hurt me. I no longer had the proof. So, make a copy and keep it in a safe place. You might not need it now, but you might need it sometime in the future.
Let me give you an example of justifiable temporary alienation/estrangement. In the book, The Undetected Narcissist, Chapter 32: Understanding Manipulation and Micromanipulation, I tell you a story on page 204 about an experience that would be considered reasonable justification for our son to temporarily stop visitation. Here is a sample of that chapter.
“In February 2017 during a visitation exchange, my ex showed up drunk. Luckily that day I had a friend in the car with me. I was shocked and called the police when I got home. The police did go out to my ex’s home, but he did not answer the door. He told our son to be quiet, and said to him, “There are bad people at the door. Stay quiet. They will arrest me if they hear you.”
When our son came back home, he stated that his dad was drunk off whiskey, which was and is my ex’s drink of choice. Hearing this concerned me, our son should not know about whiskey. Since our son was exposed to alcohol abuse and fed the wrong information about law enforcement, the therapist and I started working with him to feel safe around his dad when he drank. The therapist and I did ask his father to not drink around our son, but he did not listen.
During this time, my ex kept drinking around our son and our son did not feel safe with his dad. Each time our son came home from a visit, he would struggle with his insecurities about losing me. This is when our son started acting out at school and struggled with separation anxiety. I got genuinely concerned and took our son to see his primary care doctor. The primary care doctor wrote a letter on March 28, 2017.
“To Whom It May Concern”
Because of medical conditions, including severe anxiety, I recommend that the child stay with his mother at all times for the next 30 days, and avoid visitation at his father’s home. This will avoid the need for prescription medication at this time. I am planning to reassess in two weeks, and again in four weeks.
If you have any questions or concerns, please call.”
The parent coordinator (PC) approved it, but she did not put it in writing. So, my ex paid his attorney to threaten me and the PC if he did not have a visit the following weekend. Since the PC got into trouble, she allowed the weekend visit. It is sad because our son’s fourth-grade teacher reported that our son showed no bad behaviors at school during the no-contact period and was much calmer.”
From the list above, this was justifiable and other professional adults agreed. Yet, it was still not enough evidence and I was not firm enough with the parent coordinator. When I followed up with our son’s primary care physician, but I hit a dead end. He did not want to prescribe anxiety medication. He just hoped the situational external stressors would stop. There is a pattern that I have noticed within toxic relationships and narcissistic individuals. I have learned that several do display addictive behaviors. It could be an addiction to alcohol, drugs, sex, smoking, porn, gambling, gaming, hobbies, and toying with people. I know it is said that you cannot control what happens when your child is at the other parents home, but no child should be around a person whom cannot control or limit their addictive behaviors during a parental visit. Drug and alcohol alter a persons behaviors and ability to parent. Having a two beers or wine is acceptable, but kids do pick up on a parents habits and behaviors. For example, if a person’s parents smoked cigarettes, then they are more likely to pickup the smoking habit when they get older. The same goes with drugs and alcohol.
That is why I sought help from professionals. I knew that I could not alienate our son from his father, but our son needed help. I thought that if my ex wouldn’t listen to me, he might listen to other professional adults. I knew that his drinking habit was impacting our son and I had to find a solution because his father was not willing to cut back or stop drinking around our son. What I should have done was gotten a letter from the therapist and requested the PC request a temporary modification in visitation with the judge if our son kept experiencing anxiety, displaying reactive behaviors, and being exposed to alcohol.
How you prevent parental alienation when you are dealing with a toxic ex or narcissistic individual?
First, you need to recognize the warning signs and do not lash out in anger. Keep calm and activate all your senses. Become self-aware of what is being said and think of how you want to respond, instead of reacting. Second, create a journal of troubling behaviors. State the facts and document it. You can begin to notice patterns or behaviors, repeated comments, and moods. You can even print out the list of behaviors and stick it in your journal as a reference of what signs to document. When you have enough information, consult a family law attorney or a high conflict divorce coach. Lastly, never give up. Take what you can get and remember this situation is only temporary. Life if full of ups and downs. Just take one day at a time.
If you can recall the list I mentioned earlier, watching what you say around your child is essential. Be mindful of what you say to friends, family members, doctors, therapists, teachers, school staff, and anyone in general. You could be on the phone and in another room, but kids are sneaky. They can try to listen to your conversation. Then there are times when our son child was put in a situation that was dangerous and questionable. Again, it is best to send an email or contact professional help directly, without your child in the same room. This way you have written proof. For example, when I had to take my kiddo to see his primary care physician, I had to tell the doctor about our son’s situation. Some might say I had to bad mouth him, but in my opinion I was just stating the facts. I did send the doctor an email in advanced before the appointment, which allowed me to step back and allow the doctor to ask our son questions without me speaking for him. So let’s breakdown the kids behaviors. First you need to know the signs. Again the signs are:
1. Campaign of denigration: The child may relentlessly engage in name-calling, criticizing, and expresses disapproval the targeted parent. (In this situation, you want to teach your child about mutual respect and common decency. Teach your child that name-calling is a form of bullying and bullying is against the law. If you are dealing with a child that engages in name-calling, criticizing, and disapproval, I would recommend family therapy. The child has issues with the targeted parent and any attempts a parent makes to improve the relationship is documented. What that parent says about the other parent is documented and can be used a proof that the targeted parent is making the effort and attempt to improve the relationship with the child.)
2. Rationalizations: Rationalizing why the child rejects the parent is a common sign of parental alienation. When asked, the child gives weak, frivolous, or absurd rationalizations for their criticism. (Again, this can be addressed in family therapy. It is a perfect opportunity to discuss forgiveness, how we all make mistakes, and it can be flipped around. Here is an example. In chapter 37, I wrote about how our son’s father was not willing to change, and our son stopped wanting to talk to his father over the phone. I flipped our son’s rationalizations around since I was accused of parental alienation. I spoke about forgiveness and used me as an example. I wanted our son to know that everyone makes mistakes and that holding onto anger and resentment is not healthy. I did not have to do this, but I did it for our son because I want our son to have empathy, compassion, and forgiveness. Here is what I said, “Do you remember the other day when you broke my favorite vase, and I got really mad? It was an accident and mistake, but I forgave you. You apologized, and I appreciated the apology. What if I decided to hold it against you? What if I chose to no longer speak to you and I wanted to shut you out of my life? How would that make you feel? You would feel sad, rejected, and hurt. You would most likely cry and think I don’t love you. I know you love your dad, and you are angry with him. He made a mistake, and I know he is sorry. He wants you to forgive him. I want you to forgive him. You can still be angry with him, but talking about that anger with him directly would help make that anger go away. Can you talk to him for me, please?)
3. Independent thinker belief: The child insists that their feelings are their own, not that of the parent doing the alienating. (This is a hard one for me. However, if the child has witnessed or experienced abuse, the child does have independent thinking beliefs. A professional can unpack each independent thinking belief to support the child in shifting from confusion and rigid thinking to clarity and optimism. Plus, the child’s age varies based on their level of independent thinking.)
4. Lack of ambivalence: The child perceives the alienating parent as all-good and the targeted parent as all-bad. Therefore, they support the preferred parent over the non-preferred parent regardless of the issue. (This can be challenging as well if it is justifiable. This can be another opportunity to talk about perceptions and beliefs. We have all heard the saying, actions speak louder than words. Your actions or lack of actions do amplify the truth. That is why your promises to change must stick like glue or the child will not believe you. I know it sucks to have to prove your worth and word, but your child needs this from you. Patience is essential and not taking it personal is critical.)
5. Absence of guilt over cruelty to the alienated parent: Since the child feels that the targeted parent is all-bad, they have no empathy for their treatment and appear to gloat about their hatred. (Empathy is essential. Every parent must teach their child the importance of empathy. This can be taught by reading your child a book, telling them a story, attending family therapy, showing your child empathy and explaining to them after the difference between showing empathy and ignorance. You can even displaying empathy to another person in the presence of the child and then have a conversation about the importance of empathy later. And, if you have read or listened to me speak before, to prevent your child from becoming narcissistic, they must be shown and learn the importance of empathy.)
6. Use of borrowed scenarios: The child uses the memories or opinions from the alienating parent as their own justification. (This is a challenging one for me. Some children have good memories and others do not. Some children can experience a traumatic event and part of that memory can be blocked because it was too painful. Working with a trauma specialist can support your child in repairing any distorted or false memories. Also, letting the child know that at times people make up stories and lie. Everyone has lied and at times people lie to hurt another person. Memories are just memories and moving forward, people can create new happy memories, instead of staying fixated on a painful period of life. Being positive and taking the action steps to create new happy memories with your child is important.)
7. Spreading animosity: In severe cases, children actively spread animosity to the alienated parent’s extended family. (Spreading hate is just wrong. Teaching your child to think before they speak is essential. In family therapy, this situation can be flipped around as, “how would you feel if I or your grandmother did or said…”. Flipping it around can open your child’s eyes to the destruction and damage that gossip and animosity creates. If your child want to live in a world of love, kindness, compassion, and equality, there should be no hatred toward another. Be the living example of love, kindness, compassion, and acceptance your child needs from you. )
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post and podcast on how to prevent parental alienation. I unpacked a lot here today, but I wanted to leave no stone uncovered. If you have any question or need any additional support, I am always here to coach people. Take care.
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4. Baker AJL, Darnall D. Behaviors and Strategies Employed in Parental Alienation. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage. Published online May 31, 2006:97-124. doi:10.1300/j087v45n01_06
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