Many of you know by now my experience of being a rejected parent (I have written before on my experience of Parental Alienation) of two of our kids: one biological, one a stepchild. These instances began during their middle school years (an age ripe for this) and shortly after my remarriage.
Since then, I’ve received a Master’s degree in psychology and am now finishing up a second Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. Here’s what I’ve learned through my professional work and my own experiences since these instances occurred:
Part of the rejection of the child has to do with the differences in parenting. One parent is generally the authoritative parent and the other is the permissive. Which one would you like to have if you’re a teen? Sometimes, however, there the alienated child aligns with an authoritarian parent.
It’s more than the difference in parenting though. It only takes one parent, and the child who is open to the manipulative, often subtle attempts to form a coalition against the other parent, to tip the power balance between the parents to the alienator being on top of the authority hierarchy along with the child, with the targeted parent a step down in the family system. This type of coalition and boundary breach is extremely dysfunctional and unhealthy for a child–and their relationship with the targeted parent suffers because of this. I’ll write more about the family system in another article.
I feel tremendously grateful that after my biological child went away to college, our relationship began to get better. Today, I consider it healed. Suffice it to say, distance from the alienating behaviors helps. Examples of alienating behaviors from my ex include “Your mother is a retard” as an example of a derogatory text written to her, providing me with the wrong dates/times to doctors’ appointments so I would miss them or not telling me at all (cutting out the other parent), colluding with my daughter to move out of my house and into his without my knowledge or approval (skewing the family system hierarchy with her at a higher level than me, keeping secrets forming an unhealthy alliance)–then to not see her for a year going against our custody agreement (again, providing the child with more power than the parent) and giving her full power over me to decide when to visit—these are just some examples of how parents set up through alienating behaviors, dysfunctional coalitions and boundary breaches in a family system.
My antidote to a child rejecting a targeted parent is to spend more time with the targeted parent and have the alienating parent spend some time in therapy so the child doesn’t go back to the same ol’ toxic environment. Going away to college helps, as does having the targeted parent attempt to stay in their child’s life while remaining compassionate and loving despite the hostility and contempt that has taken over their once loving and adorable child (in effect replicating the alienator’s feelings toward the targeted parent). Believe me, I know EXACTLY what your child turns into–how they can function and be kind to EVERYONE else, but not when it comes to THAT parent. Must be something wrong with you, right? No–don’t believe that! Until a court says you are unfit (and I highly doubt one will), your child should be visiting you on their regular schedule. Stay steady, loving, and compassionate. And learn how to forgive. Quickly! Cause you’ll need that. And, if the alienator is not abiding by the custody agreement (“it’s not my fault they won’t come over. I can’t make them.” or maybe “They’re old enough to decide!”), get it enforced by taking them to court. The sooner the alienation is addressed, the better.
It is not the targeted parent who needs therapy; it’s the alienator. Once the alienator’s behavior and beliefs change about the other parent, there will be a change in the child–but the child will also need therapy to undue some of the damage inflicted on them. Unfortunately, working with an alienator who is narcissistic/borderline is difficult. They find it difficult to accept responsibility. The type of therapy I am most drawn to is solution-focused brief therapy. Instead of focusing on pathologizing the client, the therapist focuses on the solution, the positive, and the future. Focusing on the solutions available instead of the problems at hand helps facilitate the client’s change in what is considered everyone’s desired direction–the well-being of the child. NOT the “child’s best interest”–because they (and the alienator) will try to convince everyone that the targeted parent is abusive and dangerous–no, I mean the child’s well-being. Children need both parents in their lives. The alienator and child have no right to make the decision that the other parent is not a good parent and to act on their beliefs. The manipulation of a child to coach them to say and make up horrible things about their once loved parent is abuse. THE ALIENATORS are the abusive parents, not the targeted ones (this is where the psychological term of projection comes to mind).
I’ve said this before and I’ll keep repeating it: Parental Alienation is child psychological abuse. Here’s the DSM-5’s criteria for child psychological abuse:
“Child psychological abuse is nonaccidental verbal or symbolic acts by a child’s parent or caregiver that result, or have reasonable potential to result, in significant psychological harm to the child” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
You’d get help for a child who showed symptoms of physical abuse. I want to know why more isn’t being done for these kids who are experiencing psychological abuse! The courts and mental health community, for the most part, are making this insidious problem worse. How long before they pull their heads out of the sand? The lengthy high-conflict divorce battles only make it worse. But it doesn’t have to be a court battle–it can be anything that triggers an increased amount of stress and anxiety in the alienator–remarriage, dating, the child’s impending independence, their closeness with the other parent…
In the past, I wrote extensively on the subject of PA, not to mention I researched the crap out of it (pardon my French)–which culminated in a huge research paper for one of my classes in my Master’s psychology degree program. If you want to know about the dynamics of an alienator, an alienated child, and a targeted parent–I know it inside and out. But, I’m learning that we’re all still learning about what PA is and how to address it.
All the experience and reading in the world can help you to some degree, but having a language to express it–well, that’s even better! Enter Dr. Craig Childress. Oh, and the Marriage and Family Therapy program I’m enrolled in–that’s been invaluable as well (for my family of origin stuff too). Needless to say, because of my personal experience, background in MFT and with Dr. Childress’s educational material, I’ve been able to expand my knowledge tremendously. If you can work your way through Dr. Childress’s material, you’ll have a fantastic base for what’s going on with your child. And it ain’t pretty.
My current class on psychopathology and the DSM-5 is providing an incredible tool for diagnosing children who reject a parent due to a hostile conflict between their parents. I resonate with Dr. Childress’s work because he’s educating the mental health profession using a language and diagnostic tool they are familiar with, respect, and use in their own practices. It’s been quite a battle trying to get Parental Alienation into the DSM-5 and it’s polarized some of the clinicians trying to do so. Instead of joining a side, I’m in agreement with Dr. Childress. The diagnosis is already within the DSM-5. More on this later in the article.
I have always asserted that the alienating parent has a personality disorder. Love it when that is validated over and over again–this time by Dr. Childress! Don’t really love it though for the fact that dealing with a person who has a PD who doesn’t want to admit they’re the problem is incredibly difficult (my husband’s ex actually told our stepson that his dad has Narcissistic Personality Disorder–which is projection, but how the heck do you counter to that statement coming out of his mouth? What could a parent possibly get out of telling their child this–their interpretation of something so inaccurate, but yet oh-so-telling of their own inner workings?). Therapists are likely to admit that some of their most difficult clients are those with NPD and Borderline Personality Disorder. If therapists have issues with them, imagine what a layperson like the targeted parent has to deal with?
As a counselor I’ve already been warned that alienators are a litigious bunch. We see this in high-conflict divorces where the battle for custody drags on and on–which creates an opportunity ripe for a parent to exploit their child for their own gain and needs. This parent will go to extremes to protect their sense of adequacy and self-esteem; and cannot accept the idea of their child loving the other parent–it feels like a rejection of them. If they exhibit BPD traits, this will touch on their fear of abandonment as well. Dr. Childress writes of decompensating behaviors when the narcissistic/borderline parent is stressed out–this is when you see the NPD/BPD person decompensate into an intense alienating machine. This is why the whole divorce/custody/legal system needs to be revamped. High conflict divorces are a breeding ground for the child’s rejection of loving and fit parents. They learn an extremely dysfunctional behavior of attempting to resolve their parent’s conflict.
Interestingly, a majority of divorcing parents do show some signs of alienating behaviors during the first year after separating. However, most of these behaviors do not continue to morph into the culmination of the rejection of a targeted parent. I think a couple factors come into play: the child spends time with both parents, the child is relatively emotionally/psychologically healthy, and the parents don’t have personality disorders.
Until the mental health system and the courts recognize the seriousness of this issue, these 750,000+ alienated children in any given year will be in the future battling their own personality disorders, depression, suicide, low self-esteem, major relationship issues, etc. No one wants that for their child, but yet, unaddressed, the rejection of a parent to the immense satisfaction of the alienator at the expense of the child’s needs (every child deserves to have BOTH parents in their lives) will lead to a diminished quality of life for these kids in adulthood. The DSM-5 lists relational problems (parent-child relational problem and child affected by parental relationship distress) as “having a significant impact on on the health of the individuals in these relationships.” Can we not see past the he says/she says parental conflicts and view the children in distress to the point that they unnaturally reject a parent? Resolving conflict in this manner will permanently damage a child’s emotional and psychological well-being until they receive help. Their rejection is a red flag for help. They don’t know another way to get it. Let’s provide them with healthy tools and skills to work through what really should be between the parents, and really, should be the alienator working on their own inner workings instead of infecting the family unit with their psychoses, delusions, and personality disorder. That’s a legacy I don’t want for my kids–do you?
One thing Dr. Childress hasn’t said (maybe I missed it?) is that the pathological alignment between parent and child (he calls this “pathogenic parenting”) can occur within intact (dysfunctional) families also. And, you don’t have to be recently divorced to have this happen–although this does seem to be a prime time for setting off decompensating behaviors of the narcissistic/borderline alienator.
The DSM-5, as many of you know, is a manual published by the American Psychiatric Association to classify mental disorders and to assist clinicians to diagnose and treat mental disorders. Although Parental Alienation/Parental Alienation Syndrome did not make it into the fifth edition, I do agree with Dr. Childress’s assessment of PA using the DSM-5’s criteria of adjustment disorder, parent-child relational problem, child affected by parental relationship distress, and child psychological abuse. I think these kids also exhibit oppositional defiant disorder traits–but only to the targeted parent.
In one of my last articles about PA, one reader wrote that the article was too much. I’ve forgotten their exact words now, but it was along the lines that I rambled on. I agree with them. In the future, I will try to be more concise. I, like so many others, am trying to make sense of the nonsensical. For me, this comes out as rambling as I try to put the pieces together on a very difficult concept. As a parent and counselor, I have had trouble in the past separating my own personal experience with my professional work. As I become more and more steeped in my MFT studies, I am better able to separate the two (personal and professional) viewpoints.
My future in MFT consists of finishing up my degree by taking part in externships in my area. I am also now in the process of writing a book on PA–especially on what a targeted parent can do to help heal their relationship with their child. Eventually, I would like to provide therapy to these broken families and help them work past the dysfunctional dynamics that has set them up for disaster.