For all my education, friends, close colleagues and personal therapy, I can’t seem to find solace for the deep state of mourning I’m in. I’m grief-stricken, heartbroken at the loss of my daughter. My tears are too close to the surface and I’ve said for some time that for me it is worse than death. It is an unresolved, needless loss but the worst part isn’t even about me. I mourn for my daughter who will never again have her sense of delight in the world. (Warshak, 2010, ¶ 25).
The above words are attributed to a child psychologist and distraught mother who mourned the loss of her daughter due to parental alienation. It echoes the thoughts of so many others who are experiencing the same heartbreak. My heart goes out to this woman and to the thousands of others who have been through or are going through parental alienation (PA). As part of my research for my advanced degree in psychology, I spent thousands of hours researching and writing about this controversial, important, and life-changing subject. Parental alienation is a subject that I have personal as well as professional experience in. As much as I am professionally interested in this topic and the effect it has on families, sometimes I find myself overwhelmed with feelings of anger, frustration, and sadness. I would like to do more work in this area, but as someone who is naturally optimistic and happy, I find the topic brings up so many conflicted and unresolved feelings in me; uncomfortable feelings that are indicative of something near and dear to my heart. Instead of dwelling on the dis-empowering thoughts and feelings that arise in me as I study the subject, I have focused my research on uncovering the reasons about how and why parental alienation occurs. It has only recently come to the forefront of research, as professionals begin to take it seriously and recognize both the importance and the negative impact upon children who experience parental alienation. I would like to be a part of the solution by helping to eradicate parental alienation. This can be done by educating people about the signs and symptoms of alienation as well as enlightening others about what happens to our children and to the targeted parents when parental alienation occurs.
Let’s look at what parental alienation is. The concept of parental alienation originated from Wallerstein & Kelly’s work with divorcing families in the 1970’s. It was then that they identified a phenomenon known as pathological alignment. The term parental alienation was later coined by Richard Gardner in the mid-80’s to describe the act of one parent consciously or unconsciously turning a child against the other parent (Bow, Gould, & Flens, 2009).
The website for the Parental Alienation Awareness Organization defines parental alienation as:
Parental Alienation is the act of one parent deliberately undermining the relationship between the children and the other parent to the point of creating a hostile relationship and thus alienation of the children from the other parent. Another way to look at this is alienation of affection, which is one of the basic human needs discussed at length by Maslow in his Hierarchy of Needs. It is a serious form of psychological abuse, and it is very dangerous because it occurs internally and, thus, is harder to treat. Unlike physical abuse where the scars and wounds are on the outside, Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is so deep inside that unlocking the key to it takes years of treatment and unconditional love (Kloth-Zanard, J., n.d., ¶ 1).
Their definition is more indicative of those who are suffering moderate to severe alienation. Mild parental alienation is, surprisingly, fairly common following the break-up of parents. As the ex-partners work out their feelings and grief about the loss of the relationship, the alienation tactics subside usually within the first year after the break-up. Many parents do not even realize they are doing anything wrong, but negative comments about the other parent in front of the child or within earshot, sabotaging parenting time, undermining the other parent and other behaviors all work to subtly “brainwash” a child into loyalty and alignment to one parent if the behaviors are not stopped.
Since the onset of PA, it has been hard to discern for laypeople and professionals alike whether it is used as an excuse to gain custody, whether the child is undergoing genuine abuse at the hands of the targeted parent, or if it is psychological sabotage on the part of the alienating parent. One thing is clear: The relationship toward the targeted parent is severely damaged. This is what is meant by parental alienation. The alienated child has aligned themselves with the alienating parent, with the targeted parent suffering from the loss, both physical and psychological, of their child. Simultaneously, the alienator is getting their needs met, but at the expense of the child and the alienated parent.
Gardner’s criteria of parental alienation
Richard Gardner has done extensive work involving PA and parental alienation syndrome (PAS). PA, according to Gardner (1998), can be diagnosed using eight different criteria:
- · A campaign of denigration
- · Weak, frivolous, or absurd rationalizations for the deprecation
- · Lack of ambivalence
- · The “independent thinker” phenomenon
- · Reflexive support of the loved parent in the parental conflict
- · Absence of guilt over the denigration and/or exploitation of the “hated” parent
- · The presence of borrowed scenarios
- · Spread of the animosity to the friends and/or extended family of the hated parent. (p. 3)
These criteria may vary in intensity according to each particular case, and all eight criteria need not be met in order for a child to be considered alienated by a parent (Baker & Darnall, 2007).
The favored parent’s negative influence is the most obvious ingredient in cases where children unreasonably reject a parent (Warshak, November 23, 2010, ¶ 2).
It is important to note that Gardner’s eight criteria focuses on the child’s behaviors, not on the alienated or alienating parents’ behaviors. These behaviors and the alienation can be mild, moderate, or severe, depending upon how many behaviors or symptoms are exhibited by the child.
Amy Baker (along with Douglas Darnall, Richard Warshak, Michael Bone, Linda Gottlieb, Craig Childress, and a handful of others) is one of today’s best-known experts in parental alienation. Elaborating on Gardner’s research, Baker (2006) noticed five important distinctions co-existing within the parameters of Gardner’s eight criteria in her work with alienated families. The first was the co-existence of the maltreatment of a child, alcoholism, and/or personality disorders of the alienating parent. For example, narcissistic personality disorder has been associated with parental alienators (Baum & Shnit, 2005; Summers & Summers, 2006). Narcissists are more deceptive and are self-oriented instead of being more focused on the child. They may feel wounded because of the break-up and instead of healing their wounds, will use the alignment of a child as an act of revenge. Narcissists will arrogantly disregard custody visitation orders, emphasizing their own ability to oversee the visitation schedule. They, and many times the alienated child, determine when they will visit, if the child visits at all. Unfortunately, many parents do not have the money to address the violation of custody orders in court. The child also may have gotten to be of an age where the court recognizes them as able to make up their own mind while not understanding the child may have been brainwashed due to PA.
Despite some people’s claims that more women than men tend to be the alienators, I disagree. I think both men and women are equally represented in the numbers for PA, but women, earning less than men generally (especially after a divorce), may not seek legal or psychological counsel for the alienation because they cannot afford it. There may also be other contributing factors such as the self-preservation of a parent who finds themselves in an abusive situation. There is not enough current research to fully support the claim that more women than men are alienators. Historically though, it was thought that women, having to share custody with men, mourned the loss of their children. Instead of grieving and working through their feelings, they turned their behavior into exacting revenge and turning the child against their father.
Baker’s second finding was that parental alienation sometimes occurred in intact families as well as in divorcing and divorced families. Both Baker (2006) and Mone & Biringen (2006) found this to be true in their research on PA. Surprising isn’t it? Parental alignment can occur in homes that have two parents. Instead of working together as a couple to solve their relationship issues, one partner instead enlists their child as the “spousal stand-in” and uses them for their own needs. This dysfunctional way of relating (which happens with exes and with couples who are together) damages the child and the targeted parent for the rest of their lives—unless they get professional help to stop this pattern of abuse (PA is child psychological abuse).
The third finding Baker (2006) found was that parental alienation did not occur within some of the families embroiled in post-divorce litigation. Some people may not have the money to pursue continued legal action. Some may, instead of initiating revenge through the court system, exact it through PA. Generally, people who use the court system as a way to manipulate and intimidate their exes after divorce are often found to be alienators. When someone goes out of their way to hurt someone over and over and cannot find relief through the court system, they will try to get back at their ex by alienating their child, the ultimate revenge. Couples who are “at each others’ throats” after the divorce proceedings are indicative of one or both of the parents having a hard time letting go (and also an indication of narcissism in one or both parents because of the inability to self-differentiate after the marriage was over. Self-differentiation occurs after a break-up when a person learns to move on from the role of spouse to one of co-parent when relating to their ex).
Fourth, the target parent also may play a role in becoming the alienated parent. How the target parent behaves toward the child can be a crucial element as to how that child relates to them (Baker, 2006). If the target parent, hurt by what has happened, chooses to leave the relationship behind, the child may be hurt by feelings of abandonment. This further allows the alienating parent the chance to tell the child that they were right; the other parent never cared about them. Also, the targeted parent may demand an apology from the child or their ex which may never happen. The need for an apology or for expectations that are unmet can lead to an unconscious way of relating to the child and to the alienating parent that may in fact create more alienation.
The final finding was that no matter how vilified a parent was, the alienated child still retained some good feelings about the target parent. This is great news! No matter how “brainwashed” a child is, the targeted parent is still their mother/father. That will always mean something to them. At some point, if the child reaches a certain maturity level, is able to become less enmeshed with the alienating parent, or spends more time away from them, they will begin to see for themselves what happened. Sometimes however, this is not the case.
Baker & Darnall (2006) also found that there were many subtle and not-so-subtle behaviors undertaken by the alienating parent which served to alienate the child. For a more detailed list of these behaviors, visit these websites: Douglas Darnall and Stop Parental Alienation of Children, These alienating actions include:
- badmouthing the other parent
- limiting time spent with them
- interfering with the child’s counseling
- having a child keep secrets
- forcing a child to express their loyalty
- changing a child’s name
- using the child as a messenger
- rewarding the child for rejecting the parent
- letting the child choose whether they want to visit
Badmouthing the other parent is not unusual in the early days and weeks of a break-up. It is not healthy, but many parents do it without even thinking. Eventually, for many parents, this behavior subsides as the pain of the break-up is worked through. It is important to note that when you are badmouthing a child’s parent, you are essentially badmouthing a part of the other parent in the child; that child is a product of both parents. To have a parent badmouth aspects of the other parent is to reject those parts of the child. It is especially harmful if the targeted parent and child are of the same sex. DON’T DO IT! Recognize that the child has a separate experience of that parent from that of your own. Their experience is not of their dad or their mom being a jerk, filing false claims against them, not parenting right or not paying child support. Their experience is that of being a kid with their parent. They really don’t want to hear the bad stuff. They may be curious, but share your negative stories for the therapist, family members, or friends. One father constantly texted his daughter about ten to twenty times a day—even when she was in school. He would text her things like “Your mother is a retard!” and “We won!” after a court session with the mother. One mother told her son they had to move because their dad did not pay child support. Kids do not need to know that. Use discretion when talking with your children about your ex. Put yourself in your partner’s shoes or in your child’s shoes and imagine what they might feel (narcissists do not have this ability).
Another example of alienating behavior is letting a child choose whether they want to visit. Children are going to get into conflicts with their parents, especially if they are teenagers. It is a natural part of development and one that should be worked out with the parent who the child is having a conflict with. Otherwise, with an alienating parent, they are effectively short-circuiting the process of the teenager or the child maintaining meaningful and important relationships with adults. It gives the child more power than the parent which undermines the other/targeted parent’s power. Parents make their child go to the doctor’s, the dentist’s, school, practice, etc., why do alienators not enforce the child going to the other parent’s home?
In my case, my ex met me in a diner under the guise of talking about co-parenting. After having me present my chore chart and my ideas of parenting, he cut me off and told me our daughter was never coming back to live with me. Without consulting me, he decided that it was no longer “safe” to live in the my home (but the three other kids could). Weeks before, I had been having arguments with my teen daughter about helping out around the house. What should have been normal teenage developmental opportunities for learning about getting along, respect, contributing, and repercussions for behavior, turned into the loss of a relationship with my daughter because of my ex’s egoic need to “rescue” our daughter while simultaneously getting back at me. I never realized what PA was until a therapist who was a friend pointed it out. Then things started falling into place. There were derogatory texts on my daughter’s phone. He would have her call him so he could call the police when I took my children with me to my now new husband’s house. He interfered with my daughter’s therapy. It’s taken a few years, but my daughter and I are finally at a point where we are in a good place, but time was lost. Instead of focusing on the loss, I learned that I had to stay strong, forgive my daughter, and reach out to her periodically to let her know I loved her. In the meantime, I learned all I could about parental alienation. A few months later, my step-son began to act out. He followed in my daughter’s footsteps. Unfortunately, with his case, it has proven to be more challenging to overcome PA.
How many parents are walking around out there afraid to give their children repercussions or chores, because they are afraid their exes will exploit this? How many kids make up stories so that they don’t have to go over to mom’s or dad’s because the other parent doesn’t make the child do any chores or they are unsupervised or they are spoiled? How many children are made to feel guilty if they have a good time at another parent’s house? How many children take care of their parent’s needs and feelings instead of their own? How many children see their parents in black or white terms, this one’s better or I need to protect this one? Worse, how many children feel they need to choose?
Parents are a unit. They may not be together, but they both contribute to the well-being of a child. Sabotaging a relationship with another parent—parental alignment—is akin to allowing a part of a child to die within them. That other part is the targeted parent. The alienated parent is really saying to the child, I reject the other parent, therefore, I reject that part of you. The child may grow up to become depressed, suffer from low self-esteem, and most of all, suffer from the loss of an important relationship in their lives. They are too young to understand the dynamics of this insidious type of abuse called Parental Alienation.
Whether an alienating parent contributes to the child’s behavior consciously or unconsciously, it is up to both parents to address the issue. However, because of the nature of the relationship, the child will naturally listen to the preferred parent. In my opinion, as with other experts in the field, it is emotional abuse to have a child align with another parent (assuming there is no domestic violence, abuse, or neglect). Children need both parents. It is imperative, with the number of divorces occurring around the world, that people become educated about Parental Alienation. It is abuse, it is the brainwashing of a child similar to a cult, and it is uncalled for. It is meeting the needs of the alienating parent at the expense of the child and the targeted parent. Parents do not set out to damage their children; they want the best for them. Parental alienation damages children. Being alienated from a parent with whom they once had a loving relationship with, damages a child for life unless they get the help they need.
Baker, A. J. L. (2006). Patterns of parental alienation syndrome: A qualitative study of adults who were alienated from a parent as a child. The American Journal of FamilyTherapy , 34, 63-78. Doi: 10.1080/01926180500301444
Baker, A. J. L. & Darnall, D. C. (2007). A construct study of the eight symptoms of severe Parental Alienation Syndrome: A survey of parental experiences. Journal ofDivorce and Remarriage, 47(1), p. 55-75. Retrieved from www.informaworld.com.
Baum, N, & Shnit, D. (2005). Self-differentiation and narcissism in Divorced Parents’ Co-Parental Relationships and Functioning’, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 42: 3, 33 — 60To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1300/J087v42n03_03
Bow, J. N., Gould, J. W., & Flens, J. R. (2009). Examining parental alienation in child custody cases: A survey of mental health and legal professionals. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 37, 127-145. Doi: 10:1080/01926180801960658.
Gardner, R. A. (1998). Recommendations for dealing with parents who induce a parental alienation syndrome in their children. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage,28(3), 1-23. Retrieved from www.informaworld.com.
Kloth-Zanard, J. (n.d.). Parental alienation in older children. Retrieved from http://www.parental-alienation-awareness.com/article.asp?articleid=199
Mone, J. G. & Biringen, Z. (2006). Perceived parent-child alienation. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 45(3), 131-156. Retrieved from www.informaworld.com.
Summers, D. M. & Summers, C. C. (2006). Unadulterated arrogance: Autopsy of the narcissistic parental alienator. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 34, 399-428. Doi: 10.1080/0196180600817885.
Warshak, R. A. (2010). Family Bridges: Using insights from social science to reconnect parents and alienated children. Family Court Review. Retrieved from lexisNexis.
Warshak, R. A. (2010, November 23). The complex tapestry of parent-child relations. Dr. Richard Warshak’s Blog: Plutoverse. Retrieved from http://warshak.com/blog/2010/11/23/the-complex-tapestry-of-parent-child-relations/
**Please note: this article was written in 2011 as a research paper as part of my Master’s degree in Psychology. I am now enrolled in a Marriage and Family Therapy program and will expand on Parental Alienation as I progress through the classes. At some point in the future, after graduation and licensure, I intend to become an expert witness as well as work closely with families affected by PA. It is my hope to someday have a retreat center for those who want to help their kids get healthy again and to reconcile with their children. Education is key and I will continue to educate those who want to listen about this form of emotional child abuse.