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Let's talk about Parental Alienation

What is parental alienation?

There are times in divorce when one parent hates his/her spouse more than he/she loves his children. When this occurs, toxic things happen. Things such as parental alienation.

Parental alienation, happens when a child turns away from a parent in an extreme form. This can happen in both intact and divorced families and in families where the alienating parent is the primary residential caregiver or not or when the parenting plan gives equal timesharing.

Both mothers and fathers have the potential to be the targeted parent. Mothers, despite typically holding the brunt of the childcare activities, even today, are not immune to being on the receiving end of the alienation . Fathers who have the classic every other week visitation, joint time sharing or the bulk of the residential requirements and even an occasional visitation can be subject of parental alienation because it’s not so much about access when you are dealing with a pathological personality.

So how does it all begin?

What I am often asked by my clients, is what are the signs that I should be looking out for? Typically, the types of signs that you would be looking for are;

  • Requests by the child that you do not attend certain events, activities etc

  • Oppositional or defiant disorder in a child that previously demonstrated none or minimal symptoms

  • Shut out or requests made by the child to not attend parent/teacher consultations.

  • Shut out from school meetings (by the other parent via subtle and not so subtle methods) and no longer listed as contact parent for school/camp

  • Being challenged by your child; they become argumentative and combative and, in the extreme form, exhibit provocations to the point of explosive rage

  • A failure of the child to identify any prior positive bonding experiences

  • denigration of the targeted parent that he/she can’t do anything right. In fact, you might hear words from the targeting parent repeated which can be very triggering

  • the child takes responsibility for the alienation and rejection; it was their idea. When confronted they don’t acknowledge manipulation by the pathological parent;

The sad part of listing some of the classic signs is that ultimately, parents who damage their children's natural affection for the other parent are doing serious—and even abusive—damage. Parental alienation is often displayed in adults that present with narcissistic or borderline personality disorders

With narcissistic personalities, an alienating parent may aim to use the children as weapons or pawns in his/her battle to "destroy" the other parent. These individuals often claim to be protecting the children against the "evil" other. However, by using the children in their perpetual fight to hurt the other parent, they often show little consideration for what is in the best interests of the child. 

Typically, children benefit by the presence of both parents. They do not benefit—and indeed can be harmed—when one of their parents portrays the other in a relentlessly negative light. Similarly, they are often harmed by parents who fight their way through divorce and post-divorce. They are harmed when parents put them in the middle of their power battles. They are harmed when a parent uses them to accomplish their own angry agenda, ignoring the needs of the children.

The central element in parent who have borderline personality disorders, on the other hand, is emotional hyper-reactivity. These excessively intense emotions often get expressed as anger. In addition to getting emotionally aroused too often, and too intensely, people with this disorder often have difficulty self-soothing. As a result, their distress tends to be longer-lasting than the distress that most people experience. In this regard, they have deficits in emotional resilience, or the ability to recover after feeling frustrated or disappointed. They may become at risk, therefore, for developing a victim self image, blaming others for whatever goes wrong. Other elements of borderline disorders may become evident in the way that certain alienating parents twist reality. When these individuals are higher in borderline tendencies, they often offer exaggerated accusations against the other parent—accusations that may, in fact, be projections of their own negative attributes (calling the other parent "selfish," for instance, when they themselves actually demonstrate more selfish behaviour). 

So how do I deal with parental alienation?

If you feel like you are experiencing parental alienation, it’s critical to address it right away.

Suggestions include:

  • address the lies and the bad mouthing

IIn this scenario, the aim is to use facts to correct incorrect facts and not to try and move the blame onto the other parent

  • encourage your child to speak to you directly

the best way to combat alienation is to speak with the child directly. They may not want to hear you but seeing you speak your truth will start to break down the belief system that has been given to them by the alienating parent.

  • manage your emotional reactiveness

I know this is hard but having a strong reaction to what your child may be saying to you as a result of the parental alienation may reinforce what the alienating parent is saying about you. i.e. "mummy/daddy always shouts at me and is angry". If you do this, you are the reinforcing the story told by the alienating parent even though an adult would be able to determine that this is your reaction to an untruth. It may be that you need to seek counselling or help from a therapist to help with your emotions around parental alienation.

  • continue to make contact

it may be that the child no longer wants to have contact weekends or may point blank not want to communicate with you. Despite this, you should continue trying to reach out. Focus on your intention not whether you manage to achieve your desired result.

  • be patient

there is no indicator on how long parental alienation will work, or continue and/or whether this is age dependant. You just need to keep on trying and be patient.

  • do not retaliate

as angry or worried as you may be about parental alienation, the wrong thing to do would be to copycat the behaviour demonstrated by the other parent.

If the other parent is intentionally hostile, it will be more challenging. You may need to ultimately take legal action. Practical steps that you can take yourself is carefully documenting in your parenting plan, all the suspected alienating behaviours, particularly non-compliance with contact arrangements. If possible, have a friend or family member with you to witness the alienating behaviour during exchanges or when you have to meet face-to-face with your other parent.

If you need to discuss or need help with parental alienation issues, please contact Your Divorce Coach to see how we can work together.

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