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Parental Alienation: What it is & Why it Matters
Being estranged from a parent is tough, especially when the estrangement isn’t the child’s choice. Separation can make both the estranged parent and the child(ren) feel anxious, sad, scared, angry, or even hostile. It can even make a person realize there are unresolved issues that will take immense work to repair – a realization that isn’t easy to swallow.
Parental Alienation (PA) is the process where one parent (the alienator) alienates their children (or child) from the other parent, often via manipulation, and it is much more common than most people may realize.
Parental Alienation can begin for many reasons, but most often starts when there is a separation or divorce. One parent will start to turn the children against the other parent, whether they realize they are doing so or not. During the divorce/separation, the alienator puts more pressure on the child to gain support. In a sense, the child becomes the parent’s caretaker.
One parent will discredit the other parent either directly or in front of the child. Over time, the child(ren) may become fully or partially alienated from their parents unless the parents learn to resolve their issues and the alienated parent is given space to rebuild the relationship.
Some individuals who go through parental alienation notice it happening right away, while others don’t notice until it has become glaringly obvious. When a parent notices they aren’t able to parent in the way they usually have in the past, they most likely are experiencing the problem of parental alienation.
One parent who has dealt with and continues to deal with parental alienation notes that she noticed it happening over time, and not right away. “I became aware of things slowly, and I would say to myself ‘where is that coming from?’. My ten-year-old all of a sudden started talking to me about child support. It was just little things like that which have raised red flags,” says Jane* (*Name has been changed for this article for the purpose of anonymity).
A common tactic that the alienator parent will use with their children is to bring up personal issues that should only stay between the parents. These topics can include legal issues, child support concerns, finances, and so on. The child (or children), who are usually too young to fully understand these complex subjects, will internalize this information, and sometimes even bring it up to the alienated parent, causing trust issues and strained relationships.
Another parent, who is in a similar situation as Jane, noticed his ex-partner bringing up similar personal details to his children. “I hired a lawyer, and from that moment on every single document that the lawyers sent back and forth, she would read aloud to the children,” says John* (*Name has been changed for this article for the purpose of anonymity.)
The alienator’s usual goal is to push the alienated parent further and further away from their child or children in order to appear as the “hero parent” in the eyes of their kids.
“He [my ex-spouse] would repeat lies that the kids then start to believe because they don’t have something to counteract those lies with,” says Jane. “Every time something would be said by my kids, and I think this applies to most parents in my situation, my first reaction is surprise – but you also try to defend yourself by saying ‘that’s not true!’, and by simply saying that, it pushes them further away.”
It’s tough to think that someone you were once so close to can cause your own children to be somewhat (or completely) left out of your life. That is a very hard thing to come to terms with as an alienated parent. The alienator is often profoundly flawed within themselves, therefore they take out their feelings and emotions by using the people around them to gain control.
They can be described as narcissistic, controlling, insecure, hateful, and in some cases even emotionally, verbally, or physically abusive. In some situations, the alienator can even use finances as a way to control the other parent (and/or the children), which Jane notes is partly what her ex did with her.
“Everything was driven by hate and wanting revenge. He [my ex] knew that one way to do that was financially, and he accomplished that when he unilaterally stopped paying child support,” she says. “So, it was financially driven to turn the kids against me. I had a choice to go to court, but because of the alienation, I knew that it would just make things worse.”
In John’s case, his ex-partner caused issues from the start of their relationship. “She is a very difficult person to get along with. Any discomfort in her life, she just can’t tolerate it. Like a coffee cup left in the sink, or anything that a normal person might find a bit irritating. For these people, they tend to get very, very irritated,” he says.
The alienated parent suffers greatly from parental alienation because it damages their relationship with their child (or children) and can result in years of legal battles and therapy. It’s also important to note how much parental alienation affects the kids. Whether they are young children, pre-teens, or teens, the negative psychological impacts can last a lifetime, causing them to seek out therapy or other outlets as they grow older.
“Every imaginable criticism was thrown at me in front of my kids,” says John. “I don’t think she [my ex] is even aware. I don’t think she has any inkling of the damage that she’s done and that she continues to do. She convinced them that, not just me, but everything to do with my side of the family, everyone on that side, is bad. And that everything on her side is good.”
Children in these situations may feel like they are being pulled in two different directions and may struggle to know the truth when each parent is telling them a different story. It can affect their living situation, mental health, and relationships formed during their life.
“They [the kids] are still suffering from having parents that are not together anymore, and it just adds to the fuel of their sadness and hurt. To hear a parent constantly putting the other parent down is hurtful for kids,” says Jane. “It’s affecting them [my child] with anxiety, and I’d say mild depression, and COVID doesn’t help.”
The concept of parental alienation is extremely unfortunate, especially because it can be avoided if parents take responsibility and actively ensure that their children have a relationship with both parents despite the separation.
If parental alienation has already begun in your relationship, Jane recommends seeking out professional help as soon as possible and staying informed before things get worse. For her, online support groups, therapists, and positive communication with her children have helped immensely to get through it.
“Try whatever you can, and don’t give up,” says Jane. “Try to always come from a place of love, because the other party comes from a place of fear, and fear is hate. Keep your kids out of it as much as possible.”
John, much like Jane, has found solace in online parent groups. He has advice for parents that comes from his several years of dealing with alienation: “When the kids come to you with an accusation or a criticism from the other side, don’t get defensive. Try to understand what it is that they’re feeling and address that,” he says. “If they have a direct question, answer it, but don’t elaborate. Try to focus on what they’re feeling that is leading them to ask that question or make that accusation. Don’t ever, ever give up.”
John also wants parents to know that getting good representation early in the process is essential. He says that when you realize alienation is the culprit, it’s time to get a qualified lawyer and have a solid parenting plan in place before the situation gets out of hand.
Luckily for John, he currently has relationships with his children that they are working on building each day. Jane has a relationship with one of her children, however her other child is still very much alienated; Their communication is rare.
“Like many parents in my position, we miss so much time and do not get to see our child(ren) on birthdays, holidays, etc. It may take years before they come back or have a relationship with our child(ren) again,” says Jane. “In my case, because of the awareness I gained by talking to professionals about PA (parental alienation), I was able to understand what was happening better and I was able to save my younger child to a certain degree from the same faith. I hope and pray I do not lose my younger child in the future. PA (parental alienation) is child abuse.”
Though they both struggled for years in their respective situations with legal battles, counselling, finances, living situations, and more, they have each fought for their children and fought for a sense of normalcy in their lives.
Parental alienation can be a years-long battle. Remaining positive and having open communication with everyone involved is the key to getting through the tough times.
“I really, truly adored – and I still do – I absolutely adore my children,” says John. “I can’t let go. I can’t abandon them. I never did abandon them, and never will.”
Signs of Parental Alienation
There are several signs to look out for when it comes to parental alienation, some of which are clear signs, and some that are less clear. Signs may include:
- Children start bringing up unusual, adult topics that normally stay between parents.
- Manipulative, secret behaviour displayed by your ex-partner.
- Children are speaking to you less over time, whether that be in person, over the phone, text, etc.
- Children are made aware of things going on with you and your spouse that they should not be aware of, such as court dealings or other legal, financial, or personal issues.
- Your ex-partner speaks to you (or about you to the child/children) negatively all the time (or most of the time), especially while children or others are present.
- Children have a sudden loss of interest in your life, being with you, living with you, etc.
- Children are told not to talk about things that occur at the alienator’s home (secretive behaviour).
- Children use new words/phrases that were not part of their vocabulary before the alienation began. This can even include words/phrases above their comprehension level.
If you are noticing any of these signs within your own family, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. There are many resources available for parents going through alienation, such as online support groups, therapist sessions, legal consultations, and more. You are not in this alone.
To learn more about parental alienation and topics surrounding the issue, the following books have been recommended by our interview sources:
- Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-Mouthing and Brainwashing [by Dr. Richard A. Warshak]
- Understanding Parental Alienation: Learning to Cope, Helping to Heal [by Karen Woodall and Nick Woodall]
- Co-parenting with a Toxic Ex: What to Do When Your Ex-Spouse Tries to Turn the Kids Against You [by Dr. Amy J. L. Baker and Paul R. Fine]
- Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome – Breaking the Ties That Bind [by Amy J. L. Baker]
- Understanding and Managing Parental Alienation: A Guide to Assessment and Intervention [by Janet Haines, Mandy Matthewson, and Marcus Turnbull]
The following Facebook groups are great resources for those dealing with PA:
- Alienated Parent and Grandparent Peer Support Group in Canada
- National Association of Alienated Parents
- Parental Alienation Awareness (PAA)
- Victim to Hero
- Parenting in the Thick of It
*Names have been changed in this article for the purpose of anonymity.