Parent Alienation & It’s Devastating Effects
Parent alienation syndrome was first identified and documented by psychiatrist, Richard Gardner, in the 1980’s.
While there continues to be controversy and debate over whether this diagnostic label should or should not be used when working with a family system where these behaviors and dynamics exist, the fact is that parent alienation does occur. The higher the conflict between separating or divorcing parents, the higher the likelihood that behaviors and attitudes associated with parental alienation will occur.
Every day, the family court system is inundated with cases where a 730 custody evaluation has been ordered to determine what is in the “best interest of the child” based on who is the most “fit” parent. I have found that when a 730 child custody evaluation is ordered by a family court, often parental alienation is occurring and court intervention is necessary to prevent it from continuing.
In my work with adult daughters, raised by very difficult or personality disordered mothers, many times what surfaces in our work together is a childhood history wrought with confusion, trauma, loss, psychological torture, double-binds, loyalty conflicts, and both, direct and indirect alienating behaviors on the part of their mothers, their mother’s families, and sometimes the father’s families who have inappropriately aligned themselves against the father and with the alienating mother. Often when the father’s family members align with the alienating mother, it is due to their fear that they will not be allowed to see the children, so they sacrifice their relationship and loyalty to their own family member who is the father of the children, in service to their need to continue to be allowed access to the children by the alienating mother.
In her book, Adult Children of Parental Alienation, Amy Baker notes findings by Clawar and Rivlin (1991) and Gardner (1998), that the desire for revenge is a major motivating factor in parental alienation. Baker writes, “The relationship between the children and their fathers following the divorce is experienced by the mothers as abandonment, loss, and humiliation. To ward off these threatening and noxious feelings (and perhaps to punish the child’s father) the mother creates a loyalty conflict.”
Imagine the psychological chaos, trauma, and loss these situations create for the child or children who must choose to whom they will align…who will be the accepted parent and who will be the rejected parent.
While I have worked with cases where parental alienation comes from the father’s side of the fence against the mother, it is more prevalent among mothers as alienators and fathers as targeted parents. It also appears that in “father as alienator” cases, the reasons are very similar to the reasons why a mother would alienate her children from their father.
The devastating effects that double-binds and parental loyalty conflicts can have on children who are exposed to this destructive and dysfunctional dynamic may include drug use and abuse for self-medication of chronic anxiety and depression, explosive anger, serial and chaotic relationships in adulthood, extreme trust issues, lack of boundaries, lack of self-confidence or sense of self, obsessive-compulsive traits, physiological symptoms such as irritable bowel syndrome, chronic headaches, unexplained back pain, and self-destructive behaviors.
Although I am a strong advocate for children and both parents staying meaningfully connected post-divorce, I hold equally strong convictions about seeking quick and early court intervention when a parent is alienating their children from the other parent.
I firmly believe that in cases of parental alienation, the alienating parent has essentially given up or renounced their responsibility to be a positive influence in their children’s lives and thus gives up their right to have voting power in the lives of their children. I believe that these parents must have firm boundaries set in place by an authority who has the power to set boundaries around effective and child-centered co-parenting and to enforce consequences for violating these boundaries.
I firmly believe that family court judges must take immediate and decisive action in cases where there is even a hint of parental alienation, as time is of the essence in these cases.
Each day that a child is left under the custody, care, and influence of an alienating parent is time spent destroying the bond that child has with the targeted parent and time the alienating parent has to psychologically torture the child by creating double-binds that create traumatic confusion around loyalty conflicts in the developing mind of the child.
I have served as an expert witness on many cases where parental alienation has occurred. Sadly, it seems that by the time it reaches the court “trial” phase, (in a recent case it took almost five years!) the children are already a few years into the alienation process and they have suffered severe psychological damage that is extremely difficult to undo.
I would like to see a more proactive approach by family courts to quickly and decisively shut-down an alienating parent’s behaviors and campaigns against the targeted parent. I would like to see 730 evaluators take a more directive approach at clearly identifying parental alienation and making stronger recommendations that are in line with immediate reunification of children with their alienated parents and more punitive consequences for alienating parents.
I would like to see 730 evaluators petitioning the court to order intensive individual psychotherapy for alienating parents to help them explore the underlying need for pathological revenge and to help them heal those areas of woundedness so that their children are no longer affected by their psychopathy. I would like to see those who are ruling in these cases take a strong and firm approach at putting legal “teeth” in their orders so that the first time the offending party violates an order, all bets are off and custody is moved away from the alienating parent to the targeted parent.
I would like to see serious and severe court sanctions issued against the alienating parent when it is determined that abuse was part of the alienating behaviors.
I truly believe that alienating a child is abuse at the highest level. It may leave no visible physical marks but the psychological damage is horrific with psychological scars that are carried in the psyche of the child. I believe that until family court judges and 730 evaluators begin to view parental alienation as severe child maltreatment, children will continue to suffer in silence, the courts will continue to be overrun by cases where the alienating parent, whose only intention is to destroy the relationship between the targeted parent and the child for their own selfish gain or revenge, will continue to abuse their children under the cloak and protection of the misguided and misinformed family court.
As a therapist who specializes in parent/child reunification therapy, a treatment model that seems to work well in these extreme cases is Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR). With EAP, the children are able to more easily work through their issues of trust, alienation, loyalty conflicts, boundaries, double-binds, and attachment interruptions in a horse arena, with the horses modeling appropriate social behaviors found in the herd environment, and reflecting discrepancies that exist for these children as they try to renegotiate and repair their relationship with the alienated parent.
EMDR is an evidence-based treatment for trauma. Children who are alienated from a parent suffer trauma and loss. EMDR allows the reprocessing of traumatic, unprocessed memories that were created by the alienating parent in their campaign against the targeted parent. Alienated children often have symptoms related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A case could also be made that criteria found in Stockholm Syndrome is evident in the most extreme cases of parental alienation.
I incorporate both EAP and EMDR with alienated parents and their children to help them heal, renegotiate, repair, and reorganize their relationship dynamics so that they can re-enter a loving parent-child bond.
If you, or someone you know, is dealing with the devastating effects of parental alienation, call me TODAY. I can help you restore the parent/child bond that every child and parent deserve to have and enjoy, without the contamination of parental alienation.