The Post-Divorce-Parenting Glossary
What is parental alienation?
Parental alienation is a term used to describe the act, by one parent, of attempting to make his or her child, reject the other parent. Stated more eloquently by Jayne Major, Ph.D. (Parenting Educator & Child Custody Consultant, Breakthrough Parenting Services, Inc. ), “Parental Alienation is the behavior of a parent that engages a child in a discussion, so that the child can either participate or can hear this parent denigrate the other parent.” She goes on to say it is, “anytime a parent speaks badly about another parent where the child can hear it.”
Parental alienation (PA) is common in high-conflict divorces. Parental alienation happens over time when a parent, which could be either the custodial parent or the non-custodial parent, makes negative comments about the other parent in front of or to the children, asks the children to report on the other parent during visitation, or disrupts visitation with the other parent intentionally.
Mild parental alienation
Mild parental alienation (or low-level parental alienation) is characterized by subtle, inappropriate remarks or behaviors that communicate to the child that the other parent isn’t as important as the parent committing the alienation. Mild parental alienation could be passive, and the offending person may not be aware that they are engaging in parental alienation at all.
A common trait of mild parental alienation is that the parent behaves in a passive-aggressive manner. They may actually say and do things that indicate they want the child to have a relationship with the other parent; however, they will occasionally slip in minor comments if they feel the child is having too much of a bond with the other parent. They behave this way because they feel threatened by their child’s relationship with their other parent.
While mild parental alienation is extremely common and less damaging than moderate or severe parental alienation, the challenge is that the offending parent may not believe that what they are doing is alienation. If confronted about it, they may become defensive and conflict could increase. Yet, not confronting them about it could also be an issue if the parent never corrects their behavior. Fortunately most cases of mild parental alienation tend to subside with time.
Moderate parent alienation
The difference between moderate parental alienation and mild parental alienation is the existence of noticeable anger. In mild parental alienation, the alienating parent may be very kind when they are alienating the other parent. In moderate parental alienation, the alienating parent is angry and obviously upset with the other parent when they denigrate them.
Expecting the child to choose them over the other parent is a trait of moderate parental alienation. The child begins to feel stressed and guilty over a relationship with the other parent, because if they attempt to have a real relationship with the other parent, it feels as though they are betraying the one who is committing the alienation.
When parents refuse visitation (parenting time) or virtual visitation, the parental alienation has reached the moderate level. It is also important to note that in moderate cases of parental alienation, the alienating parent may still say that they support the child’s right to have a relationship with the other parent. This should not be taken as a sign that the alienation is mild. If the parent is angry and putting the child in the middle of the conflict, they are beyond mild.
Severe parental alienation
The difference between moderate parental alienation and severe parental alienation is that there is a consistent loathing of the other parent with severe cases of parental alienation. The child is consistently subjected to denigrating discussions about why the other parent is bad. For the child, there is no confusion about whether the alienating parent wants them to have a relationship with the other parent. They don’t. The child knows that wanting a relationship with the other parent means they are betraying the alienating parent.
In severe parental alienation, the child may begin to believe that the other parent was never good – that they never had a positive relationship with the other parent. It turns into an outright rejection of them. They begin to actually feel hatred toward the other parent, but cannot articulate any real reason why they feel that way, beyond what they have heard the alienating parent say about them.
Parental alienation not only impacts the alienated parent, but often causes signficant emotional and behavioral problems for the children, as well. Research shows single-parenting, without both parents involved in the child’s life, can be done effectively. But conflict tends to make children prone to a wide range of negative effects after the divorce. Such effects may include lower grades, a harder time making friends, an increased likelihood of committing a crime, and an increased rate of abusing drugs or alcohol.
Some researchers hypothesize that children may identify with both parents in the process of forming their identity. They then interpret alienating messages of the other parent as a rejection of signficant aspects of themselves. When one parent denigrates or rejects the other parent in front of them repeatedily, children may feel compelled to reject aspects of themselves that they inevitably associate with the other parent.