The Post-Divorce-Parenting Glossary

Parental Alienation

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.

What are the different levels of parental alienation?

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.

What are some of the effects of parental alienation on children?

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.

What is the difference between parental alienation versus parental alienation syndrome (PA vs PAS)?

Parental alienation differs from parental alienation syndrome, in that parental alienation is the “act” of inducing parental alienation syndrome. The syndrome (PAS) is characterized by eight symptoms that a child might have, after being subjected to parental alienation from one parent over time. These symptoms of PAS are:

  • A hatred toward the alienated parent.
  • Weak rationalizations for the hatred toward the alienated parent.
  • Little or mixed emotions toward the alienated parent.
  • A denial that their rejection of the alienated parent was the result of the other parent who instigated parental alienation.
  • An automatic, instinctive feeling of support toward the parent who instigated the alienation when their is a conflict.
  • Little or no guilt or remorse over how the alienated parent feels or is treated in conflict by the parent who instigated the alienation.
  • Using situations and discussions that came from the alienating parent as support for their own basis of negative feelings toward the other parent.
  • Strong irrational dislike for other acquaintances, friends, and family of the alienated parent.

How do courts deal with parental alienation?

Family courts typically lag significantly behind research about parental alienation. Many judges ignore it as an issue, and some consider it controversial since PAS is not yet in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V), which is used to categorize and standardize psychological and mental disorders. Still, courts are obligated to follow the best interest of the child doctrine. A particular court may rule one way about parental alienation and another court another way, based on how the judges involved interpret what is best for the children.

Why do children succumb to parental alienation?

Ludwig F. Lowenstein, Ph.D states, “The result of alienation as I have found it is that the child develops a hatred for the other person that is the non-resident other parent and seeks to denigrate and vilify that parent much as has been done by the alienating parent.” In other words, Dr. Lowenstein is stating that a child will be forced to choose one parent over the other if one parent is committing parental alienation. To have a bond with the one parent that is providing the child with love and support means the child must adopt that parent’s beliefs, even if that is the outright rejection of the other parent.

What to do if you believe your child already has parental alienation syndrome?

The deeper and longer the parental alienation has gone on, the more difficult it is undo the effects of parental alienation syndrome. Trying to bond again with a person that has been subjected to parental alienation will likely take time and effort on the part of the alienated parent. That parent must reach out to the child, and show their child that they love them unconditionally. This should be done again-and-again.

The alienated parent should not expect the child to change his or her mindset quickly. From the child’s perspective, by accepting the alienated parent, they may feel like they need to reject the parent that caused the alienation. Doing this without destroying the bond that the child has with the parent that caused the alienation is the goal. If it turns into a battle between parents, it will likely not work.

What strategies do not help when dealing with parental alienation?

Paraphrasing Dr. Reena Sommer, author of the book, The Ten Biggest Divorce Mistakes, the following techniques do NOT work when faced with a parent who is engaging in parental alienation tactics:

Waiting: Children are not likely to change on their own, and the alienating parent may not adjust either.

Negotiating: A parent that commits parental alienation is purposefully attempting to destroy the bond that the child has with the other parent, and negotiating with that parent is unlikely to work. Furthermore, precious time is wasted in trying to change that parent’s mindset and conflict likely increases, which means more negative comments and an more alienating events are occurring.

Mediation: For mediation to be effective, both parties have to be in the mindset that they want what is best for the children. A parent that is committing parental alienation is not in that mindset. They view raising the child as a win/lose arrangement. If you win, they lose.

Appeasing: The parent committing the alienation is motivated by wanting to destroy the child’s bond with that parent. A person in this state-of-mind cannot be appeased.

How can divorced parents prevent parental alienation before it begins?

Prevention is the best cure for avoiding parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome. If parents can begin their post-divorce parenting life with a child-centered approach to parenting, they can likely prevent parental alienation before it begins.  A loving relationship with both parents and a strong parent/child bond are critical elements to avoiding the negative consequences of divorce on children. The following guidelines can help divorced parents reduce and prevent the damaging effects of parental alienation from happening:

  • Never ask your child to provide information about what is going on at the child’s other house.
  • Never badmouth the other parent in front of the child.
  • Always encourage your children to love and respect the other parent.
  • Always respect the child’s time with the other parent.
  • Never argue with the other parent in front of the child.
  • Be on time for custody exchanges and respect visitation or the other parent’s time with the children.
  • Review the Divorced Children’s Bill of Rights, often!

How do parents approach children that have been subjected to parental alienation from an ex spouse?

We strongly encourage families experiencing issues with parental alienation to seek counsel from a therapist that specializes in working with divorced families. A parenting coordinator, a mediator, and a therapist may be able to help improve the situation.  Often parents feel stuck in how to approach a situation where their child(ren) has received alienating messages from the other parent. As a result often parents don’t say anything. However, there is a saying that you can’t not communicate, meaning not communicating is communicating. In other words, saying nothing is actually saying a lot and serves to confirm in the child’s mind the alienating messages they have received from the other parent.

A skilled therapist may address the child(ren) and correct them regarding the misinformation they have received from the offending parent. This can obviously be a very triggering situation; however, even if the alienating messages have been very offensive, it is necessary to not respond by bad-mouthing the offending parent to the child(ren). This is not placing the child’s needs first but rather only placing them in the middle of escalating conflict and will likely only serve to increase further parental alienation.

Dr. Richard Warshak, in his book Divorce Poison suggests using words like “mistake” or “mistaken”. For example, you wouldn’t say to your child, “your dad is a liar,” but rather you would say, “your dad was mistaken.”  The following is an example of a way of approaching a child who has been given alienating messages:

Sometimes parents get upset or mad just like kids do. When upset, sometimes we make mistakes like calling someone a name or saying something that we didn’t mean. So, what your father said was a mistake and he probably said it because he is mad about something. He and I will talk and try our best to make up. Sometimes that takes time. But what I want you to know is that your dad and I love you very much and that will not change.>/i>

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