Alienation in Families: What it Looks Like and What to Do About It

By Peggie Ward, Ph.D.

To prevent the family wars and parent child ruptures caused by the dynamics of parental alienation, it is essential to recognize the symptoms. When children begin to exhibit hatred for, or refusal to see one parent in a heated separation/divorce/post divorce the focus often turns to the parents and what each has contributed. Child rejection of a parent is relatively rare, occurring in 20 – 27% of custody litigating samples (Johnston, Walters, Olesen 2004 FCR). When it occurs it is devastating for the parent who loses contact, and may be damaging for the child. (There is not enough research to state definitively that it IS damaging for all children, although in any specific case the damage may be apparent).

Some of the symptoms of parental alienation, expressed behaviorally are parents who:

  1. Give children choices about contact when they have no choice “You are old enough to decide for yourself”
  2. Tell children all there is to know (that is damaging) about the marital relationship “I just wanted to be honest; he/she asked.”
  3. Refuse to let children’s possessions move back and forth between residences.
  4. Refuse to be flexible about child contact with the other parent, or scheduling events, activities on the other parent’s time. “We really wanted to see this movie, and it was only showing during this time”.
  5. Believe all the negative that a child has to say about the other parent (and not attending to the positive).
  6. Keep secrets with a child about “special times or events” deliberately to keep the other parent out.
  7. Use the children as spies, and ask them details of the time with the other parent; is invested in hearing the negative and using it against the other parent.
  8. Let the children know that you are doing everything to make certain they are “absolutely safe” with the other parent, when there is no demonstrated threat to safety.
  9. Listen in to or being in close proximity to the child who is talking to the other parent “did that jerk say something bad about me again”.
  10. React to normal anger, distress, frustration, sadness as if it were caused by the other parent “That idiot, doesn’t he/she know that you get upset when he/she yells at you. I’ll call and let him know how much you hate this.”

Children are likely to have anxiety or other difficulties when moving back and forth between households of warring parents. Problems arise when these anxieties are not properly dealt with by both parents. Many high conflict parents are ambivalent and skeptical about the value of contact with the other parent, particularly when the child is symptomatic. Consequently many high conflict parents are NOT ADEPT at soothing the child and making the child feel safe and competent to handle the changes. Parents failure to deal with their child’s anxieties, exacerbated by mounting conflict between the parents can result in serious developmental damage and ultimately make the child vulnerable to alienation.

There are many contributors to alienation, in the more attached parent, the more rejected parent, the child and in the system itself. The more attached parent has extremely negative views of the rejected parent, sees separation and divorce as a loss and feels anxious, sad and fears being alone, puts all blame on the divorcing spouse who is now all bad and lets the children know just how bad, uses the child for emotion support and sabotages the relationship with the rejected parent (the list is much longer). The rejected parent is often inept and unsympathetic with their youngsters (particularly compared with the closer attachment to the more connected parent), is initially passive in face of high conflict, but can pursue and barrage children relentlessly, may see the child’s reactions as “the other parent talking” or “he/she is brainwashed”, may have anger toward and thus rejection of the alienated child, may be critical, intimidating and easily enraged. (It is essential to distinguish violence in the family relationship which has been seen, heard or experienced by the child from frustration and anger following the stages of the rupture in the relationship).

Within the family, it is important to understand that allied parents may be extraordinarily naive about their own neediness, have confused emotional boundaries with their children, see their children as equals “best friends”, and give their children a great deal of authority over decision making. Rejected parents are likely to be over autocratic, demanding, rigid and punitive. Their parenting style can be markedly authoritarian. The family tends to splits into good and bad, right and wrong, with only the negative in one parent, and the children forced to make a choice between good and “bad, to their own detriment. Children show huge disproportion between the rejected parent’s behavior and the child’s perceptions, use the same incident or reason over and over to justify no contact, have little or no details to support their assertions, are cognitively mature enough to align with one parent (7 year old and older), and tend to be more vulnerable in a variety of ways to the good – bad split.

It is essential, before assuming alienation is present to have a full evaluation of the family system. It is also essential to understand who contributes what, why and how. Once the family dynamics and individual contributions are understood, and safety concerns have been fully evaluated, rupture repair is possible. For “Rupture Repair” to work it is likely essential to have a Court Order or Stipulation for specific contact to occur, with a specified “Rupture Repair Therapist” who will have the freedom to meet with all parties, individually or together, in whatever fashion he/she deems necessary. The problem is defined as “the resistance to contact” and not within any one person. Everyone must be part of the solution, and no one person is the problem. Meetings generally begin with the “aligned parent”, as it is crucial to gain this persons trust and willingness to “allow” to process to begin. Costs and benefits of the current strategy are discussed.

The next meeting is with the rejected parent, and in this meeting it is essential to understand the rejected parent’s frustration, as well as to assess this parent’s limitations, and begin the process of “coaching” to help this parent become a better parent to his/her child. Meeting with the children comes next – with a further explanation of the mandate, and agreement by BOTH parents as to how to proceed; the child will slowly be taken out of the middle (for some children, the middle has rewards as well as drawbacks, so the work is slow). The work then alternates and focuses on which member or members of the family are most resistant, and how to help each see alternatives. There is much success with the “Rupture Repair” model. Careful evaluation leading to Court Mandate and an experienced therapist working with the entire family system can help move these alienated children and their parents to a more age-typical form of interaction with both parents. Individual therapy does not work to repair the ruptures in these cases, although it may be necessary as an adjunct. Only carefully planned and orchestrated family work by the SAME family therapist who is able to establish an honest, trusting relationship with all family members can help reduce the alienation in the family and work through the healing process.

Peggie Ward, Ph.D. is founder and co-director of the Co-Parenting Assessment Center (with Mira Levitt, Ph.D.), and has worked as a GAL, Parenting Coordinator, mediator and treating therapist for many years. Also she has written, and spoken extensively on the topic of Alienation, and Rupture Repair. 

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