Alienation can be devastating. I’ve been there. The removal of the child from your life is like ripping a piece of yourself away. In bad alienation cases, it is almost as if the child had passed away … they are simply gone from you. Severe distress, depression, confusion, guilt, and sadness all can accompany this horrific event. We feel powerless to stop it.
When your relationship with your child is deteriorating, parental alienation is often the cause.
Signs of alienation
Your child’s behavior is the number one warning sign of alienation. Some warning signs:
- Acting out or other major changes in mood, especially around you
- Resisting or refusing to see you, or excessively disengaging / isolating when around you
- Loss of interest in activities with you they previously enjoyed
- Making demands or attempted manipulation
- Confessing or reporting to you about the other parents’ alienation efforts
- Spying on you on behalf of the other parent
- Exhibiting knowledge of adult topics or issues between the parents, including a divorce or child custody case
- Being used as a messenger by the other parent to deliver adult information
One of the challenges in alienation cases is distinguishing it from “normal” childhood and adolescent development. Lying, secretive behavior, rebellion, and other negative conduct is common in many children, and sometimes we as parents unwittingly make a bad situation worse by our own parenting. An experienced child and family counselor can help you determine when it crosses the line.
What are the forms of alienation?
Experts define parental alienation as behavior by a parent that is not supportive of the other’s parenting, and it takes many forms. Sometimes it is active, where there is conscious intent and direct action by the alienator and/or their family members; in other situations, it is passive-aggressive, signaling to the child how they should treat you or feel about you.
While alienation typically arises after a breakup, it sometimes can occur within an existing relationship, causing additional strain on all concerned.
Some example alienating behaviors:
- Not supporting your possession of the child, either by withholding the child, overscheduling the child, always claiming the child is sick or busy, etc.
- Actively disparaging you or your family, or allowing others to make such comments in the child’s presence
- Enlisting the child as a spy or messenger
- Exposing the child to inappropriate adult information about you, any prior case information (the divorce, custody case, etc.)
- Passively training the child to disapprove of you, your family, or your home
- Telling the child that some future disputed event is going to happen, and conditioning them to be excited for it (i.e., an expensive trip, moving away, getting “primary” custody), setting you up as the “bad guy” by preventing this desired event
- Blaming you for anything and everything
- Refusing to communicate with you about basic matters involving the child (school, health, development, etc.)
- Isolating the child emotionally from the other parent (“Daddy left us”)
- Getting into a new relationship and trying to replace you with the new spouse or intimate partner
- Using the child’s siblings or other family members to reinforce the alienation
Why does it happen?
The number one driver of alienating behaviors is the ongoing power struggle between parents, which is often simply an extension of the relationship conflict that existed when the parents were together. Anger and bitterness over the breakup (even if it was acknowledged to be the best solution) fuels most alienating behavior. A key part of an alienator’s mindset is that it is not child-driven, but is based around the parent’s own issues, although many alienators will attempt to justify their behavior by claiming their conduct is best for the child.
Some common motivations of alienators:
- Goal Driven: the alienator has a particular objective that you oppose, and they will do anything to make it happen
- Trying to be right: the alienator insists that they know best for your child, even when they are demonstrably incorrect or it’s simply a difference of opinion or parenting style
- Devaluation of the other parent: the alienator’s anger and bitterness drives a desire to punish, humiliate, or defeat you. They feel more powerful by putting you down.
How is it harmful?
Alienation is harmful to all parties concerned.
For the child, alienation can amount to a form of emotional child abuse. Children relate to both of their parents and harming that bond is inherently destructive and damaging to the child’s development. It also can cause loss of relationships in your family that would be otherwise beneficial over the course of your child’s lifetime. All the fun times, the challenging times, and the shared experiences that could have been – journeys that will never be taken because of the other parent’s alienation. Conversely, dysfunctional attachments with the alienator’s family can also occur. All of this sets up the child for a poor relationship outlook in their own future, fueled by the mistrust, resentment, detachment, and conflict they witnessed in their youth. For many children of alienators, they simply want to live in peace and not be stuck in the middle of a situation they can’t control. The denial of that peace can lead to all sorts of compensating behaviors and other psychological and developmental problems.
For you, alienation is the devastating loss of your child. It is indescribably awful.
Ironically, alienation is also harmful to the alienator. They remain “stuck” in their conflict with you or your family, enmeshed in their own superiority and/or victimhood. Because the alienator has devoted so much time and energy to the conflict, they can become obsessed with events from years and years ago, never healing, never learning, and never moving on, depriving themselves of the joys of life.
What not to do
In an alienation situation, there are some major missteps to avoid:
- Don’t engage in alienating behaviors
- Don’t disengage from the child or give up
- Don’t feed the conflict with the other parent whenever possible. Keep your interactions brief, informative, firm, and friendly.
- Don’t engage in destructive compensating behaviors (“adult acting out”) in your grief
- Don’t isolate yourself and internalize it all
What can I do about it?
An aggressive approach is often indicated in bad alienation cases. Give me a call and let’s talk about your legal options. If you and the alienator are still in a relationship, a divorce or child custody case is likely necessary. If there is already a prior court order, modification and/or enforcement of that order may be the right step. A strategy then needs to be developed to rebuild your relationship and parenting with the child, while identifying and preventing further alienation as much as possible. This strategy may involve several elements, including:
- Setting specific goals – setting boundaries, changing custody, etc.
- Specialized “reunification” counseling for you and the child
- Getting neutral parties (counselors, evaluators) and professional experts to help understand and explain the problem to the court and parents
- Aggressive litigation to identify and end the alienation
Next, strongly consider expanding your support system by engaging in counseling for yourself and find other positive outlets for your distress and concern.
Lastly: check yourself. Make sure that you are not contributing to the problem and estranging yourself from the child.