Parental Alienation

Parental Alienation

It can be challenging to recognize the process where one parent influences their child to reject the other parent. Parental alienation expert Mandy Matthewson offers guidance for identification and intervention.

What sorts of things do alienating parents do that makes the alienation process successful?

Alienating parents can use a variety of parental alienating behaviors to damage the relationship between the child and the child’s other parent. A list of many of these behaviors can be found here: https://emmm.org.au/alienating-tactics

Parental alienating behaviors are complex and not every parental alienating behavior will be seen in all alienated families. More research is needed to better understand the relationships between parental alienating behaviors and their effect on children. It is unclear if one alienating tactic is more damaging than others. However, research shows that parental alienating behaviors are damaging to children.

What are the long-term effects of parental alienation?

Children and parents affected by parental alienating behaviors experience the same trauma reactions as those who have experienced other forms of abuse. 

Impact on the Alienated Children

Research shows that adults alienated from a parent in childhood because of exposure to parental alienating behaviors experience complex trauma reactions. They can experience symptoms consistent with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, depression and substance use. Alienated children tend to be involved in abusive relationships in adulthood and can be alienated from their own children. Adults alienated in childhood are also more likely to contemplate suicide compared to adults who have not experienced parental alienation.

To read more about the losses alienated children experience, please read this article: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34256247/

Learn more about the mental health consequences of parental alienation here: https://www.mdpi.com/2227-9067/9/4/475

A visual representation of the impact of parental alienation on children can be seen here: https://img1.wsimg.com/blobby/go/32bfb923-d01e-4723-bfbf-69b5436b180b/downloads/Alienated_Children_Iceberg.pdf?ver=1676433292122

Impact on the Alienated Parent

Alienated parents often experience complex trauma reactions. They can feel confused, isolated and lonely because their experience is often ignored, denied, or minimized.  Alienated parents often accrue financial losses from ongoing litigation with the alienating parent trying to maintain a relationship with their children. Suicide rates in alienated parents are also high. More information about the impact of parental alienating behaviors on parents can be found here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10826-020-01725-1

Is much known about the psychology of parents who drive the alienation?

Alienating parents can have personality characteristics that tend to drive their use of parental alienating behaviors. Alienating parents can present with problematic personality traits such as:

  1. An enhanced sense of self-importance.

  2. A sense of entitlement.

  3. An inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs or feelings of others.

  4. Arrogance and hostility.

These personality traits can make it difficult for alienating parents to cope with perceived rejection. They can interpret the ending of their relationship with their child’s other parent as abandonment and subsequently experience an abnormal grief reaction. Further, if the alienated child expresses a need to contact the targeted parent, the alienating parent can perceive this as a rejection of them and become hostile towards the child as a result. The hostility experienced by alienating parents is often greater than is warranted. Underlying this hostility can be bitterness and regret at the failure of a relationship or the loss of the things they wanted. They can find it difficult to accept the change in family relationships and use their children as a container of their grief.

Alienating parents tend to absolve themselves of any responsibility for contributing to and resolving problems. Alienating parents can blame others for the negative emotions they experience. Often the person they blame for these is the targeted parent and sometimes the alienated child. When the alienating parent considers the targeted parent responsible for their pain, they conclude that the targeted parent must be a bad person. Therefore, the alienating parent can feel justified in their hostility towards that parent and justified in keeping their child away from that parent. Alienating parents can deflect attention from their problematic behaviors by denying the existence of their own shortcomings and focusing on their narrative that the targeted parent is nothing but flawed.

Alienating parents can have fractured, controlling and dysfunctional family of origin histories. These family of origin experiences normalize parental alienating behaviors and these family members can even be encouraging of them. A history of problematic romantic relationships is also common among alienating parents.

Alienating parents can demonstrate a need to control events and others. Their need to be in control can lead alienating parents to breach court orders and behave in ways that are detrimental to others, particularly the alienated child. Alienating parents often want revenge for their unhappiness. The people they want to pay for their unhappiness are the targeted parent and anyone they see as aligned with that parent. Sometimes, the alienating parent will turn their attention to the alienated child and consider them responsible for their unhappiness.

It is important to remember that not all alienating parents present the same way. An individual alienating parent may demonstrate all or some of these characteristics. Also, some alienating parents are good at impression management and can present with an interpersonally pleasing facade. However, behind the facade are some or all of these characteristics.

Read more about the characteristics of alienating parents here: https://emmm.org.au/parental-alienation

What is the relationship between parental alienation and coercive control?

Coercive control occurs when a person uses various tactics to create dependency and maintain power and control over another. Coercive controlling behaviors include using threats and intimidation, isolation, emotional abuse, gaslighting, minimizing, denying, blaming and financial control. In many cases, parental alienating behaviors include coercive control. The alienating parent can use coercive controlling behaviors to maintain power and control over the targeted parent and the alienated child.

In some cases, coercive control may precede parental alienation whereby parental alienating behaviors are an extension of family violence after family separation. However, not all cases of coercive control lead to parental alienation.

For more info, see a diagram here: https://img1.wsimg.com/blobby/go/32bfb923-d01e-4723-bfbf-69b5436b180b/downloads/Parental%20Alienating%20Behaviours.pdf?ver=1620875497971

How can parents who are being alienated get professional help?

Despite greater awareness of and scientific literature on parental alienation, it is still difficult for parents affected by parental alienating behaviors to find help. Here are some suggestions for accessing professional help:

  1. Find a qualified mental health practitioner who understands parental alienating behaviors and their impact. 

  2. Obtain legal advice from a family lawyer who understands parental alienating behaviors and their impact. 

  3. Research shows that increased self-awareness of parental alienating behaviors and how to cope with the losses associated with parental alienating behaviors can be helpful. There are several websites and support groups for people affected by parental alienating behaviors. Below are links to reputable organizations:

The Eeny Meeny Miney Mo Foundation (EMMM) is a not-for-profit charity focused on raising awareness of parental alienating behaviors. EMMM also provides education and support services: https://emmm.org.au/parents

The International Support Network of Alienated Families (ISNAF) is a support network for alienated parents. ISNAF offers self-help resources, grief programs and meet-ups: https://isnaf.info

Parental Alienation Study Group is an international, not-for-profit corporation with members from over 62 countries. Membership is free and open to anyone interested in learning more about parental alienation: https://pasg.info

Are mothers or fathers more likely to engage in alienating children from the other parent?

Research suggests that mothers and fathers are equally likely to use parental alienating behaviors. However, the types of alienating behaviors used by alienating mothers and fathers may differ. Alienating fathers may be more likely to encourage their children to be defiant towards their mother, whereas alienating mothers may be more likely to denigrate their children’s father in front of the child. Targeted mothers may also experience psychological aggression, control and threats. Targeted mothers and fathers have reported experiencing physical violence from alienating parents.

I am seeing clients and the parents of clients who appear to have been co-opted in parental alienation by an aunt/uncle, grandparent, or even older siblings/half-siblings. How do you address this?

Parental alienating behaviors and their impact ripple through the wider family system and down generations. Alienating parents can involve other family members in their actions to damage the relationship between their child and their child’s other parent. The other family members can include the alienated child’s siblings, stepparent, grandparents and aunts/uncles. Sometimes the family member who instigates and maintains a campaign of parental alienating behaviors are the child’s grandparents or stepparents.

Alienated children are not just alienated from their other parent. Parental alienating behaviors can divide entire families. Essentially, any family member who does not participate in using parental alienating behaviors and/or appears to support the alienated parent, will also be alienated from the child. Research also shows that parental alienation tends to run in families. Adults who were alienated from a parent in childhood can become alienated from their own children. Also, alienating parents often grew up in fractured and alienated families in childhood.

Is it common for older teenagers to be alienated from a parent?

Children and young people can be impacted by parental alienating behaviors at any age group. Some studies suggest that younger children (under the age of seven) are more susceptible to parental alienating behaviors because:

  1. Younger children have limited capacity to critically evaluate information they hear from the alienating parent and to understand complex family dynamics.

  2. Younger children are more likely than older children to already be dependent on the alienating parent, who is often the primary custodial parent at the time of family separation. 

Older teenagers and even adults can be susceptible to parental alienating behaviors. This is because older teenagers can:

  1. Better understand complex family dynamics.

  2. Experience loyalty conflicts within the context of family separation.  

  3. Have a sense of loyalty or guilt, which could further complicate their emotions and beliefs about both parents.

  4. Have a better understanding of the consequences to them if they don’t choose a side in family conflicts.

Further, research shows that adults can be susceptible to false memories and manipulation of memory, which can occur as a parental alienating behavior. More information about false memories can be seen here: https://youtu.be/PB2OegI6wvI

Is there any chance once children are older they will see the parent they are alienated from?

Yes. There is a chance and there is always hope that this will happen. It is important to remember that reunification after parental alienation is not easy. This is because parental alienating behaviors are damaging, and the extent of the harm and the trauma reactions of the child and parent can hinder the reunification process. Also, reunification is a process that can take time.

It is important that targeted parents are as healthy as they can be to respond to their child and the challenges of the reunification process in a way that does not lead to further harm to the child. Here are some resources that can help: https://emmm.org.au/parents

A detailed analysis of the reunification process can be read here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1189840/full?utm_source=F-NTF&utm_medium=EMLX&utm_campaign=PRD_FEOPS_20170000_ARTICLE

I have written books about child maltreatment but always get "hate emails" and even threats when I write about parental alienation. The polarization seems massive. Deniers invoke Dr Richard Gardner's suicide to dismiss the phenomenon and other distortions. What are your thoughts on this?

Unfortunately, you are not alone. I have also received aggressive opposition to my work and so have colleagues working in this area. Often people who deny the existence of parental alienating behaviors will personally denigrate Dr Gardner and his work. These arguments are ill-informed, inaccurate and at times offensive. The arguments used by people who deny the existence of parental alienating behaviors consist of techniques seen in science denial. Here’s a great summary of these techniques: https://skepticalscience.com/history-FLICC-5-techniques-science-denial.html

Here is an excellent article addressing misinformation about parental alienation and showing how these techniques can be used to support the spread of misinformation: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/bsl.2605

Additionally, here's an article I co-authored with Amanda Sillars. Amanda Sillars has lived experience of parental alienating behaviors as a child and as a parent. She is the founding director of The Eeny Meeny Miney Mo Foundation (EMMM): https://emmm.org.au/emmm-newsletter/f/through-the-eyes-of-alienated-children

Despite the aggressive opposition to some of my work and personal attacks I have received, I continue to approach discussion about parental alienating behaviors with sensitivity and compassion because of the emotional complexities involved. I hope that open and respectful dialogue, along with reliable research can bring about increased awareness and change.

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