One of the most painful byproducts of a high conflict divorce and child custody battle is watching your ex manipulate your children into believing that you’re a bad parent. “Parent-child relationships that were strong before the divorce can be damaged almost overnight when an alienating parent lures a child into the Cult of the Bad Mom/Dad. Brainwashing tactics include bad-mouthing, lies, manipulation of events, and a constant barrage of negatives about the other parent…similar to a political smear campaign” (Weinberger, 2016).
What is Parental Alienation?
“The child psychologist who first coined the term parental alienation syndrome (PAS) in 1985, Richard Gardner, used it to describe behaviors in a child who is exposed to parental alienation (PA)” (Legg, 2019).
According to experts in the field of psychology, and the DSM-5, PAS is not a recognized mental health condition. But the DSM-5 does have a code for “child affected by parental relationship distress” which PAS would fall under. However there is no doubt that significant damage to the parent-child relationship occurs, and subsequently mental health.
PAS isn’t really considered an official syndrome in the mental health or scientific fields, and it’s not something your child can be diagnosed with. But that doesn’t mean the situation and its mental health effects don’t happen (Legg, 2019).
Parental Alienation is when one parent discredits the other parent to a child or children the two share. For example, perhaps mom tells her child that their dad doesn’t love them or want to see them. Or a dad tells his child that their mom prefers her new family (and kids with a new partner) to them.
Accusations can be mild or incredibly severe, distorting the child’s perception of the alienated parent, regardless of how close the relationship was with the parent before.
The parent-child relationship suffers, whether allegations are true or not. For example, after being repeatedly told that dad doesn’t want to see the children – even if it isn’t true – the child may eventually refuse to talk to or see dad when the situation arises.
In this situation, the parent doing the bad-mouthing and information feeding is called the alienator, and the parent who is subject to the criticism is the alienated (Legg, 2019).
Signs and Symptoms of Parental Alienation Syndrome
When Gardner talked about PAS, he identified eight “symptoms” or criteria for it:
- The child constantly and unfairly criticizes the alienated parent (sometimes called a “campaign of denigration”).
- The child doesn’t have any strong evidence, specific examples, or justifications for the criticisms – or only has false reasoning.
- The child’s feelings about the alienated parent aren’t mixed – they’re all negative, with no redeeming qualities to be found. This is sometimes called “lack of ambivalence”.
- The child claims the criticisms are all their own conclusions and based on their own independent thinking. (In reality, in PA, the alienating parent is said to “program” the child with these ideas.)
- The child has unwavering support for the alienator.
- The child doesn’t feel guilty about mistreating or hating the alienated parent.
- The child uses terms and phrases that seem borrowed from adult language when referring to situations that never happened or happened before the child’s memory.
- The child’s feelings of hatred toward the alienated parent expand to include other family members related to that parent (for example, step-parents, grandparents, cousins, or other family members on that side of the family).
“Gardner later added that to be diagnosed with PAS, the child should have a strong bond with the alienator and previously have had a strong bond with the alienated. He also said the child should show negative behaviors when with the alienated parent and have difficulty with custody transitions” (Legg, 2019).
Signs That Parental Alienation May Be Taking Place
- An alienator might divulge unnecessary relational details – such as affairs or other relationship details to a child.
- An alienator may prevent a child from seeing or talking to the other parent – while saying that the alienated parent is busy/ occupied/ uninterested in the child.
- An alienator my insist the child’s personal items all be kept at the alienator’s house, regardless of how much time is spent at each residence – such as pictures, special items such as blankets and stuffed animals, and even clothing.
- An alienator might plan tempting activities during the other parent’s custody. For example, special activities may be suggested or planned during the time which the child would be spending with the other parent. This may be done in a way that puts the decision up to the child so that the child is the one to choose the special activity over spending time with the other parent during their court ordered parenting time.
- Related to above, an alienator might frequently bend or break custody guidelines, arranged inside or outside of court. They may also refuse to compromise on a custody agreement.
- Secrecy may become rampant. There are several ways this can happen: “The alienator may keep medical records, report cards, information about the child’s friends, and more all under wraps. This can alienate the child from the other parent because let’s face it – if one parent knows all your friends, likes, and activities, that’s the parent you’ll want to talk to” (Legg, 2019).
- Related to secrecy, gossip may become rampant. For example the alienator may ask the child about the alienated parent’s personal life and more. This can become a subject of gossip.
- The alienator may become controlling when it comes to the child’s relationship with the other parent. For example the alienator could try to monitor all phone calls, texts messages, or interactions.
- The alienator may actively compare the other parent to a new partner. This could take the form of the child hearing that their stepdad loves them more than their dad. A child might even be told that their stepparent will adopt them and give them a new last name.
These are just some of the forms of potentially harmful parental alienation tactics. Beware that it’s a tricky thing to use in legal situations when it comes to custody agreements, because it’s hard to prove. Ironically, that’s when PAS comes up the most – in custody disputes.
PAS can also be used to continue, hide, or reinforce abuse. This is a serious situation that can involve criminal allegations (Legg, 2019).
Treating Parental Alienation
Treating parental alienation in a family or joint parent therapy setting is normally challenging due to it being incredibly likely that that alienator will refuse to agree to go to therapy, or agree on a therapist. Judges can order family therapy or parenting classes, but unfortunately, they can’t make an alienator listen to what the therapist has to say.
Some good news? One doesn’t necessarily need a judge or mental health professional to take action and give one’s child a more balanced picture of the parent and relationship.
Here are three strategies you can put into action right now to help stop parental alienation and protect your relationship with your kids.
- Maintain contact with your children. Alienators often try to interrupt or prevent visitation and phone communication. It’s easy to feel hopeless when you’re consistently denied access to your children, or worse, when they refuse to see you because they’ve been told you’re dangerous or that you don’t care.
If your ex interferes with visitation or your kids are afraid to go, file a complaint with the cour that she’s in violation of the child visitation plan.
In the man time, keep trying to stay in touch with your children any way possible. Keep texting, emailing, calling, and continue to attend special events/ extra curricular, and school activities. Your children may not respond, but they will know that you care.
Continue to show up for visitation – even if they refuse to see you. “Many adult children of parental alienation say they interpreted their parents’ absence as proof that that parent didn’t love them. When that happens, the alienating parent has won” (Weinberger, 2016).
2. Address the other parent’s lies. According to conventional divorce wisdom, you should turn the other cheek when being bad-mouthed. The logic behind this is that the children should not be subject to the emotional burden incurred when their parents share their personal problems.
This is true… but the fact is, they are already being hurt by the alienator’s lies. NOT addressing your ex’s manipulation and lies, is like pretending there’s no elephant in the room, and can even make your children doubt reality.
Present your side of the story calmly and factually: you do love them and that’s why you’ve showed up for every school performance and ballet recital; you do have fun together and here are some of the photos of you camping and celebrating together to prove it; you do send text messages to contact them and here’s a record on your phone.
The more you challenge the alienator’s false statements, the greater the chance your children will also.
3. Teach your children how to be independent thinkers. “Parental alienation is emotional abuse of children. Alienators give children the tacit message that it is not okay to have their own thoughts and feelings” (Weinberger, 2016). Their tactics are similar to cult leaders who destroy their followers’ ability to think for themselves and make their own choices.
In order to combat your ex’s mind games, you must instill critical thinking in your children. “If they’re still in the bedtime story phase, ask them why they think Cinderella’s stepsisters are so mean to her. If they tell you history class is boring, ask them why learning about civil rights is important. If your child says they don’t know or asks you to explain things, say you will but you want to hear what they think first” (Weinberger, 2016).
Talk about the difference between opinion and fact. For instance: one person can love pickles and the other person can hate them. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with pickles, it’s just a person’s preferece and point of view.
As your children develops the ability to think for themselves, they will be better able to put the alienator’s skewed narrative in perspective.
Have you experienced Parental Alienation? How did you cope and overcome? Leave your story in the comments!
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Visit these other great resources:
PsychologyToday: Parental Alienation Syndrome: What Is It, and Who Does It?
Psychiatric Times: Treatment and Prevention of Parental Alienation
Legg, T., (December 5, 2019) What Is Parental Alienation Syndrome? https://www.healthline.com/health/childrens-health/parental-alienation-syndrome
Weinberger, (March 6, 2016), Kids Divorce, And Manipulation: Three Strategies To Overcome Parental Alienation https://www.weinbergerlawgroup.com/blog/newjersey-child-parenting-issues/kids-divorce-manipulation-three-strategies-overcome-parental-alienation/