Parental Alienation: Poisoning the Well

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Graphic shows the outline of two parents arguing with each other and two children caught in the middleWhen a divorce brings lots of conflict to the surface between parents, sometimes it can degrade into a situation where one or both parents begin to involve the children in the disagreements. For example, one parent may divulge inappropriate, negative, or even inaccurate details about the other’s behavior or situation.

Determining Parental Alienation Can Be Complicated

Such behavior by a parent may result in what’s called parental alienation. The term “parental alienation syndrome” (PAS) was first coined in 1985 and used to describe behaviors in a child who is exposed to parental alienation (PA). PAS isn’t considered an official syndrome in the mental health or scientific fields, and it’s not something your child can be diagnosed with. However, that doesn’t mean the situation and its mental health effects don’t happen.

It’s Hard to Determine Whether There Is Justification for the Alienation

There are two broad categories concerning parental alienation:

  • Justified parental estrangement, which results from such factors as the rejected parent’s harmful or abusive behavior, substance abuse, neglect, or abandonment.
  • Parental alienation, in which one parent engages in actions that cause the child to strongly ally with that parent and reject the other without legitimate justification. The rejected parent may contribute to the estrangement in some manner. The key concept is that the rejection by the child is out of proportion to anything that the rejected parent has done.

Sometimes the motivation has nothing to do with the children. For example, the parent claiming to be rejected may be seeking to break down the relationship that the child has with the other parent (the alleged alienator) in order to be released from child support obligations.

There is no consensus regarding how to differentiate between the versions. Legal professionals recognize that alienating behaviors are common in child custody cases but are cautious about accepting the concept of parental alienation.

A Child’s Behavior When Rejecting a Parent

Under severe circumstances, children may become very attached to one parent and disdainful of—or even harbor what appears to be hatred for—the other one. The children may parrot the hostile things they hear one parent say about the other, taking those issues to heart as if the children were as deeply affected by them as the parent. This results in children feeling that they must choose a side, because loving one parent means that the children are betraying the other. And this can happen regardless of whether the accusations and statements about the other parent are true.

While there are no accepted criteria for a child’s behavior stemming from symptoms of alienation efforts, the following samples of what children might do:

  1. Constantly and seemingly unfairly criticizes the alienated parent.
  2. Express feelings about the alienated parent that aren’t mixed; they’re all negative, with no redeeming qualities to be found.
  3. Claims the criticisms are all their own conclusions and based on their own independent thinking.
  4. Has unwavering support for the alienator.
  5. Doesn’t feel guilty about mistreating or hating the alienated parent.
  6. Uses terms and phrases that seem borrowed from adult language when referring to situations that never happened or happened before the child’s memory.
  7. Expands expression of feelings of hatred toward the alienated parent to include other family members related to that parent (for example, grandparents or cousins on that side of the family).

The Child’s Relationship with the Alienated Parent

The children may want have no relationship with that parent at all. They may be reluctant to the point of having an emotional meltdown at the idea of spending time with that parent, while becoming involved in the favored parent’s life at an extreme level.

The children also may make some very disturbing claims about the alienated parent that cannot be ignored. Perhaps the children say that this parent is overly strict or even abusive when such allegations have never come up before.

In some cases, these behaviors may give the favored parent just what he or she requires to drive a wedge between the alienated parent and the rest of the family. As the relationship between parents is already hostile, this parent may see the opportunity to poison the well, embracing the children’s fear and anger and feeding it with his or her own.

Steps to Start Healing the Relationships

The children’s safety is paramount, of course, so allegations of abuse must be investigated, and the court may become involved in this.

Restoring Relationships Between Parent and Child

If true abuse is not indicated, however, the parents may have to take steps—together—to fix the fractured family unit enough to restore some kind of normal relationship between parents and children. This may involve listening carefully to the children to determine what the real problem is, reducing or eliminating the public displays of hostility between the parents, and even family counseling. The anger, fear, tantrums, and other expressions of the children’s seeming hatred of one parent may mask anxiety about the entire divorce proceeding—an issue the family can address together whether or not they all live in the same house.

Adjusting the Child Custody Agreements

Sometimes parents elevate the matter and make changes in custody arrangements, which must be recognized by the court. More and more judges acknowledge the reality or concept of parental alienation, but some do not. Parental alienation is very hard to prove, and taking the case to court could backfire on a spouse who may just want the other spouse out of his/her life. Instead of getting a court order that keeps the alienated parent away from the children, the parents may come up against a skeptical judge who doesn’t buy the concept of parental alienation, much less the need to change the custody agreement. Because of the adversarial process, children may need to maintain the status quo and continue in a very high-conflict situation.

If this is the case, the rejected parent may have to back off voluntarily for a period of time while the family gets counseling or seeks other solutions. Some relationships are so damaged by divorce that the children see one parent as the enemy until they are old enough to understand what really happened between Mom and Dad. It’s a sad story, but this is the way very contentious divorces sometimes end up.


For more divorce topics covered by BJ Mann: BJ Mann Site Content Index

Photo credit: CanStockPhotosangoiri

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