The term “parental alienation” is a buzz word that is not favorably received in some circles. Some people associate it with a negative connotation as some parents have lost custody if they have accused a parent of sexual abuse. The trend in this country is not to believe in sexual abuse allegations despite the evidence that proves the opposite.
But what does the term alienation actually signify? It is usually associated with Richard Gardner’s influence on the term, but his viewpoint is only a very small component of what the existing body of psychological research suggests.
Parental alienation has been described as stockholming a child and involves the “programming” of a child by one parent to denigrate the other “targeted” parent, in an effort to undermine and interfere with the child’s relationship with that parent, and is often a sign of a parent’s inability to separate from the couple conflict and focus on the needs of the child. The denigration takes many forms, including denigrating the other parent’s parenting ability, brainwashing children that they can only see a parent at a park, brainwashing children that the other parent is an “asshole”, “a sick piece of shit”, a “flight risk” and is “delusional” and “crazy” and that there simply MUST be something wrong with that parent.
The denigration has one point only and that is to destroy the existing positive parent child bond to ultimately remove a loving parent from a child’s life.
The behavior involves a set of strategies, including bad-mouthing the other parent, (which includes verbal abuse in front of children), inciting children to do the same, limiting contact with that parent, erasing the other parent from the life and mind of the child (forbidding discussion and pictures of the other parent), forcing the child to reject the other parent, forcing the child to see the target parent in a specific location in the presence of the other parent only so that abuse against the target parent can continue, refusing children the right and access to the target parent’s home, forcing the child to choose between the parents by means of threats of withdrawal of affection, and belittling and destroying all contact with the extended family of the targeted parent, as they simply do not count.
The available research suggests that severe alienation/stockholming is abusive to children and is a completely overlooked form of child abuse. As reported by adult children of divorce, the tactics of alienating parents are tantamount to extreme psychological maltreatment of children, including spurning, terrorizing, isolating, corrupting or exploiting, and denying emotional responsiveness. For the child, alienation is a serious mental condition, based on a false belief that the alienated parent is a dangerous and unworthy parent. The severe effects of parental alienation on children are well-documented; low self esteem, self-hatred, lack of trust, depression and substance and other forms of addiction are widespread, as children lose the capacity to give and accept love from a parent. Self-hatred is particularly disturbing among affected children, as children internalize the hatred targeted toward the alienated parent, are led to believe that the alienated parent did not love or want them, and experience severe guilt related to betraying the alienated parent. Their depression is rooted in feelings of being unloved by one of their parents, and from separation from that parent, while being denied the opportunity to mourn the loss of the parent, or to even talk about the parent. Alienated children typically have conflicted or distant relationships with the alienating parent also, and are at high risk of becoming alienated from their own children. Baker reports that fifty percent of the participants in her study of adult children who had experienced alienation as children were alienated from their own children.
The APA, (American Psychological Association), has broadened their definition of child abuse in the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental disorders to include “child psychological abuse” defined as “non-accidental verbal or symbolic acts by a child’s parent or caregiver that result, or have reasonable potential to result, in significant psychological harm to the child.” Under this category, one finds a description of “parent-child relational problem” symptoms. For example, the child’s perception of an alienated parent “may include negative attributions of the other’s intentions, hostility toward or scapegoating of the other, and unwarranted feelings of estrangement.
Baker, A. (2010). “Adult recall of parental alienation in a community sample: Prevalence and associations with psychological maltreatment.” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 51, 16-35.
Bernet, W. et al (2010). “Parental alienation and the DSM V.” American Journal of Family Therapy, 38, 76-187.
Fidler, B. and Bala, N. (2010). “Children resisting postseparation contact with a parent: Concepts, controversies, and conundrums.” Family Court Review, 48 (1), 10-47.
Kruk, E. (2011). Divorced Fathers: Children’s Needs and Parental Responsibilities, Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.