Parental alienation (PA or PAS – Parental Alienation Syndrome) is the unwarranted or illogical rejection of a parent, by a child, where there was previously a normal, warm, loving relationship.
It describes a set of strategies that parents use to undermine and interfere with a child’s relationship with his or her other parent. This often but not always happens when parents are engaged in a contested custody battle. There is no one definitive set of behaviours that constitute PA but research with both parents and children has revealed a core set of alienation strategies, including criticising the other parent, 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 for instance), forcing the child to reject the other parent, creating the impression that the other parent is dangerous, forcing the child to choose, and belittling and limiting contact with the extended family of the targeted parent.
Parents who try to alienate their child from his or her other parent convey a three-part message to the child:
- that I am the only parent who loves you and you need me to feel good about yourself,
- that the other parent is dangerous and unavailable, and
- pursuing a relationship with that parent jeopardises your relationship with me – your only parent.
There is no one definitive set of behaviours that constitute parental alienation but research with both parents and children has revealed a core set of alienation strategies:
- a campaign of denigration against the targeted parent. The child becomes obsessed with hatred of the targeted parent (in the absence of actual abuse or neglect that would explain such negative attitudes).
- weak, frivolous, and absurd rationalizations for the depreciation of the targeted parent. The objections made in the campaign of denigration are often not of the magnitude that would lead a child to hate a parent, such as scraping their plate or serving horrid vegetables.
- lack of ambivalence about the alienating parent. The child expresses no ambivalence about the alienating parent, demonstrating an automatic, reflexive, idealized support of him or her.
- the child maintains that the decision to reject the other parent is his/her own. This is known as the “Independent Thinker” phenomenon.
- absence of guilt about the treatment of the targeted parent. Alienated children will make statements such as, “He/She doesn’t deserve to see me.”
- apparently unconditional support for the alienating parent in the parental conflict.
- borrowed scenarios. Children often make accusations towards the targeted parent that utilise phrases and ideas adopted wholesale from the alienating parent. And, finally,
- The hatred of the targeted parent spreads to his or her extended family. Not only is the targeted parent denigrated and avoided but so too are his/her entire family. Formerly beloved grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins are suddenly avoided and rejected too
This can be immensely traumatic for the alienated parent trying to contain the hurt and the loss, and can be a nightmare that brings many to the brink of suicide. Clients frequently maintain that it is worse than the thought of their child dying, as at least then there would be a bereavement process that they feel could support them
Those children who are victims of this are forced to supress or deny their love and affection, and hide their thoughts and emotions. They are prohibited from speaking to, communicating or being with someone they love. They secretly acknowledge the risk of losing a second parent if they do not comply with the alienating tactics. Children come to learn the upside of compliance in the alienation – the delivery of conditional love and a more peaceful homelife.
Life too for the alienating parent may offer little of the hoped for revenge – whether the parent is conscious of their actions or not. They too struggle to contain the shame and damage and the hate that they may hold for their former partner, and how they may now believe unlike before, that this person is so hateful, that they need to protect their child at all costs.
Counselling can help all three affected parties in this tangle – the child, the alienating and the alienated parent, although it is usual to see only the alienated parent than the other two involved parties. The alienating parent often exhibits Narcissistic Borderline Personality Disorder[i], and by definition is the least likely to ever seek help. The alienated child’s memories of the alienated parent are so completely and progressively erased through vilification, until even when grown up sees the alienated parent as someone for whom they have absolutely no need to reconnect with.
Working with alienated parents frequently involves complex and protracted court cases, involving Solicitors, Barristers and CafCass officials, and any therapy needs to be cognisant with that complex legal framework.
The legal landscape in the UK is changing in term of acknowledgment of Parental Alienation. Recent High Court judgments have specifically identified this as a legitimate area of concern. A recent initiative by Cafcass, has acknowledged the concept and rolling out a programme based on a concept of high conflict families. Unfortunately PA is a quite separate phenomenon to high conflict though of course there may well be an overlap. Neither DSM-5 or WHO however have acknowledged and identified it specifically as an issue, and have pleaded for more research to be conducted.