'Parental Alienation' - A Heartbreak for Unknowing Parents
It's a day that's affixed in my memory. An awful and unexpected day.
I had no idea, as I went about my usual routine of picking up my 12 year old daughter from track practice, that our lives were about to change and heartbreak was just around the bend. As the last of the track team exited the school grounds, I started to worry. Where was my daughter? She'd been at her dad's house the night before and he hadn't informed me of any schedule changes? What was going on?
What is Parental Alienation (PA)
Parental alienation occurs when one parent intentionally and systematically alienates a child from the other parent, their home and extended family. This parent will attempt to justify their actions as prudent and necessary, creating reasons for the child's separation from the other parent even when there is no evidence to back-up their misguided beliefs and accusations.
According to PA expert Dr. Richard Warshak, these parents enlist children as allies in a battle against the other parent. Through persistent bad-mouthing, lies, exaggerations, overlooking positives, and drum-beating negatives, they manipulate their children to reject the other parent in the same way a politician paints an unfavorable picture to alienate voters from the opponent. Children reject a parent with whom they previously had a good relationship, often paralleling their other parent's negative attitudes. The children's treatment of the rejected parent is disproportionate to that parent's behavior and inconsistent with the prior history of the parent-child relationship.
Who is at Risk?
Here are some possible traits of a parent who chooses to alienate their child from their other parent:
- Possessive, controlling and oppressive - unable to respect others' boundaries
- Narcissistic, self-focused and believe they are superior to the other parent
- Misguided in their thinking and conclusions, unable to accept the evident realities
- Jealous, territorial, vindictive and/or filled with rage toward the other parent
- Devalues and trivializes the child's relationship with the other parent and need for their love
- Unwilling to empathize with the other parent's perspectives, pain or concerns for the child
Our New Normal
In our case, after ten years of relatively peaceful co-parenting and (equal or 50/50?) shared custody, my Ex's behaviors and attitudes dramatically shifted. I still don't know why.
At the school that day, I frantically called asking for information about our daughter's whereabouts. He was aloof as he informed me that she wasn't at the school and that "it's best for our daughter to be with him more now - under his fatherly influence; that she wouldn't be spending time at our house". His general attitude was that my relationship with her was unnecessary.
And just like that, Mike and I were propelled into the family court system for three painful years as we fought against PA with everything we had. We also had a very different child on our hands…a child who was unable to accept our love and tried desperately to convince us to give in to her dad's thoughtless and irresponsible actions. She refused to engage in conversation or express how she was truly feeling about the situation - her voice had been silenced.
During this time, my Ex put our daughter in an afflicting position (Loyalty Conflict) - she had to reject me in order to earn his love and acceptance. In his systematic and manipulative attempts to dismantle my relationship with my daughter, he fabricated lies about me and our household. She was then instructed to repeat these lies, much like a robotic parrot, to our court appointed child-advocates. As a result, we lost many battles in court and ended up with a parenting plan that heavily favored my Ex. Yes, we had made a slight gain in scheduled time since the alienation began, but it was still extremely inadequate. We were emotionally crushed and financially drained.
What Can Be Done
Dr. Warshak's book Divorce Poison was a lifesaver! I was overwhelmed with frustration, confusion and anger…I desperately missed my daughter and I didn't know how to connect with her or get through to her. In this book, I gained practical direction, discovered much needed insight and I didn't feel so alone. Dr. Warshak also has a website that features tools in helping kids to break through PA as well as recommendations for parenting plans and legal considerations.
Due to the detrimental effects of PA, my daughter has spent years in counseling; processing her emotions and regaining her true self (she also spent several years acting out in self-destructive ways as a result of the abuse she experienced). Dr. Warshak provides valuable insight into the behavioral, emotional and cognitive affects that PA has on children. If you suspect that PA is happening to your child, educate yourself and get help now. Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best. I also recommend that you consider working with a professional counselor- this was especially beneficial for me in coping with anger and grief.
Hope and Healing
Our ordeal finally ended when, only one month following the finalization of the parenting plan, my Ex's erratic behavior escalated into a physical attack toward our daughter. She ran away from his home and was permanently reunited with our family. Eventually, she was able to articulate the full extent of her experience - she also showed remorse for how we were treated and sadness over our separation.
Whatever you do, don't give up your parental rights and don't give in to despair. Dr. Warshak states: "Children have the right to give and receive love from two parents. The task for alienated parents and those who help them is to create the conditions under which the children can recapture their identities as children who love, and are loved by, two parents. Your child’s underground memories are your allies in fostering the rejuvenation of your relationship. Beneath the surface, the child's mind holds scores of memories of being nurtured and loved."