It’s not often we hear about amicable divorces or breakups, and that makes sense, because the probability of both partners being on the same page at that point seems a bit too pie-in-the-sky.
Of course, you do run across a few stories about successful co-parenting, and I heard one once when I was eavesdropping during spin class. That’s one utopian breakup out of all the divorces I have known of or gossiped about. And that equals about .2% in my small world—a number that I’m sure is amazingly inflated compared to the actual percentage of “successful” divorces.
But stories about hellish breakups? The clothes-thrown-out-the-window trope is as real as the myriad no-contact orders issued each year.
Leaked nudes? Destroying property? Nothing’s off the table.
Unfortunately, a child is often thrown into the middle of the maelstrom. Sometimes it’s a mutual tug-o-war, and sometimes one parent in particular uses the child as a pawn. In these cases, that parent (the alienating parent, or AP) is not concerned with what’s best for the child—rather, their focus is on the ex-partner (the target parent, or TP). This is called parental alienation, and it is a “game with only one goal: to ‘win’ the exclusive love of the children by destroying the relationship the children have with their other parent.”
The incidence of parental alienation is alarming. One study, conducted over a 12-year period, found that 86% of the 1000 cases included “some element of parental programming and brainwashing in an effort to implant false and negative ideas about the other parent, with the intention of turning the child against that other parent.”
New York divorce attorney and author Sandra Radna discusses the issue of parent alienation/alienated child in her book “You’re Getting a Divorce, Now What?” According to Radna, the alienator is often “manipulative during the marriage and may have started saying things to the children that are derogatory about the other parent while the parents were still together.” Understandably, the deterioration of the relationship may exacerbate this abuse.
The alienator’s tactics, not too different from cult-like brainwashing , can be low-key and insidious or more direct and easy for an outsider to spot.
Badmouthing the TP.
Some APs may say things as bold as “your mother’s crazy” or “your father’s a drunk.” According to Radna, however, badmouthing is often subtle and may sound very believable to the child, whether or not it is fabricated. Radna explains: “If the parent says, ‘I would love to buy this for you, but I can’t because your father doesn’t give us enough money,’ the child will likely become resentful against the father….The child has no reason to suspect that mom is not telling the truth.”
Limiting contact between the child and the TP.
The alienator will often make it difficult for the TP to spend time with the child. Sometimes they will defy custody orders and keep the child longer than their allotted time. They may schedule activities for the child while they are supposed to be with the TP. They may also interrupt the time the child spends with the TP with calls and texts to “check up on” the child. Some alienators will even limit the number of times the TP may be brought up in conversation or how many photographs the child may have of the TP. Predictably, the less time a child spends with the TP, the weaker their emotional bond.
Confiding in the child.
The AP will tell the child private information regarding the parents’ financial, legal or private relationship, painting themselves as the victim. According to Psychlaw.net, citing a 2013 study by Baker and Fine, this can make the child resent and feel anger toward the TP because they feel like they have to protect the AP.
Expressing/insinuating that the TP is dangerous somehow.
In her experience as an attorney, Radna has seen this specific strategy. “The wife would take innocent things and make it sound like my client was doing something improper,” says Radna, “When he was kissing one of his daughters good night on the forehead, one night she said ‘That’s inappropriate. Your father shouldn’t be kissing you like that.’ Or when he was tickling his other daughter who was 8 years old his wife said ‘that’s inappropriate touching. Daddy’s touching you inappropriately, you realize that, right?’ If my client attempted to say that what his wife was saying was not true, she would tell the children that their father was starting a fight with her when she was just trying to protect them.”
Having the child spy.
The child will be recruited to rifle through the AP’s phone or purse or anywhere else the AP directs. Often, the AP will link the information they’re seeking with the child’s wants. For instance, if the child wants a Nintendo Switch, the AP might say something along the lines of “I can’t afford that, but maybe your mother can. I wish we knew how much money she had.” And, once the child betrays the TP, “they will likely feel guilty and uncomfortable being around that parent, thus furthering the alienation.”
Undermining the authority of the TP.
While it’s normal that the parents’ rules for the child will not be 100% consistent from household to household, the AP will go out of their way to undermine the rules of the TP. They will call the TP by their first name (versus “mom” or “dad”) and prod the child to do so as well. For example, if the TP’s prescribed bedtime for the child is 9pm, the AP might say something like “Stacey thinks you’re still a baby. When you’re with me, you can stay up as late as you want.” In this way the TP is diminished in the eyes of the child and the AP becomes the alpha-parent.
And what happens to the child who has been successfully manipulated by the AP? The child is indoctrinated and becomes the AP’s unwitting accomplice. joining in the campaign to punish the TP. This is called “parental alienation syndrome,” and within even months of coaching, the child comes to “hate, fear, and reject the targeted parent as someone unworthy of having a relationship with them.”
The effects of parental alienation syndrome last a lifetime and are almost too many to chronicle. Not only does the child miss out on memories they could have made with the TP, they actually mourn the loss of that parent and, according to Sharie Stines, Psy.D in her article for The New England Psychologist, they develop some “serious pathological behaviors and attitudes that carry in to their adult lives.” They struggle with maintaining relationships because they have been trained to dispose of people, they tend to panic when they are exposed to any sort of anger, and they seldom accept any blame when in conflict with someone else.
Tragically, parental alienation syndrome can be a predictor of future depression and substance abuse. Ultimately, they may become like the alienating parent, lacking empathy and thinking only in black and white terms; in the end, they will very well repeat, with their own child, the mistakes of the parent alienator.
It makes you wonder: would the alienator ever have sought to sever the child-TP relationship if they could have anticipated the negative effects on their adult child? If, later in life, they realized how they had damaged their child, would they sorely regret how they taught their child to unnaturally hate and distrust? Would they blame themselves, or would their actions still be the fault of the TP?
In the end, in the alienator’s mind, will it all have been worth it?