Parental alienation is a hot topic right now, particularly among separated or divorced parents, but there are a lot of misconceptions of what it actually is.
In fact, if you ask Christine Hammond, MS, LMHC, she says, “There is hardly a day that doesn’t go by in my counseling practice where someone brings up the concept of parental alienation.” However, according to her, the term is often misused.
According to Hammond, “Parental alienation occurs when one parent encourages their child to unfairly reject the other parent.” Now, this might seem pretty clear-cut, but it’s actually far more complicated than one parent asking their child who’s their favorite: mom or dad? And it can result is some pretty nasty side effects, such as unwarranted fear, hostility, and/or disrespect toward one parent while displaying signs of loyalty, unconditional trust, and/or empathy toward the other.
Parental alienation boils down into three categories:
First, there is naïve alienation.
This is when one parent tries to alienate the child from the other parent through passive-aggressive comments. For instance, when my mother would say, “Your dad makes more money than me, so he can buy you a bike.” While this was probably true, I was only 10, and her comments caused a rift between me and my father when he didn’t buy me a bike.
While this all seems pretty subtle, passive-aggressive comments towards the other parent can add up and create long-term problems. Other examples could be a parent saying something like, “Your father doesn’t work, so he can attend your parent teacher conference. He obviously has the time.” Or “I bet your mother could help with that. She studied English and needs to use it for something.”
The second category is active alienation.
This is when one parent actively tries to alienate one parent by creating feelings of loyalty. For example, one parent might try to get their child to keep secrets from the other. Like when I discovered that my father was writing child support checks, making copies to use in court, and then throwing the checks away without sending them to my mother. He asked me to keep that a secret. I was 11, and felt that I owed it to him to keep quiet (yes, my father was a sleaze-bag, but that’s another essay).
Now, according to Hammond, what my father did by asking me to keep his secret was create a “private bond from which the child learns to withhold parts of their life from the other parent.” Not a good way to raise a child, right?
The third category is obsessive alienation.
This is when one parent aggressively seeks out ways to manipulate the child into disconnecting from the other parent. An example of this would be when my father told me that my mother was unstable and that he worried she might hurt me some day. While he said it with compassion, his comments didn’t have a whole lot of bearing and ultimately damaged the relationship between me and my mother.
Another example of this one might be something like, “I want you to tell me when you father’s been drinking so I can bring it up at our next court date.”
Naturally, children may not be aware that they are the victims of parental alienation. I didn’t realize it until I was probably in my 20s. And to be honest, I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of all the ways it damaged me as a child. But I must admit, beginning to recognize it has helped along with therapy.
Some children may never realize that they have been subject to parental alienation. Some parents might not even realize they are doing it. However, sometimes kids pick up on it, and then end up flipping the script, turning things around on the manipulative parent. There’s actually a term for that — reverse parental alienation. And sadly, there is also child-induced alienation. This is where a child has suffered from emotional, physical, or sexual trauma at the hands of a one parent, and so they make a conscious point to alienate that parent in hopes of avoiding more trauma.
So what does Hammond recommend if you notice parental alienation? Immediate professional help.
“As soon as any of these behaviors are detected in a child, they should be seen by a therapist who understands parental alienation and is comfortable working with both parents in the process. Parental alienation in the obsessive sense is harmful to the child in a long-term situation because it causes the child to trust only the perception of the one parent and not trust the other parent – or worse, not trust themselves. This is very damaging to a child who will eventually need to be able to rely on their own instincts in dangerous and fearful situations.”
Whenever possible, divorcing or separating parents should do their best to set their own emotions aside and make their child the number one priority regardless of how hurt they might be by their ex. And yes, I understand that this is easier said than done.
It’s surprising how easily you can impact your child in a negative way, and it’s important to be reflective and intentional in situations like these. Yes, you should be aware of potential parental alienation by your co-parent, but you should also be aware of inadvertently engaging in these tendencies yourself.
Sometimes it’s necessary to be reflective, particularly when raising a child. Maybe then you can avoid setting your child up to the victim of parental alienation, like I was.