Parental Alienation Syndrome: What Is It? And How to Cope
Children who have been trained to not like one of their parents are often seen in custody disputes. Such training, programming, or what some might call “brainwashing” can be labeled as parental alienation when its goal is to somehow strengthen the role of the abusing parent. Parental alienation becomes a “syndrome” when the child, having been programmed to denigrate the other parent, now plays a role at keeping the “targeted parent” estranged and alienated.
Parental alienation syndrome may sound clinical and technical, but it refers to an all too common occurrence during and after divorce: one parent who attempts to poison their children against the other parent—and who, through control or emotional abuse, succeeds in having the kids adopt and enforce this view.
Many of us recognize examples of parental alienation—your spouse tries to monopolize your children’s time. He* paints a one-sided portrait of you and your marriage (ignoring all the good parts), while reminding the children of how many times you’ve failed them. He tries to provoke you so that you’ll take him to court, and because he is convinced of his own moral high ground, he will relish in it when you do.
Your perpetrator will make you a victim and then turnaround and call himself one. He will say he’s trying to protect your children and “do what’s best for them”, but he is so focused on hurting you and your relationship with them that he’s lost sight of what is healthy, what is indeed beneficial to the children. His tactics inevitably result with your children becoming the worst kind of collateral damage.
What’s happening to the kids
When a parent is successful at turning the children against their other parent, the children’s respect for the targeted parent quickly erodes. For example, your children may begin to openly insult you, or they may demand to spend more time with your Ex. They may begin to act out, or shut down, and their academic performance may slip. If you and your Ex find yourself in an argument, your children may repeatedly (overtly or covertly) side with him.
Your children might adopt the language of your Ex, as they process the world through “his eyes.” This goes beyond the subtle (and perhaps not so subtle) manipulations of your Ex coming to fruition.
Your children are now choosing their other parent over you, yes, but they too are suffering for it.
With so much at stake, healthy coparenting means avoiding parental alienation at all costs and being conscious of good parenting skills.
However, an insidious dimension to the problem is that perpetrators of parental alienation often display behaviors associated with good parenting: meaning, they show up for school events and pickups. They are deeply involved in their children’s lives such that it looks like they are doing everything right as a parent. And yet their engagement is often tightly wound with control and personality disorders, like narcissism. They use lies and manipulation and power as their weapons. At the end of the day, what they really care about is winning.
So, how do we “fight” against parental alienation and its syndrome?
First, we must learn to recognize it. And part of recognizing it is accepting that we women are often the perpetrators.
Until the 1990s—when women were more often the traditional, stay-at-home parent—it was mothers who had more time with their kids and therefore more time to “emotionally overshare,” or to use their children as a sounding board for marital problems. And it was fathers who were more often the targeted parent. Today, as more and more men are the primary caregivers or at least sharing a greater portion of that responsibility, the traditional roles played out in parental alienation are shifting, too.
This said, the “stay-at-home” factor does not necessarily dictate who the perpetrator is. There are ample examples of the moneyed parent using his or her economic edge to offer “a more privileged lifestyle” to a child—resulting in the child favoring the privileged parent.
What is clear is that parental alienation can be perpetrated by either parent and by either gender, but the result always impacts the children.
If you are feeling the stress of a difficult marriage, or struggling with independence as a single mother, we encourage you to find a healthy place to vent and get support for the challenges facing you. It may be hard, but strive to speak respectfully of your Ex to your kids. In our work supporting women through and past divorce, we’ve seen all too often what happens when a woman ignores this advice: her children grow older, and as they eventually circle back to their estranged parent, she is held responsible for the traumatic breakdown of the past.
The remaining information is directed toward our female readers who feel they may be at risk or are currently suffering from parental alienation syndrome.
Distorted memories and perception
If you’re suffering from parental alienation syndrome, your Ex is likely a master manipulator—he’s so successful at this, in fact, that he can distort your children’s memories and perception.
Mom isn’t tired and overworked. She isn’t casual, or maybe, even a little bohemian. No, “she’s let herself go,” “she can’t keep a home,” “she’s a mess,” or “she can’t be trusted because she’s lazy, irresponsible” or “she never grew up.” Or maybe your marriage ended because of an affair, and when your children gather the courage to confront your Ex, he plants the idea that you may have been sleeping around too—or that you, not him, are the adulterer. You broke up the family.
Suddenly your children look at you and what “they know” differently. Men who do this tell themselves they are simply keeping it real or they “just want their children to know the truth,” but more often they’re projecting or downright lying—they are trying to lessen your role, connection, and significance.
Strained familial relationships
The sad fact is that if your Ex is truly successful at alienating you from your children, he’s likely successful at separating them from your extended family, too. The pain and disappointment your family feels from being barred access to your kids will be real and will heighten your pain, too. Your Ex might invent or bend truths to make your parents and siblings (your children’s grandparents, aunts, and uncles) look like strangers or worse, enemies. He’ll find reasons and excuses to keep your kids from being with your family because he’s “protecting them,” but really it’s because your family is an extension of you.
How we define our sense of self worth is complicated. If your Ex is targeting you, he’s teaching your children to view your traits and interests as negative. But your children, being part of you, likely share some of those traits and interests. Suddenly they might want to hide parts of themselves away. They might feel ashamed because they know they are part of you.
One of the worst parts about being a victim of parental alienation is that your children don’t usually realize what’s happening.
They don’t have the distance or maturity to understand it either. Even though they are feeling and suffering through all of the above, they will, still, often choose your Ex. It’s a toxic relationship in which your children are constantly seeking validation from the very person who is least likely to give it to them—or, more to the point—to the person whose validation is likely to be fleeting.
This is an abusive relationship: for the love your Ex is extending is conditioned on your children’s rejection of you.
Parental alienation syndrome and support
Abuse and parental alienation have become central issues in some divorce cases.
If you’re dealing with an abusive Ex (and, arguably, alienation in any form is abuse) then we suggest finding a lawyer who understands and recognizes an abuser when she sees one. Do not underestimate your Ex. Do not allow your positive, rose-tinted memories of him to sway your ability to do all you can to protect yourself and your children.
And because you’re here, reading this, know that if you are suffering from parental alienation syndrome, there’s a real chance your children are suffering with you, perhaps in silence.
There are research support groups and organizations nearby that will educate and empower you. Learn about parenting tools that can help you maintain healthy boundaries yet communicate essential information between you and your Ex. Relying on the old way you communicated never worked before, and confronting your Ex about his behavior won’t help either. Let go of the concept of “coparenting” — the otherwise healthy approach to communicating regularly with your Ex. (because it’s in the best interest of your children’s development). And understand that your endeavoring to survive as an estranged parent. Know that trying to talk to your children directly about how alienated your feeling can backfire as well. Your children may be punished by their other parent just for engaging with you. Don’t give your Ex an invitation to stir things up and make your divorce recovery harder. You’ve got to keep going, working on yourself, because one day, chances are your children will circle back to you. When they do you want to be everything you can for them. Strong. Independent. Healthy.
Parental alienation syndrome is real and coping with it may be a long and lonely battle—and indeed, it’s a battle that may not even be possible for you to truly win. Divorce, as with much of life, isn’t that black and white. But don’t give up. Find regular time for self-care with a therapist trained and experienced in parental alienation. Cultivate a support system with other parents who understand how isolating your experience is right now. They can give you perspective and help guide and protect you during those hours you feel your most alone.
If you already find your children slipping away from you, leave room in your life and in your heart for the possibility that they will one day come back because we’ve seen it all, my friend—and it’s not all tragedy. Sometimes we do get our happy endings, but we have to play the long game, to let go of the idea that we are in control of the where and when.
Since 2012, smart women around the world have chosen SAS for Women to partner them through the challenging experience of divorce and re-creation. Now you can secure female-centered support and smart next steps coparenting and rebuilding your life with Paloma’s Group, our virtual group coaching program for women post-divorce. To learn if Paloma is right for you, schedule your quick 15-minute chat now. To promote sisterhood and protect confidentiality, space is limited.
*This piece was written for SAS for Women, an all-women website. At SAS we respect same-sex marriages, however, for the sake of simplicity in this article we refer to your spouse as a male.
References: Clawar, S. S. and Rivlin, B. V. (1991), Children Held Hostage: Dealing with Programmed and Brainwashed Children. Chicago, Illinois: American Bar Association.