How Parental Alienation Affects Children

Parental alienation is a disturbing family dynamic where one parent manipulates a child to reject or fear the other parent without legitimate justification. The alienating behaviors can range from subtle to extreme, but the effects on the child are often traumatic and long-lasting.

As painful as divorce is, children can adjust and thrive when parents put aside their differences and work together in the child’s best interest. However, when one parent persistently criticizes, belittles, or lies about the other parent, it puts kids in a loyalty bind and can severely damage their emotional development and mental health.

Key Takeaways

  • Parental alienation causes children tremendous stress and forces them to reject a parent they love. This conflict of loyalty often leads to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and substance abuse.
  • Alienating behaviors like badmouthing, limiting contact, manipulating the child against the other parent, and forcing the child to choose sides are emotionally abusive.
  • Parental alienation can be mild, moderate, or severe. The more extreme behaviors and longer duration often cause more profound effects on children.
  • Children subjected to parental alienation are more likely to have relationship problems, trust issues, identity struggles, and high-conflict divorce or separation if they get married.
  • Early intervention such as counseling, limiting time with the alienating parent, and upholding court orders can mitigate damage if caught before alienation becomes severe.

What Is Parental Alienation?

Parental alienation occurs when one parent manipulates a child to fear, distrust or reject the other parent without legitimate justification. The alienating parent uses alienating behaviors that can range from subtle to extreme. These include:

  • Badmouthing – The parent constantly criticizes, mocks, and portrays the other parent negatively.
  • Limiting/interfering with parenting time – The parent creates obstacles to spending time with the other parent.
  • Forcing the child to choose sides – The parent competes for the child’s loyalty and forces the child to reject the other parent.
  • Confiding in the child as if they were an adult – The parent treats the child like a friend and shares inappropriate details about the other parent, divorce or financial issues.
  • Limiting mention and photos of the other parent – The parent removes all traces of the other parent from the home and daily life.
  • Creating the impression the other parent is dangerous – The parent lies that the other parent is abusive or makes false allegations to family court.
  • Emotional manipulation – The parent withdraws love or makes the child feel guilty for spending time with the other parent.

In mild to moderate parental alienation, the child resists time with the targeted parent but doesn’t completely reject them. In severe cases, the child wants nothing to do with the targeted parent, often calling them only by first name or believing abuse allegations that never happened.

The Emotional Toll on Children

Parental alienation causes tremendous emotional suffering for affected children. They are thrust into a loyalty bind where loving both parents is impossible. Simply put, alienation forces kids to choose between parents they naturally love. The rejecting parent presses the child to align against the alienated parent using guilt, intimidation, withdrawal of affection and sometimes financial rewards.

Children subjected to parental alienation often develop:

  • Extreme anxiety or depression – The constant pressure to reject a loving parent causes immense stress. Children may withdraw from activities, have somatic complaints, suffer academically, and even contemplate suicide.
  • Low self-esteem – Children internalize the alienating parent’s criticism of the other parent. They may feel unloved or that something is profoundly wrong with them.
  • Lack of trust – Seeing a parent betrayed and rejected breeds distrust of relationships in general. Children become wary of people, relationships and social connections.
  • Identity confusion – Not knowing half your family causes children to question their sense of self. If they take on the alienating parent’s hatred, they lose continuity with a part of themselves.
  • Substance abuse – Some teens turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with divided loyalty, high stress, and distorted thinking caused by alienation.
  • Relationship problems – Parental alienation role models unhealthy relating. Children grow up with limited skills to have mature relationships based on trust, equality and honest communication.
  • Conflicted parent-child bond – The child forms an unhealthy alliance with the alienating parent. They lose confidence the alienated parent can provide emotional security.

In severe alienation, the child experiences the loss of a parent but that parent is still alive. This causes tremendous confusion and longing similar to a parent’s death. But it’s worse in a way – the child must constantly reject someone they love and who loves them back.

Mild, Moderate and Severe Parental Alienation

Parental alienation occurs on a continuum from mild to moderate to severe. The severity depends on the frequency and intensity of alienating behaviors and the duration of exposure. In mild cases, the child resists contact with the targeted parent but has an ambivalent relationship and will still spend time. As parental alienation gets more severe, the child strongly aligns with the alienating parent and cuts off all contact with the other, sometimes permanently.

Mild Parental Alienation

In mild parental alienation, the child resists or acts reluctantly to spend time with the targeted parent but does not completely reject them. The child likely hears occasional badmouthing but not constantly. Alienating behaviors are present but not frequent or intense. The child may briefly align with the alienating parent but feels conflicted – they know deep down the other parent is OK even if acting out negatively sometimes.

The better the relationship prior to divorce, the less likely a child is to reject that parent entirely. While acting out causes heartache, the child still has positive regard for the targeted parent. The influence of mild alienation fades once the intensity of the divorce subsides. Ongoing counseling and parenting education can prevent mild alienation from growing worse.

Moderate Parental Alienation

Moderate parental alienation involves more frequent and sustained alienating behaviors over longer periods. The child still recalls positive experiences with the targeted parent but has taken on more of the alienating parent’s hostile views.

A child affected by moderate parental alienation may:

  • Be reluctant to spend time with the targeted parent and make excuses to avoid visits
  • Display more anger and indifference toward the targeted parent
  • Occasionally use the alienating parent’s language like calling the other parent names
  • Be somewhat uncomfortable calling the alienated parent mom or dad
  • Exhibit more oppositional behavior in general
  • Have fewer memories of the lost parent to counteract the alienation

Without intervention, a child may progress from strongly resisting time with the targeted parent to rejecting most contact. Simultaneously, their relationship with the alienating parent becomes dangerously skewed as the child seeks that parent’s approval by adopting their distorted attitudes.

Severe Parental Alienation

In severe parental alienation, the child adamantly aligns with the alienating parent and wholly rejects the other without legitimate grounds. The targeted parent is demeaned, feared, hated, accused of fictitious abuse, abandoned for long periods, and ultimately erased from the child’s life in many cases.

Severely alienated children:

  • Refuse or cease all contact with the alienated parent, sometimes permanently
  • Repeatedly express hatred and venom toward the rejected parent
  • Parrot the alienating parent’s distortions unquestioningly
  • Denigrate the entire extended family on the alienated parent’s side
  • Use extreme language like saying they never loved the alienated parent or wish he/she was dead
  • Make groundless accusations of abuse or neglect against the alienated parent
  • May take the alienating parent’s side when sexual abuse is alleged but unfounded

In severe alienation, the destroying parent strives not just to limit time and contact but to erase the other parent from the child’s life entirely. They often succeed. This level of alienation causes lifelong damage. The child is left without a vital loving parent and role model and a distorted view of how to function in relationships.

The Devastating Long-term Damage

Parental alienation often emotionally scars children for life. The undermining of a loving parent during formative years leaves a lasting void and distorted thinking patterns. Adults who experienced severe parental alienation as children often discuss its profoundly negative impact. It dominates the child’s entire existence and rewritten image of a parent they depended on.

Some long-term effects include:

  • Difficulty trusting – When a parent betrays and rejects the other parent, it teaches children relationships are conditional and unstable. They become wary of depending on people.
  • Poor self-esteem – Being manipulated to reject a parent leaves lasting feelings of unlovability. Children feel if a parent can abandon them, they are not worthy of love.
  • Identity issues – Losing part of one’s family casts doubt on one’s worth and place in the world, causing weak self-identity and difficulty establishing independence.
  • Lack of empathy – Seeing a parent vilified can numb children to the humanity of people deemed unworthy by the alienating parent. This mindset spreads to relationships.
  • Black and white thinking – Children are forced into all-or-nothing views of parents as all good or all bad. This carries over causing relationship problems.
  • High-conflict relationships – Children learn to resolve conflict through manipulation and aggression rather than compromise. This sabotages adult relationships.
  • Parentification – Children are weighed down by adult issues like finances and made to care for siblings. They miss childhood freedoms.
  • Mental health issues – The stress of chronic rejection may continue as anxiety, depression, anger problems, low self-worth, dissociation or PTSD in adulthood.
  • Narcissistic traits – To please the narcissistic alienating parent, the child may develop a false self rooted in conceit, entitlement and lack of empathy.
  • Self-destructive behavior – Turning anger inward leads to self-harming behaviors including substance abuse, eating disorders, domestic violence and suicide risk.
  • Generational patterns – Those raised with parental alienation often continue the cycle with their own children, having learned no other way to relate.

The targeted parent also suffers greatly, sometimes being erased from their child’s life. The tragedy of parental alienation is that it destroys parent-child relationships that normally provide a buffer to life’s hardships. The resulting loneliness, worthlessness and dysfunctional relating reverberate through adulthood.

Is Parental Alienation a Form of Abuse?

Many child psychologists contend alienating behaviors are a form of emotional child abuse. Parental alienation causes psychological trauma by attacking the fundamental parent-child bond.

Parental alienation shares many traits with recognized forms of abuse:

  • Forcing false choice between parents
  • Rejection by a vital caregiver
  • Chronic anger, criticism and manipulation
  • Isolating child from extended family
  • Lies, misinformation and conflicting messages
  • Withdrawing love and acceptance
  • Sabotaging child’s relationship with other parent

Additionally, making children believe they were abused when they were not – called implanting false memories – causes great psychological harm. Children come to distrust their own experience and form a delusional view of the alienated parent.

While the alienating parent justifies their actions as protecting the child, it satisfies the parent’s own inability to move past anger and desire to punish. The child is used as a weapon without regard to the violence done to their psyche. In severe cases, destroying the bonds between the child and targeted parent can be seen as emotional or psychological maltreatment.

Why Do Parents Alienate Children from the Other Parent?

Multiple factors can lead parents to engage in harmful alienating behaviors. Understanding the motivations provides insight into prevention and solutions:

  • Unresolved anger – Ongoing resentment and desire to punish the ex often fuels alienation. The child becomes the means of reprisal.
  • Personality disorders – Narcissistic or borderline personalities are highly prone to manipulate and use children against the ex. Lack of empathy allows them to disregard the child’s emotions.
  • False allegations – False abuse claims propagate alienation. Though unfounded, the child absorbs the lies leading to fear and rejection.
  • Desire to win – Disordered parents view custody as a contest to be won at any cost – even the child’s wellbeing. For them, children are possessions.
  • Overdependence – A parent who relies too much on the child emotionally may present them as having to choose sides. The child must ‘divorce’ the other parent to remain loyal.
  •  projection – Parents who cannot take responsibility for the marriage ending project blame. They externalize their own feelings about themselves onto the ex.
  • Change in family structure – A parent with sole physical custody may resent the child’s attachment to the other parent. Or a new spouse may see the step-child’s bond with their biological parent as threatening.
  • Past abuse – Real abuse that occurred can get stretched by the alienating parent to apply to the entire history. Childhood events get misconstrued as proof of lifelong neglect or harm.

Understanding multiple factors contribute to parental alienation allows seeking solutions that address the root insecurity, narcissism or unresolved anger driving the harmful behavior.

How Courts View Parental Alienation

Increasingly, family courts recognize parental alienation as emotional abuse that places children at risk for lifelong mental health problems. Many jurisdictions allow change of custody to limit a child’s exposure to extreme alienation. Still, parental alienation can be difficult to prove due to its nuances.

  • Alienating behaviors violate court orders for parenting time. But sanctions require convincing evidence the parent willfully and consistently engages in alienation.
  • Alienation resulted in estrangement. But it can be hard to ascertain when a resistant teenager is unduly influenced versus expressing normal autonomy.
  • Abuse allegations prove unfounded. But parents may raise them sincerely even if false due to misinterpreting the situation.
  • The alienating parent professes reason for actions. But their justification may hide ulterior motives.

Skilled parental alienation experts can discern false allegations, manipulation and alienation from normal estrangement using psychological testing, interviews, records and timelines of behaviors. But many courts are undereducated about parental alienation dynamics. Facing only parents’ contradictory testimony, they default to leaving custody orders in place. This can condemn children to ongoing alienation until they are old enough to choose limited contact themselves.

But as parental alienation grows more defined, understood and measurable, courts increasingly consider it a form of abuse and mitigating factor in custody decisions. The Uniform Law Commission aims to pass uniform state laws defining and prohibiting parental alienation, including allowing custody reversals. Many courts now order co-parenting classes, counseling, limited time with the alienating parent or other early interventions to protect parent-child bonds. But fully remedying alienation requires understanding why the parent engages in harmful alienating behaviors in the first place.

Early Intervention Is Critical

The best outcome is preventing mild or moderate alienation from becoming severe and permanent estrangement. Key interventions include:

  • Counseling – Individual and family therapy helps parents gain self-awareness of their role and make behavioral changes. Counselors can better differentiate common divorce acting out from alienation.
  • Parent education – Teaching alienating parents how their behaviors damage children is paramount. They must recognize their actions serve their own emotional needs over the child’s.
  • Limiting time with alienating parent – Courts can order supervision, phase in contact slowly or temporarily change custody to halt ongoing alienation.
  • Enforcing visitation – Parents who follow court orders keep a connection that combats alienation. Police or therapeutic monitors can facilitate visitation.
  • Extended family – Maintaining bonds with grandparents, cousins etc. provides an alternate viewpoint to counteract the alienating parent’s perspective.
  • Appointing parenting coordinator – A skilled coordinator can cut through complex parental communications and keep both parents focused on the children’s needs.
  • Reunification therapy – Trained therapists gradually rebuild the broken parent-child relationship if alienation is caught early enough.

Parental alienation causes real psychological trauma. But children’s resilience and nerve plasticity also give hope. With the right interventions, parent-child relationships marred by alienation can be restored, especially when caught early before the child becomes engulfed in distortion.

Conclusion: Parental Alienation Is Wrenching for Children

Parental alienation sabotages the fundamental relationship between a child and parent that should provide a bedrock foundation for life. Caught in a loyalty conflict, the child experiences chronic stress, depression, low self-worth, identity confusion, trust issues and acting out.

These effects continue into adulthood with higher risks for mental illness, self-destructive behaviors and dysfunctional relationships. Though complex in its causes, parental alienation is increasingly recognized as a form of emotional abuse.

Early counseling, limited time with the alienating parent, enforced court orders and family support can restore damaged parent-child bonds and limit long term damage. Above all, parents must put aside their hostility and work cooperatively so the child can preserve vital family connections free of conflict.

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