Parental Alienation: The Cause, Effects and How To Stop It

Break ups are tough, some much tougher than others. But when the break up of two parents occur, there are far more people affected than just those breaking up.

With divorce rates rising, so does the chance of children repeating these dangerous cycles into adulthood. For this reason alone, there are many more obstacles to face as a newly separated couple when children are involved.

One of these obstacles is Parental Alienation.

Many deny parental alienation exists and believe that the need for a label on every issue makes it easy for those who act out to have an ‘excuse’ for doing so.

Despite this, many mental health professionals and psychologists insist it is very real.

Personally, I have experienced this issue first hand. I am also a huge advocate of improving one’s mental health and would even put it a notch higher than physical health in my priorities at the moment.

It is so important to survival in the 21st century to have well maintained mental health.

What is parental alienation?

Parental Alienation is the process of the ‘alienator’ (often the mother) turning the child against the ‘target parent’ (often the father) by feeding them lies or reinforcing negative traits in the target parent in order to convince the child to fear or hate the target.

This is often used as a tool in winning custody where the courts are involved. Because the courts will often take the child’s wishes into consideration whilst simultaneously favouring maternal custody over paternal.

It can also be a result of the alienator’s feelings towards the target being projected on the child, where feelings and animosity were never resolved.

‘I don’t like him therefore you shouldn’t like him either’

The signs of parental alienation

The signs are a worrying list as long as my arm so I’ll try to condense it for you as best as possible in a way that keeps it brief but also fills you in as thoroughly as possible.

In these instances I’ll outline behavioural changes in the child and also tactics that may be used by the alienator.

The child may show sudden signs of unwarranted fear or hatred towards the target parent where there was a loving relationship previously.

  • Child ‘shuts down’ and conversations are often difficult to initiate. They provide one word answers and evade organic conversation with target parent.
  • Child becomes rude and abrasive towards target parent, showing feelings of intense dislike but cannot give a reasonable explanation as to why. May respond to ‘why don’t you like them?’ with ‘just don’t’ without any evidence.
  • Child knows many details of parent’s divorce that wouldn’t have been apparent without an adult informing them (i.e. that target parent cheated with ‘insert name here’).
  • ‘Alienator’ speaks negatively about target parent in front of the children often and undermines their role as a parent and/or their worth as a man/woman.
  • Alienator will unnecessarily reassure child that they’ll be okay when child goes to visit target parent as though child is about to face danger when no real danger is present. They will also ‘rescue’ child from target parent’s home when there is no need.
  • The alienator allows the child to make the decision of whether to visit the target parent or not. Often this goes against the court’s visitation order. However, if no order is in place it can still put child in an emotionally distressing situation in which they have to ‘choose’ a parent (they feel guilty if they choose the target parent over the alienator parent).
  • Refusing to or deliberately ‘forgetting’ to give target parent access to the dates of child’s out of school activities such as concerts, sports matches and parent’s evenings. Often the target parent is blamed and criticised in front of the child for not caring enough to attend the events.
  • Telling the child that they have a right to feel angry towards the target parent as they have caused this situation. This reinforces the child’s unnatural hatred towards the target parent.
  • Alienator may ask child about target parents personal life and ask child to ‘report back’ about details from visits purely to criticise target parent afterwards.
  • Alternatively, the parent may not allow the child to speak of the target parent around them, acting as though target parent does not exist whilst in their home.
  • Child may have feelings of guilt or worry if they enjoy their time with target parent in fear that it will hurt alienator’s feelings or make them angry.
  • The alienator may create false accusations of abuse; claiming to be the ‘victim’ in the scenario when there really was no abuse or danger present in the marriage.
  • In extreme cases, the alienator may call social services or the police on the target parent and fabricate accounts of a distressing nature to warrant sympathy in their favour and to eventually gain sole custody, shutting out the target parent completely.

This is not an exhaustive list of the signs of parental alienation but features the most common aspects.

It’s important to note that parental alienation can still occur when the estranged parent did cause abuse and distress to the custodial parent.

Often the safety of the child, if in custody with the estranged parent is compromised and so it is not recommended that they have contact.

However to help children adjust to the new current situations appropriately, it is advised to tackle discussing these tough issues in a patient and sensitive manner.

Extreme negativity towards their estranged parent, whether deserved or not, is not recommended for maintaining your child’s mental health and well-being.

loving family - overcome parental alienation

How to overcome Parental Alienation as the targeted parent

If, as the targeted parent, you’ve noticed changes in your child and believe that parental alienation could be the cause, the best strategy is to improve areas on your own end that may be lacking that could give the alienator parent ammunition to use against you.

For example, if you don’t attend many of the child’s events due to not being told about them, make sure to actively ask the child frequently about these occasions so you know when they are and try to attend them whether the alienator parent will be there or not.

Attending the school play to support your child doesn’t mean you must sit next to your estranged partner. And on the off chance that you may have to due to a strict seating plan etc., not attending for that reason alone means your child misses out on very necessary support.

During their car ride home they’re likely to get an earful about how you didn’t care enough to attend rather than being allowed to bask in deserved praise.

It might be important to note that if your attendance is noticed by the alienator parent then the child is likely to get an earful of criticism anyway; so be sure to make your time count.

Support them whole heartedly and at half-time or after they’re done, shower them with sincere compliments about their performance. Ask them questions and show genuine interest in their hobbies and interests. They liked this activity enough to put on a show, whether it’s singing or football – show you care.

They’re more likely to remember those moments than the ones where they are being made to hear criticisms about silly things like what you wore or who you brought along with you.

In this instance I would suggest that you persevere through the negativity; and know that if you are present and supportive, they are only mad because you were doing the right thing as a parent.

Now I hear what you’re saying, ‘I don’t want my children to have to listen to any unnecessary criticisms! I don’t want them to dislike me for mistakes I made (or didn’t make!). I don’t want my child to grow up villainizing me just because my ex can’t be civil.’

The absolute last thing that you should do in this scenario is to seemingly tackle the issue head on by paying your ex a visit and telling them to stop this behaviour.

This could be extremely counterproductive as they’re not likely react rationally after being told this. In their eyes you would be criticising their ability to be a good parent.

In cases of parental alienation, other than the obvious psychological manipulation of the child, the parent could be supportive, affectionate and catering towards the child’s needs. Parental alienation doesn’t mean your child will be lacking in other areas.

The areas in which they will lack are reversible and can be done whilst keeping your distance from the alienator.

For example, you may know that your child will feel very highly strung emotionally, often before your visits as the alienator will have worked them up. The alienating parent may even imply that the child has a choice in whether to visit you or not, even though you’re already on your way.

The best way to approach this is by giving positive reinforcement on your end. Make sure your child has an enjoyable time and be patient if they are resistant at first. If you persist then they may eventually realise you’re not the demon you’re being made out to be at home.

If your children are close to being grown adults, be persistent and frequent about trying to get in contact with them. Often teenagers may ignore your calls or texts but if you stick with it you may get a response eventually. Their response will then let you know what you’re working with.

Sadly, unless you have reason to believe that their emotional well-being and safety is at risk (in which you should consider enlisting a professional opinion), the best tool you have under your belt is patience and kindness.

people watching - parental alienation as a grown up

How to overcome Parental Alienation as a grown child

If you’re the child of divorced or separated parents and some of the bullet points above felt familiar to you, it’s likely that you were being subjected to parental alienation.

Do you have intense feelings of dislike towards your non-custodial parent? And if you do, can you actually explain why?

For a very long time, I had to listen to my Mother and other members of her family criticise and degrade my Father.

When I was 18 my Mother thought it was time I ‘knew the truth’ and she told me details of my father’s infidelity when I was a newborn.

I don’t even know if these accusations are true. I was made to believe that it was okay to relay demeaning and negative details about my experiences with my Father, and made to feel as though enjoyment in his presence wasn’t an option.

It was reinforced that his negative personality traits were ‘just the way he is’ and couldn’t be forgiven in the way that they would be forgiven in a close friend.

Looking back, I realise that I didn’t actually dislike going to see my Father.

We had a pretty good time together, he’d always feed me well and I got my own bedroom at his home that would be decorated and had my books and games in it. I had clothes to keep at his house, we would do fun activities together and he would support my hobbies and interests.

The one occasion where I’d maybe had a bit of a boring time in the supermarket with him, or where I’d been made to do homework were often all that would be discussed.

My Mother wasn’t interested in the good things, she only wanted to know about the bad things. She’d relay them back to her family members who’d use them as ‘witty anecdotes’ at my Father’s expense.

I was taught that it was okay to laugh along and I was encouraged to bring back more stories of the same nature.

Whilst I was at university I would screen my Father’s calls, I would avoid replying to emails and texts for months if possible. I had massive feelings of exasperation when I would have to get in contact with him.

I now understand that my negative feelings towards my Dad were all learned and they weren’t my feelings; but my Mum’s feelings projected through me.

Now as a twenty-something I’ve recently made an effort to contact my Dad more often, I’ve learnt to become resilient to my Mum’s jibes and to ignore her negativity. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t even know that Parental Alienation was ‘a thing’ this time last year but it definitely is and unfortunately, I’ve suffered many of it’s consequences.

The only advice I can give to you is to start making your own judgements of the adults in your life.

Try and analyse whether the behaviour you demonstrate or the emotions you garner towards your non-custodial parent are rational. Don’t believe that your custodial parent is ‘doing you a favour’ by letting you know how awful their ex is.

Their relationship issues weren’t your relationship issues. And most importantly, try and reconcile a relationship with the estranged parent if you eventually pushed them out of your life, it may turn out that the details you’ve been given all your life are untrue and they have a completely different story to tell.

A warning to alienators – the long term effects

If you’re here for help, fantastic. My first recommendation would be to seek professional advice and guidance from a counsellor or therapist.

This issue usually manifests through you having not addressed your issues correctly.

You’re the sort of person to act through jealousy and spite which is not healthy for your child to witness. The best way to change that is by learning how to process your emotions more effectively so when large life-changing problems occur, like divorce, you’re more equipped to handle them.

For whatever reason you’ve landed on this page and know that you are the perpetrator of parental alienation and don’t believe any help is necessary, I’m giving a stern warning.

Whilst your actions may seem as though they’re putting the target parent at a disadvantage (which they certainly are) the most disadvantaged person in this scenario is your child.

Your child will suffer from the effects of this manipulation well into adulthood, and if they don’t seek proper guidance, could inflict the exact same trauma and distress onto their own children.

Parental alienation is psychological manipulation. You are brainwashing your child to believe something that is not true or is an exaggeration of the truth.

You are conditioning your child to believe that their parent doesn’t love them or care about them.

You are severing a bond which is not yours to break.

You are putting your child at high risk of low self-esteem, self-hatred, lack of trust, depression, substance abuse and other addictions.

You are completely endangering their future mental health.

You are giving your child the baggage of a break up that they didn’t even go through.

And when they grow older, if they become aware of those actions taken when they were younger, they will sever the bond they had with you. And your selfishness earlier in life will backfire as they reject you and your manipulation.

Be warned, using children as weapons will later cause you to fall on your own sword.