What is Parental Alienation?
At the BSWC, we believe Parental Alienation is a form of child abuse. Parental Alienation, also known as ‘Hostile Aggressive Parenting’ is the attempt by one parent to turn a child against the other parent, a parent with whom they have had a close and loving relationship in the past. It may seem hard to believe that a parent would actually do this to their child and the other parent, but if an ex-spouse is feeling bitter or vengeful, this is one of the easier ways to punish or hurt the other parent. It is a dreadful and painful punishment for the child too, but a parent bent on revenge may not be able to see that. They may even convince themselves that they are doing the child a favour by keeping them away from their now-hated ex spouse.
One of the best antidotes we have observed for this is regular contact between a parent and a child. It is far more difficult to break a loving connection if that parent is constantly present and able to demonstrate that what is said about them is not true. But after a divorce, a child may suddenly find that they see one parent only for limited periods or at lengthy intervals and sadly, it is all too easy for an unscrupulous parent to slowly alter that child’s perceptions, or, as the primary carer, persuade the child that he or she only owes loyalty to them.
Like other forms of domestic abuse, Parental Alienation generally takes place behind closed doors. Publicly, the parent is keen to appear good and responsible, working hard to promote a good relationship with the other parent. You may be told: “I’ve tried and tried to persuade him to come, but he really doesn’t want to see you, and I don’t think it’s right to force him”. Privately, though, the complete opposite may be true. A vital first step is to recognise that this is going on.
How to identify Parental Alienation Syndrome
Below are the more common symptoms of parental alienation. In isolation, or for a short period, this sort of behaviour is not uncommon in a divorce, particularly when one partner is hurt or angry or hates the other. Although it is never good for a child to experience any of these things, lasting damage is unlikely if the behaviour does not persist. But when many of these behaviours are present and they go on for a long time, it becomes a type of brain-washing. While it might have the desired effect of hurting the other parent, not only does a child lose a relationship with a loving parent, but the damage it can do to a child’s psychological and emotional development can be very severe and enduring.
What is alienating behaviour in a parent?
- Suggesting to a child that they have a choice about whether or not to visit the other parent, even though the court has not empowered you or the child to make that choice.
- Setting up temptations that might interfere with a visit; accepting invitations or arranging activities on the other parent’s time.
- Giving the child the impression that having a good time with the other parent will be upsetting for you, or that you will be unbearably lonely or sad when the child is gone.
- Making handover and weekends away difficult, for example; handovers at motorway service stations; using handovers as an opportunity to raise contentious issues or to demonstrate your negative feelings for the other parent in front of the child; ‘forgetting’ to put special cuddly toys, items of clothing, homework etc in the child’s suitcase.
- Refusing outright to let a child take certain possessions to the other parent’s home; or suggesting the other parent cannot be trusted with them.
- Insinuating that the other parent cannot be relied on to take proper care of the child – and that you are the only one who can.
- Bombarding the child with texts, phone calls, emails, when they are there, to ‘make sure they are all right’ or to tell them how much you are missing them, or to tell them about what they are missing by not being with you.
- Asking the children to spy or covertly gather information about the other parent.
- Insisting on being told everything they said, did, ate or saw at the other parent’s, and then being critical or dismissive of it; suggesting that they would have had a much better time if they had stayed at home.
- Rigid enforcement of the visitation schedule for no good reason other than getting back at the ex-spouse.
- Supporting – and even rewarding – the child’s refusal to visit the other parent when there is no good reason.
- Giving the child your view of why the marriage failed (usually casting the other parent in a bad light) and giving them details about the divorce settlement. Expecting or encouraging them to take sides.
- Telling the child that they have also been ‘left’ by the other parent.
- Looking to the child for emotional support and sympathy; expecting the child to take sides; pointing out the ‘flaws’ in the other parent.
- Blaming the other parent for not having enough money, changes in lifestyle, or other problems, in the child’s presence.
- False allegations of sexual abuse, drug and alcohol use or other illegal activities by the other parent.
- Asking the children to choose one parent over the other.
- Suggesting to the children they have good reason to feel angry toward their other parent.
- Special signals, secrets, words with unique meanings; suggesting that you are the ‘real’ family, and the other parent is not.
- Treating the child as a mini adult or substitute spouse, confiding in them, seeking their opinion (or convincing them of yours) about matters that are not really appropriate to their age – particularly areas where you may disagree with your ex-spouse.
- Suggesting they change their name to yours, or adoption should you remarry.
- Refusing or obstructing the other parent’s access to medical and school records, or schedules of extracurricular activities.
It doesn’t always work. Here are some signs that it is having an impact. Is your child (or step-child) being alienated?
- They used to love coming to see you. Now they are becoming reluctant, angry, sullen, rude, resentful, sarcastic or critical, for no good or even apparent reason. (And we are not talking about normal teenager behaviour – this can be seen in quite young children).
- There is a palpable tension at handover time; they may then relax and enjoy their time with you, only to become tense and aggressive again when it is time to go back to the other parent.
- They no longer want to do activities with you that you once enjoyed together.
- They are constantly in furtive email or phone contact with the other parent.
- All their opinions or beliefs seem to mirror those of the other parent; they may use adult phrases or expressions that sound unnatural for a child.
- If you defend yourself, or demonstrate that what has been said about you is not true, they refuse to accept it, even in the face of clear evidence.
- They feel no guilt or sadness or remorse about the way they behave to you.
- They will not forgive you for any past indiscretion.
- Their memory of past events has become distorted; they have difficulty distinguishing between their own memory and what they have been told.
- They hold delusional or irrational beliefs.
- They refuse to spend time with you at all.
- They are not intimidated by the court’s authority.
- Their reason for not wanting to have a relationship with you is based only on what the alienating parent has told them.
- There is no ambivalence in the child’s feelings; they feel only hatred without the ability to see any good in the targeted parent.
- Their dislike (or even apparent hatred) of you extends to your family and friends.
Alienated children are not happy children. For all their bravado, for all their defiance and insistence that the world is so much better with the other parent, and horrible with you, you know that they are angry and miserable.
So what can you do if your child (or step-child) is being alienated?
Some Alienators may not realise that what they are doing is harmful to their child.
Propose mediation or joint counseling sessions to discuss it.
Don’t badmouth the other parent, but if your child says something that is not true, or makes hurtful accusations, do not be afraid to put your child right or to give your perspective on an issue.
Some people believe it is better to say nothing rather than risk upsetting a child, or (very nobly) wish to avoid implying that the other parent has been dishonest, or even think their child will eventually work it out for him- or herself. Quite often as well, where there is an attempt at PAS, the alienating parent may be telling the child things that are not age-appropriate, and you may wish to spare burdening the child with even more information of that sort. Generally, however, we think it is very important to set the record straight, preferably in a gentle and tactful way, which avoids blaming the other parent. You might need to say that the other parent is upset, or angry, or it could be enough to say that you and the other parent do not always see things the same way, but do not allow an unjustified negative portrayal of you to take root, without challenging it.
Don’t take offence.
If your child says they don’t want to see you, tell them you want to see them anyway. If they say something hurtful, don’t retaliate in kind. But do not tolerate outright abuse from them, either. If they are being encouraged not to respect you, you will not help your cause by showing yourself no self-respect.
Don’t allow your Ex to manipulate you.
Your time with your child is probably limited anyway. Don’t give it up because, for example, your Ex says that your child will be missing out on something else, and you feel guilty about that. The odd special occasion is fine, but if this is happening regularly, just say no and stick to your agreed contact schedule.
Keep in touch with the child as much as you can.
Regular contact seems to be one of the best ways of demonstrating to a child that you love them and that what is said about you is not true. If contact is stopped entirely, leave messages, send letters, connect on social media, or try and call.
Fight for you and your child’s right to have a relationship.
Remember, your child is probably being put under extreme pressure (emotional blackmail, overt and covert threats, even bribery) to go along with what the alienating spouse is saying. Secretly, your child is probably longing to have a normal relationship with you, but does not have the strength of mind to resist the alienating parent. Keep a log of missed contact, tell CAFCASS, complain to your ex-spouse, remind doctors/the school of your rights as a parent, go to court if necessary.
Don’t give up hope.
The law is changing, and a child’s right to have a relationship with both parents is now enshrined in law. Public awareness of the problem seems to be improving and there have been some recent court cases that have been well covered by the media. See our News page.
A member writes:
When I started dating Steve, I didn’t know much about children or divorce, but even I could see that there was something odd about his interaction with his ex-wife and his eight year old son, Ryan. To me, she seemed to be doing everything she could to undermine their relationship, but although she had been quite angry and bitter, and was often rude to him, Steve was sure she had the Ryan’s best interests at heart and couldn’t believe she would deliberately do such a thing.
The wake-up call for him came one evening. Ryan had been unusually withdrawn, and when Steve went into the kitchen to make tea, he came and sat next to me on the sofa and said, “Why does Daddy pay for your clothes?” I told him (truthfully) that I paid for my own clothes, and that his father did not pay for anything for me, other than the occasional meal out. Steve, who had overheard this, came out of the kitchen and asked Ryan where he had got this idea from. Ryan said they had been in a toy shop that week, and his mother (who was receiving incredibly generous financial support from Steve) had told him that they could not buy toys any more because they had no money because Steve was spending it all on me, he didn’t care about them any more.
In the past, Steve had just brushed off remarks like: “Why did you used to shout at Mummy when you were married?” “Why did you lie to Mummy?” “Why are you trying to ruin Mummy’s holiday plans?” “Why are you stopping me from seeing my friends?” – but after this, he began to take them more seriously. The good news for us was that the lines of communication were still open, and Ryan was clearly having trouble reconciling the father who so obviously loved and cared for him with the father his mother described. It is still going on many years later, but compared to others, we’ve been lucky. Steve has got a terrific, affectionate and open relationship with Ryan, but only when they are together. As soon as he is back at Mum’s, he’s like another child, putting on a show of indifference and even contempt, just to please her.
For more advice, join our Forum, and see our useful links.
- Divorce Poison by Richard Warshak
- A Promise To Ourselves: A Journey through Fatherhood and Divorce by Alec Baldwin