We’ve all heard the term ‘parental alienation’ tossed around, loosely and in accusatory fashion. But what is parental alienation exactly? What are the impacts on our children? What are issues for us as parents – in the process of divorcing and after? Just how black and white is parental alienation?
According to Edward Kruk, PhD, writing on the Psychology Today blog, parental alienation involves manipulating our children to think badly of the other parent.
“Parental alienation involves the “programming” of a child by one parent to denigrate the other “targeted” parent, in an effort to undermine and interfere with the child’s relationship with that parent, and is often a sign of a parent’s inability to separate from the couple conflict and focus on the needs of the child. Such denigration results in the child’s emotional rejection of the targeted parent, and the loss of a capable and loving parent from the life of the child.”
Among the tactics used by the parent seeking to alienate the child are:
- Negative comments to the child about the other parent (bad-mouthing)
- Limiting or interfering with the child’s access to the other parent
- Disallowing discussion, pictures, gifts, communications with the other parent
- Manipulating the child to believe the other parent is dangerous or unworthy
- Putting the child in situations in which he or she feels forced to choose between the two parents (threatening to withdraw love / affection).
Let me be clear. I’m not an attorney and I’m not a therapist. But I am a long-term single parent who has tried to say the right things at the right time, and to protect the feelings of my children – about both parents – during and after divorce. I haven’t always succeeded; there have been bad days when I’ve said things I wish I hadn’t. But there have been far more days when I’ve spoken kindly or held my tongue, acted fairly, and done what is best for my children.
Do note the following clarification, from Wikipedia’s definition of Parental Alienation:
“… The term does not apply in cases of actual child abuse, when the child rejects the abusing parent to protect themselves…”
Parental alienation, as I understand it, is not a slip of the lip at the end of a terrible day in court, another day when the child support check is late, or just a terrible day. Nor is parental alienation is also revealing factual information about the other parent when absolutely necessary and not intended to manipulate the child or hurt the other adult.
Furthermore, parental alienation is not always intentional. This is exactly why we owe it to our children to be vigilant with our actions and our words – at all times.
Black, White, and Gray: One Woman’s Opinion on Parental Alienation
Here’s my take on a real-world definition of parental alienation.
- A negative remark made in despair or exhaustion? Not cool, but not parental alienation.
- Answering a child’s questions appropriately? Not parental alienation.
- Infrequent changes to visitation for legitimate reasons? For example, if your ex is an alcoholic and you don’t want your child visiting if they are possibly drinking. Not parental alienation.
- Blocking visitation or throwing up obstacles? Parental alienation.
- Blocking phone calls, emails, texts and other communications between the other parent and child(ren)? Parental alienation.
- Berating the other parent? Parental alienation.
- Repeated manipulation of a child’s opinion of the other parent? Parental alienation.
There are times when children ask for explanations – the reasons behind divorce, why they aren’t seeing the other parent as much as they would like, what’s at the root of ongoing financial difficulties. I believe we should field these questions as diplomatically as possible, disclosing only what is necessary, when it is necessary – dispassionately, and gently – without disparaging the other parent or making the child feel placed in the middle.
Is this easy under certain circumstances?
Hardly. You may be required to explain the financial realities of a divorced household and what that means for the child’s future. You may need to position facts to do with addiction or abuse. The other parent may have a job situation or new family that keeps him away more than he would like – and for that matter, more than you would like.
You may have been through a high conflict divorce, and you’re still harboring ill will – or you may be fighting over custody, visitation, support and more – even years after divorce. Even so, we owe it to our children to make appropriate judgments about what we say, as well as when and how.
No matter what, we owe it to our children to speak in age-appropriate and situation-appropriate ways at all times, and no more so than when talking about the other parent.
Impacts of Parental Alienation on Children
Children want and deserve to love both their parents. Imagine if you were made to feel that one of your parents did not love you, purposely stayed away from you, did not communicate in any fashion or only in limited fashion, or was somehow a “bad person.” How would that make you feel – even as an adult? Is that really what you want to do to the children you love – carrying the divorce conflict into the relationship that your child shares with the other parent?
In fact, children who suffer parental alienation may suffer low self-esteem, an inability to trust, and have strained or distant relationships themselves, as adults.
I’ve witnessed what I consider to be parental alienation, and it can be devastating. In one example, a good friend fought five years for shared custody of his children. He finally won his case, but the ex, who remained in state, moved far enough away to make it logistically impossible for him to exercise his custodial rights and still keep his job. Without the job, he couldn’t pay child support, not to mention his own rent.
This father is left with occasional phone calls and visits, and the hope that when his children are older they will understand that he did everything he could for as long as he could.
And his children? What are they left with?
Co-Parenting Common Sense
It is because of these unconscionable scenarios that I say enough to the automatic and frivolous outcry – often from men – that women are poisoning their children against them. Calling any negative remark “parental alienation” does a disservice to those men and women fighting situations like the one I just described, which is clearly a cruel and damaging situation for all involved.
There is no all-inclusive handbook to post-divorce parenting, and none of us is a perfect parent – whatever our marital status. But we need to watch our tongues and our actions because our children are watching us, as models for adult behavior. Aren’t we capable of better than sticking it to the other parent by using the kids? Couldn’t we love our children in ways that are constructive and unselfish? Is it really so difficult to act responsibly, be fair in our dealings, and live up to the privilege of parenthood – honorably?