What Is Parental Alienation?
© 2013 by Richard A. Warshak, Ph. D.
Most children whose parents live apart from each other long for a good relationship with both parents and want to be raised by both. In my own studies, and those of other researchers, children say that the worst part of divorce is that they do not get to spend enough time with their parents. The parent they spend the most time with during the week usually has less time for the children after the divorce because of the responsibilities of earning a living and running a household without the other parent’s assistance. Children are also unsatisfied with the type of relationship they can have with a parent seen mainly on weekends.
The majority of children want contact with both parents on a regular basis, and the most common preference among children, and among adults looking back on their parents' divorce, is for parenting plans that more evenly balance their time between homes.
Some children, though, do not crave more time with an absent parent. Instead, these children reject one parent, resist contact, or show extreme reluctance to be with the parent. These children are alienated. In some cases, children have good reasons to reject a deficient parent. In other cases, children reject a parent with whom they previously had a good relationship, often paralleling their other parent's negative attitudes. The children's treatment of the rejected parent is disproportionate to that parent's behavior and inconsistent with the prior history of the parent-child relationship. The following section concerns the category of children whose alienation is not reasonably justified by the rejected parent’s behavior.
Characteristics Of Severely Alienated Children
Severe cases of a child’s irrational alienation from a parent differ from mild and moderate cases by the extent of the child’s rejection of a parent and the degree of negativity in the attitudes and behavior toward the rejected parent. Severely alienated children express extremely polarized views of their parents; they have little if anything positive to say about the rejected parent and often rewrite the history of their relationship to obscure positive elements. They seem content to avoid all contact with the parent, may reject an entire branch of their extended family, and often threaten to defy court orders for contacts with the rejected parent. Severe alienation includes behavioral, emotional, and cognitive dimensions.
Severely alienated children treat the rejected parent with extreme hostility, disobedience, defiance, and withdrawal. They may resist or refuse contact, vandalize and steal property, threaten and perpetrate violence. A boy told the custody evaluator that he would like to give his father a hard kick between the legs, kill him in his sleep, and have him die a horrible death. Children at the severe end of the continuum of parental alienation typically display such venom. Often these children behave well with all other adults except the rejected parent and people associated with that parent. By contrast, physically abused children fear the abuser and act obsequious, respectful, and compliant so as to avoid angering the parent. Typically they do not openly defy or disrespect the abusive parent. Also, physically abused children often resist separation from the abusive parent and want to be reunited with that parent.
When not treating the alienated parent with open contempt, severely alienated children remain aloof and express no genuine love, affection, or appreciation. They fail to give Mother’s and Father’s Day cards. Rather than express contrition for behavior that far exceeds the bounds of decency and normal behavior, alienated children show no apparent shame or guilt for mistreating a parent. Severe alienation is not a situation, as one attorney argued, where children merely love one parent a lot more than the other parent. These children harbor strong and irrational aversion toward a parent with whom they formerly enjoyed a close relationship. The aversion may take the form of fear, hatred, or both.
The child’s thoughts and statements about the rejected parent usually reflect trivial, shallow, and inauthentic complaints, often in words that echo the favored parent despite the child’s claim that the words are his own. In some cases, when trivial complaints fail to accomplish the goal of severing contact with a parent, favored parents and children lodge accusations of abuse.
Alienated children’s thoughts about their parents become highly skewed and polarized. They seem unable to summon up positive memories or perceptions about the rejected parent, and have difficulty reporting negative aspects or experiences with the favored parent. They rewrite the history of their relationship with the rejected parent to erase pleasant moments. By contrast, physically abused children often try to maintain a positive image of the abusive parent. They cling to positive memories of being nurtured by, and having fun with, their abuser.
With children who are severely and irrationally alienated, critical thinking about parents is nowhere in evidence. Instead the children demonstrate knee-jerk support of the favored parent’s position in any situation where the parents disagree. Some children ask to testify against a parent in court, or to speak with the judge to lobby for their favored parent’s position in the litigation. One of the most pernicious signs of unreasonable alienation is what I call hatred by association—the spread of hatred to people and even objects associated with the rejected parent, such as members of the extended family, therapists, and pets.
Children in these situations learn to curry favor with one parent by echoing that parent’s complaints about the other parent. They learn that it displeases one parent when they show signs of connection and affection with the other parent. Often they refer to the rejected parent by first name or with a term of derision, rather than as Mom or Dad. Although others see clearly that a child’s negative attitude toward one parent developed in the shadow of the other parent’s hostility, the alienated child disavows any such influence. Instead the child blames the rejected parent and relatives for provoking the child’s hatred, but the child often gives vague reasons for the rejection.
Alienation and estrangement are sometimes defined as synonyms, but the dictionary distinguishes the two according to whether the person has contact with the object of alienation. Alienated children show contempt and withdraw affection while still in contact with the parent (often not by choice). Estranged children are physically apart from a parent in addition to the emotional separation that characterizes alienation. The words carry no connotation about the extent to which the state of being apart, either emotionally (alienation) or physically (estrangement) is realistic, rational, and reasonable. Within each category of disrupted relationship children vary in the degree to which the child’s aversion toward the parent is rationally justified.
It is important to determine where a child’s alienation rests on a continuum from rational to irrational and what the relative contributions of each parent’s behavior are to the problem. For instance, we must distinguish a child who feels more resonance and rapport with one parent than with the other, from the child who actively, harshly, and consistently rejects the other parent. My article on Misdiagnosis of Parental Alienation Syndrome discusses this more fully.
One source of confusion in nomenclature is the fact that in the English language the terms alienation and estrangement can refer to a noun — the state of a relationship — and they can refer to a verb, the act or process of alienating someone. For instance, social alienation refers to the state of a person feeling alienated from society. Social alienation also refers to the process by which a person’s behavior alienates, or turns off, a social group to which he belonged. As with many words in our language, the context in which the word appears makes clear what we mean. Parental alienation can refer to the state of a child being alienated from a parent. Parental alienation can also refer to a parent’s alienating behavior, that is, behavior that fosters a child’s alienation. The same term denotes two related concepts. We can view this as a problem, or accept it as a feature of the English language and rely on context to clarify the intended meaning.
Ontario Justice Quinn favors the dictionary approach proposed above, as opposed to redefining familiar terms. Justice Quinn writes:
I point out that I am not concerned with “parental alienation” as a psychological or a psychiatric term. My reference to parental alienation is merely factual and reflects the ordinary dictionary meaning of the words: “parental” – “of, pertaining to, or in the nature of a parent”; “alienation” – “the act of estranging or state of estrangement in feeling or affection”: see The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.
Most of the articles and material on this website, in my book, Divorce Poison, and the DVD Welcome Back, Pluto, concern the category of children whose alienation is not reasonably justified by the rejected parent’s behavior and is not proportional to the child’s past experience of the rejected parent. In these cases, courts determine that it is in the children’s best interests to spend time with the rejected parent, and repair the damaged relationship.
What causes a child to become alienated from a parent?
Nearly all childhood emotional and behavior problems are multi-layered, and parent-child conflicts are no exception. The favored parent’s negative influence is the most obvious ingredient in cases where children unreasonably reject a parent. Other factors include aspects of the current and past family situation, the child’s own personality, and the rejected parent’s response to rejection. In some families, children are more apt to align with a parent who has been historically less available or whose love the children view as more tenuous and contingent upon their undiluted loyalty (defined as sharing the parent’s negative view of the other parent).
With very few exceptions, when children relate well to one parent, but irrationally reject the other, the children identify with the favored parent’s negative view of the other parent. If it were not for the favored parent’s cooperation with, and often approval and encouragement of, the children’s rejection of the other parent, the parent-child conflict would not become and remain severely impaired.
When these behaviors are deliberate, and result, or have the potential to result, in significant psychological harm to the child, mental health professionals refer to this as child psychological abuse.
Nearly every parent is disappointed and angry when the couple’s relationship fails. Some parents do a good job of harnessing the emotions unleashed by divorce. Some do not. Most parents understand the importance of keeping kids out of the middle and they do a fairly good job of honoring this responsibility. Some parents, though, are so blinded by rage and a wish to punish their former partner that they lose sight of their children's need to love and be loved by both parents. Some parents promote their children’s alienation because they believe that they are the superior parent and that the children can get by without the other parent. When for vindictive or narcissistic motives, alienating parents act in a manner that can erase the other parent from the children’s lives and leave their children with only one parent with whom they feel comfortable giving and receiving love.
These parents enlist children as allies in a battle against the other parent. Through persistent bad-mouthing, lies, exaggerations, overlooking positives, and drum-beating negatives, they manipulate their children to reject the other parent in the same way a politician paints a unfavorable picture to alienate voters from the opponent.
Children who absorb the lesson of hatred suffer parental alienation and suffer the behavioral, emotional, and cognitive problems described above. They pull away from a formerly loved mother or father, and often an entire extended family, leaving the rejected relatives puzzled over what they might have said or done that caused a total rupture in relations.
Some hurt parents lose their temper with a child who either refuses to communicate or does so only with utter contempt. It is important to differentiate between a pattern of mistreatment and isolated lapses of judgment, between a cause of the alienation and a desperate, helpless, ultimately inadequate response.
Naturally, it is wrong to assume that all children who reject a formerly loved parent do so exclusively under influence of the favored parent. Children may reject a parent who deserves to be shunned (although many of the abused children with whom I have worked cling tightly to their abusers). Elements in the family situation (for instance, a remarriage), in the child's own personality, and in early responses to alienation may contribute to the problem. Alienation can become entrenched when we give a child the power to dictate the terms of contact with a parent. Or, the problem can be nipped in the bud when the court makes it clear that a child's irrational avoidance of a parent, with the other parent's blessing, will not be tolerated.
Also, not every child exposed to divorce poison succumbs. With diplomatic finesse, some maintain warm feelings toward both parents despite pressures to take sides. Some children reject the parent who pressures for alignment. Many strands make up the tapestry of parent-child relations. In the interests of avoiding a simplistic approach to nuanced issues, though, we should not overlook or excuse the cruelty of teaching children to hate those who love them.