Parental Alienation is a term being used more frequently in Irish Courts, but what does it mean?
Learn about this important topic here…
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This course will equip you with the knowledge to apply to your role in the area of parental alienation. It will explain what parental alienation is and what might be some of the causes as well as providing you with examples of parental alienation and how it can affect children and their families.
It will also look at what signs to watch out for when working with children and families to help you recognise when this form of abuse may be at play, while making you aware of the motivators behind the abuse, and it will teach you about some strategies and interventions that can be used to help intervene and support the child or children and their family during their difficult times.
Parental Alienation, and the manipulation involved is a form of psychological abuse to the child and also abuse of the alienated family members as they are excluded from their child’s/grandchild’s life. It is not always instigated by a primary caregiver, and both parties can be trying to convince their child that the other parent is not worthy of their love. Often during separation and divorce cases, the parents detest for each other outweighs the love for their children as they compete to get the child to love them more and the other parent less. This can also happen when both parents still live together, but their relationship has turned sour and there is bitterness between them.
Where parental alienation is the action or behaviours from the alienator, Parental Alienation Syndrome is the result of those actions or behaviours thus presenting in the child. Parental Alienation Syndrome is gaining ground as a recognised disorder in children, and in some countries, this form of abuse has been made a criminal offence. But there are varying degrees of parental alienation and these need to be factored in when presenting a parental alienation case to the court in order for informed interventions to be decided upon.
As we have learned already, there are many possible causes of parental alienation. Richard Gardner (1985) first introduced Parental Alienation Syndrome, defining it as a “disturbance within the conscience or sub-conscience”. Gardner, who was a child psychiatrist and worked specifically with children who presented with alienation behaviours and separation cases, noted that alienating parents were re-programming or brainwashing their children, often through jealousy of the relationship the child had with the their parent.
However, the reprogramming or brainwashing will be more or less effective depending on the child. Some children’s psychological functioning is better equipped to cope than others. Some children might have better coping mechanisms, be more resilient, or better able to judge what is right and wrong. Others are more vulnerable and susceptible to the reprogramming, for example: if they are an anxious child; has low cognitive functioning; low self-esteem or poor reality testing. Although Gardiners work was later discredited, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has outlined several areas which still cover this in looking at “child psychological abuse”, “harming or abandoning things the child cares about” (DSM5, 2013)
So, why do parents engage in this type of abuse? How and why does the alienation occur?
Child’s perceived response: The child seems to be siding with the ‘wrong’ parent, creating jealousy of the alienating parent as well as anxiety and fear – the ‘what if my child prefers them and wants to live with them and not me?’ This can cause the parent to try and create a divide between the child and targeted parent in their hope of ensuring the child wants to stay with them.
Conflict between parents: During a high conflict separation or divorce, the alienating parent engages in malicious comments about the targeted parent, possible imagined inadequacies of the parent, how they have failed the child and do not love them, and general damaging behaviours towards the targeted parent.
Conflict between parent and someone else: For example, the grandparents, cousins etc. For instance, an alienating parent may create disdain towards a grandparent, or more specifically: the in-laws or a new partner. This can often happen when a parent feels jealous towards a relationship that their partner or children have with that grandparent and feel the need to create a divide. This is often a selfish act by those who may be self-loathing, insecure or do not feel they are ‘good enough’ and may need to feel more in control within their immediate family circle to feel secure. This gives them the feelings of power, control and false security as they villainise the person they want their child (or partner) to break free from.
Children’s escape tactics: During a high conflict separation or divorce, both parents may be engaging in alienating behaviours. No child wants or needs to be the victim of this. They do not want to hear either parent being verbally abusive of the other. They do not want to be stuck in the middle or used as a pawn. This is how parents sub-consciously alienate themselves from the child as the child withdraws from both of them in an attempt at self-preservation.
Parents’ personality/psychological functioning: What type of personality do you have? Are you a person that needs to feel in control of everything and finds it difficult to cope when things are beyond your control? Are you one of life’s worriers? Do you suffer with anxiety or depression? Are you constantly defensive, being that person who presumes others are attacking you, when they might not be? Are you the glass half empty or half full person? Do you understand yourself and your behaviour? Are you capable of self-reflection? All of these personality traits can impact on your child. If you are an anxious person for example, your anxiety will transmit to your child. The same with negativity, defensiveness and the need for control; however, positivity, the ability to let go, to self-reflect, to think about events and circumstances and to look at the bright side will also transmit to your child and can have positive effects on the child, the situation and yours and your children’s psychological and emotional well-being.
Imagine the child is living with the mother. The mother does not want the father to see the child, for whatever reason. What type of things might the mother do or say that will cause alienation of the father?
- Complaining about money or the lack of financial support:
“I can’t afford a new school bag right now; your father hasn’t given me any money for you”
“Ask your father, he doesn’t given me any money”
“Your father has lots of money, look at him going on holiday/night out/spending money on his other children, yet he gives me nothing. He’s so selfish; you’d think he’d give something for his only/eldest/youngest son/daughter”
“I’m so broke since daddy left us”
“If daddy hadn’t left us, we wouldn’t be struggling like this”
- Interfering with visits:
We touched on this already, but this is basically where the mother may tell a child that daddy is sick or too busy with work/new partner or child to see them; or even that they didn’t bother to show up today! Then tell the father that the child is too sick or still in bed; gone out with friends; had privileges removed; too scared; didn’t get enough sleep through worrying about the visit; has a dentist appointment that “cannot be changed”; ‘forgotten’ about a training session/match; etc. in order to cancel a visit.
- Destroying items that belonged to the father or reminders of him:
Letting the child see them destroy or burn anything that may have belonged to him and removing them from the family home in an attempt to remove him from memory is a form of alienation. In severe alienation cases, mothers may even deny their child a photograph of him or anything that the father has given as a gift previously. They might also tell the child that they are not even allowed to talk about him.
- Vilifying the father (making him out to be ‘the bad guy’):
Calling the father names in front of the child; either directly in conversation with the child; muttering things to themselves; or talking about him negatively to their family and friends will cause parental alienation. The child often does not know what to believe and will automatically side with the alienating parent if they can see it is causing them distress.
Okay, so let’s look at the father alienating the mother. Imagine now that the father has custody of the child/children and the father is trying to prevent or remove access rights to the mother. What might he do?
- Not encourage the children to see their mother:
The child might be apprehensive, for whatever reason, to see their mother and the father tells them they don’t have to go if they don’t want to. He engages in no supportive way for the child to see their mother and supports their wishes only when not wanting to see the other parent.
- Physically protect the child from imagined dangers:
Like the mother, the father may put ideas in to a child’s head that the other parent is not fit to love them. He may show an overwhelming protectiveness of the child in an effort to enforce the feeling that they will only be safe with him, that he is the only one that can protect them.
- Concoct allegations:
Imagine the mother has a new boyfriend. Naturally the father may not be happy about this and might not want this threat to his fatherhood in their lives. This is when they might concoct allegations about the new partner, such as allegations of physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
And what about the target parent alienating themselves? Do you think this can happen after they have gained some rights to see their child? It can, but how might this occur?
- Lack of parenting style
The parent may not know how to parent! Or they may not know what to do with their child once they have gained access. They might not have been much a part of the child’s life even when they were living in the family home and might not know how to interact with them. They may engage inappropriately for their child’s age and stage of development. This can leave the child thinking that their parent is strange, weird or out of control. Or add emphasis to the alienating parents’ notions of inadequacies or incapacity to love them.
- Not devoting enough time:
If the target parent does not devote enough time to their child during visitation, for example: they are constantly scrolling on social media on their phone, or taking phone calls, or using the time to work or watch television, if at home.
If the activities are constantly adult led, either they are what the parent wants to do or what they ‘think’ the child wants to do, without gaining insight and input from the child. The child will start to believe that the parent does not care about them and what they want/need/like and they might feel that the parent only ever thinks about themselves.
However, these are only some examples and there are many more scenarios. Some or all of these tactics may be used when alienating a child from their other parent:
- Using negative language/name calling
- Limiting contact
- Telling the child the other parent does not love them
- Forcing child to choose side
- Interfering with communication
- Creating imagined danger
- Confiding in the child on matters that do not concern them
- Using parents name
- Withdrawal of love if they do not comply
- Asking child to keep secrets
- Questioning child about other parents activities
- Changing child’s name
- Creating dependency
- Withholding important information from target parent
- Referring to stepparent as ‘mum/dad’ and making the child do same
In mild cases of parental alienation, alienation can be happening unintentionally. For example: when parents are arguing and saying bad comments about each other, and this continues into saying those bad comments in front of the children and when looking for the children to take sides and to agree with them.
A parent will also promote anger in the child toward the other parent, for instance, telling the child they cannot go to the match because the other parent used the money for it on some new runners. Or creating more emotional trauma, for example: telling the child that the other parent can’t possibly love them because they did not care enough to stay and try to work things out.
In some moderate cases of parental alienation, the child might feel more secure with the target parent if they display unconditional love, and insecure with the alienating parent as their love may be conditional, thus causing the divide with the target parent as the child’s inherent need to please the alienating parent and gain their acceptance and love take precedence.
The alienating parent may also talk to the child about things that should only be discussed with the target parent or another adult, like the household finances, information about the divorce and parenting tactics for siblings etc. Thus creating anger toward the other parent and the feeling of dependency; that the alienator could not cope without them and that they do not need the other parent in their lives, eventually denying their very existence while ensuring the child feels responsible to ‘step-up’ in place of the absent parent.
What other circumstances can lead to parental alienation?
There are many other factors that can influence parental alienation that the child has been victim to or a witness of, which are real and cannot be confused with an alienating parent’s effort to target the other parent unjustifiably. These examples are classed as justified alienation, which are then enhanced by the alienating parent.
Natural – A child may automatically favour one parent over the other due to a number of reasons. They may be closer in age, similar in temperament, have common or shared interests. They might not have developed a strong bond with the other parent and the separation may come as a welcome relief.
Verbal abuse – including abusive language and threatening behaviours
Physical abuse – including slamming doors; throwing things
Domestic abuse – to parent or child
Sexual abuse – or witnessing of
Family dysfunction – (besides the above examples), there may be lack of intimacy or attachment; lack of communication and constant household conflict; having imposed unrealistic expectations; lack of boundaries; living with addiction or mental health issues (a parent having bi-polar for instance, that leads to fear and unpredictability when not managed well)
HSE/Tusla involvement – not all social services are the same and many can let down the children and families, often unintentionally, through their red-tape and policies, leading to prolonged periods of no access or support for families, parents and children.
Access denial – on the part of the parent, child or court order
These are things as an access worker you need to be aware of and will need to define the difference between what may be true and what is not. For example, is the alienator alleging abuse, creating ‘the bad person’ or has abuse actually occurred. You are not there to listen to and believe in what they say. You are not there to take sides. You are there to be objective, to observe and to report, and to keep the child safe. If you believe that a parent is engaging in alienation tactics to target the other parent, it is your role to report this and try where possible to intervene in a positive and supportive way for the child.
How will you know if a parent is engaging in mild or unintentional parental alienation?
There are some questions you can ask yourself as an access worker while observing interactions between the child and their parents during handover and during access. You can also enquire with the child about how they are feeling before and after the visit. This will help you build a picture of what is actually going on and help you decipher if there is a case of mild parental alienation at play. Discover whether or not the child had a supportive and loving relationship with their child before the conflict began and then ask yourself the following:
- Does the child show disdain toward the target parent when in the presence of the alienating parent, but appears to enjoy their company, or gets over it quickly when they are away from that parent?
- Do they show signs of loving the target parent but seem to not want to disappoint the alienator?
- Are they pressured to reject the target parent or having words put in their mouths about their proposed anxiety over the visit?
- Do they want to love the other parent, but see’s the reaction of the alienator when they show this and so changes his/her response to suit them?
- Do they seem reluctant to show love to the target parent in fear they will disappoint or lose the love of the alienating parent?
- Does the child seem indifferent to one parent or the other? Do they appear to be coping well with the new arrangements or separation?
- Is the parent asking the child a lot of questions about the other parent and what they are doing or have done and belittling or remarking negatively about it?
- Does the target parent want to introduce the child to new family members too early or before the child is ready? This is an attempt to force a relationship before it is established and can create further motivations for the alienating parent.
How will you know if a parent is engaging in moderate parental alienation?
- Does the child eventually go to the target parent even after showing significant reluctance to go?
- Are they made to feel responsible for their alienating parents’ wellbeing? Are they overly anxious about how that parent feels?
- Do they eventually quiet down or involve themselves with the target parent over time or away from alienating influences?
- Rule out estrangement. Are they reluctant to see the parent due to prolonged estrangement and not knowing them?
- Observe interactions with and without siblings and evaluate family interactions where possible.
- Are they showing signs of dependency toward the alienating parent?
- Do they appear to be over anxious or showing an irrational fear inconsistent with the relationship history or allegations?
How can you tell if the child is a victim of severe parental alienation?
- Does the child irrationally reject the target parent to a severe degree?
- Do they seem content to cut off all contact?
- Do they try to cause disruption or try to defy court ordered access?
- Do they make unreasonable threats to avoid seeing the target parent?
- Does the child have difficulty recalling positive experiences and memories of the target parent and sees the alienating parent without flaw? Have they erased pleasant memories and when looking at pictures or videos of good times, they pass it off as “only pretending”.
- Do they show an irrational hatred of the target parent and anyone or anything associated with them? For example, “I hate poodles, my dad had one!” “Pilots are stupid, my mother is a pilot”
- Does the child refer to the target parent by their actual name or another term that has been used by the alienating parent, rather that mum or dad?
- Is the child treating the target parent with extreme hostility, disobedience, defiance or withdrawal? Are they threatening towards them? Do they try and damage their property? Do they refuse contact?
- The child shows no genuine love, affection or appreciation of the parent, nor do they show any shame, guilt or remorse for the way they are treating them.
- Does the child make up trivial complaints about the target parent? i.e. “she said she loved me at least 20 times”, “he’s always telling me he wants me to do well in school”.
- Is one parent all good and the other all bad?
There are many possible motivators to parental alienation.
Mild or unintentional Parental Alienation
- Arguments between parents, whether still together or not, where negative comments or statements are made, which extend to continuing those negativities with the child and looking for them to take sides or to agree with them.
- Emotions of anger or betrayal
- Separation effects – what went wrong? Blaming of the other parent
- Adjusting to separation or divorce
Moderate Parental Alienation
- Fear of losing the child
- Self-righteousness (thinking you’re better than them)
- Maintenance payments/child support
- Loss of identity
- Out of sight – out of mind perspective
- Feeling of power, control, influence and domination
- Loss of ‘ownership’ of target parent
Severe Parental Alienation
The motivators for severe alienation are much the same in severe alienation as those for mild and moderate alienation, but more extreme. The alienating parent wishes to destroy the target parents’ relationship with the child completely and will go to any lengths in order to achieve this. These include:
- Constant berating of the target parent
- Making false allegations, such as imagined domestic abuse or sexual abuse
- Rewriting history using non-existent memories
- Denying the target parent access and making it very difficult to ascertain visitation rights
- Convincing the child that they will be in danger if they go to see that parent
- Erasing any memory of the parent and their extended family
- Emotional blackmail
- Creating a false inter-dependency for the child and alienator
You have identified that parental alienation is occurring. As a supervised access worker, what can you do?
In the case of a target parent wanting to introduce new family members, for example a new partner or child:
Advise the parent that they need to take this slowly. They first need to build on their own relationship with the child, and only when it is strong enough and the child is ready, should new members be introduced. This will help prevent the child from rejecting the new members and growing disdain toward their parent, and also help dissolve any possible motivations for the alienating parent.
Where there are signs of mild or unintentional alienation:
Education is the key. Many parents want what is best for their child and do not want to see them in the middle of their disputes. Educating them in an informal way will help to alleviate this. At this stage, there should be no need for therapy interventions. During handover and during access, you can guide parents in their conversations, steering them away from talking about the other parent, asking too many questions about the other parent or being negative towards them. Making them aware of facial expressions that show contempt when the child mentions the other parent out of earshot of the child and perhaps talking to them away from the child about how best to talk to the child without being negative as you see it is causing their child some upset. It can be difficult sometimes for a parent to be told where they are going wrong, but if they truly want what is best for their child; they will take your comments on board and reflect on them with a view to improving their behaviour.
Where the parent needs a little more help:
You might notice that your effort to help alleviate mild or unintentional alienation is not working and things are not improving for the child. If this is the case, it needs to be noted in your reports and to give a call to your line manager to advise if you think some therapy sessions might be required and for whom you feel they are required for. Sometimes parents are more receptive to counselling when they believe it is a strategy to assist them in readjusting to their new situation and in helping their child to also readjust.
Sometimes a court order may have been put in place for therapy for the parents in an effort to alleviate feelings of anger and/or betrayal of the alienating parent. As an access worker, you will be advised of this in advance and will be required to reinforce what the therapist is trying to achieve by using positive language and supporting the process. Talking to the child on the way to and from the meeting point about how they are feeling, and reassuring them about the target parent will also help here.
Child appropriate activities:
If a parent appears to be struggling with what to do with their child, as an access worker, you can make suggestions on child friendly activities or ask the child what they would like to do if this is an option. Sharing fun and memorable activities with the target parent will help to relieve any worries or concerns that the child was having about the parent and engaging in physical activities will also build a bond of mutual like, trust and communication in a natural, unforced way as well as having the added benefit that physical exercise is known for reducing anxiety, stress and depression as it releases endorphins and serotonin from the brain which make you feel good and thus improve your mental health.
As the parent becomes aware that they are a target of the alienating parent, there are some things they can do for themselves to minimise the damage, and enhance their relationship with their child. They can do this by:
- Listening to their concerns
- Offering appropriate supports
- Avoiding temptation to alienate the other parent
- Striving to reduce their child’s anxiety and concerns
- Encouraging positive interactions
- Ensuring activities and conversations are child appropriate
- Not doing everything just to make the child happy – creating an equal balance of positive parenting rather than spoiling the child to compensate the situation
- Building the child’s self-esteem and self-worth and showing them they are valued
You can support this process by encouraging positive language and guidance at appropriate times. If you feel that the parent may need some professional help in this area, note it in your reports or contact your manager to suggest an intervention such as parenting classes or therapy in this area.
Other interventions and strategies for parental alienation cases
Court ordered access:
Court ordered access can help heal the effects of parental alienation as the child often wants and needs the love and support of both parents, and yearns to have that relationship back and to end the alienation, but through the conflict, are not capable of gaining this on their own. Once the court has granted access, supervised or otherwise, the child can begin to rebuild their relationship without having to admit to the alienating parent that they want to, but to enable them to justify it with the ‘I have to’ see the target parent. The supervisors’ role here is to maintain continuity, objectivity and consistency to the access arrangements. Maintain professionalism, and write reports based on your observations of the conversations and interactions of the parents and child.
In cases of moderate and severe parental alienation or estrangement, reunification therapy would be a beneficial intervention. Reunification therapy will work with parents, children and siblings of a case, and include extended family when necessary, to work on re-uniting parents with their children after prolonged absence. This is especially useful in alienation cases to re-establish contact; rebuild a relationship; break down barriers, concerns and anxieties; and work on a plan to effectively co-parent the child in a positive, supportive and loving way while healing any residual feelings from the alienating parent and the effects it had on the child. Your role here is to support the process by facilitating the access, acting as mediator between target and child and supporting the child in knowing they are safe in your care.
Individual therapy sessions:
For the alienating parent: these may be necessary where the alienating parent appears to be struggling to cope with their emotions, or struggling to readjust to life without the other parent. It can help them to move on and to form a plan that will help prevent them from obsessing over the separation as well as assist with their role of being a supportive and loving parent.
For the target parent: therapy sessions for the target parent will help to ensure they do not engage in alienating tactics as a defence, while assisting them in their role as a supportive and loving parent. It will enable them to overcome any feelings of rejection as their child comes to terms with the new arrangements and begins to build a relationship with them.
For the child: Children do not just go through the separation as a witness. They are also being separated from the parent. They will suffer loss and grief. They will suffer anger, fear and resentment. Children are the most vulnerable people when there is separation or divorce and are often the unheard victims. They must tussle with their own feelings as well as those of the parents. These vulnerable people would benefit from therapy even before the separation occurs.
Where other interventions have failed, the court may order the child or children of an alienation case to be removed from the care of the alienator as parental alienation is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. Depending on the individual circumstance, the child could be placed with the target parent, an extended family member or into foster placement until a reunification process can begin. This decision is not made lightly and there are many factors involved, including parental capabilities, mental health issues, financial viability, support network, engaging in court ordered interventions, etc.
So, what are we looking for? Is parental alienation at play?
First you need to ascertain whether the situation is a justifiable estrangement or whether a parent is targeting the other parent in order to alienate them from their child/children.
- Is the child refusing or parent denying access?
- Was there a positive relationship with the absent parent before the conflict/access denial?
- Is there an absence of abuse or neglect from the target parent?
- What are the alienating behaviours or motivators of the alienating parent?
- Is the child showing signs of parental alienation?
What to do if you suspect parental alienation?
Record behavioural patterns: Note conversations and incidents of the child with the suspected alienator and the suspected target parent. Listen to the things that are said and write them in your report. It might be something as simple as ‘don’t tell mum/dad, it’ll be our little secret’, but this is important in defining if alienation is occurring.
Be aware of the warning signs as covered in the lesson ‘signs of parental alienation’
Ensure the target parent talks to their child, and more importantly, listens to their child. It is vital that they validate any feelings or concerns their child may have, and reassures them that they love and support them
Encourage honesty from the targeted parent with their child in an age and stage appropriate way, without creating alienation in return
Ensure all court orders are complied with and carried out in a timely and efficient manner
Encourage the use of therapy and interventions that can assist in the process, and refer to your manager if you feel these would be beneficial
Enforce a positive relationship strategy. Be a role model and guide the parent into appropriate ways to interact and engage with their child
Do not allow parents to come into contact with each other until such time a court deems it appropriate and ensure there are no negative comments about one parent or the other in front of the child
Remember, if a parent tells you ‘their side of the story’, it is simply that! Be objective. It is not your role to take sides and there is always more than one side to every story.