Parental Alienation: The Silent Killer of Families

In my article, “The Covert Aggressor: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” I discussed how manipulators in a relationship can set up their partners for failure, then feel like they “win” when their partner feels bad. I’d like to visit another type of manipulator, the Parental Alienator.

Meet Bob and Penny. Penny, never having had much male attention before, is thrilled that handsome, mysterious Bob wants her. Bob is happy to have “arm candy” that he can show off to his friends. Penny dresses the way Bob wants because he showers her with clothes and gifts, making her feel like a princess. Penny likes the feeling of security because, with Bob, she doesn’t have to worry about making any major decisions. After being on her own for most of her adult life, she is happy to pass the torch to someone who will take care of her. So what if he’s a little narcissistic?

Bob and Penny welcome their daughter Melissa into the world. She is the light of their lives, and Penny is happy to see what a good father Bob is. He makes sure Melissa has everything she needs, and Penny glows with pride when Bob exclaims to everyone how smart his child is. But things are starting to change between Bob and Penny. While she was pregnant, Bob cheated on her, which he felt was his right because Melissa couldn’t “serve his needs.” Penny felt this was wrong, but that he had a point, and she should have tried harder. When Bob cheats again, Penny asks for a divorce. Both parents agree to stay active in Melissa’s life, setting up a 50/50 parenting plan where Melissa will live with each parent every other week.

Things go fine for a while; Penny continues to involve Bob in family trips, events, and milestones so that Melissa never worries about her father missing anything. So what if Penny has to arrange and pay for everything? If Bob stays involved, what difference does it make? Penny just wishes Bob might take the initiative occasionally. She begins to realize that Bob is using her.

Things go badly awry one night during an exchange. It’s Penny’s week with Melissa, and Bob shows up 30 minutes late. Melissa, age 11, is all “spun up,” accusing Penny of treating Bob badly and lying about him. Penny protests, but Bob chimes in, saying that Penny had broken a promise to him—and by extension to Melissa. After an hour of arguing in front of their child, a still-crying Penny takes Melissa home and spends the next three days trying to get Melissa to understand that Penny had done nothing wrong, and that the drama was a fabrication made up by Bob because he resented the fact that Penny had stopped giving Bob money.

Bob starts an all-out assault, manipulating Melissa into choosing him over Penny. Bob insists that Melissa call his new wife “Mom” and Penny “Penny.” He systematically brainwashes Melissa into believing that Penny had rejected her, but that he never would—that he’s Melissa’s best friend, and they will be together forever. That although Penny doesn’t want her, Bob will always take care of Melissa, no matter what. He buys her a car for her twelfth birthday as proof.

This is parental alienation, and it is clear, destructive emotional abuse of a child. Dr. Amy J. L. Baker has defined five strategies that manipulators use to alienate a child from their other parent:

  • Relentless bad-mouthing of the character of the target parent, to reduce their importance and value.
  • Creating the impression that the target parent was dangerous and planned to hurt the child, to instill fear and rejection of that parent.
  • Deceiving children about the target parent’s feelings for them, to create hurt, resentment, and psychological distance.
  • Withdrawing love if the child indicated affection or positive regard for the target parent, to heighten the need to please the alienating parent.
  • Erasing the other parent from the life and mind of the child through minimizing actual and symbolic contact.

–From Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties that Bind, from Dr. Sue Cornbluth’s website

Alienated parents often feel as if they have lost control, and they fear they may never see or feel the love of their child again. They feel as if their child was stolen from them, and they often exhaust themselves—physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially—trying to find ways to re-integrate themselves into their child’s life. Proactive parents try to appeal to the courts to enforce the parenting agreement, but often the manipulator is just as good at manipulating the court system through lies, perjury, and delays. The courts get involved if there is physical abuse of a child, especially if the child is in immediate danger, but rarely do courts impose punishment on emotional abusers in divorce cases. The courts are relatively consistent about enforcing financial equity between the parents, but unless a child is visibly hurting, the courts think everything else is fine.

Most of the time, the child doesn’t realize she has been alienated, or at least doesn’t resist the alienation, until adulthood, usually in the late 20s. It is then that the alienated child can reflect on both parents’ actions more objectively; the child may be able to understand, and feel sympathy for, the alienated parent.

Fast forward 20 years. Melissa, now age 32, realizes that Penny did all she could to connect with her during the tumultuous first years of her parents’ divorce, and that Penny is not guilty of all the things Bob had accused her of. Melissa reaches out to Penny, who had been waiting patiently for the day when she could reunite with her daughter. Although their relationship is good, it will never be as strong as it could have been.

Parental alienation is often misunderstood mainly because it is not widely recognized as a form of abuse. Only when the abused choose to speak out can the problem be confronted, but often it is too little, too late. Courts need to take a more proactive stance in identifying and confronting the manipulators with the truth. The problem must be addressed by confronting the abuser, not by confronting the alienated parent.

Photo By: The Detroit Jewish News