How to spot parental alienation and avoid mistakes

parental alienation
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Parental alienation happens when one parent tries to turn a child against the other parent. This usually goes on in the case of divorce or separation. One parent launches a campaign of attack on the other in his or her absence.

Children may even become estranged from the alienated parent. They fall victim to the alienating parent’s lies and lose one of the most important relationships of their lives.

In addition to losing the relationship, these children receive no emotional support around the loss. The toxic parent will make them believe they are better off without the other parent.

In reality, these children end up with a huge hole in their lives. Often, it is not until they enter therapy due to aftereffects of losing their parent that they discover the term “parental alienation”.

Unfortunately, the common advice to divorced parents to “take the high road” is incorrect in this case. Precious time is lost as the targeted parent tries to earn their goodness by refusing to disparage the bullying parent.

Instead the alienated parent needs to stand up for themselves and tell the truth about what is happening.

Here are a few signs that a child has suffered alienation from a parent. These, according to Richard Gardner, the premier researcher on the topic.

Signs of parental alienation

Weak reasons for hostility toward the parent

When asked why they despise the alienated parent so much, the child will give flimsy reasons that make no sense. They may even invent far-fetched stories that are easy to disprove.

See parents in black and white

One parent is the unblemished hero and the other an irredeemable villain in the child’s eyes. The bullying parent is perfect while the alienated parent has no good qualities whatsoever.

The dynamic reminds me of the hero/scapegoat in dysfunctional families. For this reason, I wonder if there is a relationship between these roles in families of origin and parental alienation.

For example, my children’s father used parental alienation against me, specifically with my youngest. It was difficult for me to see at first because as the scapegoat in my family, abuse felt natural. As the “hero” in his family, being viewed as flawless felt natural to him.

Children insisting they are acting independently

Before refusing to see me for five months, my alienated daughter emailed me a spiteful and vitriolic letter. It rewrote history to paint me as a cruel parent who only ever responded in anger when her child sought support.

When I asked my daughter if her father had encouraged her to write the letter, she insisted it was she alone who had the idea to craft and send it. She added that she stood by her words.

Five months later, she returned to me and shed tears during our reunion. She apologized for the letter and said she didn’t know why she had written it.

I believed her. Indeed, alienated children are conditioned to hate the other parent and may feel confused about why they do.

Lack of remorse

parental alienation

Children express no remorse over treatment of the alienated parent

Children who are victims of parental alienation feel no guilt about treating their parent in abominable ways. They have absorbed the lie that the alienated parent has no right to mercy, understanding, support, or love.

When my child treated me this way, my past as the family scapegoat primed me to accept it. In a sense, I agreed with my child that I deserved no kindness or honest communication because I had never received any.

I made the mistake of apologizing to my alienated daughter to encourage her to return to me. This is a typical scapegoat move of taking the higher ground and trying to earn my goodness.

Now that I know better, I realize apologizing deprived my daughter of the opportunity to see the truth behind our relationship rupture. And, of course, to hold her father accountable for his part in it.

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