How to spot parental alienation and avoid mistakes

parental alienation
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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.

What are flying monkeys and how to deal with them

flying monkeys
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The term “flying monkeys” comes from the classic film The Wizard of Oz. The wicked witch enlisted these creatures to do her bidding. They followed her instructions regardless of their evil intent.

Interestingly, when she died, the monkeys celebrated. It seemed they weren’t inherently evil themselves, but followed her out of fear and conditioning.

In psychology, the term has come to describe people who do a narcissist’s bidding. If you’ve ever set boundaries with a narcissist, it will be a flying monkey who approaches you to smooth things over.

By smooth over, I mean gaslight, trick, guilt trip, and manipulate. I’ve been on the receiving end of flying monkeys in both in-law and family of origin relationships.

Dysfunctional families tend to cater to the most toxic person in the bunch. Much like the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz. The other family members do everything in their power to keep the toxic person happy.

My story

I set boundaries with my mother for the first time as a young woman. Soon after, I received a call from her sister, not to encourage, support, or understand me. No, she had been sent by my mother to cajole, guilt, and blame me for being out of contact.

Later, I married into a dysfunctional family who also enabled a scarily toxic matriarch. Again, when I set boundaries with my monster-in-law, her husband got sent to get me back on board with the family system.

These flying monkeys can come across as sweet and well-intentioned. But their sole aim is to get you into line at the expense of yourself. Like the monkey army in the film, they enlist to fight the witch’s battles.

Flying monkeys never have your best interests in mind. And they will damage you if you let them. They will erase all the hard work you put into setting boundaries and telling the truth.

How do narcissists get flying monkeys?

Not always through fear mongering or aggression. Some will manipulate to get sympathy so their supporters feel compelled to help them.

For example, my father-in-law played the role of enabler in their family. He probably felt it his job to rescue his wife. As a result, he believed her when she turned the tables and made me into the aggressor.

All the while the narcissist/toxic person is sitting back and watching someone else do their dirty work. They enjoy the feeling of being above the person they are persecuting. And gaslighting them into believing they are the toxic one.

Flying monkeys lack empathy, integrity, have weak wills, and only want to keep things the way they are. They may seek to avoid the wrath of the narcissist/toxic person. Or they want to appear as a fixer and enjoy the attention.

Whatever the reason, beware! You thought dealing with the narcissist was bad enough. Now you’ve got to fend off her flunkies off, too.

How to deal with flying monkeys

flying monkeys

1. Know what they are

Through this and other articles, learn about the phenomenon of flying monkeys. Remind yourself they need not appear evil to hurt you.

See through their sympathetic act and recognize the disconnect between soft spoken words and their true intent. That is, to get you back in line and abandon yourself in the process.

Your persecutor may have duped them into believing they are doing good work. They may think they are rescuing you by bringing you back into the family fold.

2. Listen to your intuition

Listen to your body’s cues. Mine told me that this person was not on my side and I needed to protect myself.

Flying monkeys can be people you thought you could trust. And that can feel heartbreaking.

3. Strengthen your sense of self

If you’ve grown up around dysfunction, you may suffer from low self-worth. Your sense of self may feel fractured which makes you easier to manipulate.

If you’re unsure of yourself, flying monkeys can gaslight you and make you believe you are the abuser. They will play on your self-doubt and help their puppet masters look good while throwing you under the bus.

The more you learn about narcissism and gaslighting, the more equipped you will be to deal with it when it comes your way. Stay strong in the face of the unbelievable.

Do not get swayed by people who refuse to face the dark truth. Reconsider spending time with those who deny obvious dysfunction. Some so-called positivity is toxic and can do more harm that good.

How to spot dysfunctional family roles in a toxic system

dysfunctional family roles
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Growing up in a system of dysfunctional family roles can be confusing. You’ve never known anything different, so it may take a long time to realize you’re part of a toxic machine.

Roles in a dysfunctional family are like the grease that keeps the wheels turning. They prevent the truth from coming to light and help maintain the status quo.

Growth and change are anathema to these types of families. Love is conditional on you pretending things are different than they are.

If you have the courage to speak the truth about the problems in the family, you will often be scapegoated. That’s the first dysfunctional family role we’ll address:

1. Scapegoat

The scapegoat is the one singled out to take the blame for all the problems in the family. Rather than look at themselves, the family points a collective finger at the scapegoat.

The scapegoat is the one who tells the truth about obvious defects in the family. She is gaslit and made to feel crazy as a result.

She may be the mentally healthiest member of the family but by banding together, the clan convinces itself, and the scapegoat, that the opposite is true.

The scapegoat may take on the status of “problem child” or have addiction issues due to a lifetime of being isolated, maligned, and rejected.

Fear of change and exposure motivates the family to sacrifice the scapegoat this way. Rather than face the truth and the possibility of deconstructing the family system, they demonize the truth teller.

2. The Hero

The Hero takes on the pressure of proving to the world that the family is normal and healthy. He makes his parents feel like they did a good job by appearing perfect and high-achieving on the outside.

The Hero may have to act as a surrogate spouse to his parent. He is not allowed to show weakness and becomes overly responsible and perfectionistic.

As an adult, he may succumb to workaholism due to the immense pressure to succeed. This work focus prevents him from establishing intimacy in relationships.

The dysfunctional family role of Hero supplies evidence of the family’s health and well-being. This way they can avoid addressing their problems in a “nothing to see here” fashion.

3. The Lost Child

dysfunctional family roles

The lost child avoids conflict in the family by staying small and quiet, almost invisible. They keep to themselves and may be considered loners.

They don’t express needs or interact much with the family. As a result, they may have trouble developing social skills and forming intimate relationships.

They are also used as a pawn in the family system to prove that everything is fine. Since they don’t complain or cause trouble they must be doing “okay”.

In reality, they experience severe neglect and don’t feel they matter to the parents or family at large.

4. The Mascot

The mascot is one of the dysfunctional family roles that distracts from serious issues using humor. They are the “funny one” and use their wit to defuse tension.

They may even address the family’s issues in a humorous way that prevents any real change or acknowledgment. The mascot feels it is their responsibility to prevent conflict by being funny.

This pressure to entertain and make others feel better at the expense of their own needs can carry on into adulthood. They feel it is their job to save others and become classic people pleasers.

5. The Enabler

The Enabler is the martyr of the family who tries to keep everyone happy by avoiding the truth. By denying anything is wrong, this person ensures healing never takes place.

It may be the spouse or child of someone mired in addiction who “enables” the addict to continue with their unhealthy behavior.

They are terrified of the crisis that would ensue if the family faced the truth about its problems. However, a crisis is exactly what such a family needs in order to grow.

Final thoughts on dysfunctional family roles

This is not an exhaustive or official list of dysfunctional family roles. These are a few I’ve witnessed and recognized in my own and others’ families.

Understanding these roles may help you make sense of your own family system. I referred to two online resources in compiling this list which I’ve credited below.


Love to Know: 6 Dysfunctional Family Roles and Their Characteristics

Out of the Storm: Dysfunctional Family Roles

How to regain your sense of self when you think it’s lost forever

sense of self
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One of the outcomes of childhood emotional neglect is a lost sense of self. You may feel like you’re not sure who you are or what you stand for.

That makes it hard to determine what you like and don’t like. You may struggle to comprehend your strengths and weaknesses.

This makes it difficult to create a satisfying life. That’s because a fulfilled life requires self-direction and boundaries. And both of these seem elusive without a strong a sense of self.

As we grow up, our parents are tasked with helping us understand ourselves. They are supposed to hold up a proverbial mirror which reflects back to us who we are.

They show us that they notice us and we matter. And they encourage and praise us when we do well. Conversely, they comfort us when things don’t go our way.

They teach us how to deal with conflict and how to regulate our emotions. They gently move us in the direction of our interests and strengths.

The impact of CEN

If none of this sounds familiar, you may have experienced childhood emotional neglect. As a result, you have likely suffered a fractured or lost sense of self.

When parents force you to cater to their needs instead of listening to yours, you lose yourself. Instead of developing your own internal motivations, you focus on others.

You have trouble discerning what you want because you’ve been conditioned to give up wanting. That’s because expressing needs only got you punished or rejected.

As a result, your intelligent inner child decided it’s best to focus on keeping others happy. And you put yourself to the back of the line.

Setting boundaries becomes complicated when you lack a sense of self. Boundaries require saying ‘no’ to things you don’t want or don’t like.

But what if you have no idea what you want or like? Boundaries will seem tricky, impossible, and even life threatening.

Remember that childhood rejection you feared as a result of having needs? Well, that was a matter of life and death. And that feeling doesn’t change in adulthood without conscious effort.

How to regain your sense of self

sense of self

So, how do you regain a sense of self after it’s been lost? First, spend some time with yourself without distractions.

You may not enjoy your own company yet. But sitting and paying attention to your feelings will help you get to know yourself better.

Using your five senses as a guide, make a list of things that bring you pleasure. Engage in those more often.

Take stock of your strengths and use them more. Focus on improving your strengths rather than your weaknesses.

Spend more time with people who appreciate you and lift you up. Spend less time with those who make you feel bad or misunderstood.

Understand your values. Use an online assessment if it helps to make a list of your core values. These will act as a filter through which you make decisions on what you allow into your life.

Constantly ask yourself if you are really acting in your own best interest. The people pleasing habit can be hard to break and we need to make sure we’re pleasing ourselves first.

As you do more of what brings you pleasure and move in the direction of your strengths, you’ll notice a shift. Your life will begin to take on an intentional quality rather than happening by default.

As you say ‘no’ to things you don’t like and act according to your internal motivations, you’ll feel empowered. You will take the driver’s seat rather than feeling like a passenger in a life created by others.

How to overcome fallout from family estrangement

family estrangement
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First of all, family estrangement is more common than you think. If you’re in the difficult position of having to limit or go no contact with family members, you’re not alone.

Because of cultural taboos, you may not talk about your estrangement issues. You may have felt misunderstood or judged whenever your tried to broach the topic.

But, would you be surprised to learn that one in four people experiences family estrangement? With many of us shamed into silence about our situation, no wonder we often feel isolated.

What causes family estrangement?

The reasons for family estrangement differ for everyone. You may have initiated the boundary or someone may have enforced it on you. For the purposes of this post, we’ll focus on the former.

An Atlantic magazine article talked about a shift in cultural values increasing estrangement. Families used to fight over material things and now we’re more interested in psychological issues.

I believe a cultural move away from cult-like devotion to our families represents a positive shift. We now seek to meet our emotional needs instead of suppressing them for the sake of the tribe.

And those of us who refuse to go along with the dysfunctional family’s rules will find it difficult to stay in our roles. That creates discomfort in the family and earns you the label of troublemaker.

The dysfunctional family system

When you step outside your role in a dysfunctional family, you receive tremendous pushback. You discover that your family may not have your best interests in mind.

This heartbreaking revelation comes with some soul searching. Am I going to keep my membership in this family at the cost of my authentic self?

Despite the difficulty of setting boundaries in such a rigid system, you muster the courage to do so. But when you begin to express your thoughts and emotions honestly, you experience gaslighting.

After much confusion, self-doubt, and frustration, you begin to understand that nothing you do or say is going to make these people change. They won’t see your point of view because they don’t want to.

If they admitted they had wronged you or acknowledged your pain, that would mean facing the need to change. But, dysfunctional family members are terrified of change and will do anything to avoid it.

I’m reminded of my own years as an active alcoholic when I’d avoid facing the truth of my addiction. That’s because acknowledging my problem meant needing to change, and that sounded too hard.

If you only know one way of solving problems, as sick as they are, envisioning a new way can feel terrifying. I believe that’s the tyranny these families live under.

Is it okay to be estranged from your family?

Recently someone challenged my long-held belief in estrangement as a last resort. I often write about the years of effort and heartache that precede such a break.

“But why do we need to wait so long to act in our own self-interest?” the reader asked. So, whether or not estrangement comes as a last resort, it’s a personal decision.

That means no one else can tell you if it’s okay. You have to look within and decide for yourself if it’s right for you. Some questions to ask:

Does this person refuse to take any responsibility and instead lays the blame at your feet?

Do they refuse to listen to your point of view and insist on maintaining the status quo?

Does their presence in your life negatively impact your mental health? Cute self-help quips say no one has the power to make you feel a certain way, but they do.

Do you come away from an encounter with this person feeling depressed, anxious, self-loathing, guilty, etc.?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, the benefits of staying in this relationship (if any) may not outweigh the loss if you step away.

How do I get over family estrangement?

family estrangement

I’m not sure if you ever get over family estrangement. It’s something you live with and manage, but here are some ways to enhance your healing journey:

Get support

Find other growth-oriented people experiencing family estrangement. Support groups abound both online and in person.

But, make sure these are solution-oriented rather than filled with chronic complainers. The latter will make you feel like a victim instead of empowering you.

Forgive yourself

Give yourself grace for putting up with the abuse or neglect for so long. You faced tremendous cultural pressure to maintain ties with your family. Stay mindful of the present moment and your glorious future.

On the flipside, don’t feel pressured to forgive your family member. Use that precious energy to rebuild your life and focus on your own healing.

Accept your anger and sadness

Forced forgiveness requires you to suppress anger which causes disease in the body. Besides, you need that anger to remind you of why you left in the first place.

There’s nothing wrong with so-called negative emotions; they’re there to give you information. You’re allowed to grieve the loss of your family member or the mother or father you never had.

You’re also allowed to feel rage at how they mistreated you and refused to listen when you told them how you felt.

Learn to parent your inner child

As abused and neglected children, we missed out on the care and attention we deserved. Now, as an adult, you can parent your inner child by reassuring her she is safe now.

When you’re feeling dysregulated and powerless, your inner child is running the show. When she learns you’re taking care of her needs, she will step aside and let your confident adult take over.