Parental alienation often begins in a very subtle manner. One parent may suggest that the child’s attention or love toward the other parent is misplaced. As the child enters adolescence and even into early adulthood, attempts to alienate the child often become overt, with the alienating parent encouraging secrecy and engaging in bonding/venting sessions with the child in which the parent and the child both vilify the other parent.
If the former spouses no longer live in close proximity, the alienating parent often uses the distance and lack of regular contact with the child to further his or her campaign to poison the relationship. The child, by virtue of the distance, is isolated from experiences that would naturally contradict all the negative messages implanted by the alienating parent. Lack of regular contact with the child allows the poison spewed by the alienating parent to permeate the child’s relationship with the other parent. Positive memories of the parent-child relationship begin to fade. A therapist may even recommend that the targeted parent move within close proximity of the alienator in order to maintain contact with the child. For many, it is not economically possible.
The denigration of the targeted parent will most likely escalate if left unchecked. I recall a particularly egregious case I was involved in years ago in which the pre-teen child referred to his father as “the sperm donor”, a name he heard his mother call his father after their divorce. The father had lived with the child from birth until the child reached the age of eight, after which the parents divorced. There were no indications that the father had been anything but a loving parent. After the divorce, however, all attempts by the father to see his son were thwarted by the mother, who moved to a different state with the child. The father relocated to be closer to the child; however, much damage had been already been done. The child threatened to run away if he had to visit with his father. During custody exchanges the child screamed hysterically, while the mother stood by spewing obscenities at the father. In such extreme cases, the immediate intervention of the courts and intensive therapy is critical.
If the alienating parent remarries, he or she will often use the remarriage to further distance the child from the other parent, in effect, attempting to replace the targeted parent. The targeted parent often becomes the “common enemy” and much time is spent maligning him. If the targeted parent remarries, the remarriage will often trigger the alienator to escalate his or her conduct. The alienating parent will often become very critical of their former spouse’s new spouse and will welcome the child’s negative remarks about her. When confronted, the alienating parent typically says, “That’s just the way the child feels [about the stepparent or the other parent]. I think it’s good for him to vent and express his feelings.” Badmouthing the stepparent becomes the way to the alienating parent’s heart. The alienating parent looks for any opportunity to pounce upon the stepparent or the former spouse for any perceived slight to the child, always presuming that the child’s perspective (which has often been marred by the alienator) is on target.
The alienator often views herself as the “real” parent and shuns any input the other parent may have regarding the child, offering up weak excuses when questioned. “Well, he was never really there for the children when they were younger so why should he have a say-so now?’’ He or she appears unable to consider the harmful impact their behavior has on the child and, instead, attempts to form alliances with the child which blur the parent-child boundary. The child often becomes an insecure, depressed and angry adult who has difficulty in his or her own adult relationships.
The child’s anger toward the targeted parent is understandably hurtful to that parent. While the targeted parent knows the rejection is a result of the manipulations and alienation by the other parent, it is, nonetheless, painful. Some targeted parents take it very personally and counter-reject the child. Others try to “wait” it out and hope that the children will come to their senses when they are older and not under the constant influence of the alienating parent. If the manipulations and alienation of the child continues unfettered into the child’s adulthood, the child is often so psychologically enmeshed with the alienator that treatment is difficult to impossible.
As a Guardian Ad Litem, it is important to understand family dynamics and to examine whether the child’s rejection of a parent is caused by intentional alienation by one parent or, perhaps, some other reason. There are situations in which the child may understandably reject a parent, such as when the child has been neglected or abused by that parent. A child may be closer to one parent because of their personality, their gender, etc. A young child may experience separation anxiety from his primary parent. One also must consider the possibility that a parent may knowingly make false allegations that the other parent is alienating the child from him in order to gain an advantage in litigation, hoping to convince a judge that the so-called alienating parent deserves less time with the child. Perhaps the false allegation is made to counter the “targeted parent’s” own misconduct.
Finally, when a parent criticizes the other parent to the child, it affects the child’s self-esteem. The criticized parent is part of the child’s DNA, the child’s history, the child’s life, and to turn the child against the parent can be the equivalent of turning a child against himself.