Parental alienation—is it real?


Parental alienation


My introduction to parental alienation was several years ago. A mom’s ex-husband was constantly telling us all about his ex’s bad traits. If that wasn’t bad enough, when the child returned from visitation with the dad, he was caustic toward his mother.

To be honest with you, I got confused about whom to believe and was basically clueless about how to handle the mom, the dad, and the child.

My first reaction was to think ill about this mom. I mean, if the dad was spewing all these terrible things about her and her own child was saying mean and hateful things about her, there must be some truth to it all. Still, this mom seemed concerned for her child’s well-being. Rarely did she say anything negative about the child’s father. She was deeply saddened by what was happening to her child and fearful she would lose custody.

As the situation worsened and the two parents went back to court, I heard the term parental alienation thrown around. That’s when I began to research this topic. There are many layers to parental alienation. Today I’ll define parental alienation and help you understand what is involved in the alienation process. I’ll also discuss what it does to the children caught in this horrific custody quagmire.

What is parental alienation?

Lawyers and mental health experts have varying definitions of parental alienation, but basically it comes down to a deliberate attempt by one parent to manipulate, sabotage, interfere with, undermine, and maliciously try to destroy the relationship between the other parent and the child or children.

Many times the goal is to completely sever the relationship between the other parent and the child. Dads Divorce says parental alienation “results in the child’s emotional rejection of the targeted parent, and the loss of a capable and loving parent from the life of the child.”

Sometimes it is done consciously, other times unconsciously. It is very destructive to the child as well as to the other parent and the family dynamics involved in both families.

Family courts frown upon attempts by one parent to weaken or damage the relationship between the other parent and the child. Often the court system looks at parental alienation as psychological abuse. Sometimes the alienated parent is referred to as the targeted parent.

How is the alienation accomplished?

In an effort to interfere with and undermine the child’s relationship with the other parent, the alienating parent will use the following ways to accomplish his or her goal.

  • Badgering the other parent in front of the child
  • Constant criticism of the other parent
  • Being hostile toward the other parent in front of the child
  • Overtly disrespecting the other parent
  • Coaching the child to respond negatively to and reject the other parent
  • Making the child fearful of the other parent by convincing him that he is not safe with the other parent
  • Lying to the child about the other parent’s behavior and motives
  • Lying to the child about the other parent’s level of concern or interest in him

When the above techniques are used, this can cause the child to fear the other parent. Many times it causes the child to be hostile and reject any attempt by the alienated parent to display physical affection. The child may reject any and all attempts to accept any love displayed by the alienated parent. In many cases it causes the child to attempt to be hostile toward extended family members of the alienated parent. So the child is not only alienated from his parent but potentially from grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.

All of these losses and experiences can cause mental and emotional damage to children in their formative years. This can lead to a higher risk of both mental and psychological illness. I believe it can also affect children’s spirituality as they become reluctant to trust authority figures and those who should care for them.

What to look for in the children who have been brainwashed

All children will be upset with their parents from time to time. But kids who have been brainwashed are unusually angry and will say malicious things about one parent.

These are not the children who are angry because when they visited their dad he wouldn’t let them eat pizza or the mom who told them to turn off the video games. These are children who might come across as vicious toward the other parent. Their views about that parent are often extreme.

Here are a few examples of the way alienated children may behave:

  • These children might say they never want to see “that parent” ever again. They may or may not have a reason, and if they do have a reason, it doesn’t make any sense to you. But they are adamant about not seeing the other parent. “I hate him. He doesn’t pay child support because he only spends his money for things he wants, and I’m never going to his house again!”
  • They have complaints that have frivolous or no reasoning behind them. “My mom is wrong. She’s just wrong. She doesn’t love us kids.”
  • The children can see no good in the other parent. All kids get angry with their parents, but they can usually find something good in a parent when they calm down. Kids who have a skewed vision of the other parent can find nothing good in that parent. They may say things such as, “That woman is the devil! And she’s mean!”
  • They have no guilt about how they are acting toward the alienated parent. They might say awful things to the parent, be disrespectful and hurtful, and never feel an ounce of guilt. “I told my mom she was stupid, and I don’t care that I told her that because she is stupid!”
  • They will tell outlandish stories about how horrible the alienated parent is.
  • They will tell you this is how they feel, and they will attempt to protect the parent who is trying to alienate them from the targeted parent. “Nobody told me to say these things. This is how I really feel.”

What church leaders should and should not do

There is a lot written about the parents in parental alienation. There is not a lot of information available for what to do with and for the children. Here are some things you can do to accommodate the children and help them in the process.

  • Don’t say to the children, “Oh, come on now. Your mom can’t be that bad.” When you do this, a child may launch into a tirade of all the horrible things the mom does. This serves only to frustrate the situation.
  • Tell the children, “Thank you for sharing with me.”
  • Be empathetic toward the children.
  • Just listen to the children, and don’t lend any credence to the negativity.
  • Try to build a level of trust with the children. Remember, their trust levels toward people they care about have been damaged.
  • Keep in mind their self-esteem may be damaged because they believe one of their parents doesn’t love them. Work on building up their self-esteem. Comment when they make good choices. Or notice when they are kind to someone or they display a particular talent or skill.
  • Work on the children’s respecting the adults at church and in the classes they attend at church. Keep in mind that they have been programmed to not be respectful to their parent, and this will carry over to other adults in authority.
  • Teach them to be thankful by modeling thankfulness. Encourage all children in your group/class to display gratefulness and expect nothing less from the child with the alienated parent.
  • Help the children to learn to accept blame when they do something inappropriate. Say something as simple as, “Is what you did helpful or hurtful? In our class, we work on being helpful. How could you be helpful?”
  • Let them know you care about what is going on in both homes.
  • When possible, educate the children on what the Bible says about honoring their parents. This will need to be done gently because, remember, the children have been indoctrinated as to how bad their mom or dad is. Help the children to understand that they can honor someone they disagree with.
  • Expose the children to the heavenly Father. They may not realize there is someone who could love them like the Father, especially if it is the mother who is alienating them toward the earthly father.
  • Help the children understand how freely God forgives. In the short term, this may help them be more merciful to the parent being unfairly targeted. Later on, this understanding may help children forgive their mom or dad for alienating them from the other parent.
  • Show them how much Jesus Christ loves them. Slowly and gently tell them about how much Christ loved them and what He did to show His love for them.
  • Have reasonable expectations for yourself. Without a clear picture of both sides of the story, you will be at a disadvantage in knowing how to respond. Don’t beat yourself up for not knowing whom to believe.
  • Be cautious about drawing conclusions with limited information. Talk to other staff members at church who may have a fuller picture of what’s going on. Strive to lovingly support and encourage the parent without taking sides.

In these situations, prayer is of utmost importance. These are unnatural situations between parent and child, and it will take courage, determination, empathy, and understanding to cope with and help many of these children. I’ll write more on this topic over the next few weeks.

More articles on Parental Alienation:
Understanding and encouraging the alienated parent

Tips to help the alienated parent maintain the parent-child relationship


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8 thoughts on “Parental alienation—is it real?

  1. Thank you for addressing this. One thing I learned the hard way is that the alienation can begin while your family is “intact.” I sensed something was amiss, but when I asked questions, everything was “fine.” By the time my ex left with our daughters, the brainwashing was complete. As a Divorce Care facilitator, I have seen this a couple of times. It is real.

    • Jay, thank you for commenting. I’m sorry you and y our daughters experienced this. Maybe if more attention is given to this topic, judges, mental health experts and ministers will be better prepared when it crops up.

  2. Linda, thank you for taking the time to address this malignant form of child abuse and articulating how easy it is to get emotionally hooked and hoodwinked by the pathogenic parent “alienating parent” as a lay person and someone in the families life. As a formerly alienated child and someone who specializes in working with this special population I really appreciate you taking the time to articulate and provide guidance for the churches and their members that many of these families attend. Many of the families I work with go to church and I have spoken with many of their clergy in educating them the child is returned and reunited with their beloved targeted parent. It is important to love and accept the children and to support the family and when the signs are there to understand this is a child protection issue and not a child custody issue. I could go on and on, however I wanted to reach out and say thank you. The more people are aware the more they can prevent and end the family crisis. God Bless and Thank You Again…Dorcy

    • Dorcy, so much appreciate your support and comments on this topic. There is so much to say but the main thing is getting clergy introduced to this subject. Thank you for the work you do with these children.

  3. Pingback: DC4K » Understanding and encouraging the alienated parent

  4. Pingback: DC4K » Tips to help the alienated parent maintain the parent-child relationship

  5. My step kids church refused to acknowledge any alienation and in fact refused to help me with counseling because of it. I asked them what I should do about feeling helpless after watching my husband being alienated constantly and they said they couldn’t help. Basically said deal with it. No heavenly words of wisdom. Just “deal with it”. I think these people know exactly what’s going on but don’t want to jeopardize losing someone who donates so generously to their church. Smh. Its heartbreaking to see how good he is with our child but then watch him get alienated from his own kids from his first marriage.

    • Angela, I’m sorry this has happened to your husband and to you also. I believe that many churches and church leaders simply don’t understand all of the issues with divorce. That is why I write this blog – to educate children’s leaders and churches about divorce and the affects of it on the kids. Don’t give up on the church. Help me to continually teach and educate them about divorce and how it affects families.

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