Randy Flood, psychologist and Director of the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan lets the listener know from the start that this segment of the Revealing Men podcast, which he hosts, is atypical. “We oftentimes focus on just men’s issues but we want to recognize as we talk about parental alienation that it not only affects fathers but also mothers.” Parental alienation is a “phenomenon that impacts millions of parents.” His guest (and son), Zach Flood, is a psychotherapist, associate evaluator, and coach with the Men’s Resource Center. They work together coaching and counseling rejected/targeted parents. This conversation, built around their expertise and experience, is centered on parental alienation, how children are affected, and the myriad of challenges rejected/targeted parents face. The discussion provides insight for the uninitiated and guidance for mental health professionals and families caught up in the heart-breaking reality of parental alienation.
There are several resources mentioned throughout the podcast. Links are embedded within this excerpt and at the end of the article. You can find the full conversation on Spotify, Sticher, Google, and Apple podcast platforms.
Counseling Rejected/Targeted Parents
Randy begins the conversation by explaining the work he and Zach do, and why. “Zach and I counsel and coach rejected and targeted parents in parental alienation because it’s probably one of the more stressful, painful, scary, and confusing dynamics a parent can face.” He likens the experience to “watching your child die a slow death right in front of your eyes, emotionally and spiritually.” “In that stressful process,” he notes, “there can be a lot of mistakes made by really good and average range parents.” He and Zach work to help these parents develop “more resiliency and become effective advocates for themselves and their children, particularly when intersecting with mental health and legal professionals.”
Defining Parental Alienation
Zach describes parental alienation before moving into a wider discussion of situations targeted and rejected parents can find themselves in. It’s “a dynamic where one parent poisons the child against the targeted parent and labels [that] parent as unfit and unsafe and unworthy of love.” Parental alienation, he says, falls on a spectrum. “And that spectrum houses what are called ‘resist and refuse dynamics’ … the behaviors elicited or emanating from children such as refusing to come over, bad-mouthing, and all these ways that children exhibit these behaviors that can be observed by professionals.”
“It’s important to define either side of that spectrum,” Zach says. “[There’s] parental alienation … but estrangement is also another dynamic that can cause resist and refuse dynamics.” He continues by stating that estrangement can be caused by tangible abuse perpetrated by parents against their children, such as neglect or physical abuse, or domestic violence. All of which can cause a child to exhibit resist and refuse dynamics for legitimate reasons. “Our job, sometimes, is to figure where on the spectrum these cases fall,” he explains.
As evaluators, Randy and Zach talk about the responsibility they feel to get it right. Randy details how they approach each case: “with multiple hypotheses, assessment interviews, gather collateral information, psychological testing, and then write up a report with our findings.” He calls the process “pretty intense.”
The increase in technology and electronic communications, notes Zach, has added to the amount of collateral information available for evaluation, including emails, social media posts, videos, and text. Evaluators can use these resources, he says, to “review, to corroborate some of the things that are being said in the clinical interviews, and try to reflect those and line them up with some of the things that we see in testing and trying to formulate a more robust view of the family dynamics …”
It’s all part of what’s involved when trying to diagnose and rule in or rule out whether the dynamic at play is one of estrangement or alienation.
The Five-factor Model: Estrangement or Alienation
One of the tools Randy and Zach use to help make a determination as to whether alienation is present and can be classified as such is the Five-Factor Model developed by William Bernet.
Zach provides a synopsis of those factors:
“The first factor is the presence of a resist/refuse dynamic … that’s some of the behavior that manifests in the child; some of the alienating behavior manifested by the alienating parent.
“The second factor is… whether or not there was a base rate relationship with the targeted parent. Was there a sense of connection, was there love and affection at some point in their history? … It’s hard for someone to claim alienation if they were never present in the child’s life… You have to have a relationship with them at some point.
“The next one we look for is a lack of abuse … We have to rule that out as a possibility for the cause of the resist/refuse dynamics.
“The fourth one is alienating behavior by the favored parent. We have to nail that down and make sure we have examples of that being able to have them reflected in the data and the clinical interviews that we have.
“And finally, the behavioral signs of alienation in the child. Making sure that is present.”
Randy notes that this is something parents and non-clinicians can use as well. “…Assess your own situation. See from the five-factor model what you’re dealing with. Are you dealing with an estrangement issue? Are you dealing with an alienation issue?”
He emphasizes the urgency of seeking help for parental alienation as quickly as possible; likening it to a psychological tumor that runs the risk of metastasizing. “[In] mild cases, kids will still be going to parenting time; [in] moderate cases they’re going to parenting time but raising hell and are sometimes physically destructive, locking themselves in the bedroom, things like that. … severe cases are when you get kids who are refusing, defying court orders, running away …. The longer you wait, that psychological tumor grows and the alienation gets worse.”
“It’s notable,” adds Zach, “that while it doesn’t always happen in a perfect progression …, a lot of times it does. And you can see it over the course of a relationship in how it really does metastasize and grow to this point where you get to this final destination of refusal. All of a sudden, a parent – an average-range good parent – is left not having any contact with their child. It’s really tragic. Very tragic.”
Five Catch-22 Situations Rejected/Targeted Parents Encounter
While Zach is more recent to the arena of evaluations and family court, Randy has worked with families and conducted evaluations since 1992. He credits the families they’ve worked with over the years for helping them develop a clearer vision of Catch-22 situations parents find themselves in. “We’re not professors offering theories—we read the material that professors produce—we’re clinicians,” he says, “We are in the room. We hear parents teaching us. Children teaching us.”
Randy and Zach describe the five most common Catch-22 situations (Randy refers to them as “dilemmas”) they’ve seen rejected/targeted parents face.
The First Dilemma: Over-parenting or Under-parenting
The first dilemma is when a rejected parent is accused of either over-parenting or under-parenting. “You’re never, ever going to be in the right spot,” Randy says. “You’re either going to be deemed over – or under-parenting. And those alleged mistakes are going to then be weaponized.”
“It’s important to say that ‘over-parenting’ is what it might be labeled but it’s actually just parenting,” says Zach. “They’re efforts by a parent to just discipline, to set boundaries, to say ‘nope that’s not o.k. in my house’… And all of a sudden, you’re not being seen as empathetic, you’re not leaving space for their emotions, you’re being abusive, intrusive. You’re being an authoritarian …”
Conversely, he says, “Under-parenting is when targeted parents step back because they get feedback that any time they parent, …they’re seen as abusive.” But, when these parents do step back, “all of a sudden, they’re neglectful. And then they’re labeled as not being attentive, not giving enough care, not caring enough as a parent. …under-parenting. The middle-ground, that just doesn’t exist and that’s where it becomes really problematic.”
When Children Lie to Be Loyal
“Alienated children often are accused of lying,” says Randy. “But it’s really not lying,” he says. “The word we use is ‘confabulation.’ And that’s to describe their having to distort and exaggerate data in order to give a narrative to their preferred parent where they can get approval and appear loyal. Kids are forced psychologically and through an attachment process to distort information. They don’t want to lie. They’re not liars. But this is part of the disturbance.”
He shares an example. “I remember one kid telling me ‘My dad is so controlling, that we sit down to eat and we can’t eat. We all have to sit down. We have to wait and wait. The food’s in front of us. And then we only can eat when he says we can. That’s how much of a patriarch and how much of a controller he is.’ Fast-forward. Interview the dad. I said, ‘Can you explain your dinnertime ritual?’ [He responds] ‘It’s pretty busy. We’re all sitting around. We try to be democratic. Everybody helps out by bringing food to the table, but then there are things that we forget. And we have a rule that we don’t start eating until everybody’s at the table. And, we say grace. Everybody finally sits down and then we say grace and then we start to eat.’ So, that parenting process gets seen as over-parenting because … the story gets distorted.”
The Second Dilemma: Litigious or Conciliatory
Randy moves on to the second dilemma: “You’re either litigious and are seen as equally contributing to a high-conflict divorce or you are conciliatory and accommodating and you see your parenting time diminish because your children keep actively rejecting you. There’s no safe space right there.” In other words, parents can be conciliatory and lose parenting time or litigate and be seen as a harasser.
“A lot of times when we see this,” says Zach, “it’s because just normative co-parenting where consensus is reached and sacrifice and middle-ground are found and all these ways that co-parents naturally can work together to try to parent kids doesn’t work.” That leads to targeted parents having to go to court to get things done because outside authority becomes the only way to hold people accountable.
But, Zach continues, “If you go that route, then all of a sudden it becomes ‘Why can’t we just talk about it?’ ‘Why can’t we just figure this out?’ ‘Why do you have to get the lawyers involved?’ ‘Why do I have to pay my lawyer this amount of money?’ “You’re draining me. You’re bankrupting me because you’re taking me to court every second week just to get your parenting time in.’ ‘You’re affecting my ability to parent.’ When actually, it’s a necessity.”
“No one really wants to use a judge to make decisions in parenting,” Zach says, “It’s usually a last resort. And so you have individuals trying to make that work. But the alienation dynamic is already set in and just as we talked about at the top of this, the metastasis just gets worse.”
“I’ve seen cases,” says Randy, “where but for the authority of the judge, there would be no relationship with some parents. …. Because it’s either you do something aggressive judiciously or once these kids age out then the potential is that relationship with the loving, good enough parent is severed for life. It’s like all hands on deck to use mental health professionals and good legal representation to sometimes stop this psychological cancer from growing in your child.”
Identifying Parental Alienation as Abuse
Zach places parental alienation firmly in the category of abuse. “It has to be viewed as such. It is emotional and spiritual abuse of these kids. They’re internalizing this negative narrative about this parent that they actually, truly love. All of a sudden, they’re not able to love this parent. … You don’t want to rank abuse – but that’s gonna qualify. That’s what it boils down to. That is abuse. Emotional abuse of these kids.”
Randy shares how organizations designed to protect children from abuse can be caught off-guard. “Physical abuse, there’s broken bones; verbal abuse there could be documented words and such. But psychological abuse? In Michigan, there’s child protective services [CPS], and they have ‘mental injury,’ but in order to establish that bar or that threshold of mental injury it’s really hard to prove.”
He has seen cases where there have been up to 25 false allegations of child abuse toward a targeted parent. All unsubstantiated. “It’s an alienation dynamic with psychological abuse,” he says, “But they keep unsubstantiating what’s NOT there while not substantiating what IS there because it’s not being identified!” “It’s really quite striking,” says Zach, “when you see the list or get the packet of all the reports. All this work being done to unsubstantiate 15 cases when the real abuse has yet to be identified.”
The Third Dilemma: Emotionally Open or Defensive
This is a situation, as Randy describes it, where a parent chooses to stay open to the emotion of joy from a child’s acceptance and is then “open to pain from the rejection.” Or, a parent becomes defensive and is observed as uncaring and aloof, potentially blocking the chance for love and connection.
“You know your kids see you at a basketball game and they want nothing to do with you but then they come to parenting time. They’re away from the alienating parent and they finally warm up (in more mild and moderate cases). And then that attachment is established and then when it’s time for the child to go home, they shut down and they’re cold and rejecting. The parent that leaves his heart open is on a roller-coaster and it’s just difficult. So, what do they do? Possibly say ‘I’m just going to shut down. This is too painful…’ And they protect themselves from the pain by shutting down but they block the opportunity for love and connection. There’s the dilemma.”
“It’s something that all humans have to deal with sometimes,” Zach replies. “Is it better to have loved and lost than to have [not] loved at all? At the same time, what adds this extra layer to it, is …. you’re trying to speak reason to [the child] and trying to cut through all the stuff that’s going on and it’s not working. …It makes it just even that much more painful.”
Randy adds, “Yeah, you leave yourself open and then you can just get angry. And then you come across as angry. Or you leave yourself shut down and then you can come across as aloof and distant. That can be weaponized. ‘See your parent, your dad, your mom is aloof and emotionally distant and therefore that’s why the kid doesn’t want to go over there.’ But really, it’s a defensive structure to protect yourself from the pain of the rejection.”
Parents who face this dilemma can find themselves withdrawing emotionally—not trying to engage— but also withdrawing from parenting time. This is something that Randy and Zach watch for when doing evaluations. Zach mentions one parent who decided to reduce his parenting time saying “I’m going to voluntarily reduce my parenting time until we can get this figured out.” What happened? According to Zach, “The other parent was like ‘See? He knows he’s caught. He knows we’re on to him. So, he’s reducing his parenting time.” It can seem like a no-win situation.
The Fourth Dilemma: Challenge the False Narrative or Let it Spread
The discussion returns to Randy’s earlier comment about children lying. How does a targeted parent respond? “You either actively challenge your children’s false or exaggerated narratives,” he says, “and run the risk of shaming them and making them feel bad about themselves because they’re not being truthful. And then, you’re accused of calling them liars. And that’s escalating conflict because you’re getting into these conflicts about what happened and what didn’t happen. Or, …you reduce the conflict by not actively challenging the false narrative, and then this allows for [an] encapsulated delusional belief to grow and worsen.”
An “encapsulated delusional belief system,” as Zach describes it, is centered around a child’s relationship with the targeted parent. The child may seem to be well-adjusted and thriving, with positive coping skills. And the alienating parent appears normative in how they parent. But, Zach says, “Within the relationship with the targeted parent, they see all these things happening such as abuse and neglect and bad parenting, and these kids are overwhelmed and not able to cope with all that’s going on. … Anything that tangentially touches that relationship with the targeted parent gets poisoned. …Any other professional that comes into contact with the case by way of that targeted parent becomes sided with that targeted parent, and then that becomes problematic as well. It becomes this echo chamber for negativity.”
There are ways to challenge a child’s narrative without escalating the conflict. Randy refers to Amy Baker, Ph.D., and her methodology: “You say, ‘I’m glad you feel comfortable talking to me.’ You give them a little empathy. And then you say, ‘What I hear you saying is that you thought x,y,z happened. Is that what you think happened?’ Yep. Yep. Well, what I remember about it is this.’ And then you do the contradiction and help them wrestle with the tension of what you experienced, what was reality. And then you thank them for sharing their feelings and thoughts and say ‘I want you to continue to come to me.’”
Randy calls Baker’s method preferable to saying “That’s a friggin’ lie! I don’t ever want you to say that …” I mean getting into arguments with your kids. That’s just not going to help!” Zach replies, “No. Definitely not.”
The Fifth Dilemma: Parallel or Cooperative Co-parenting
Divorced or separated parents have a choice, says Randy. “[They can] either work on a parallel co-parenting relationship to reduce conflict and set up a lot of structure and rules or attempt a cooperative co-parenting relationship.”
In cooperative co-parenting, says Zach, there’s a lot of cooperation and communication. “It’s very much ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ ‘Here’s what happened at my house.’ ‘Just want to give you a heads up so you can prepare for it on this one.'” Conversely, there’s none of that in parallel co-parenting, where Zach says, “If the kid is with that parent, it’s that parent’s domain. If the kid is with the other parent, it’s that parent’s domain.”
Randy finds that most often, targeted parents prefer a parallel co-parenting relationship. “If they go into a cooperative one, there’s a lot of manipulation, a lot of taking advantage of someone’s graciousness … And so then, parents who are targeted will start getting more into a parallel co-parenting relationship and then they’re seen as rigid, inflexible ‘they don’t like to work with me.’”
Mental Health Professionals Are Sometimes Unwitting Accomplices
Randy’s work with targeted/rejected parents leads him to bring up the role of mental health professionals. “One of the things …that I think intersects with all five of these on some level,” he says, … “[is] …how mental health professionals unwittingly get weaponized, and sometimes get in over their head, get out of their lane, don’t meet with the rejected parent, the targeted parent.”
A therapist can be misdirected by an alienating parent to think they’re working with an estrangement dynamic instead of alienation. “They’re trained in child abuse and neglect,” Randy says. “They start treating the child as though this alleged targeted parent is neglectful and abusive. They unwittingly contribute to the alienation dynamic.” He adds, “We see that a lot, unfortunately.”
Zach gives reasons why this becomes another difficult situation for the rejected/targeted parent. “Do the parents engage with this mental health provider? Do they try to be participatory in the mental health process? Do they try to coordinate care? Do they try to be a part of that treatment, knowing that it’s pointed in the wrong direction and being counter-productive? Or, do they try to take the kid out of that scenario? Do they try to move on to a different provider?”
The parent is faced with contributing to the worsening of the dynamic, says Zach, or seen as controlling and inconsiderate of the child’s feelings by taking them out of the therapeutic environment they’ve grown to trust and engage with. “You’re really put in this Catch-22 of how do I approach this thing that I see from my perspective as being really painful and really terrible for my kid.”
Rejected/targeted parents also need to be aware of mandated reporting. “Even these therapeutic relationships,” Zach notes, “can manifest as CPS reports because of being mandated reporters. … Children go into these sessions and talk about abuse. And obviously, as mandated reporters, and mental health professionals, we have to talk about it. We have to report it.” It’s frustrating. “It becomes this system that perpetuates this dynamic,” he says. “And it needs to be intervened with. It needs to be broken. Because otherwise, it’s going to continue …”
The Lingering Effects of Parental Alienation
It’s obvious that both Floods are passionate about the work they do with families in distress; especially rejected/targeted parents and their children. Randy reemphasizes that parental alienation falls under the umbrella of abuse, “The bigger umbrella is that there is some form of abuse going on because for a child to reject and refuse parenting time with an average parent, or a good enough parent, or a really good parent is destructive to the child’s well-being.”
In these situations, parents and their children can lose lifelong connections. After Randy wrote “Top Five Mistakes Rejected/Targeted Parents Make in Parental Alienation” for the Men’s Resource Center’s blog, he was overwhelmed by the comments. “Go in and read the comments and you’ll be heartbroken by the number of parents who have adult children who thought ‘Maybe if I’m not litigious, I’ll just let the child make some decisions and they’ll come back to me when they’re 19, 20.’ What we hear is that oftentimes they don’t. And there are these disconnects from children for a lifetime. This is critical stuff.”
“We also see some clients,” Zach says, “that were children of alienation and were alienated from parents. And then, at some point in their life, that parent passes and they are left with this wound, this spiritual wound, emotional wound, that they’ll never be able to heal because they were never able to get to this point where they realize that they didn’t need to reject this parent. And so, that child, now an adult, is really damaged by something like this.”
Help for Rejected/Targeted Parents and their Children
It’s easy to sense the dedication Randy and Zach have for the work they do. “One of the things that I enjoy (I know you do too, Zach),” begins Randy, “is the coaching that we do with rejected and targeted parents because they’re in this foreign landscape trying to navigate mental health professionals, the legal professionals. …We get a lot of satisfaction being able to work with these parents, via ZOOM or on the phone, whatever we do to help them and guide them through these legal and mental health processes.”
“It’s hard work … a challenge,” says Zach. “There are a lot of scenarios that become really challenging and difficult. …It’s good work to be able to help our clients try to navigate those really murky waters.”
Ultimately, the two men hope they can stop the psychological cancer of parental alienation from metastasizing in children so that rejected/targeted parents can salvage their relationship with their children. “Those are precious,” says Randy. “You don’t want to lose those.” A fitting comment between a father and his son.
Resources on Parental Alienation, Rejected/Targeted Parents
If you or someone you know is trying to navigate a high-conflict divorce where children are involved, the Men’s Resource Center offers a range of child custody and evaluation services. These include family court coaching, an online parental alienation support group, and parent-child reunification counseling.
Randy Flood has written and spoken extensively on what Parental Alienation is and how to respond to it. He talks about what distinguishes parental alienation from estrangement on the Once Upon a Time podcast. And he details why he sees parental alienation as abuse in this post and video on the Fountain Hill Counseling Center’s site. He and Zach also appreciate other people’s work on the topic, including this article co-written by Amy Baker Ph.D. and Paul Fine, LCSW. It addresses ways in which parents can respond to parental alienation without harming their child.
Contact the Men’s Resource Center online or call (616) 456-1178 for more information about its programs. Also, feel free to reach out if you have questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast.