(This article expands on information provided in How to Respond to Parental Alienation and is meant for parents and professionals.)
Parental alienation can be difficult to recognize for anyone not experiencing it first-hand. It’s like a riptide: hidden and forceful. Rejected parents can find themselves struggling against a powerful force as it pulls them further and further from the relationship they once had with their children. They feel the resistance and fight against it. But the more they fight, the more exhausted they become. It seems as if there’s no one to appreciate how difficult it is to stay buoyant in these deceptively calm waters. They search for someone—anyone—to throw them a lifeline.
The experience of being targeted by your co-parent is upsetting. But to be rejected and hated by your own child, feeling and watching them slip away, and fearing that you’ll never see them again, is like witnessing that child die a slow death. While they remain physically alive, they become increasingly emotionally dead to you. The radiant love in their eyes turns dark and vacuous and the joyous sound of their voice turns blue and hateful.
In my work with rejected parents, I’ve often witnessed them be tragically seduced into making mistakes while they are in the throes of the painful, intractable, and insidious drama of parental alienation. This isn’t because they’re hopelessly flawed human beings, but because they’re in unknown and turbulent waters. Rejected parents flounder and their mistakes can become fatal and sink their chances of reconciliation with their children.
By highlighting the five most frequent or common mistakes made by rejected/targeted parents, it’s my intent that they, the members of their “village,” and the professionals they encounter, will better understand and, subsequently, overcome the destructive force of parental alienation.
1: The Rejected/Targeted Parents Misunderstand their Children and Personalize the Rejection
Alienated children are often caught in a torrent of multiple post-separation family dynamics. Although most children can endure a high-conflict divorce with resilience, very few are able to avoid the powerful force of parental alienation where one parent actively—or sometimes unwittingly—seeks to separate the other parent from their children. The powerful alienation process, in effect, severs the relationship with the targeted parent and serves to align the children’s loyalty to the alienating parent.
Let that sink in: When the children show any love, interest, or affection to the targeted parent, they fundamentally feel as though they’re being disloyal and unloving to the alienating parent. Likewise, when the children display an attitude of hate and disrespect while resisting and refusing contact with the targeted parent, they feel loyal and loving to the alienating parent. Most children simply can’t withstand nor extricate themselves from this deep and powerful attachment dynamic without intervention.
A way to understand what’s happening to such children is to think of parental alienation as a type of psychological tumor that impacts the cognitive function in their brains and the emotional wiring to their hearts. It’s invasive and at risk of growing and metastasizing if ignored and left untreated. While multiple post-separation dynamics can contribute to its inception, the toxic attachment process that requires the children to maintain a loyalty contract to the alienating parent feeds it. And, as it grows, this tumor begins to negatively impact functions in the children’s heads and hearts.
The Loyalty Contract
Alienated children become desperate to maintain their loyalty contract with the alienating parent. They develop a narrative to fit the contract that requires a polarized view of the alienating parent as all good and the targeted parent as all bad. Because most relationships don’t fit these polarized black and white characteristics, the children are required to distort and bend reality in order to fit each parent into rigid cognitive constructs. Although children can have an affinity toward one parent over the other, it’s markedly atypical—outside of parental alienation—for children to idealize one parent as perfect while denigrating the other as disposable.
This polarization only grows over time. The growing psychological tumor potentiates the growth of an encapsulated delusional thought system: a belief in the targeted parent’s extreme dangerousness, woeful ineptitude, and irredeemable incapacity to love, despite any evidence of a good base-rate relationship prior to parental alienation setting in or of substantiated abuse and neglect claims. The developing narrative is not based in objective reality, but is an inter-subjective narrative between the alienating parent and the children that solidifies the loyalty contract between them.
Most untrained professionals—therapists, attorneys, mediators, and judges—don’t understand this dynamic and will either ignore its presence or prescribe contraindicating treatments and parenting time arrangements. For example, they observe the children experiencing symptoms of dysfunction—disobedience, verbal abuse, emotional withdrawal, anxiety, irritability—when in the presence of the rejected parent, while observing these same children functioning in an optimal and sometimes exceptional way elsewhere. They can’t fathom that the acting-out behavior is encapsulated and dormant when the children are in the presence of the alienating parent but becomes enlivened and active when they’re exposed to the rejected parent.
When Children’s Lying is Misinterpreted
Rejected parents mistakenly believe, and report, that their children are lying about events and situations. This causes them to look bad as a parent and be perceived as unfit and dangerous. From my experience working with alienated children, I know very well that they’re at risk of sharing stories full of distortions, exaggerations, and manufactured incidents. On the face of it, these stories distort facts and reality and, in other situations, could be perceived and treated as outright lies. But I don’t believe alienated children are intentionally lying. I believe the process of parental alienation causes them to slowly lose their orientation to reality.
Rather than naming the distortions and exaggerations as lies, it’s more accurate to call them “confabulations”—a memory error often found in patients suffering from cognitive decline due to brain diseases such as Dementia or Alzheimer’s. In such patients, it’s believed that the individual confabulates to fill gaps in memory or to keep their self-identity intact. Similar cognitive impairments present in parental alienation, but with psychological underpinnings rather than emanating from a neurological disease process. Whereas lies are selfish manipulations to empower the liar, confabulations serve to reduce the suffering and, in the case of parental alienation, enable children to cope.
Alienated children will make up stories, distort, and exaggerate facts to manage the “lost” memory of a loving connection with the rejected parent. It’s lost, because to hang onto it, or find it again, will be, in effect, an active violation of the loyalty contract with the alienating parent. The confabulations are feeble, yet desperate, attempts to knit together a cohesive narrative to justify the hate and rejection for the rejected parent while nourishing and strengthening the loyalty contract with the alienating parent.
This process doesn’t empower or enhance a child’s mental wellness; it’s a means of survival. While they may effectively confabulate stories to honor the loyalty contract with the alienating parent and to maintain their polarized black and white world, it comes at an enormous cost to their mental, emotional, and relational well-being. The psychological tumor quickens the deterioration of any loving and caring memory tracts of the past and impedes the cultivation of any current loving and caring experiences. Their need to confabulate stories follows them into other relationships that have to neatly fit into their polarized tribal world including with extended family, friends, and professionals associated with either Dad or Mom.
The Desire to Connect Implodes
It’s painful to watch your children’s memory fade—erasing any cherished memories or revising them into tragic disappointments—while simultaneously cementing memories of all your mistakes. The rejected parent is forbidden to take any sentimental journey with their children at the risk of being accused of not “getting it,” not listening to them, and only wanting to minimize all the bad stuff. The parent is basically deemed manipulative and “clueless.” Their anguish is compounded when they’re blocked from creating any new loving experiences since all those efforts are labeled as either fake, ill-timed, not enough, too much, selfish, or just not quite right.
The children live with debilitating anxiety and must be hyper-vigilant to their loyalty contract with the alienating parent. Even the civility of normative salutations afforded to strangers or remote acquaintances is ignored and traded in for blatant rudeness. Normal, successful, or loving experiences aren’t allowed because to have any can effectively shrink the psychological tumor and that’s forbidden.
Unfortunately, the path of least resistance, the one that will cause the minimal amount of suffering for the children, is the path to sever the relationship with the rejected parent. The children will eventually end up providing only one way for the rejected parent to express their love: stop fighting for them and let them go.
More than fearing the rejected parent, what the children actually fear is rejection and disapproval from the alienating parent. They’re in pain. The hope is that the rejected parent will understand, not personalize it, and love them, nonetheless. Although they see the rejected parent fighting for them, the children intuitively know that the odds are not in that parent’s favor. They know the power of the alienating parent because they see that parent’s tribe growing, with more professionals willing to support the false narrative and unwittingly contribute to the psychological tumor’s growth.
I’ve witnessed children desperately plea for the targeted parent to just let them go and stop fighting for parenting time. These children can’t describe or name what’s happening because the words are unspeakable and a violation of the loyalty contract with the alienating parent. Instead, they appeal to the unconditional love of the rejected parent, stating, “Our life is just easier without you, less stressful. Please understand, this is so stressful for us. Please just stop fighting and leave us alone.” I’ve seen tormented, targeted parents, faced with these words stop fighting, release their children, and say “goodbye” in an expression of love.
How could this behavior feel anything but personal? It’s terrorizing to hear such pleadings from your own children and to be told through words and/or behavior, “Get out of our lives!” It hurts and scares the rejected parent more than anything ever has. But, as much as it hurts, they have to recognize that it’s not about them. The more they think it is, and the more they think their children are rejecting them from self-agency, the more hurt and anger it will cause. And that can lead to the second mistake.
2: The Rejected/Targeted Parents Believe that Increased Punishment and Discipline will Put an End to Misunderstood Attitude and Behavior
While alienated children notoriously function quite corrigible and respectfully to almost all other adults in their lives—teachers, coaches, the alienating parent’s extended family—they’re remarkably disrespectful and defiant to the targeted parent and often any adult connected to them. I’ve seen children ignore their parent, not even offering a civil acknowledgment of their presence—not a look, a touch, nod, or a word. I’ve heard children both deny all positive memories and offer no vision of hope in restoring the relationship with the rejected parent. I’ve worked with alienated children who have destroyed parental property, abused step-siblings, and ignored and defied step-parents. They hole up in their room for whole weekends, refuse to eat or socialize, even endanger themselves by running away from court-ordered parenting time. And, I have seen targeted parents’ desperate attempt to use discipline to curb this disturbing progression of attitude and behavior.
The temptation to think this will work is understandable since disciplining disobedient and defiant children is considered normative and reasonable. However, to address the source of the problem merely as willful defiance and resistance reinforces to the child that the parent doesn’t “get them” and will likely intensify their anger. Although they may look, sound, and act like naughty and rebellious children in need of lectures and discipline, they’re not. To the contrary, alienated children are very troubled and in need of proper understanding, compassion, intervention, and treatment. If the rejected parent approaches them only with increasing levels of discipline, that parent eventually plays into the children’s false narrative that they’re bad, mean, and unreasonable.
I’ve counseled and evaluated many targeted/rejected parents who’ve been seduced into this line of thinking and have unwittingly fallen into an authoritarian style of parenting:
- The parent who eventually forced his 13-year-old daughter to take a shower after she refused for the sixth day in a row during a hot summer week of daily soccer practices;
- The parent who took the door off the 15-year-old adolescent’s room after several weekends of his isolating and refusing to come out for any family time including meals;
- The exasperated parent recorded in a tirade that foster care is where his children belong until they can learn to follow the court orders;
- The parent who dropped his chronically-combative 14-year-old off at the fire station to wait for the alienated parent to pick her up because, once again, she would not stop screaming in front of the younger siblings in the car;
- The parent who prohibited his star adolescent athlete from going to football practice during parenting-time which caused his son to be ineligible for an important game.
With proper context, one could argue the appropriateness of these parental actions. But, all of these get decontextualized and inserted into the inter-subjective narrative between the alienating parent and the children—often a child therapist is eventually co-opted as well—and downloaded as “data” to prove the targeted parent is bad, poor, and unfit. In some cases, child protective services (CPS) is contacted and targeted parents have been investigated and sometimes even substantiated for neglect or abuse. The agency has marching orders to substantiate abuse and neglect, not contextualize it.
Discipline and Negative Campaigning
While structure and discipline can’t be cast aside, they can’t unilaterally be the solution for the incorrigibility. This plays into the false narrative and the negative interchange in the attachment process between parent and child. Not only is there a loyalty contract being constructed in the inter-subjective narrative between the alienating parent and the children, there’s an aggressive campaign to prove the targeted parent defective. If politicians can effectively use negative propaganda and messaging to win elections, so can parents to win custody.
The alienating parent operates stealthily behind the curtain, hoping for the targeted parent to act out on center stage, so they can shine a spotlight on them as the glaring problem in the family psychodrama. This campaign is strengthened when the targeted parent provides any data that can be used stripped of context, intent, and history. Yes, the targeted parent may feel under attack, unfairly scrutinized, and held to unreasonable standards, but such is the nature of negative campaigns and their seductive impact on others. Although the targeted parent can’t control the campaign, if they understand what’s happening, they can work to not provide any fodder.
The other reason to avoid thinking that strict or rigid discipline will fix incorrigibility is the importance of reducing the negative interchange between the targeted parent and their children. It can play into the parent’s anger toward the children and cause increased feelings of guilt and shame in them. The parenting brain says the anger is righteous and that it’s normal to dislike the children’s attitude and behavior. The parenting brain thinks the children should feel guilty for bad behavior, —feeling bad for ruining the birthday party—and a little healthy shame—”shame on you for calling your stepmom a bitch.” However, this negative interchange only foments the parent’s anger and increases the children’s sense of being bad.
The loving and caring bond wanes, the parent’s exasperation and the children’s defensiveness waxes. This becomes a vicious and escalating cycle, often leading to the third mistake: enlisting the help of extended family members.
3: The Rejected/Targeted Parent Enlists or Allows Extended Family and Friends to Lecture and Advise the Children
The parental alienation dynamic may function in children as a malignant psychological tumor. But, in the “village” that is involved in raising your children—grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, step-siblings, step-parents, coaches, teachers, and friends of the family—it spreads like a contagious virus.
This often happens at the same time alienating parents are securing negative allies in their village—family, friends, and professionals—to support the children’s wishes and to testify to an alienating parent’s love and fitness as a parent. Targeted parents sense this trend and either enlist help from their village or merely support the effort individuals make to advise and correct the escalating behaviors and attitudes of alienated children.
Alienated children are hypersensitive and hyper-vigilant to the tribal communities developing in a climate where the alienation virus spreads. They view the supportive people in the targeted parent’s village as a threat seeking to “social distance,” while seeing supportive others in the alienating parent’s village as safe with whom to “quarantine.” The targeted parent’s village grows wary and frustrated with the experience of social-distancing and may begin to angrily confront the children.
The children—similarly to how they feel and respond to the rejected parent’s confrontations—end up feeling attacked and shamed by these social encounters. They begin to suspect that the rejected parent put them up to it, or they just feel intruded upon, invaded, or contaminated. The children begin to see the rejected parent’s village as increasingly more dangerous and wish to increase their social-distancing, quarantine, and seek refuge in the alienating parent’s social bubble. This, of course, increases the tension between them and the rejected parent—for example, “how dare you treat your grandparents like that.”
Children’s Resist and Refuse Response
Although rude children who reject a whole village of loving and caring people need to be challenged, it can backfire when the alienation virus is not eradicated through effective intervention and treatment.
Children don’t experience confrontation as loving and caring; only as shaming and critical. The alienating parent uses these conflictual encounters to reinforce the narrative of how “those” people are bad, mean, and infected by the targeted parent’s influence. It reinforces that social distancing is needed for the children to be “safe” and not stressed out. The alienating parent’s allies use those negative encounters to point out how upsetting and disruptive they are to the children’s emotional state. In so doing, they commit a fundamental attribution error: Because the children are upset and feel shamed by the social encounters in the targeted parent’s village, that village is unsafe and unhealthy for them. They erroneously conclude that increased social distancing is warranted to secure the children’s safety and best interests.
On occasion, because of court orders and the fear of appearing in contempt of court, the alienating parent will disallow the children’s request to avoid parenting time—essentially to quarantine with the alienating parent’s social circle. They send the children to parenting time sometimes forcibly. This show of force is often used as proof that it is not the alienating parent’s fault for the resist and refuse dynamics. It is the children’s “independent” choice. The false narrative is that the children make the decision to isolate or leave after contemplating what is best, healthy, and safest for them. The children function as if to avoid contamination from the rejected parent and that parent’s village. This is accomplished by remaining physically distant, and emotionally and verbally disengaged.
These children will isolate in bedrooms, bury themselves in homework, read books, or play video games; anything to avoid interacting with the rejected parent’s village. They will resist and refuse picnics with family or birthday parties with friends and family, and if forced to go, will socially distance. If their efforts to avoid and disengage are confronted, there’s a risk of escalating conflict. Unfortunately, what children bring back to the alienating parent or the negative allies are stories of reactive invasion, criticism, and disrespect by the rejected parent’s village while they leave out their own social distancing actions or overall discourtesy. The children’s behavior can escalate even to the point of physical assaults, property destruction, or running away from the rejected parent’s village.
Damage Done by the Untrained and Uninformed
The vicious cycle of toggling in and out of what are now tribal communities creates a convincing narrative to the uninformed. They intuit: the targeted parent’s village must be abusive, neglectful, and dangerous otherwise the children wouldn’t be behaving like this. They don’t behave like this in the alienating parent’s village, at school, or on the sport’s team. Again, untrained ears and eyes make fundamental attribution errors.
Consequently, allied therapists will write unethical letters and erroneously testify in court for reduced parenting time with the targeted parent, citing the hostile environment and the children’s destabilization. Judges will be deceived into signing an ex parte order after an attempt to run away by the alienated child following a climactic, combative social encounter. The alienated children eventually get what they think will make them safe and healthy again: quarantining with the alienating parent.
What they actually get from naïve and colluding professionals is greater exposure to the virus—the alienating parent and his/her village. Consequently, the psychological tumor inside the child metastasizes and the rejected parent’s anger grows. The temptation to seek revenge against the alienating parent can lead to another mistake.
4: The Rejected/Targeted Parent Retaliates Toward the Alienating Parent
I’m sure it’s become increasingly clear that a good offense (intervention, judicial oversight, engaging trained professionals, etc.) is one of the best defenses to combat alienation dynamics. This offense is weakened by the mistake of succumbing to the temptation to seek revenge on the alienating parent. Why? Because the acts of retaliation can be used by sly alienators to buttress their narrative of the targeted parent being abusive and unfit. Also, alienated children will use any retaliatory actions to justify their alliance to alienating parents while pointing out how mean and dangerous the rejected parent is.
Rejected parents grow frustrated. They can’t understand how the alienating parent’s behaviors go unnoticed and that they’re often not held accountable. This growing frustration and impatience hatches into the idea of taking matters into their own hands rather than waiting for the hands of justice or mental health professionals to do something to help. It seems that the professionals and court have had plenty of time and they’ve just had enough of it all.
Acting-out is a Barrier to Reunification
Feeling frustrated and ignored, rejected parents begin to compose snarky email responses, make sarcastic comments during parenting time exchanges, or blow up in a reunification counseling session about how the alienating parent is poisoning the children against them. They’ll make idle threats to the alienating parent or vent on social media attempting to expose the alienating parent’s true motivation. They may seek out their own counselor to advocate for them outside ethical roles and standards: Someone who will write critical assessments of the alienating parent’s behavior, despite not having met nor professionally assessed the situation. The targeted parent may even withhold the alienating parent’s court-ordered parenting time to “make up” for lost parenting time, or extend a vacation they feel entitled to.
These actions can all be understood considering the targeted parent’s frustrations, but most often, they will be used against them as further evidence of their unfitness as a co-parent. While retaliatory actions may feel good, they do not do good. The feelings of anger and frustration need to be expressed and managed. If not, they can easily be acted out in a fashion that ultimately dis-empowers the targeted parent and impedes their mission to gain greater access to their children and to stop the alienation. If not managed well, this can lead to the next mistake.
5: Rejected/Targeted Parents Present as Angry, Argumentative, and Obstinate to Professionals
Growing frustration and fears can lead the targeted parent to present to mental health and legal professionals in angry, argumentative, and obstinate ways. This can prevent them from getting proper help, since most professionals find parental alienation dynamics counter-intuitive. In other words, they intuitively get that children will reject and fear bad parents, but they don’t understand how children will reject and fear good parents.
Accordingly, these professionals are often scrutinizing the rejected parent’s attitude and behavior to confirm their bias of believing that resist and refuse dynamics are caused by a parent’s abuse, neglect, or unfitness. And guess what? The rejected parent’s angry, argumentative, and obstinate attitude and behavior plays right into the professionals’ biases and the parent is misunderstood and seen as the problem.
Uninformed professionals fail to see the attitude and behavior as a direct result of unaddressed, unabated alienation. They erroneously conclude that the targeted parent’s attitude and behavior are the cause of the resist and refuse dynamics rather than the unfortunate result. And once the estrangement/abuse/neglect construct gets supported; it becomes very difficult for targeted parents to extricate themselves from the box they’re put in. Understandably, this can further exacerbate their anger, fear, and oppositionality.
The professionals, in turn, become advocates for the estrangement theory and will cite specific behaviors the targeted parent has exhibited to support their conclusions. They’ll transcribe the vicious voice mails, the email bombs, and tirades in counseling sessions, or report any obstinance or outright opposition the targeted parent shows towards participating in various sessions. (Note: Although it’s important for targeted parents to not engage in faulty treatment plans that fail to address the alienation dynamics—or worsen them—this refusal needs to be done smartly and strategically.) No matter what defense mechanisms targeted parents choose, they need to realize it will take more brains than brawn to remove themselves from the estrangement box.
The way out for targeted parents is to manage their feelings and behavior, so that the best version of themselves—rather than the wounded, desperate, and angry one—shows up. They need to be grounded in the literature on parental alienation, including what type of counseling intervention helps or hinders. They need an attorney who understands alienation and knows how to work with mental health professionals; an attorney whose goal is to educate professionals and advocate to retain professionals who understand alienation dynamics, all the while presenting to professionals or the court legitimate signs their client is fit, rational, and reasonable. That they’re madly in love with their children, not mad. That they wish to win their children’s hearts and minds, not win a case or one-up the co-parent.
When professionals are faced with targeted parents who are grounded and have these admirable intentions, there’s a better chance that the professionals will advocate for justice, accountability, and healing, rather than become another manipulated agent in the alienation dynamic.
A Word to Rejected/Targeted Parents
The aggregate of these five common mistakes can be visible and palpable while the stealthy and insidious moves of the alienating parent often remain latent and hidden. The greatest chance you have of pulling back the curtain on alienation dynamics is to not take center stage with the drama caused by these mistakes but to instead work to pull back the curtain and put the spotlight on the alienation that’s taking place.
You must be methodical and strategic. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and seek counsel. Time is your enemy and experts can help you assess the severity of the alienation and appropriate interventions, up to and including court involvement. It won’t hurt to have a coach/counselor, consultant, and a good attorney on your team.
Parental Alienation isn’t only a psychological tumor that grows in your child, it’s contagious. Its toxins can spread to you and your extended village. It’s important to realize that, just as in treating a tumor that’s at risk of growing and metastasizing, home remedies won’t work to resolve alienation.
Targeted/rejected parents need help. And sometimes the first, right, next step, is learning to help yourself. The arduous battle to save the hearts and minds of your children often requires expert strategy, but it can only be won when you are in it with an attuned mind and loving heart.