According to the American Psychological Association, parental alienation is “a child’s experience of being manipulated by one parent to turn against the other (targeted) parent and resist contact with him or her.” It is one of the most predictable and threatening concepts coming into the conversation during high-conflict divorce and/or custody battles when there is significant antagonism between the parties.
“Parental Alienation Syndrome” (PAS) was a term introduced by U.S. children’s psychiatrist Richard Gardner in 1985. Gardner himself was a highly controversial figure – to say the least – who committed suicide at age 72 in 2003. His theory has often been dismissed as “junk science,” although the concept of one parent being rejected by a child due to another parent’s psychological manipulation is very real.
New Jersey psychologist and risk assessment specialist Dr. Mark Singer shared some insight on what alienation actually looks like and why, how it affects the “best interests of the child” and ways to properly intervene.
Here are excerpts from what he said during our live interview on this topic:
One of the nice things about being a human being is that we are biologically wired to want to connect to people. There’s a dependency, a need that we have from before birth to attach to other people to meet our basic needs. So in the beginning, children have this drive to want to attach to parents or to other significant caregivers.
Alienation is a process where an individual either covertly or overtly engages in behaviors that have a negative impact on that attachment and upon that relationship. We all have certain preferences as we go
along. A little boy may prefer his mom or his dad at certain stages. Same thing with a girl, or with a child that doesn’t identify with the gender.
You tend to have estrangement where a child may reject a parent because of actual abuse. That’s a child trying to protect him or herself.
What alienation is in its extreme is a total detachment from a parent. Alienation, at its most severe stage, is a total rejection of the parent, of everything associated with the parent, grandparents, family, pets, and everything that kind of goes along with the rejected parent.
The root cause of that, according to the theory, is the favored parent, meaning through the eyes of the child, engages in a course of behavior, either covertly or overtly. Examples of covert are doing “little things” that have a negative impact on that child’s relationship with the rejected parent.
I use the term “little” in quotes because to you and I they may be little things, but to a five, six, or seven-year-old child, they’re major. Examples would be bad-mouthing a parent or exposing children to litigation where you show the child all negative things about the parent interfering with the targeted parent’s custody and parenting time.
What you have to do is look at behavior over time and in different domains. So, an example of something little might be a parent showing up 10 minutes late for an exchange. In and of itself, that may not be alienation, but it may or it may not be alienating behavior. But if it occurs over time and it’s combined with other things: “Oh, I showed up late because Mommy always comes later. Daddy always comes late or showed up late because I took you for ice cream and Mommy or Daddy don’t want you to have ice cream. But when you’re with me, it’s okay to have ice cream. But don’t tell Mommy. Don’t tell Daddy.”
Or you have a child who has a back-to-school night. “Mommy didn’t go to your back-to-school night because Mommy didn’t think it was important,” when in reality, Mommy’s home taking care of the other three kids. These are examples of things that are very, very subtle things in and of themselves which may or may not be alienating behavior.
You look at a pattern of behavior over time in different domains, and what you have to look at, too, is how the child reacts. If the child starts backing away from the targeted parent, that’s a problem.
That’s not an alienated child, though. An alienated child, traditionally speaking, is a child that has gotten so far down the end of the continuum that the parent is totally rejected.
The key to it is being able to intervene earlier in the stages where you have a parent who is engaging in alienating behavior to reduce the risk of the child moving all the way down the spectrum.
Most psychologists, including myself, operate from the principle that a child is best served by having healthy relationships with healthy parents.
So when I say intervene, I mean therapeutic interventions, sometimes even legal interventions to get the parent who is engaging in that type of behavior to understand the cost of that. If you let it persist, you get a child who resists or refuses to see a parent. And that’s a problem because that does not serve a child’s best interests well.
If I’m working therapeutically with a family, I would spend a lot of time with the “favored” parent talking about ways of changing his or her behavior and a lot of time with the targeted parent working on how to respond to the child.
It’s not the child’s fault. Blaming the child or arguing, or getting into a philosophical debate with a six-year-old isn’t going to get you anywhere. Sitting down and saying, “You know what? What ____ is saying about me is wrong” doesn’t work.
We would talk about ways of empathically responding to a child and not challenging the child’s beliefs, but rather painting a picture of yourself that is inconsistent with what the other parent is painting of you.
What I recommend to the rejected parent is to listen. Be consistent. Because if you start rejecting the other parent, you put the kid further in the middle, and the child is likely to do what the child needs to do to survive.
It’s a battle you’re waging against someone else portraying you a certain way. But if you portray yourself the way you really are, maybe not in the short run, but in the long run, as children grow, they see it for what it really is.
The other advice I give a parent who has been alienated is that you have to be patient. It took you x number of years to get to this point. You have very little control over what the other parent is doing. All you can do is control your interaction with the child. So make the most of it. Be patient. Don’t get defensive.
One of the challenges with being the rejected parent is that we get defensive, right? Because it hurts. It tears your heart apart, frankly. But sometimes rejected parents feed further into the alienation. “You’re not going to come over here if you talk to me that way.”
And if a parent acts the opposite of what’s being said about them, and the child thinks you’re faking it, the way to prove it is to just stay consistent. Because people can only fake that stuff for so long. You know if someone’s faking it because they have a personality disorder, eventually that stuff is going to seep through.
And if your kid is that perceptive, the child will see the truth.
There’s a lot of controversy around the term “parental alienation” as it has been weaponized in many courtrooms against victims of domestic violence and their children. Yet most people are not familiar with the more politically correct label of “abuse by proxy.”
Unfortunately, the junk science that Gardner proposed has gotten very confused with the very real rejecting behaviors that many targeted parents actually do face.
However much we believe that the system should change, including in its use of language, we still need to operate within its confines for now and be prepared to present our case strongly.
We find an expert opinion is one of the best ways to educate ourselves on the reality of what people have to do within the family court system, and how to arm themselves properly.
(Note: This blog is a clip from our live interview, “What ‘Parental Alienation’ Really Means and How To Handle Children Who Have Been (Or Are Being) Alienated From You,” with New Jersey psychologist, Dr. Mark Singer).
We appreciate every article Lisa shares with us!
Lisa Johnson is the co-founder of Been There Got Out, a Certified Domestic Violence Advocate, educator, professional writer, and founder of the Legal Abuse Support Group. She has been representing herself in family and the appellate court (pro se), which is a job unto itself, and her interviews with experts are prominent on social media, making beentheregotout.com a leading go-to resource for high-conflict divorce information worldwide.