Parental alienation syndrome is one of those things that is plaguing so many relationships today and is not just threatening to psychologically damage the parents who are on the receiving end of it, but also the children who get caught in the crossfire.
Recently, in my clinical practice, I’ve seen a huge uptick in cases of parental alienation. Instead of talking cooperatively in the manner, I teach in my book The Power of Two, these spouses and ex-spouses are interacting as adversaries. Worse, they’ve developed an exaggeratedly negative view, more fiction than reality, of the other partner.
So what is parental alienation (sometimes referred to as parental alienation syndrome)? And who does it?
Parental Alienation Syndrome
Parental alienation syndrome, a term coined in the 1980s by child psychiatrist Dr. Richard A. Gardner, occurs when one parent attempts to turn the couple’s children against the other parent. A parent who is angry at the spouse or ex-spouse accomplishes this estrangement by painting a negative picture of the other parent via deprecating comments, blame, and false accusations shared with the children. They may also “hoard” the kids, doing all they can to thwart the other parent from spending time with them.
In my clinical practice, the alienating parent has most often been a mother who is turning the children against their dad. At the same time, I have also had multiple families in which Dad is the alienating parent, turning the children against their mother.
In general, the alienating parent is the least emotionally healthy of the two; they’re often more wealthy, as well, and are better able to afford legal challenges.
The sad reality is that parents who damage their children’s natural affection for the other parent are doing serious—and even abusive—damage. PT blogger Edward Kruk, Ph.D., also writes about parental alienation. In one of his posts, he shares this important piece of research:
A survey taken at the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts’ annual (2014) conference reported 98 percent agreement “in support of the basic tenet of parental alienation: children can be manipulated by one parent to reject the other parent who does not deserve to be rejected.”
For the child, the biopsychosocial-spiritual effects of parental alienation are devastating. For both the alienated parent and child, the removal and denial of contact in the absence of neglect or abuse constitute cruel and unusual treatment. As a form of child maltreatment, parental alienation is a serious child protection matter as it undermines a basic principle of social justice for children: the right to know and be cared for by both of one’s parents.
Who Does Parental Alienation?
An alienating parent often shows either narcissistic or borderline tendencies.
Narcissistic individuals tend to be self-absorbed, and most centrally, they show deficits in their ability to listen to others’ differing perspectives. Instead, they hyper-focus on what they themselves want, think, feel, and believe—without taking others’ desires and ideas into consideration.
An alienating parent who is higher in narcissism may aim to use the children as weapons or pawns in his/her battle to “destroy” the other parent. These individuals often claim to be protecting the children against the “evil” other. However, by using the children in their perpetual fight to hurt the other parent, they often show little consideration for what is in the best interests of the child.
Typically, kids benefit from the presence of both parents. They do not benefit—and indeed can be harmed—when one of their parents portrays the other in a relentlessly negative light. Similarly, they are often harmed by parents who fight their way through divorce and post-divorce. They are harmed when parents put them in the middle of their power battles. They are harmed when a parent uses them to accomplish their own angry agenda, ignoring the needs of the children.
The central element in borderline personality disorder, on the other hand, is emotional hyper-reactivity. These excessively intense emotions often get expressed as anger.
In addition to getting emotionally aroused too often, and too intensely, people with this disorder often have difficulty self-soothing. As a result, their distress tends to be longer-lasting than the distress that most people experience.