Parental alienation is a controversial topic. Professionals in the legal and psychological fields have mixed opinions if it exists. Part of the problem is deciphering if the allegations of abuse are factual. Accusing someone of parental alienation is divisive and does not result in cooperation between the parents. For this reason, legal professionals prefer to use the term resist refuse dynamics for children who reject a parent.
Parental alienation occurs when one parent (favoured) turns the children against the other (rejected). Parental alienation is on a spectrum. Sometimes the favored parent has a lot of fear, anger, or grief around the rejected parent. Children are often attuned to their parents and feel the emotions that the parents are feeling; in turn, children might also become scared, angry, or hurt around the rejected parent. Domestic violence, incarceration, and substance abuse are other reasons the child might resist access to the rejected parent. However, children rarely hate the rejected parent as much as they do in an alienation case.
Parental alienation in the extreme form is emotional abuse. This could look like a kidnapping, blocking access, false accusations against the other parent, and devaluing the rejected parent’s ethnicity, religion, family, and community. The child rejects the parent because they are scared that the favored parent will punish or not like them. Sometimes, the child is punished for wanting to contact the rejected parent. The child also begins to hate themselves. They think the part of them that is like the rejected parent is terrible. They start to wonder about their identity.
In turn, the child becomes afraid of both parents. The child will also be worried about the rejected parent. They might believe that the rejected parent abandoned them. The child also believes that the rejected parent is angry at them because the child abandoned the parent.
The rejected parent does feel deeply rejected. However, they need to realize that the child is not at fault. Putting pressure on the child to call or have access has a negative effect. The child will only resist more. The rejected parent and the alienated child are put in an impossible situation.
As a mental health professional, I have seen these signs and symptoms in children who have been turned against one of their parents.
- They are afraid to speak. Children who have been turned against one of their parents are often afraid to say something wrong to the wrong person. They will shut down entirely in a therapy room. They will not make eye contact; they hang their head in shame.
- They hate the rejected parent. They say they hate the rejected parent, often repeating what the favored parent has told them. They use adult language instead of the language of a child. They mimic the reasons of the favored parent.
- They hate anything to do with the rejected parent. They begin to hate the rejected parents’ culture, name, religion, community, and family. The child has now lost a parent, a family, and some of their friends. This leaves them in a complex state of grief. This grief state leaves them confused and is unlikely to resolve without help.
- They hate the part of themselves that is like the parent. A child’s identity and self-worth begin to suffer. They might hate their last name, ethnicity, skin color, hair, or eyes if it matches the rejected parent’s.
- They act out. Children not allowed to grieve or speak to the rejected parent often act out. They become more defiant in school, and their grades drop. They also act out at home. They may speak back to the favored parent and run away from the rejected parent. The favored parent is also afraid of losing their relationship with the child. This leads them to have poor boundaries. The favored parent might overly spoil the alienated child.
- They get sick more. Children with this sort of family dynamic are more prone to physical illness. The stress of being placed in the middle, used as a pawn, and isolated can lead to physical symptoms. When children feel unsafe speaking to adults, they often have somatic symptoms like stomach aches and headaches.
- Mood disorders. Alienated children are prone to developing mood disorders. They might become depressed and feel hopeless. They also can become anxious, wondering when they will be placed in the middle again, see the rejected parent, and be punished by the favored parent. This situation makes a child feel like they do not have control. This lack of control, the loss of the family, unpredictable punishments, and chaos can lead them to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
A mental health professional can help the child process their emotions. The parents can also benefit from parenting help. Co-parenting might be too big of a challenge, so that parental coordinators can help with access. If the family is ready to heal the damage of the divorce and alienation, family and reunification therapy and coaching should be done.
If you need some support, don’t hesitate to reach out.