No matter how you look at it, separation and divorce turns a child’s world upside down. Where there is hostility and intense conflict between their parents, this upheaval and detrimental impact for a child can have serious long-term ramifications. One of the most devastating outcomes is the complete rejection of a parent by a child due to parental alienation.
On October 12, it was Parental Alienation Awareness Day recognises the unique and significant heartache that parental alienation causes for both parents and children. Key landmarks in Australian and New Zealand cities such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge will be lit up in red, to symbolise the love for children from alienated parents.
What is parental alienation?
Parental Alienation occurs where a child develops an unhealthy alliance with one parent over the other, due to negative influences from the parent they align themselves with. In its most severe form, parental alienation can have the effect of forcing the child to choose one parental relationship over the other. It most commonly arises in disputes about which parent the child will live with after a family breakdown, and there is almost always very high and recurring conflict between the two parents.
Parental Alienation can deprive children of a relationship with their parent and often that extends to that parents’ side of the family too. Children who have been alienated from a parent can suffer poor short and long term outcomes which include insecure attachments, low self-esteem, poor mental health with higher prevalence of depression and anxiety, dysregulated and disrupted social and emotional skill development, substance abuse issues, trauma disorders and a higher risk of suicide. Alienated parents suffer too – with higher rates of self-harm, eating disorders, trauma and anxiety disorders and suicidality.
How does parental alienation happen?
Parental Alienation can sometimes be classed as a form of family violence, where it happens as part of a campaign of emotionally abusive conduct designed to restrict a close and positive relationship between a child and the other parent.
In other cases, the perpetrator can be unaware that their actions are having a negative and damaging influence upon their child’s relationship with the other parent. This can happen when a parent is unable to shield their child from their own negative emotions towards the other parent, and consciously or unconsciously, encourages the child to adopt that poor perception as their own.
Some of the hallmarks of parental alienation are:
· Coercive and controlling behaviours by one parent to the child which are designed to undermine the other parent’s relationship with the child. This might include interfering with the child’s contact with the other parent by offering up tempting choices to the child to decline contact, or with excessive phone calls and messages to the child when they are with the other parent;
· Ignoring and dismissing a child’s preference to spend time with the other parent, and acting betrayed when the child has positive feelings about the other parent. An extension of this behaviour is allowing the child to speak poorly about their other parent;
· Emotional manipulation, excessive pressure and demands of loyalty from the parent to the child. This could include unnecessarily involving the child in the adult disagreements and
blaming the other parent to the child. Another example can occur where a parent inappropriately relies upon the child to support their emotions or mental health, causing the child to feel they must align with that parent in order to protect their parent from hurt;
· Over-involving the child in adult issues and disagreements, including telling them or showing them legal documents about the divorce, property settlement and child support;
· Leading the child to believe they are in danger or unsafe in the care of the other parent, when there is no actual threat of harm. This can extend to making unfounded or baseless accusations of violence, abuse and neglect.
· Providing excessive rewards and privileges to the child and allowing lax rules and boundaries to entice favouritism from the child;
· Requiring the child to keep secrets from the other parent and using the child to ‘spy’ on the other parent and be the go-between communicator.
Parental Alienation can come in many guises and differing ranges of severity. Making it even more complex is that it is sometimes raised by an aggrieved parent where justified, but unwanted changes are made to a child’s care routine or living arrangements. This can occur where there are substantiated risks of harm to a child from family violence, abuse and neglect or where a child forms an uninfluenced and legitimate wish to change their living arrangements.
An examination of the suspected behaviours, broader circumstances of the family breakup and personalities involved can help confirm whether or not rejecting behaviours from a child are driven by parental alienation conduct. A lawyer or trained psychologist can help you make this assessment if you suspect parental alienation is happening to you, and also if you believe you are being wrongly accused of undertaking parental alienation by your ex.