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What is parental alienation?

by | Sep 18, 2020 | Parental Alienation |

You might not know the exact definition of parental alienation, but, if you experience it, you definitely know what it is. A Healthline article describes it as “a situation in which one parent uses strategies — sometimes referred to as brainwashing, alienating, or programming — to distance a child from the other parent.” It’s something that can be a factor well before a divorce begins, but it’s clearly something that can adversely affect parents and children after divorce.

As we note frequently in this blog, divorce is an incredibly emotional time, and people going through divorce experience many strong emotions toward the people they’re divorcing. That’s all perfectly natural and part of the process.

But there are also guardrails set up for divorcing parents, including the standing orders that typically accompany a divorce petition, that help parents be mindful of how their actions affect their children. The Bexar County standing orders, like those in many other jurisdictions, have specific language about not talking badly about the other parent in front of the kids — expressly to guard against what could be construed as parental alienation.

The effects of parental alienation can be particularly dramatic. According to the Healthline article, Richard Gardner (the child psychologist who coined the term “parental alienation syndrome” in 1985), identified eight symptoms, including:

1. the child constantly and unfairly criticizes the alienated parent (sometimes called a “campaign of denigration”);
2. the child doesn’t have any strong evidence, specific examples, or justifications for the criticisms — or only has false reasoning;
3. the child’s feelings about the alienated parent aren’t mixed — they’re all negative, with no redeeming qualities to be found. This is sometimes called “lack of ambivalence”;
4. the child claims the criticisms are all their own conclusions and based on their own independent thinking. (In reality, in PA, the alienating parent is said to “program” the child with these ideas.);
5. the child has unwavering support for the alienator;
6. the child doesn’t feel guilty about mistreating or hating the alienated parent;
7. the child uses terms and phrases that seem borrowed from adult language when referring to situations that never happened or happened before the child’s memory, and
8. the child’s feelings of hatred toward the alienated parent expand to include other family members related to that parent (for example, grandparents or cousins on that side of the family).

Christine B.L. Adams, who wrote a Psychology Today article highlighting a book she co-wrote on the topic, noted that the alienators, as she calls them, are driven by anger and fear. As she noted, these parents “easily become angry and lash out, blaming the spouse for the failed marriage, even if the alienator wanted the divorce. A parent who does this “also becomes anxious at the prospect of disrupting 24-hour contact with his or her children, who are in roles of emotionally caretaking this parent.”

She adds, “Alienators want to punish and get retribution for the marital breakup of the perfect cocoon they believed they were in. They are determined to have vengeance in the way that most upsets the other parent. They also want to ensure their children continue to deliver emotional care to them.”

This leads to what Adams characterizes as “badmouthing” and “scapegoating” as well as an emotional reliance on the children that puts these children in a really difficult place.

If you’re a parent in the “alienated” role — the target of a parenting alienation campaign — you might be wondering what your recourse is. If this is happening after the divorce, it might warrant court intervention for modifying the divorce decree. Indeed, in our next article on this topic, we’ll discuss how family lawyers and judges can and do become involved with parental alienation cases.

At the Law Office of Lisa A. Vance, we can help parents who are dealing with parental alienation and other challenges that come up during divorce and after divorce. In our practice, we emphasize considering the needs of children, and parental alienation cases are ones where that’s especially important.