Parental Alienation: When Your Child Becomes A Weapon

by Kim Johnson

Amber was working hard to move on from her divorce. The final judgement had been signed and entered by the court. Her new job was demanding, but she enjoyed the challenge. She was beginning to feel like she and her children would survive.

Then one night after a parental visit with their dad, her daughter dropped a bomb Amber didn’t see coming.  “Mom, Dad said the divorce was your fault. He told me we’d still be a family if you hadn’t gone off the deep end. Why did you do that to us and to Dad?” Amber was completely blindsided and speechless. She couldn’t tell her young daughter about her ex-husband’s affairs. What was he doing!!!????

What is Parental Alienation?

As anyone who has experienced divorce knows, it negatively impacts the entire family, including parents, children and extended family. Usually, tension during and after the divorce diminishes over time.  However, some parents are unable to control or release their intense emotions. At some point, it can escalate into a manipulative strategy where the children become a weapon and their other parent is the target.

This theory of parental alienation was first introduced by a psychologist, Dr. Richard Gardner, in 1985. The concept was first noticed in high-conflict divorces, when a child would became strongly attached to one parent while rejecting the other without justification. Naturally, there were times estrangement was caused by obvious reasons, such as a parent who was cruel, drug addicted, absent, or lacking basic parenting skills. Increasingly, however, this separation has evolved into a keenly crafted strategy engineered by an alienating parent. Pressuring their children to buy into the hatred this ex-spouse feels, the only purpose is to damage the child’s relationship and turn their emotions against the targeted mother or father.

Types of Parental Alienation

As with any issues involving relationships, parental alienation can be categorized into a few types by its degree of seriousness. Working through the problems will depend on the symptoms and severity of the following categories:

  • Mild Alienation: This type is manifested by a child who resists visiting with the targeted parent. Yet, once they are alone with this parent, they like spending time with them.
  • Moderate Alienation: A child who is experiencing this type of alienation will strongly oppose any contact with the targeted parent. They will exhibit resentment and hostility when they are with them.
  • Severe Alienation: This is, of course, the worst-case scenario. A child who is subjected to this type of manipulation may not only intensely resist any contact with the targeted parent but may also run away, hide or lash out to avoid a visit with them.

In truth, no parent is perfect. Relationship issues between a parent and a child can always have ups and downs as they work through life.  However, children with parental alienation will have severe reactions without cause. While they will often criticize you, your child will staunchly defend the other parent. You will be unable to do anything right while their other parent can never do anything wrong.

This created drama gives the guilty parent a feeling of control and feeds the need for revenge. Simply put, they only care about resolving their own pain without realizing the trauma they are inflicting upon their children. The children are merely weapons in the hands of selfish and self-absorbed parents.

Problems Caused by Parental Alienation

Parental Alienation is only beginning to be recognized as a form of child abuse. Studies and research show that the number of children alienated from a parent in the United States is staggering. And there are also studies indicating that the effects of this experience is just as striking. Disturbing patterns in the afflicted children have been found.

The manipulation and pressure put on the alienated child often result in self-hatred, low self-esteem, depression, lack of trust, substance abuse and even PTSD. Self-hatred is particularly prevalent in these children who are forced to grow up thinking the targeted parent did not love or want them. This belief may cause depression as well, as victimized children never have the opportunity to mourn the loss of the targeted parent or even to talk about them with their other parent or family members.

Studies show that alienated children may also experience difficulty in learning and development. Being unable to focus on school can impact their future. They may also suffer from fear of loss and abandonment, which increases the likelihood of conflicted relationships throughout their lives.

What Can An Alienated Parent Do?

Parental alienation is a campaign that starts very quietly and slowly. It can start the moment parents separate, or begin once the divorce judgment is signed. Because the targeted parent may be unaware it is happening, it may continue for years. This crusade can often begin unintentionally with subtle statements like, “Your dad is late, AGAIN.” But the bottom line is, intentionally or unintentionally, the child is cruelly conditioned against a mostly decent, loving and reasonable parent.

To guard yourself and your child, the most important part of a protection strategy is to recognize this is happening. Be aware of any changes you see in your child’s behavior toward you. These are not the normal issues that can occur just because a kid must live in two separate households. These are obvious signs of resentment, verbal criticism, or even a resistance to being with you.

If you believe your ex is engaging in some kind of parental alienation, start documenting the behaviors. Consult with your attorney to determine if things have progressed to the point legal action is warranted. Most states now see this as an actionable offense in family law.

Beyond anything else, remain strong in your resolve to have a relationship with your child. Be creative, remain focused, and never let your ex or your children know you feel victimized. If your ex is narcissistic, they will often react to weakness like sharks to blood. So, never act defeated.

Following are some suggested strategies to help you stay determined and hopeful.

  • Don’t react in anger. This may only reinforce the alienating parent’s point of view that you are unstable.
  • Stay empowered. Don’t give in to helplessness. Persevere. Your children will see your strength.
  • Live as a victor, not a victim. Live well and practice self-care.
  • Don’t triangulate. Avoid putting your children in the middle. Allow them to love their other parent.
  • Take initiative to solve problems. Put your mind to work and stay active. No one can do it for you.
  • Document everything. Keep accurate records of any violations you experience from the alienating parent.
  • Be the bigger person but don’t let down your guard. Don’t allow yourself to be unethical but also don’t be naïve.
  • Never underestimate the alienating parent. If this parent is narcissistic, they may stop at nothing to control the battle for your children’s loyalty.
  • Be the best parent you can be. Adopt a parenting style that balances discipline, clear communication and love. If they are exposed to narcissistic characteristics, they may have a skewed view of reality. Your example will teach them healthy relationship skills.
  • Enjoy your children. When they are with you, be a safe presence. Even if it feels like your child is rejecting you, stay active in their life.
  • Consider therapy. If the emotional toll becomes too much to bear, reach out to a professional who can help you with coping and a plan of action.

Conclusion

Children who have to live with the unresolved conflict and anger of their parents suffer tremendously. When you add making a child feel they must choose between the parents, you can cause damage that lasts a lifetime.  A child is powerless when it comes to ending the conflict he or she is witnessing. So, in their eyes, it can seem that making a choice will lessen the conflict they’re experiencing. Thus, one parent can weaponize a child and the cost is their relationship with the other parent. The motivation is revenge, fear, anger or jealousy. This is a terrible price for children to pay to appease one parent’s feelings. Parents need to be willing to parent cooperatively after divorce. Remain focused on your child’s needs first and let the only concern be for their sense of safety and security, not their loyalty.