When parents use children as pawns in their divorce, the psychological consequences can be devastating. Parental alienation (PA) is the act of deliberately alienating a child from a targeted parent (TP) by an alienating parent (AP) and can cause a psychological condition referred to as parental alienation syndrome (PAS). Although this term is relatively new, the damage this type of behavior inflicts is not. When one parent denies a child access to the TP, the child struggles with feelings of hatred and fear towards the TP. These children often live in an environment riddled with malicious and derogatory remarks about the TP, and as they age, maintain guilt over harboring these feelings toward their parent.
Research on children of divorce has shown that this pattern of behavior can cause children to have social impairments that negatively impact their quality of life as adults. But until now, no study has looked specifically at PAS and its effect on key factors of development. To address this issue, Naomi Ben-Ami of Yeshiva University in New York evaluated 118 adult children of divorce and compared the children who experienced PAS to those who did not. She assessed several areas of social and psychological well-being, including depression, trust, self-hatred/esteem, anger, guilt, marital status, and achievement and identity problems.
Ben-Ami found that the PA participants had substantially lower levels of achievement than the non-PA group, which was demonstrated by fewer college degrees, less overall employment, lower college enrollment, and more economic hardship. They also exhibited attachment issues, impaired relationships, and decreased self-esteem, possibly as a result of the lack of attention they received from their APs. The controlling behavior of an AP was also shown to increase feelings of anger and guilt in the PA participants. These emotions, coupled with diminished self-sufficiency, elevated the risk for depression in the children who were exposed to PAS. Ben-Ami believes these findings support previous research that shows the destructive and long-term consequences that a child must bear when he or she becomes entangled in a parent’s highly fueled emotions arising from a divorce or separation. This type of evidence, if made available to parents and involved psychological and legal experts, could help prevent this type of activity and maintain the integrity of relationships, present and future. Ben-Ami added, “Ideally, the trajectory can be interrupted successfully to allow children to maintain healthy relationships with both parents, to be loved by them and loving with them.”
Ben-Ami, N., Baker, A. J. L. The long-term correlates of childhood exposure to parental alienation on adult self-sufficiency and well-being. American Journal of Family Therapy 40.2 (2012): 169-83.
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