When One Parent Alienates a Child from the Other Parent

mother holding daughter and waving off fatherOver the past few years since starting my private practice, I have seen and worked with numerous families where a divorce was either in progress or had already occurred and child-custody disputes were in progress. Sometimes, one parent will alienate a child from the other parent out of anger, desire for revenge, jealousy, feelings of betrayal, rejection, etc. The child becomes enmeshed with the alienating parent and believes he or she must align with the alienating parent. The child may also actively participate in the process of alienating the other parent. This phenomenon is known as parental alienation syndrome (PAS).

When I observe families struggling with this type of dynamic, it brings to my awareness the victimizing nature of parental alienation syndrome for the child and the parent being alienated. The child wants to be loyal to both parents, and when he or she feels an “invisible loyalty” to one, it creates a high level of anxiety for him or her. This is a war the child cannot win.

Often, the parent affected by PAS will say negative things about the other parent to the child, with the objective of alienating the other parent from the child. The child can become virtually brainwashed into believing that the other parent deserves to be alienated, and may actively participate in denigrating the parent being alienated. The parent being alienated often feels protective, but is unable to stop the negative impact of PAS on the child and the relationship with the child. The biggest victim in this scenario is the child, as he or she will suffer the most from the fallout.

Parental alienation syndrome steals the bond and security that the child once experienced with the parent being alienated. In addition, PAS typically involves destructive behaviors such as manipulation, lying, and deprivation. Parental alienation syndrome robs a child of the ability to trust others as well as his or her own perceptions about life. In other words, he or she begins to distrust himself/herself as well as carry guilt. Parental alienation syndrome puts a child in a position of believing that the love and bond he or she has with a parent is contingent upon sacrificing the other parent, and they actively participate in protecting the parent responsible for alienating the other.

If PAS is successful, the long-term emotional impact on a child may severely limit his or her ability to form healthy relationships and to develop emotional attachment to others. In addition, PAS may have a negative impact on a child’s self-esteem and confidence, which affects a child’s general attitude about life.

Parents must recognize that when they decide to divorce and children are involved, their relationship is not ending; it’s changing. Despite the charged emotions that often surface between parents who are divorcing, they must still collaborate about what is in the best interest of their child. The “tug of war” that PAS creates for a child with one or both parents should be avoided at all costs.

The following are some things parents can do to successfully challenge the alienating parent in the phenomenon of PAS:

  • A home-study course called Breakthrough Parenting has been known to help parents being alienated to successfully challenge the parent doing the alienating.
  • Remain objective and nonreactive to the alienating parent. If the parent being alienated becomes reactive, it gives the alienating parent power to prove that the parent being alienated is unstable.
  • Be willing to stay persistent in the process of challenging the parent doing the alienating in front of a judge. This process can take a significant amount of time.
  • Be willing to take on the financial expense of legally challenging the parent doing the alienating.
  • Seek help from a family attorney who has experience dealing with PAS.
  • Get educated about how the court system works and become familiar with the law as it applies to the case at hand. Some parents have been known to represent themselves (after educating themselves on how the courts work and how the law applies to their case).
  • Devise a parenting plan showing how the child will be cared for and then present it to the court.
  • Always remain focused on the objective of having the child’s best interest at heart.
  • Avoid taking a “victim” stance.
  • Document, document, document.
  • Make a conscious effort to avoid causing friction with the alienating parent.
  • Focus on the present and enjoy spending time with the child without saying anything negative to the child about the alienating parent.
  • Follow through on picking up the child, and/or follow through with all obligations to the child.
  • Avoid violating court orders.
  • Have a strong sense of character and show integrity toward the alienating parent.

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  • Jana

    Jana

    September 2nd, 2014 at 3:14 PM

    So mean, so harmful when this takes place and yet you see this all the time with children who are syuck in the middle of their parents’ divorce. They feel so torn and are made to feel like they have to choose one or the other when in reality it should never be this way- the child should be made to feel safe loving and being with whichever parent that they are with at that moment and they should not ever be used against the other.

  • douglas a

    douglas a

    September 2nd, 2014 at 4:07 PM

    Even when the other parent is being cold and mean spirited you will be the better person if you can simply rise above it. I am not saying that this is not hard, becasue it is always hard to try to be the better person. But you will appreciate that you have done this and your kids will respect you more if you can do it.

  • matt

    matt

    September 3rd, 2014 at 3:58 AM

    These are supposed to be adults that we are talking about but when you look at their behavior it can sometimes make you wonder. I even know married couples who do this to each other and their children just because I guess it makes them feel like they have one up on the other person. I know we can all be selfish but it really makes you wish that we wouldn’t do it when there are children involved, or at least keep them out of it.

  • Wanda G.

    Wanda G.

    September 3rd, 2014 at 12:00 PM

    I suppose that there are times when parents do this unintentionally but most of the time it is through little snarky comments here and there that can turn the kids against one or the other. It is so much better to remember that if you don’t have anything nice to say then it is better to say nothing at all but there are a whole lot of us and honestly a whole lot of times when most of us forget that no matter what this still rings the truth

  • Kev

    Kev

    September 4th, 2014 at 3:58 AM

    When I see this happeneing I just want to wring someone’s neck. There is no reason why you and your wife should put your problems in the middle of the children and force them to make these kinds of decisions.

    In many cases these are young kids who need to feel loved and not like they are being ripped in two by two older people who should have sense to know better than to act this way.

    Aren’t there ever those people that you just want to look at and seriously tell them that they need to get it together?

  • Cheryl

    Cheryl

    September 9th, 2014 at 10:40 AM

    so sad that people will willingly use their children like this :(

  • catrina s

    catrina s

    September 10th, 2014 at 3:56 PM

    The majority of people who are doing something like this are doing it out of anger and out of spite.
    They think, and rightly so, that using the kids will be the one thing that they can do to get their ex to listen to them and to pay attention to something.
    Either that or they know that they can use the kids in this situation to hurt the other and so that is exactly what they work to do.
    Turning a child against his own parent is one of the cruelest things that you can do. If that child as he gets older makes the decision that this is not someone that they want to have a relationship with then that is their choice but you should not decide that for them at a young age unless this is a person who poses a danger or a threat to them.

  • Nana

    Nana

    September 16th, 2014 at 9:59 AM

    How does one explain to their children (9, 14, 18) that their father is a pathological liar, whose advice and promises they should question?
    Too many heartbreaks for them when promises are only kept 30% of the time, and ‘every day integrity’ (like paying your bills) is missing.

    Do not want them estranged from their father. However, I fear what they are learning about honesty and trust is leading them in the wrong direction.

    How do great moms handle this one?

  • Che

    Che

    September 27th, 2014 at 12:54 AM

    Kids will begin to see dad’s unfulfilled promises and poor advice for what is on their own. Let dad be his own worst enemy as opposed to you trying to highlight said poor example he’s setting. Do your best to give them a consistent model of what you want them to choose in your own choices and behavior so that they see their options. They will ultimately decide for themselves what kind of people they want to be.

  • mike s

    mike s

    September 27th, 2014 at 11:47 AM

    How do prove to child that your not the bad guy meanwhile the mother showers him/her with gifts. Along with telling the child he/she can’t eat because dad doesn’t pay.

    Yet the best part is the mother is sitting a cash… and did not claim it in court. Yet the father has to pay for her life style.

    Either way the court system is a joke!

  • Amanda

    Amanda

    December 23rd, 2015 at 9:40 AM

    This is exactly what my husband faces with his ex…and we have no choice but to put our faith in the court system right now…

  • Kathy Hardie-Williams,M.Ed, MS, NCC, LMFT, LPC

    Kathy Hardie-Williams,M.Ed, MS, NCC, LMFT, LPC

    September 29th, 2014 at 3:48 AM

    Hello everyone…..I have really enjoyed reading everyone’s comments on this emotionally charged topic. And no, the court system does not recognize Parental Alienation Syndrome as it should. It is maddening! Che….what you said is so true. I do believe children will decide for themselves and will eventually see the manipulative alienating parent for who they are. That being said, I have such compassion for the parents who are being alienated. It’s a very powerless feeling to know your child is being alienated from you with seemingly no options to counteract this dynamic. For parents who are being alienated, don’t give up!! There is hope! I believe parents who do the alienating will eventually incriminate themselves with their children. I also believe that parents who display integrity and have their children’s best interest at heart will be rewarded.

    Best,

    Kathy Hardie-Williams, M.Ed, MS, NCC, MFT, LPC

  • Dave

    Dave

    September 29th, 2014 at 8:09 PM

    I have been living it for over 14 months — it is pure evil to hurt not only the child but then parent. There is not much you can do about it – the manipulation and disinformation can run very deep and destructive.

    The Court system is a joke in all facets of a divorce. My former spouse committed perjury 7 times, was caught by a Judge twice violating orders and submitted a false instrument. No penalty – none.

    Then if you have a Judge that makes an error, all you can do is appeal it, you may win but you can’t collect the legal fee’s from the Judge or State you have incurred. That is grossly unfair with an incompetent Judge.

    I see Judges and lawyers not trying to bring a quick remediation to a divorce, but to drag things out costing lots and lots of money that goes to the lawyers. Lawyers should have in matrimonial matters a capped fee or capped hourly charge limited to X hours — you would see many divorces get settled quickly as the incentive to milk everyone by the lawyers and system is gone.

    Lawyers are destroying families and this country. Our Government consists primarily of lawyers.

    A court appointed attorney for a child is a joke — the attorney is not a child psychologist, social worker or has the experience. Moreover, they make determinations and do not file a written report in the event a parent lied! Imagine that. Or manipulated the child to lie! Imagine that. No accountability.

    Then you watch the two lawyers after an appearance in court be buddy-buddy afterwards.

    All you need to do is make sure others understand when you are getting married you really are not — you are entering into a contract with insane laws and processes. Even if you only have a dime to your names, every couple should draw up prenuptial agreement before any marriage – just in case – this way the system can’t beat down on anyone. A prenuptial makes perfect sense if both parties are allegedly making a commitment for life — the prenuptial is then just a formality. I am sure Family Lawyers would not like this trend.

    However, any spouse that abuses and physically assaults the other or children; should be removed from the home and by law – no coming back. It’s over.

  • Amanda

    Amanda

    December 23rd, 2015 at 9:37 AM

    My husband has been dealing with this terrible behaviour for about 4 years now…it pains me to see him and especially his kids fighting this battle and with the custody hearing coming up in this next year is getting worse…we may “win” the kids but will we actually “have” them? It’s Christmas and again she’s avoiding phone calls…we can only assume the things she’s telling those kids…I want to tell them we tried calling, I want to tell them we were there and they didn’t know it because she was playing keep away…but from the sounds if it…we’re just going to have to swallow this one and let them hate us for it until maybe one day they’ll see how their mother was to them just because she was angry with her ex.

  • scott

    scott

    March 31st, 2016 at 7:36 AM

    I have sleep walked into this situation – my soon to be ex wife took my youngest abroad working by way of a separation – then had to return suddenly – we tried again but are getting a divorce now – I took my flat close to the school my boy was due to go to and she put him in another – I asked for her to help me and encourage contact but she refused telling me to sort this out with him directly – ok if he ever answered emails or texts or anything at all infact – she would tell me that I was seeming – clingy – and now 10 months later he is repeating to me appeals for me to contact them ahead of time when I want to see him – asking me to give him space – actively not wishing to see me while she takes them on holidays over significant dates like birthdays – christmas – new year – not asking or even informing me first – no info on parents evenings – on progress in school – no information on anything whatever… this is PAS – I am not imagining it… am I…

  • Gary t

    Gary t

    August 12th, 2016 at 10:36 AM

    All this advice is great, but when you are confronted with the situation of a family court judge imposing a full no-contact restraining order, with no reasons given or existent, from your child, then “fighting back” against parental alienation is a useless academic exercise.
    I don’t see my child except for 45 minute sessions with a psychologist present, once a month.
    There is no counter to parental alienation under these circumstances. It is cour and state enforced parental alienation.
    End of story.

  • Katie

    Katie

    December 24th, 2017 at 9:24 PM

    What if one parent is a porn-addicted drug-taking sociopath? Who left the mom after convincing her to quit her job to take care of the kids? And who told her he never wanted kids? And who was away on “business” (actually business+ mistresses) while the mom took care of the kids. And who refuses to tell the kids who have now developed a substance abuse problem not to do drugs, because he does drugs and thinks it’s ok. And now he wants to leave and then come back and parent them and the mom doesn’t trust him to keep them safe? What then? Should mom now have to give up the kids part time and on holidays and suffer through alone while dad takes the kids and introduces him to his new girlfriend–the girlfriend that has agreed to participate in a gang-bang with him, because that’s what was missing with the mother of his children? Should mom still tell the kids how great dad is? When the kids choose dad over mom because he lets them drink and do drugs, should she sit back so as not to “alienate him”?

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