In my recent radio interview with Charles Jamison, an expert in parental alienation, we discussed the process by which this phenomena occurs. I asked Charles why a parent might alienate their child so aggressively. Charles informed me that there are several ways this might happen: a personality disorder with an alienating parent, or issues that have occurred within the marriage that have lead to extreme hate from one spouse to the other. Ultimately, however, what we have basically is the parent, having an agenda against the other parent, using the child as the pawn. The child is used by saying, if I get the child to hate dad or to hate mom, then I’m extracting some kind of revenge–whether it’s real or imagined–on the other parent.
The actions that one sees then are the denigration of the target parent. The child often is encouraged or programmed to present complaints in sort of rote matters, sometimes a trivial complaint, but many are false or irrational. The child often denies ever having a good experience with the targeted parent. One of the ways professionals and targeted parents can defend against these things is to go back early in the relationship with the child, pull out the home videos that show a relaxed, loving interaction between the child and the parent. If the child doesn’t recall that, then we know this is more of the result of programming than the result of any kind of reality.
There are other frivolous rationalizations for the child’s criticism of the targeted parent. For instance, the child’s hatred or disdain is just unjustified and disproportionate for what happened. So, they may say, “I don’t like daddy at all because daddy yells at me,” or, “I don’t feel safe with daddy because daddy yells at me.” There’s not a parent on the planet that hasn’t yelled at some point in time with their child and then probably at times inappropriately. But it doesn’t create a justification for the child to have total rejection of a relationship with the other parent.
However, there is a certain difference here between alienation and estrangement. Estrangement refers to some kind of warranted rejection or backing off of a relationship from a child from a parent. Alienation refers to an unwarranted rejection. For instance, we may have estrangement occurring where a child has witnessed domestic violence between the parents. That’s a warranted backing away. But sometimes we have a parent who is in the middle of a highly contested divorce case and maybe using what Charles calls “brittle parenting,” in other words, not doing the best parenting job that they can and there is estrangement happening from that. Again, it is not quite warranted but there’s a reason for it. But that can be fixed with a combination of some parenting coaching for the parent who is not parenting in the correct way and the child who is backing off a bit. But you have a more serious problem if it is warranted, where there may be some abuse that’s occurring to the child, maybe abuse that’s occurring between the parents. So, we have estrangement that’s warranted, estrangement that’s unwarranted, which is sort of in the middle, and then we have alienation, which is estrangement or that difficulty in the relationship that’s unwarranted.
Another possibility, not as extreme as alienation, is alignment, wherein a child (particularly a teenager) will align themselves with one parent or another. This can get worked through in therapeutic situations. However, there are also situations where families get stuck in this phase, and the dynamics between parents and children can grow much worse. In these situations, it takes a very knowledgeable divorce attorney (and judge, if you go through litigation) to know where to direct the divorcing parents, and how.