How the Children React to Parental Alienation

In my recent radio interview with Charles Jamison, an expert in parental alienation, we discussed the affect parental alienation tactics might have on the children of divorce. Charlie explained that, once the parties start litigating, the tensions and emotions begin escalating and then the mom or dad starts thinking ill of the other parent.  There is generally some kind of child abuse allegation that erupts, potentially because one of the parents has been over-vigilant and over-reactive. Then there’s the separation of time while the allegation is being investigated.  Over this time, the child develops a fear of the other parent.  The accusatory parent–who we now call the alienating parent–is reinforcing that fear, whether or not the allegation is established.  In those cases, we can also see parental alienation becoming involved because of the highly contentious nature of the divorce.

All of these steps escalate into a dangerous and traumatizing conflict because of the stress of the initial conflict: the divorce. While one parent’s accusations might be misinterpretations of what’s being said or over-interpretations of what’s happening, they go off and get a domestic violence injunction against the other parent and then the conflict is escalated to a whole other level of complexity.  The judges want to be very careful when there’s a child abuse allegation that’s been raised, justifiably so.  They must make sure that they are making the right decision at the end of the case.

In these cases, the child or children are put in a very tough position. They often say to each parent what they think that parent wants to hear.  Accordingly, they might say whatever will draw them closer to the parent, not because they are bad kids, but because this is just part of this phenomenon.  Unfortunately, that impulse can rise to the level where a parent interprets something the child says as meaning something bad was happening with the other parent. In these cases, sometimes these abuse allegations can come to light because a young child believes that’s what the parent wants to hear and needs to hear.  But sometimes an older child will say what they need to remain emotionally safe within that family unit because they see who they’re going to end up with. Allegations are much worse in this latter case.

These false allegations arise because the child fears that if they do not say what the parent that they see as being in charge, in control, or what Charlie calls the victor parent, they don’t tend the party line or follow the party line, life can be a living hell for them.  Ultimately for the child, this is all about withdrawal of love.  It’s conditional love.  The child perceives that if they do and say what the victor parent wants, they will be loved.  If they don’t, they’ll be abandoned.

In divorce cases where a parent perceives that this kind of alienation may begin to arise, Charlie recommends taking as much time that you can with your child in terms of contact and visitation.  This provides to the child a reality, a proof to the child that who you are is completely different than the reality that the alienating parent is painting out for the child.

Sometimes, there are parents who blame the children.  It is crucial that this is not something to be blame the kids for. You’ve got to understand that your children sometimes are saying things, not because they’re real, but because they need to or have to. In these cases, even though it might feel emotionally better to retreat and worry, the thing to do is to become more active and push for more time even though that could be painful and difficult. Even if it’s emotionally difficult, financially difficult, or legally difficult, find indirect ways you can be in your child’s life; such as sponsoring some athletic team, showing up sports practices or recitals or games.  The child just has to know that you have not given up, even if it’s only on a subconscious level. There have been studies on adults who were alienated as children from one of their parents, and that’s one of the things in retrospect that they talk about, which is the parent never gave up on them.  That was the bridge that they could use later in life to reconnect.

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