Reversing Parental Alienation After Divorce
High-conflict divorce can be emotionally devastating to a family, particularly when parental alienation occurs. Named by child psychologist Robert Gardner in 1985, parental alienation is a situation where a child grows to hate and completely reject one parent in favor of the other without legitimate justification, such as abuse. This behavior is seen most often in bitter divorce and custody battles.
If you’re in a high-conflict divorce and believe that your child is becoming alienated from you, it’s important that you take steps to prevent or reverse it as quickly as possible. Reversing parental alienation can be tough once it’s entrenched. Here’s what you should know.
How does parental alienation occur?
Parental alienation after divorce usually develops when one parent intentionally encourages or pressures the child to turn against the other parent. The alienating parent may achieve this by persistently denigrating the target parent in front of the child, magnifying their shortcomings, discouraging contact with them, fabricating stories of neglect or abuse, and more.
Mental health community professionals recognize Parental Alienation Syndrome as a mental disorder, although it is not listed as a separate diagnostic category in the DSM-5. Many psychologists consider alienating a child from their other parent to be a form of psychological child abuse.
What are the signs of parental alienation?
It’s important to recognize signs of alienation so you can start counteracting it as soon as possible. Psychologists look for these eight potential symptoms:
- A campaign of denigration. Despite having a previously healthy and loving relationship, the child suddenly becomes consistently hostile with the targeted parent due to the alienating parent’s persistent denigration.
- Absurd excuses for hostility. The child offers ludicrous, untrue, or weak rationalizations for their hostile behavior (e.g., “I hate the way you cook,” “You’re ugly,” “You abused mom/dad,” etc.)
- Lack of ambivalence. The child can find no redeeming qualities in the alienated parent.
- Insistence on “independent thinking.” The child insists that their reasons for hating the targeted parent are their own and have nothing to do with the alienating parent.
- An absence of guilt. The child feels no remorse about their hostile attitude toward the alienated parent.
- Reflexive support for alienating parent. The child’s always sides with alienating parent and refuses to see the targeted parent’s perspective.
- Borrowed phrases and scenarios. The child uses adult language borrowed from the alienating parent or makes accusations about the alienated parent that aren’t true or haven’t witnessed.
- Rejection of extended family. The child no longer wants to see formerly beloved family members from the targeted parent’s side.
How to reverse parental alienation after divorce?
The treatment of parental alienation depends on the severity of the condition.
Mild. A child with mild parental alienation may become resistant to spending time with you but ultimately enjoys your company once you’re alone together. In such cases, it may help to ask the family court judge to order the alienating parent to stop denigrating you in front of the child. You might also ask a parenting coordinator to help you and your ex-spouse communicate and co-parent better.
Moderate. In moderate cases, your child may strongly resist contact with you and remain hostile throughout your time together. Under these circumstances, it’s essential to work with a therapist who can help improve communication between the parents. The child may also benefit from individual therapy.
Severe. When a child has severe parental alienation, they may resist contact with the alienated parent to the point where they run away or hide to avoid spending time with that parent. In such cases, the court may remove the child from the alienating parent’s custody and establish boundaries with the alienating parent. However, this course of action can be dangerous as well, as the child may feel traumatized, guilty, and feel they’re being punished, and may further act out as a result.
No matter the degree of alienation, it’s crucial that the alienated parent:
- remains patient and calm. No matter how tested you feel by their behavior, control your emotions. If you don’t, your child will feel further justified in their rejection of you.
- listens empathetically to their child. Ask their opinions, and give them options as to how you spend your time together.
- maximizes their time with the child. The more time you spend together, the more opportunities you’ll have to show them through your actions that their hostility is unjustified.
Get help with Parental Alienation
Sadly, parental alienation cannot always be reversed. The keys to successfully treating the condition is catching it early and containing alienating parent’s behavior. If you see signs of parental alienation, speak with an experienced psychologist and your divorce lawyer immediately.