Parental Alienation Is Real: (or, Co-Parenting With a Toxic Ex)

angry-b&wYes, parental alienation is real. The DSM-V (the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, that thick book your therapist pulls out in order to define the answer to What’s your problem?)–that tome that is utilized by everyone in the mental health professions–specifies that certain behaviors are considered psychological abuse of a child. (Previous editions only acknowledged physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect of a child.) These behaviors include berating the “alleged offender” (usually the other parent) in the child’s presence, and telling the child that person will harm or abandon them. This is done skillfully and often at the hands of alienators (targeting parents).
Fortunately, most parents do not alienate their children from the other parent, at least not intentionally. It does occur sometimes by accident, as parents may be careless about the words they utter when the children are within earshot. And there are many instances of low-level alienation that tend to work themselves out with time.
Some children are amenable to becoming alienated; others are not. Thank goodness for the invulnerability of those others.
If you have a friend whose children inexplicably reject him or her, please do not reassure your friend that children always come around. Some do; some don’t.
If you or a friend sees the beginnings of inexplicable rejection, I highly recommend reading “Co-Parenting With a Toxic Ex” by Amy J. L. Baker and Paul R. Fine. It is basically a workbook, an excellent step-by-step guide for parents who need to both recognize and counteract whatever is going on. Some suggestions sound counterintuitive; don’t give up before you read the explanations.
Some children are alienated by the same person who abused their mother (or father). There is a major element of control and sometimes revenge. The children are frequently so hateful to the targeted parent that it is tempting to just give up. Please don’t; your children need both parents (absent one or both parents being an actual physical danger to them).
Some of the signs of potential parental alienation that have resonated with me are:
When they complain about how awful the targeted parent is, the complaints are often over miniscule issues, such as “She/he wouldn’t buy me the $250 shirt I wanted.” Sometimes the children will blatantly lie about the targeted parent. They feel no compunction to treat this parent with even basic courtesy, such as thanking them for huge gifts. (And don’t think this won’t carry over to how they behave in the larger world.) The words they use in their tirades are often the exact phrases that have been previously used by the targeting parent.
A favorite scheme of targeting parents is “erase and replace,” meaning that children are often taught that Dad (or Mom) no longer deserves that title. Children are made to call the new stepparent Dad or Mom, and to call the actual parent by their first name whenever the targeting parent is around. Vacations are often planned by the targeting parent in direct conflict with the target’s court ordered parenting time. Or the less-favored parent is invited to come to school events and then made to sit far away from the child and to not be acknowledged in any way. Sometimes the targeting parent manages to “one-up” every gift from the targeted parent: Dad saved his money to take the child to the play she always wanted to see, so Mom then takes her to New York to see the Broadway version.
As you can see, this teaches children to be manipulative. It is clearly not good parenting. But there is hope.
Amy J. L. Baker and Paul R. Fine have done excellent research. I highly recommend “Co-Parenting With a Toxic Ex” as a guidebook to minimize and counteract the negative messages your child may receive.

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