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Parental Alienation: Supporting Children after Separation

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

What is Parental Alienation?

Parental alienation describes the act, by one parent, of excluding the other parent from having appropriate access to their child. Sometimes it can even involve making the child reject the other parent completely.

Parental alienation comes in many forms. Parental alienation behaviours can be subtle, and somewhat covert, or obvious. Parental alienation can be passive or active.

Passive parental alienation includes subtle passive-aggressive behaviours. Passive-aggressive behaviours undermine the child’s engagement. They make the child feel guilty for having contact with the other parent. Parental alienation behaviour can be as simple as engaging a child in discussions which denigrate the other parent.

Parental alienation can also involve behaviours such as:

  • Discouraging a child from having contact with the other parent,

  • Asking the child to report on the other parent, and

  • Sabotaging visitations.

Always consider your child's wellbeing first.

The level of parental alienation increases in situations where one parent is angry with the other parent. Here the parental alienation becomes more overt and the child might be expected to choose between parents. This results in the child’s feelings and loyalty being torn between parents. The child is placed in a no-win situation.

When a child feels they have to choose between parents, they feel stressed and guilty. This is irrespective of what choice the child makes. If the child is loyal to one parent and ignores the other parent, they will feel guilty. If the child continues to maintain loyalty to both parents, they will feel they betrayed the alienating parent and feel guilty.

Where a child’s opportunities to access the other parent are restricted, this demonstrates a moderate level of alienation. The alienating parent, however, might deny they are engaging in parental alienation. This is cruel to both the child and the alienated parent. It is simply not acceptable.

In severe cases of parental alienation, there is consistent loathing of the other parent. The child is consistently subjected to discussions or behaviours denigrating the other parent. The child comes to understand the alienating parent does not want them to have a relationship with the other parent. Any relationship with the other parent is perceived by the child as betraying the alienating parent.

When a child has an alienating parent they might feel they have to adopt their beliefs. They might feel they have to reject the alienated parent. The child has to do this to maintain perceived love and support from the alienating parent.

The child might also come to believe the other parent was no good and with time reject them completely. They may develop resentment and hatred towards the alienated parent. The child might not be able to articulate the reason for those feelings. They might just repeat information provided by the alienating parent.

How Does Parental Alienation Affect Children?

Parental alienation can cause significant emotional and behavioural problems for children. While single-parenting can be done effectively, conflict after separation tends to have a range of negative effects on children. Negative effects can include poor school performance, difficulty making friends and increased risk of behavioural problems, antisocial behaviour and substance abuse.

As children develop and form their identity, they model from their parents behaviour and internalise their attributes. When a parent is alienated, the child may internalise this split causing fragmentation in their sense of self. Hence, they may fail to develop and integrate significant aspects of self that might be associated with the alienated parent.

What is Parental Alienation Syndrome?

Parental Alienation Syndrome is characterised by eight symptoms. A child might present with these symptoms if they are alienated from one parent over time. These eight symptoms are:

  1. A hatred toward the alienated parent.

  2. Weak reasons for the hatred toward the alienated parent.

  3. Little, or mixed, emotions toward the alienated parent.

  4. Denial of the rejection of the alienated parent.

  5. An automatic, instinctive feeling of idealised support toward the parent who instigated PA when there is conflict.

  6. Little, or no guilt or remorse, over how the alienated parent is treated or feels,

  7. Using situations and discussions that came from the alienating parent as support for their own negative feelings toward the other parent.

  8. Strong irrational dislike for, and alienation from, other acquaintances, friends and family of the alienated parent.

How Do Courts Deal with Parental Alienation?

Family courts treat parental alienation differently.

Parental alienation syndrome is somewhat controversial. This is because parental alienation is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The DSM-5 is used to categorise and standardise psychological and mental disorders. Courts, however, are obligated to consider the best interest of the child.

Due to significant delays in initiating and finalising court processes, parental rights can be adversely affected. When children are older, parents might be unable to pursue the matter in court. Court waiting times and delays, mean parental arrangements cannot be formally resolved before the child reaches an age of consent. When they reach an age of consent they are able to make their own decisions.

Even when a child can make their own decisions, the parental alienation process can prevent them making an appropriate, informed decision. Sadly, in such cases the alienated parent has little recourse or ability to exercise their rights as a parent. Parents who are alienated need support to manage this very distressing situation.

Children need the support of both their parents, even when they are separated. .

Why Access Psychological Counselling?

Parental alienation at best is emotionally challenging and at worst devastating. Having our bond and attachment to our children limited or removed is one of the most difficult situations anyone can experience. It is important to seek professional support to learn strategies to best manage this challenging experience.

The earlier you access psychological counselling the better. Counselling can help prevent your situation being compromised by emotional reactions and poor judgement. It can also help optimise your coping and sometimes the situation.

When parenting arrangements are improved through counselling it can limit, or even prevent, more adversarial and costly legal processes. Legal processes are time consuming, adversarial, lengthy, frustrating, expensive, and often do not have positive outcomes.

Helping a Child Subjected to Parental Alienation?

The severity and duration of parental alienation will influence the degree to which a child is affected. Bonding again with the alienated parent will take time and effort.

The alienated parent must consistently demonstrate unconditional love. The alienated parent must also avoid blaming the child. They also need to avoid showing negativity towards the other parent.

The following strategies do not necessarily work:

  • Waiting: The child and alienating parent are unlikely to change on their own.

  • Negotiating: The alienating parent is not likely to be reasonable. Any attempt to negotiate might tend to inflame the situation and increase conflict.

  • Appeasing: Often the alienating parent cannot be appeased. This is because they seek reassurance through enmeshment with the child. As a result they become committed to sabotaging the bond with the other parent.

  • Mediation: Mediation will only be effective if both parents are willing to commit to their child’s best interest. They must place the interest of the child before their own. Let's face it, if both parents were reasonable they probably would not need mediation!

An alienating parent who is angry and spiteful might have difficulty prioritising the child's needs over their own feelings. They might have a very 'black and white' perspective. Any negotiation might be perceived as a threat to their bond with the child.

Preventing Alienation of a Parent?

Preventing the alienation of a parent is the best cure for avoiding parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome. Parents should approach their separation with a child-centred approach to parenting to prevent parental alienation before it begins. A child needs a loving relationship and a strong parent/child bond with both parents. Ensuring this is critical to minimise the negative consequences of divorce on children.

The following guidelines help parents reduce, or even prevent, the damaging effects of parental alienation:

  • Never ask your child to provide information about the other parent,

  • Never speak negatively about the other parent in front of the child,

  • Always encourage your children to love and respect the other parent,

  • Always respect the child’s time with the other parent,

  • Never argue with the other parent in front of the child, and

  • Be on time for custody exchanges and respect the child’s visitation time with the other parent.

How Do Parents Approach Children Subject to Parental Alienation from the Other Parent?

Separation is very difficult. It involves significant change, loss, emotion and adjustment. Families experiencing parental alienation should seek counselling from a registered psychologist with experience in relationship counselling.

Being alienated from your child is distressing. Alienation can lead to feelings of anger, which when expressed to the child can further alienate you. If you ignore the child, however, this also sends a message to the child that you have abandoned them.

Parents need support to manage the experience of parental alienation. In some cases, it might also be appropriate for the child to receive individual support.

Here are some tips for supporting your child:

  • Learn to manage and regulate your feelings, emotions and reactions,

  • Avoid acting impulsively or irrationally,

  • Avoid having a negative influence on the child,

  • Actively encourage them to have regular visits with the other parent,

  • Ensure they have shared time with the other parent,

  • Let your child know you love them and will always support them unconditionally,

  • Maintain any form of contact and be positive,

  • Don’t get angry or blame children as they are being manipulated,

  • Do not retaliate against the other parent,

  • Keep accurate records and journal events, and

  • Seek psychological counselling.

How Can a Psychologist Help?

Parental alienation needs to be avoided for the interest of all parties, especially children affected by separation.

Separation is difficult. Everybody will have a better quality of life if the separation process is appropriately managed. The primary goal of establishing effective parental relations is to minimise the impact of separation on children. Children should enjoy a loving relationship with both parents.

A psychologists can assist you develop appropriate strategies. Appropriate strategies can assist manage and improve arrangements and communication between parents. The aim being to achieve better outcomes for all parties.

When to Seek Professional Help?

If you need support call iflow psychology on 02 6061 1144 to make an appointment. We provide face-to-face, telehealth and telephone psychological counselling.

If separation is affecting a family members work, school, home life or relationships, psychological assistance seek assistance.

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing difficulty with separation, parenting, parental arrangements, child access or parental alienation, support is available. If you need further assistance please contact iflow psychology or book an appointment. You can book an appointments online, or by calling my friendly admin staff on 02 6061 1144.

iflow psychology offers in-person (face-to-face), telehealth and telephone counselling. We are registered psychologists. We also offer Medicare Rebates when you have a doctors referral and Mental Health Plan. We would love to be part of your journey to a healthier lifestyle.

Location Details: iflow psychology is located in Leichhardt Inner West Sydney NSW Australia

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article are suggestions only. It is always advisable to speak with your treating doctor and health professionals before making changes. This is particularly important if you have health concerns or have existing medical conditions.

(c) 2021 Dean Harrison

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