Parental Alienation

August 24th, 2015

At a very successful seminar recently hosted by the South Dublin Collaborative lawyers in the Stillorgan Park Hotel Anne Byrne Lynch spoke on the topic of parental alienation. She said that in many separation cases there are post-separation parent contact problems. These are usually mild and temporary and resolve within a couple of years.

These difficulties can manifest themselves in distress or behavioural difficulties on the part of the children but this will tend to settle down with sensible parenting. Parental alienation occurs in a small number of high conflict cases.

She explained that the feelings of resentment towards one parent are allowed to deepen and the child or children are encouraged to hold only negative views of that parent and align themselves wholly with the other parent.

A well renowned expert by the name of Johnson in 2005 described parental alienation as where a ‘child’ expresses freely and persistently unreasonably negative feelings and beliefs (such as anger, hatred, rejection and/or fear) towards a parent that are significantly disproportionate to the child’s experience with that parent.Entrenched alienated children are marked by “unambivalent, strident rejection of the parent with no apparent guilt or conflict”.

She then discussed the typical features of parental alienation as follows:

  • Campaign of denigration against the alienated parent
  • Lack of ambivalence
  • The independent thinker phenomenon (“ This is my own view”)
  • Reflexive support of the alienated parent
  • Cruelty towards the alienated parent with no remorse or guilt
  • The presence of borrowed scenarios
  • The spread of animosity to the extended family of the alienated parent.

An alienating parent will allow their children to be rude and badly behaved towards the other parent in a way that they would not allow them to behave to another adult.

She advised that children between the ages of 8 and 15 are most vulnerable to alienate.

She then described alienating behaviour;

  • Misinformation to the children, or their communication with the other parent is blocked.
  • A parent will reward negative conduct towards the other parent and the children will sense that positive contact with the other parent will be, in some way, punished.
  • Unfounded allegations of abuse,
  • The enmeshment of the children with one parent.
  • The rejection by one parent of the other parent’s “Inept” parenting.
  • Allegation of domestic violence/abuse and child abuse/neglect.
  • Chronic litigation in the form of tribal warfare (extended family become involved).
  • Sibling dynamics and pressure on children from siblings to go along with the rejection
  • Taking advantage of vulnerable children – children who are more likely to go with the “preferred” parent.

She then said that there were 3 types of alienating parents:

  1. Naïve- whereby the alienating parent unwittingly gives negative messages to the children about the other parent.
  2. Active- where parents are giving vent to their own hurt and anger and emotional vulnerability and lack empathy with the position of the other parent.
  3. Obsessed – these parents are persistent in wanting to destroy the other parent’s relationship with the child or children. They have no insight or self-control. They are unwilling to forgive. They have a high need for control. They may make false allegations of abuse.

Significant alienating behaviour by a parent is often associated with personality difficulties or personality disorder and far less commonly with mental illness.

For example;

Narcissistic personality traits:

  • These parents see the breakdown of their relationship as some kind of personal wound and strike back.

Borderline personality traits:

  • This is where the alienating parent reacts to strong feelings of abandonment and also tends to extremes in relationships, idealizing or demonise others.

Paranoid traits:

  • These may manifest themselves in high conflict divorce cases where a parent may be pushed into a highly paranoid position.

Sociopathic personality disorder:

  • These parents lack empathy and will tend to manifest extreme alienating behaviours.

The alienated parent may act in ways which contribute to their alienation;

  1. Passivity and a withdrawal from involvement with the children in the face of conflict.
  2. Counter-rejection
  3. Deficits in parenting

She then discussed interventions that can assist in counteracting parental alienation:

  • A pragmatic, well-monitored parenting plan
  • A parenting plan that is monitored by the Court- which will ensure accountability
  • Therapeutic intervention
  • Change of custody may be warranted in a small number of cases.

Research suggests parental alienation has serious consequences for children’s development. Johnson Walters and Oleson in 2005 opined that children who were caught up with parental alienation experienced problems later in life with processing information, coping, self-representation and emotional functioning and often exhibited an inflated self-confidence.

In a study 20 years after children of families where parental alienation existed, 60 percent showed impaired emotional functioning and 84 percent experienced difficulty in forming/retaining secure intimate relationships.

The talk was an extremely illuminating, practical and informative insight into parental alienation for those involved.

In response to a question, she did state that adults will very often later regret their negative and rejecting behaviour towards their parent as children and a very high proportion will make contact with the alienated parent.

In the South Dublin Collaborative Lawyer Group, we work with both parents, often with appropriate relationship /parenting experts, to defuse the level of conflict between parents in a marital breakdown, this reducing significantly the chances of parental alienation occurring.