Frustrated over the financial outcome of her divorce, Maria passively-aggressively told her two kids, “I can’t afford anything, go ask your dad, he has all the money.” At first, her kids expressed disappointment which allowed them to bond with Maria’s self-imposed victimization from the settlement. But as soon as that diminished and her kids failed to show any further concern or give Maria attention, she escalated. “Your dad stole from me,” she started saying instead, “He promised me he would always take care of me and he broke his promise. You can’t trust him.”
Again, the kids sided with their mom because their dad had recently disciplined one of them for lying. But after a while, the kid’s zeal for their mom’s victimization died down. So Maria once again intensified the comments, “One day your dad will leave you the way he left me. He left because he knew he would be making more money and didn’t want me to have any. You should keep an eye on him.” This worked for a while and the kids pulled away from their dad, but just as before they became distracted and started to re-engage with their father.
Now in full-blown rage over her kid’s connection to their dad, Maria unloaded on them claiming, “You are not loyal to me. I do everything for you and your dad does nothing. He gets all the attention and I’m treated like trash. Your dad is turning you away from me! You are so ungrateful!” Completely confused and frustrated by the comments, the kids broke down in tears. Maria just stared at them and said, “Your guilty conscience is getting to you.”
Several years ago, Maria was diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder which was a contributing factor in the divorce. What Maria’s ex did not realize is that the same attacks he endured would be experienced by his children. Saddened by what the kids were telling him, he reached out to a therapist. He had never heard of parental alienation until it was pointed out as a possibility. But what is it and why does a narcissist do this?
What is parental alienation? Parental alienation occurs when one parent encourages their child to unfairly reject the other parent. The child might display signs of unwarranted fear, hostility, and/or disrespect toward one parent while displaying signs of loyalty, unconditional trust, and/or empathy towards the other. The contrast in behavior, emotional responses, and thoughts towards each parent are dichotomous. The child may or may not be able to communicate logical reasoning for the difference.
Does a narcissist do this intentionally? This can be either a yes or no answer. Some narcissists border on sociopathic behavior and therefore are likely to intentionally attempt to alienate a child from the parent while other narcissists do this to cover up their feelings of embarrassment. The difference can be seen in the approach. The intentional efforts are very logical, systematic, tend to build over time, and are done incrementally. The unintentional efforts are sporadic, poorly planned, intermixed with a lot of negative emotional expression, and chaotic.
Why do they do it? The Achilles heel of every narcissist is deep-rooted insecurity which is strictly guarded. Any harmful exposure of them, an unveiling of their perfectionism, uncovering of their superiority complex, or some form of embarrassment sends them over the edge. A divorce is a ripe ground for revealing their vulnerabilities. Therefore, they “circle the wagons” and retaliate against the ex by trying to turn the children against the other parent.
Do they succeed? Again, this is first a yes and then becomes a no answer. In the beginning, they are very successful at parental alienation, just as they are successful at the beginning of any relationship because of their charm and natural way of attracting others to them. They do this through gift giving, becoming the permissive parent, or the Disney fun parent. However, given enough time, most everyone sees the narcissistic behavior for what it is: self-serving. Narcissists tend to pick a favorite child, so the “favorite” might take a bit longer to come to this realization that the other forgotten children who have already been tormented by the narcissism.
What can be done? The key here is to not become like the narcissist when confronting them. Don’t counteract the negative comments with more negativity. Instead, speak to the child like this, “I’m sorry your mom said those things about me, they are not true. I love you too much to put you in the middle of this.” Remember, the child is part of both of their parents and disrespecting one parent over another is like disrespecting ½ of the child. The child cannot divorce ½ of themselves and should not be asked to. If the child is resistant, give it time – the narcissist will reveal themselves.
Maria’s ex took the advice of the therapist and within a few months of patiently waiting for his kids to respond more positively, they did. He managed to create a safe place for the kids to express themselves without fear of being retailed against. This helped the kids to heal and had an almost reverse effect on the parental alienation.