Since writing an article about parental alienation (What Parental Alienation Is and Is Not), several readers have asked for a follow-up article on how to prevent to minimize the damage of any alienation they have experienced. While others have said that parental alienation doesn’t happen, that it is pop-psychology, and it is not real.
I do agree that parental alienation is not a diagnosable disorder yet. However, to say that it doesn’t occur is inaccurate. Over the last 10 years in my private practice alone, I have been aware of more than a dozen such cases, some being mild while others are more severe. And have suspected many more in addition to that. Looking back on my own life as a child of divorced parents, my parental grandmother made every effort to alienate me from my mother who was my primary caretaker.
Part of my job as a therapist is to observe behavior, process said behavior, categorize and analyze it. Having said that, I do believe that parental alienation is real. But before we talk about counteracting it, it is prudent to have a common understanding of it.
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. It can happen unintentionally or intentionally depending on the nature of the situation.
What can a parent do? If you suspect some type of parental alienation, keeping a log of information for your purposes only is advisable. This will help to remind you of past comments, concerns, or connections that seem inappropriate or off. Later, this log can be presented to a therapist who understands this condition to see if your observations are consistent with alienation. Remember, that children/teens often go through an “I hate mom/dad” phase that is considered within the range of normal. This is why it is important to verify your concerns with a therapist before concluding that it is happening.
After verification, now what? Here are several suggestions for how to counteract the effects of alienation:
- Listen to your child. Have a time and space that is safe for your child to vent. This is commonly done at bedtime when a child is relaxed and perhaps more reflective. Listen openly to your child without comment, judgment, emotional reaction, or questioning. Just listen. Absorb what your child is saying and respond with empathy only. No solutions. No punishment. No pressure.
- This works because it is the counter to parental alienation. Remember in order for alienation to be effective, there is a constant barrage of misinformation, manipulation, and pressure. Creating a no-pressure-safe-zone helps your child to decompress.
- Play with your child. Have structured times of unstructured play in which you as the parent participate. During this time, the child is in charge of everything: what to play, how to play it, and the duration. Play therapist has used this technique for some time to discover a child’s hidden thoughts, emotions, and traumas/experiences.
- This technique puts the child in the driver’s seat which is very different from the home in which the alienation is occurring. Again, it is the anti-alienation environment that provides healing, awareness, and insight.
- Be patient with your child. At your house, your child should be free from questions or comments about the other household. In trying to find out about the alienation, some parents border on unintentional alienation. Don’t do this. Let your child come to you, offer empathy, show love, and express your concern but don’t talk bad about the other parent. If your child shows you anger, show them support and compassion. Some times a child releases the negative emotions in a space they feel is safe and not in the space that is causing the frustration.
- Patience with your child might need to last longer than a couple of days, it might turn into a couple of years. Regardless of how long it takes, show unconditional love whenever they return. Remember, you are the adult. Their child-like behavior is age-appropriate.
Parenting in a divorce situation is hard enough without all of the drama that comes with parental alienation. Keep the drama in your household to a minimum so your child can rest, heal, and recoup before they return to the hostile environment.