When parents divorce, most of them eventually put aside their hostilities toward the other and settle into a (more-or-less) cooperative co-parenting arrangement.
But sometimes, they don’t. When a parent remains bitter, hostile and aggrieved long after a divorce is over, they may purposefully try to “get even” with their co-parent by engaging in parental alienation. Parental alienation occurs when one parent deliberately manipulates a child’s feelings and perceptions to turn them against the other. This destructive phenomenon can have profound and lasting negative effects on both the targeted parent and the affected child.
How does parental alienation happen?
When a parent engages in parental alienation, it’s usually a fairly slow process. The parent may seek to poison the child’s relationship with the other parent through:
- Badmouthing: They may constantly criticize, belittle or speak negatively about the targeted parent to the child until the constant attacks on the targeted parent’s character start to warp the child’s perceptions.
- Limiting contact: This is a common tactic in parental alienation cases. Attempts to limit contact could come in the form of actively denying phone calls or physical visits (even in spite of court orders) between the targeted parent and the child or encouraging the child to claim they don’t want to see their other parent at all.
- Pressure to choose a side: The alienating parent may pressure the child to “choose sides” in the divorce and prove their loyalty by refusing to see the other parent.
- Lying: The alienating parent may outright lie about the targeted parent, claiming they were abusive, having affairs, hiding money or refusing to pay support, just to paint them as “the bad guy” in the child’s mind.
Parental alienation can have devastating consequences. Children subjected to parental alienation may experience depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and feelings of guilt and confusion and their relationship with both parents may be irrevocably damaged. Make no mistake: parental alienation is a form of emotional abuse.
Recognizing the signs of parental alienation and addressing the problem early is essential to prevent further harm. In severe cases, legal action may be required to protect a child’s relationship with both parents.