Alienation in Families: What it Looks Like and What to Do About It
By Peggie Ward, Ph.D.
To prevent the family wars and parent child ruptures caused by the dynamics of
parental alienation, it is essential to recognize the symptoms. When children begin to
exhibit hatred for, or refusal to see one parent in a heated separation/divorce/post
divorce the focus often turns to the parents and what each has contributed. Child
rejection of a parent is relatively rare, occurring in 20 - 27% of custody litigating
samples (Johnston, Walters, Olesen 2004 FCR). When it occurs it is devastating for the
parent who loses contact, and may be damaging for the child. (There is not enough
research to state definitively that it IS damaging for all children, although in any
specific case the damage may be apparent).
Some of the symptoms of parental alienation, expressed behaviorally are parents who:
- Give children choices about contact when they have no choice "You are old
enough to decide for yourself"
- Tell children all there is to know (that is damaging) about the marital
relationship "I just wanted to be honest; he/she asked."
- Refuse to let children's possessions move back and forth between residences.
- Refuse to be flexible about child contact with the other parent, or scheduling
events, activities on the other parent's time. "We really wanted to see this movie,
and it was only showing during this time".
- Believe all the negative that a child has to say about the other parent (and not
attending to the positive).
- Keep secrets with a child about "special times or events" deliberately to keep the
other parent out.
- Use the children as spies, and ask them details of the time with the other parent;
is invested in hearing the negative and using it against the other parent.
- Let the children know that you are doing everything to make certain they are
"absolutely safe" with the other parent, when there is no demonstrated threat to
- Listen in to or being in close proximity to the child who is talking to the other
parent "did that jerk say something bad about me again".
- React to normal anger, distress, frustration, sadness as if it were caused by the
other parent "That idiot, doesn't he/she know that you get upset when he/she yells at
you. I'll call and let him know how much you hate this."
Children are likely to have anxiety or other difficulties when moving back and forth
between households of warring parents. Problems arise when these anxieties are not
properly dealt with by both parents. Many high conflict parents are ambivalent and
skeptical about the value of contact with the other parent, particularly when the
child is symptomatic. Consequently many high conflict parents are NOT ADEPT at
soothing the child and making the child feel safe and competent to handle the changes.
Parents failure to deal with their child's anxieties, exacerbated by mounting conflict
between the parents can result in serious developmental damage and ultimately make the
child vulnerable to alienation.
There are many contributors to alienation, in the more attached parent, the more
rejected parent, the child and in the system itself. The more attached parent has
extremely negative views of the rejected parent, sees separation and divorce as a loss
and feels anxious, sad and fears being alone, puts all blame on the divorcing spouse
who is now all bad and lets the children know just how bad, uses the child for emotion
support and sabotages the relationship with the rejected parent (the list is much
longer). The rejected parent is often inept and unsympathetic with their youngsters
(particularly compared with the closer attachment to the more connected parent), is
initially passive in face of high conflict, but can pursue and barrage children
relentlessly, may see the child's reactions as "the other parent talking" or "he/she
is brainwashed", may have anger toward and thus rejection of the alienated child, may
be critical, intimidating and easily enraged. (It is essential to distinguish violence
in the family relationship which has been seen, heard or experienced by the child from
frustration and anger following the stages of the rupture in the relationship).
Within the family, it is important to understand that allied parents may be
extraordinarily naive about their own neediness, have confused emotional boundaries
with their children, see their children as equals "best friends", and give their
children a great deal of authority over decision making. Rejected parents are likely
to be over autocratic, demanding, rigid and punitive. Their parenting style can be
markedly authoritarian. The family tends to splits into good and bad, right and wrong,
with only the negative in one parent, and the children forced to make a choice between
good and "bad, to their own detriment. Children show huge disproportion between the
rejected parent's behavior and the child's perceptions, use the same incident or
reason over and over to justify no contact, have little or no details to support their
assertions, are cognitively mature enough to align with one parent (7 year old and
older), and tend to be more vulnerable in a variety of ways to the good - bad split.
It is essential, before assuming alienation is present to have a full evaluation of
the family system. It is also essential to understand who contributes what, why and
how. Once the family dynamics and individual contributions are understood, and safety
concerns have been fully evaluated, rupture repair is possible. For "Rupture Repair"
to work it is likely essential to have a Court Order or Stipulation for specific
contact to occur, with a specified "Rupture Repair Therapist" who will have the
freedom to meet with all parties, individually or together, in whatever fashion he/she
deems necessary. The problem is defined as "the resistance to contact" and not within
any one person. Everyone must be part of the solution, and no one person is the
problem. Meetings generally begin with the "aligned parent", as it is crucial to gain
this persons trust and willingness to "allow" to process to begin. Costs and benefits
of the current strategy are discussed.
The next meeting is with the rejected parent, and in this meeting it is essential to
understand the rejected parent's frustration, as well as to assess this parent's
limitations, and begin the process of "coaching" to help this parent become a better
parent to his/her child. Meeting with the children comes next - with a further
explanation of the mandate, and agreement by BOTH parents as to how to proceed; the
child will slowly be taken out of the middle (for some children, the middle has
rewards as well as drawbacks, so the work is slow). The work then alternates and
focuses on which member or members of the family are most resistant, and how to help
each see alternatives. There is much success with the "Rupture Repair" model. Careful
evaluation leading to Court Mandate and an experienced therapist working with the
entire family system can help move these alienated children and their parents to a
more age-typical form of interaction with both parents. Individual therapy does not
work to repair the ruptures in these cases, although it may be necessary as an
adjunct. Only carefully planned and orchestrated family work by the SAME family
therapist who is able to establish an honest, trusting relationship with all family
members can help reduce the alienation in the family and work through the healing
Peggie Ward, Ph.D. is founder and co-director of the Co-Parenting Assessment Center
(with Mira Levitt, Ph.D.), and has worked as a GAL, Parenting Coordinator, mediator
and treating therapist for many years. Also she has written, and spoken extensively on
the topic of Alienation, and Rupture Repair.