Notes and Excerpts from:
Darnall, D. (1998). Divorce casualties: Protecting your children from parental alienation. Dallas, Texas: Taylor Publishing Company.
Darnall notes that children's adjustment and mental health depend directly on how well their parents get along.
Some parents are deliberate in their desire to alienate. Others alienate without realizing what they are doing.
In this book, Darnall addresses the following:
How important it is to avoid alienating your children from their other parent
How to recognize the symptoms of parental alienation syndrome
What to do if your ex-spouse is trying to alienate your children from you
How your behavior may be aggravating alienation
How to understand your own motivations for alienating your children from the other parent
Practical methods to minimize the alienation's malignancy
When and how to seek professional help for yourself or your children
How to work effectively with attorneys, mediators and counselors
There is a difference between parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome. Parental alienation focuses on how the alienating parent behaves toward the children and the targeted parent. Parental alienation syndrome symptoms describe the child's behaviors and attitudes toward the target parent after the child has been effectively programmed and severely alienated from the target parent.
The children may have motivations that make the alienation worse. Their self-serving outlook for immediate gratification or their desire to avoid discomfort makes them vulnerable allies for siding with the alienating parent
By the time the children have come to agree with the alienating parent, it is usually too late to prevent significant damage.
Divorced parents should understand that their children need to love both parents and the parents should help the children see the other parent's good points.
Targeted parents can become alienators when they retaliate because of their hurt. It is important to understand that alienation is a process.
Understanding parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome is paramount for a child's welfare and a parent's peace of mind. Divorced parents, grandparents, judges, attorneys, and mental-health workers all need to understand the dynamics of parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome, recognize the symptomatic behavior, and execute tactics for combating this malady.
Various studies have shown that youngsters exposed to even mildly alienating behaviors may have trouble learning, concentrating, relaxing, or getting along with their peers. They have been known to develop physical symptoms, such as severe headaches and serious behavior problems.
Alienation will have lasting effects on your children, even into adulthood.
Some degree of alienation occurs in all but the friendliest divorce.
Most parents sincerely believe in the value of their children having a healthy relationship with both parents. During the crisis of divorce, most parents will consciously work on strengthening this relationship. They will try to build this relationship without degrading the other parent or causing the children to feel a divided loyalty. They encourage visits, talk kindly of the other parent in their children's presence and set aside their own negative feelings to avoid causing their children distress.
Unfortunately, such noble efforts are not always successful and long lasting. In later years, many parents consciously or unconsciously, begin a divisive campaign to alienate the children from the targeted parent. This can be done by insinuations and innuendos. Changes in the tone of your voice, a loss of eye contact, fighting off a teardrop, or a forced smile are all examples of innuendos that children see or react to. Not wanting to cause you any more hurt, they may pull away and get quiet.
Factors contributing to alienation:
Custody litigation, continuing custody battles, expectations you or your spouse bring out of the marriage, how well or poorly you resolve conflict, the adversarial nature of divorce, sexist attitudes, reasons for resentment, urge to retaliate, the need to preserve your dignity, the children's personalities and ability to cope, the judicial system
Three types of parental alienators: Naïve: passive about the children's relationship with the other parent and occasionally do or say something to alienate; Active: Know better but their intense hurt or anger causes them to impulsively lose control over their behavior or what they say; Obsessed: fervent cause to destroy the targeted parent.
“Tell your father that he has more money than I do, so let him buy your soccer shoes”
Most healthy parent mean well and recognize the importance of the children having a healthy relationship with the other parent. They rarely have to return to court because of problems with visits or other issues relating to the children. They encourage the relationship between the children and the other parent and that parent's family. Communication between parents is usually good. They focus on what is good for the children without regret, blame or martyrdom.
They recognize the importance of the children spending time with the other parent so they can build a mutually loving relationship. They avoid making the other parent a target for their hurt and loss. They feel secure with the children's relationship with the other parent's family. They respect court orders and authority. They are able to let their anger and hurt heal and not interfere with the children's relationship with their other parent. They are able to be flexible and willing to work with the other parent. They allow the other parent to share in their children's activities. They are able to share medical and school records.
“I don't want you to tell your father that I earned this extra money. The miser will take it from his child support check. Which will keep us from going to Disney World. You remember, he's done this before when we wanted to go to Grandma's for Christmas”.
Most parents who return to court over problems with parenting time are active alienators. They have a problem controlling their frustration, bitterness, or hurt. Active alienators lash out in a way to cause or reinforce alienation against the targeted parent. Active alienators are usually willing to accept professional help and are sincerely concerned about their children's adjustment to the divorce.
Lashing out at the other parent in front of the children. Loss of self-control when they are upset. After calming down, try to repair any damage to children which includes comforting and supportive of the child's feelings. During flair ups of anger, the delineation between the child and parent's beliefs can become blurry. Can sometimes be rigid and uncooperative with the other parent which is usually a passive attempt to strike back at the other parent for some injustice.
“I love my children. If the court can't protect them from their abusive father, I will. Even though he's never abused the children, I know it's a matter of time. The children are frightened of their father. If they don't want to see him, I'm not going to force them. They are old enough to make up their own minds.”
The obsessed alienator is a parent or sometimes a grandparent, with a cause: to align the children to his or her side and together, with the children, destroy their relationship with the targeted parent. This alienator enmeshes the children's personalities and beliefs into their own. This is a process that takes time, but it is one that children, especially the young, are completely helpless to combat. This parent is angry, bitter or feels betrayed by the other parent. The initial reasons for the bitterness may be justified, however the problem occurs when the feelings don't heal but, instead, become more intense due to the necessary continued relationship with a person they despise because of their common parenthood. Just having to see or talk to the other parent is a reminder of the past and triggers the hate.
The best hope for children is early identification of the symptoms and preventions.
Characteristics of Obsessed Alienation:
Obsessed with the destruction of the child's relationship with the targeted parent
Enmeshing the children's personalities and beliefs about the other parent with their own. The children will parrot the obsessed alienator rather than express their own feelings. The targeted parent, and often the children, cannot tell you the reasons for the obsessed alienator's feelings.
Their beliefs become delusional and irrational. No one, especially the court, can convince them that they are wrong. Anyone who tries is the enemy.
They seek support from family members, quasi-political groups and friends to share in their belief that the other parent and the system victimize them.
There is unquenchable anger. They believe they have been victimized by the targeted parent and whatever they do to protect the children is justifies.
Remember, to some degree alienation can't be helped.
Anyone who understands alienation agrees that parental alienation hurts children, probably for many years. When parents are tempted to use the children as pawns to hurt, control or exclude the other parent, youngsters find it difficult to heal.
Typically, younger will react faster and are usually more expressive of their feelings in a divorce. They may act out with tempter tantrums, have nightmares, regress or become clingy. Boys are more likely to act out their feelings while girls become more withdrawn and depressed. Older children and teenagers may defy your authority, become more aggressive by hitting or punching their siblings, withdraw from the family, fight with their friends, escape to their room for hours at a time, show less interest in pleasurable activities, neglect their schoolwork or become overly sensitive and critical.
Researchers usually look at children's academic performance, school attendance, symptoms of depression or anger, behavior problems and social skills as indicators of adjustment for children affected by divorce. Children making a poor adjustment will withdraw, appeared depressed or angry, act up and lose their motivation and interest in school.
Research on Children's Adjustment to Divorce
Children appeared better adjusted to a divorce after two years than they did after one year.
Children having emotional problems before the divorce will have greater problems adjusting after the divorce.
Divorce does not have to interfere with a child's normal psychological growth.
Younger children have more problems adjusting to divorce than older children.
Children from divorced families are more aggressive, demanding, unaffectionate, disobedient and angry.
A child's understanding of the divorce did not aid in their adjustment.
Boys have greater difficulty adjusting to a divorce than girls and the negative effects of divorce last longer for boys than girls.
The less conflict between parents after the divorce, the better the children adjust
The children having a positive relationship with their Noncustodial parent had better academic and social adjustment.
Boys who maintain contact with their father adjust better to the divorce than boys who do not maintain contact.
Symptoms of Parental Alienation
Your child refuses to give reasons for not wanting to visit
The child is unable to express reasons for hating you or your family
You allow your children to choose whether or not to visit
You tell your child everything about why the marriage failed and give them details about the divorce settlement
You refuse to give the other parent access to records or schedules of activities
You blame your ex-spouse in your child's presence for not having enough money, changes in your lifestyle or other problems
You do not acknowledge that your children have personal property.
You become rigid about parenting time schedule for no good reason other than getting back at your ex-spouse
You assume that your ex-spouse is dangerous because he or she had threatened you in the past during an argument.
You make false allegations against the other parent of sexual abuse, using drugs or abusing alcohol, or other illegal activities.
You ask your children to choose you over the other parent. You remind your children that they have a reason to feel angry toward their other parent.
You suggest an adoption or change in name should you remarry.
You give children reasons for feeling angry toward the other parent even when they have no memory of the incident that would provoke the feeling.
You have special signals, secrets, words with unique meaning or a private rendezvous, suggesting to your children that there is something wrong with the other parent.
You use your children as a witness against their other parent.
You ask your children to spy or covertly gather information to be used later against the other parent.
You set up temptations that interfere with parenting time.
You give your children the impression that it will hurt your feelings if they have a good time on a visit.
You ask the children about your ex-spouse's personal life.
You rescue your children from the other parent when there is no danger.
These are a few of the symptoms of alienation. One common characteristic of all the symptoms is that the alienator's behavior causes the child tremendous anxiety and conflict
The prevention of parental alienation syndrome becomes possible when you begin to recognize the impact your words and behavior have on your children and make a conscious effort to address the unique needs and feelings they have developed because of your divorce. This requires sensitivity and a more charitable attitude toward your former mate than you have had in some time. You owe it to your children to as least, try to heal, forgive and parent cooperatively.
Research has repeatedly shown that children who are actively involved with both parents without conflict make the best initial and long-term adjustment to divorce.
What do your children need:
Your children need you to be there for them.
Your children need your approval and encouragement.
Your children need you to recognize that they are unique individuals with their own personalities, perceptions and preferences, and to treat them accordingly.
Your children need you to encourage them to have a positive relationship with their other parent.
Your children need you to show them how to respond to stressful situations in emotionally healthy ways.
Your children need you to maintain as many family or community ties as possible.
Your children need you and your ex-spouse to make every effort to peacefully resolve any differences of opinion on how to raise them after the divorce. Cooperation and communication between divorced parents is crucial for children's present and future well-being.
Obstacles to Effective Parenting:
The inability to separate ex-spousal issues from parental ones. Ex-spousal issues may include feelings of betrayal, anger, feeling inadequate, memories of being controlled, belittled, abused, lied to and anticipation of the same
Reacting through a lens clouded by pain, anger, bitterness and memories of past experiences that turned out poorly
New, blurred boundaries between you and your ex-spouse - the rules have changed
Why parents alienate:
Believe all their problems with their ex-spouse will go away if they can convince the children to hate that targeted ex-spouse
Hurt, bitterness and anger
Regain self-esteem in an irrational way
Alienation because of feelings of entitlement, “I'm his mother. You aren't the one who gave birth.”
Alienation because of protective feelings for children
Alienation to save face
Alienation for the sake of winning - children always lose in the parents' power struggle. E.g. Any suggestion, whether or not it is a good suggestion, triggers the anger. Some parents will fight for their belief that their way for parenting is best. Some parents will rationalize their insistence that their way is better by proclaiming that “children needs consistency”.
Ways to alienate:
Whatever motivates the alienator, the results are almost always the same. The alienating parent strives to strengthen the children's psychological dependency on him/herself while sacrificing the children's relationship with the other parent.
Common cycle of Alienation:
Parent A triggers an emotional response in Parent B
Parent B's defenses are raised - defend or retaliate
Parent B responds to the perceived attack
Parent A uses that response against Parent B
Common alienating tactics:
Make derogatory comparisons
Revealing inappropriate information to the children
Making excessive demands on the children
Making Idle threats
Secrecy and Spying
Parenting time is important. The amount of time children spend with their Noncustodial parent is often a barometer of alienation.
Why wouldn't a parent want parenting time with his children.
Relationship with former spouse as major obstacle
Children too old or too busy
Children lived too far away
Parents who rigidly follow the court ordered parenting time schedule may often do so to satisfy their own needs rather than those of their children or ex-spouse. A request for a change in the schedule may be met with an angry rebuttal, “Why should I let you bring Tracy home late? You wouldn't give me the same courtesy.” The rejecting parent may feel a sense of power in being able to say “no” to the other parent's request.
Whatever the relationship, your siblings and in-laws should not get caught up in the conflicts or make an issue about who should have custody or how visits should be arranged. These issues are none of their business and their involvement will usually cause more animosity.
Most grandparents are well meaning, but they too can get caught up in the alienation cycle. Grandparents should not help unless asked. A parent's right to parent needs to come before the grandparent's right to parent. Some grandparents actively participate in their offspring's campaign against his or her ex-spouse and perhaps are instigators.
Douglas Darnall, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and CEO of PsyCare, an outpatient psychology center in Youngstown, Ohio. He teaches workshops on parental alienation syndrome and divorce to mental health care professionals.