A Case of Parental Alienation
Step inside one fictional family’s situation to learn common traits and potential solutions.
Parental alienation is a phenomenon that occurs in some families who are involved in a high-conflict separation and divorce. When child custody matters are being decided, divorce is often adversarial and contentious. It is estimated that 25% of all divorces involving children are high conflict, setting the stage for parental alienation to rear its ugly head.
Parental alienation is a pathological process that includes an alienating parent, an alienated child, and a rejected or targeted parent. The alienating parent employs a variety of tactics and maneuvers to convince the child that the other parent is unloving, undeserving, and even dangerous. Once convinced, the child develops the mental condition of parental alienation, which can be mild, moderate, or severe in intensity. The rejected parent almost always feels victimized, defeated, and hopeless.
The alienating parent’s maneuvers are usually hidden from public view, ferociously denied, and unwittingly carried out by the child. The maneuvers can be hard to detect because they often occur gradually.
A Case Study
Mary is a 14-year-old whose family consists of her mother (Helen), father (Steve), and 10-year-old brother (Max). Mary is a good student, has plenty of friends, and is on the tennis team at her school. She is, in many ways, a typical and healthy teenager.
After months of denials, Steve finally admitted to Helen that he was having an affair and wanted a divorce. He was not interested in marital therapy or any other corrective steps. He had been emotionally distant and disconnected for some time. Steve rented an apartment, moved out, and filed for divorce. The couple had been married for 17 years and Helen was shocked and heartbroken at her husband’s unfaithfulness and family-ending decisions.
Both children were extremely upset at the dissolution of their parents’ marriage because they had a strong relationship and bond with each parent.
Helen’s shock soon morphed into anger as she hired an attorney and embarked on the legal process of divorce. She increasingly felt deceived, disrespected, and betrayed. It infuriated her that Steve “abandoned the family” and “was going on his merry way without us.”
A temporary court order gave Helen primary custody of the children, and Steve was given a standard visitation schedule.
The legal process was slow and arduous because of Helen’s anger, condemnation, and refusal to agree to a quick settlement. Steve’s attorney filed a motion for a 50-50 final custody arrangement. Helen’s attorney counterfiled a motion for permanent primary custody of the children.
Privately, Helen vowed to keep the children away from their father because of several “alarming” allegations against him: that he had an explosive temper, that he had multiple affairs, and that he drank alcohol to excess in front of the children. At one point, Mary’s and Max’s visits with their father were halted by Helen because of her concerns about their mental and physical safety while with their father. Steve denied all the allegations against him and was perplexed at Helen’s increasing vindictiveness toward him.
During the many months of legal wrangling, Helen repeatedly bad-mouthed her absent husband to the children. She told them of her allegations against him. She said negative and hateful things about Steve’s parents. And she insisted that Steve not be involved in the children’s school, sports, and extracurricular activities.
Months into the separation, Helen reported that Mary had been physically abused by her father during a visit. She claimed that Mary had red marks on her legs, though she had no photos of it. Helen contacted the Department of Human Resources (DHR) and the police. After an investigation by DHR, the abuse was deemed “not indicated.” Criminal prosecution was denied. Steve adamantly denied any abusive behavior and was outraged at the suggestion of it.
At about the same time, Steve noticed that Mary was becoming more contemptuous and oppositional during her visits with him. She had aligned herself with her mother, and it was obvious that she viewed him as unloving and scary. Mary began calling her father by his first name to undercut his paternal role. While at his apartment, Mary isolated herself in her bedroom and refused to engage in any activities with him. She was constantly sullen and derogatory.
Mary eventually became totally alienated from her father—the definition of “severe” alienation. She was full of hostility toward him, and refused to go on weekend visits or talk to him on the phone. She did not respond to his text messages. She was completely cut off from him and showed no ambivalence or guilt about it.
Mary’s younger brother, Max, was not alienated from his dad. Since they liked sports, he felt a kind of masculine kinship with him. Max blamed his father for the family’s demise, but also had strong positive feelings toward him.
How Parental Alienation Forms
Parental alienation of a child typically occurs over time in a series of major and minor events. It is usually a gradual, insidious process. However, occasionally a child will progress from a loving, respectful relationship to angry rejection of a parent over a few weeks. It is hard to predict the course of this condition because outside observers do not fully understand what is happening in the child’s mind.
Mary’s alienation was caused and fueled by her mother, who allowed her anger and vindictiveness toward the children’s father to interfere with good parenting. She was determined that Mary would reject Steve. She convinced Mary to align with her and to view her father as worthy of castigation.
Because alienating behavior by a parent is hateful and intentional, the offending parent almost never admits to their conniving and malicious actions. In fact, to deceive others, offending parents often portray themselves as the victim. In this case, Helen actively denied being an alienating parent. She focused all her emotions and energy on her “disappointing” and “abusive” husband. She owned none of her alienating behavior.
Severe alienating behavior by a parent is considered child abuse by mental health practitioners because it actively undermines the child’s healthy adjustment. Cutting-edge research shows that a child’s long-term adjustment is dependent upon having a close relationship with both mother and father. Total rejection of a parent is harmful and unacceptable in most instances.
Steve was the rejected parent in this case. Although his behavior led to the end of his marriage, he did not deserve total rejection by his daughter. Requesting a divorce from Helen triggered her wrath and instigated the alienation process. Helen went to great lengths to prove to Mary that her father deserved her unrelenting fury. Unfortunately, it worked.
Treatment Can Be Successful
Treatment for parental alienation depends on the severity of the condition. Mild parental alienation—in which the child says he or she does not want to visit the targeted parent but enjoys the time when it happens—often responds to direct education of the parent by one or several attorneys, the mediator, a mental health expert, or the judge. Many times, the alienating parent will stop the destructive behavior once he or she has been confronted about it and understands how hurtful it is to the child.
Moderate parental alienation occurs when the child does not want to have visits with the targeted parent. When the visits occur, the child is predominantly oppositional and argumentative, but there may be moments when the child and the targeted parent are able to enjoy their time together. The rejection of that parent is partial, not total.
In these cases, treatment must include two components: individual therapy for the offending parent and reunification therapy for the alienated child and the rejected parent. Both components of treatment are vital to the resolution of the child’s parental alienation condition. Some cases may require a more comprehensive approach, including close collaboration with the court, a parenting coordinator, coaching for the targeted parent, and supportive attorneys.
Severe parental alienation occurs when the child’s rejection of the other parent is total. All contact between them has been stopped. In these cases, it is often necessary to extricate the alienated child from the offending parent’s influence. Removing the child from the care of the offending parent is necessary and can be accomplished successfully. Sometimes this removal is temporary, sometimes it becomes permanent. Placing the child with the rejected parent is often the indicated and wise plan.
In instances in which the child is not removed, treatment must once again contain two components: individual therapy for the offending parent and reunification therapy for the alienated child and the rejected parent. As mentioned, some cases may require a more comprehensive approach.
Fortunately for everyone, both treatment components were extremely successful. Helen’s individual therapist helped her recognize and stop her alienating behavior. Helen grew to understand that she was harming Mary with her malicious actions. And she came to believe that Steve is a good father who can be a healthy influence on the children.
Reunification therapy for Mary and Steve also achieved outstanding results. Mary’s sullen and contemptuous attitude toward her father melted away as she came to understand her mother’s negative impact on her. Mary was able to remember the good times she had experienced with her father prior to the separation and divorce. She began to view her father in a much more positive and loving way.
Steve had become anguished and hopeless over the course of Helen’s alienating tactics and maneuvers. Once he was able to reconnect with his daughter, he brightened with joy and optimism. They began talking to each other, engaging in activities, and making vacation plans.
Many professionals can make a difference in cases of parental alienation. Attorneys, mediators, social workers, mental health experts, and judges can individually and collectively help resolve this existential family crisis. Diagnosis of the condition is critical. A treatment plan that is focused and with clear expectations is vital.
Lastly, it’s important to note that both fathers and mothers can be alienating parents. It is not an exclusive phenomenon of one parent.
— Alan D. Blotcky, PhD, is a clinical and forensic psychologist in private practice in Birmingham, Alabama. He is also a clinical associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
— William Bernet, MD, is a professor emeritus in the department of psychiatry at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville. He is founder and president of the Parental Alienation Study Group in Nashville and an accomplished researcher and author in the field.