The term “Parental Alienation Syndrome” was first used in 1985 by Dr Richard A Gardner who observed a pattern of behaviour in children who were the subject of high conflict divorce proceedings. Dr Gardner’s work was widely criticised for not being rooted in known psychological constructs. It was not accepted as a syndrome by the American Psychological Association and it gets constant attacks from “feminist” researchers and women’s rights groups. Whilst Gardner’s work shined a light on a serious problem that can cause mental illness in children and rejected parents it has failed to become widely accepted in 35 years.
Severity of alienation
In their book “Understanding Parental Alienation: Learning to Cope, Helping to Heal”, Karen and Nick Woodhall describe the signs associated with each level of alienation.
- Child is reluctant to come to your home and then reluctant to go back to the other parent’s home
- Child has occasional outbursts of defiance or anger
- Child tells you things that they have been told
- Child frequently wants to be in touch with the other parent when they are with you.
- Child fights against coming to spend time with you
- Child is surly and withdrawn with outbursts of anger when with you
- Child spends a lot of time seeking ways of challenging you and undermining you
- Child displays some core signs of alienation but varies in intensity
- Child consistently aligns self with the other parent when in your care.
- Child refuses to spend time with you
- Child shows distinct core signs of alienation
- Child refuses to discuss their rejection of you with you or anyone else
- Child acts as if they are phobic or afraid of you
- Child behaves as though they have authority over you
They maintain that children who show a severe reaction to alienation may show signs of employing psychological splitting as a coping mechanism and may make up false allegations in order to facilitate the separation from the rejected parent as quickly as possible. Severe alienation could be in place if a child shows all 8 signs of alienation which were first identified by Gardner.
Five Factor Model of “parental alienation”
- Contact refusal – the child no longer wants contact with a parent.
- Positive relationship prior to contact refusal – evidenced by photos, witnesses, gifts given to the parent from the child.
- Absence of abuse or neglect on the part of the alienated parent – as found by a lack of evidence.
- Alienating behaviours of the preferred parent (Dr Amy Baker’s 17 strategies – see below)
- Child manifesting symptoms of Parental Alienation (Dr Gardner’s 8 signs – see below)
17 strategies/behaviours people employ to manipulate a child to reject a parent
Dr Amy Baker describes 17 strategies/behaviours used to create conflict between the child and their parent which eventually, drives the child’s complete rejection. The term “target parent” refers to the parent against whom the strategies are used and “alienating parent” is used to describe the parent who is trying to bring about the rejection:
- Badmouthing or denigrating the other parent
- This would have to be a steady stream of negative messaging that conveys to the child that everything the target parent does is wrong.
- Every minor flaw is exaggerated and used as “proof” that the target parent doesn’t love the child or take care of them properly.
- Limiting contact
- Anything that erodes parenting time e.g. dropping the kids off late, picking up the kids early or arranging activities for the child to do when it is the target parents appointed time.
- As time goes on and the erosion of parenting time is so severe, eventually spending time with the target parent will feel like an intrusion into the child’s “real life” and the child will start to feel the target parent is not supporting them like the favoured alienating parent does.
- Interfering with communication
- Examples include, the alienating parent not giving the target parent the child’s cell phone number, being in the room when the child is talking to the target parent, not passing on letters and gifts from the target parent.
- Interfering with symbolic communication
- Examples include removing anything from the child’s residence or life that reminds the child of the target parent e.g. pictures that include the target parent or not allowing the child to talk about the other parent.
- Withdrawal of love or approval from the child.
- Alienating parents can be very loving and have intense interest in their child. Sometimes this can be in a dangerous way, where enmeshment with the child occurs. This might be evidenced when the child starts behaving, styling their look or sounding like the alienating parent.
- If the child shows any positive feelings towards the target parent the alienating parent will withdraw love/approval until their child learns to reject the other parent e.g. reducing what the child has to eat, giving the child silent treatment, sometimes they shout at the child and call them names.
- Telling the child the targeted parent doesn’t love them
- Allowing the child to believe that parenting time with the target parent is optional
- Giving the impression that time spent with the target parent is a choice and not a very good choice at that e.g. saying to the child “if you don’t go to your mum’s house you can come shopping with me.”
- Creating the false impression the target parent is dangerous
- If the child feels unsafe as a result of manipulation, they will want to stay away from the target parent.
- Confiding in the child about adult issues
- For example, discussing the target parent’s flaws or the legal case and the possible outcomes such as the child being taken into care.
- It may done in such a way as to flatter the child so the child feels special to have been confided in.
- Ultimately, the child is being burdened with adult issues that are too complex for them to understand or to have to deal with.
- Forcing the child to reject the targeted parent
- Alienating parents ask the child to write letters or call target parents to tell them they do not want to have contact with them and do not want them to show up at special events. Often the child is disrespectful and abusive to the target parent. This causes the target parent to get upset and angry, which provides more “evidence” for the child that they are “justified” in rejecting a “mean” target parent.
- Asking the child to spy on the target parent.
- This is a breach of trust between the child and the target parent. The child knows this and it causes them feelings of guilt. When they feel guilty they want to avoid the target parent because it eases their guilt.
- Baker suggests that the child knows what they did was a “bad thing” and they want to find a way to make it so it is not a bad thing in order to feel better e.g. they may turn it around to blame the target parent somehow “I wouldn’t have to spy for mummy if daddy told her everything”.
- Asking the child to keep secrets from the target parent
- Often the secrets are exciting things like taking the child to Disney World during the target parent’s visitation time or getting a new puppy.
- This again causes worry and guilt in the child, so they will want to avoid the target parent.
- Referring to the target parent by their first name
- The alienating parent does this in front of the child and encourages the child to do likewise.
- This stops the child using the special name associated to the parent child relationship of “mum” and “dad”. These special names represent responsibility, privilege, authority and a familial bond. Getting the child to use the target parent’s first name is intended to communicate to the child that the target parent no longer has authority and they are no more important than anyone else the child calls by their first name.
- Referring to a step parent as “mum” or “dad” and encouraging the child to do the same
- This is installing a replacement parent for the child.
- Withholding medical, social or academic information from the target parent
- This may involve not providing the target parent’s contact details to institutions involved in their child’s care or asking institutions to block the target parent from having information about their child.
- It makes it difficult for the target parent to be involved in the child’s life, share their achievements or help to make decisions about what is in the child’s best interests
- Changing the child’s name to remove their association with the target parent
- Undermining the authority of the target parent
- Creating scenarios where the child will violate the rules of the target parent and only follow the rules of the alienating parent. This gives the child the impression that the only person who has a say is the favoured parent.
Baker maintains these behaviours are used by the alienating parent to give the impression to the child that the target parent is unsafe, unloving and unavailable. When the target parent gets upset or angry as a result of the strategies employed, this gives the child “proof” as to why the target parent should be rejected.
After internalising all these manipulations over a period of time, the child then begins to freely voice “their” opinion that they no longer want to spend time with the targeted parent and the alienating parent can sit back and let the child do their work for them.
Baker explains that each of these behaviours on their own may not seem like a big deal to custody evaluators or the judiciary but manipulating a child to cut off all ties with a parent to whom they have a strong attachment, can have serious consequences for their emotional and psychological development and can, therefore, impact on their life chances.
As such the coercive and controlling behaviours that lead to an emotional cutoff is considered child abuse. These behaviours may span across many types of abuse including emotional, psychological, physical abuse and neglect.
Gardner’s 8 signs
- A campaign of denigration and hatred against the targeted parent
- Weak, absurd or frivolous rationalisations for this deprecation and hatred
- Lack of the usual ambivalence about the targeted parent i.e. they see the targeted parent as all bad
- Strong assertions that the decision to reject the parent is theirs alone – independent thinker phenomenon
- Reflective support of the favoured parent in the conflict i.e. they see the alienating parent as all good
- Lack of guilt over the treatment of the alienated parent
- Use of borrowed scenario’s and phrases from the alienating parent and
- The denigration is aimed not only at the targeted parent but also at that parent’s extended family and friends
Categorisation of alienation
The Woodhall’s draw on the work of Barbara Fidler, Nicholas Bala, and Michael Saini in Canada who developed an approach to identify categories of alienation which distinguish the child’s route into “parental alienation”.Justified Rejection – also known as “estrangement”
Rejection can only be described as justified if a child refuses to see a parent because of something they have actually done i.e. observable by others in some way. Because alienating parents can make false allegations and encourage their children to do so, it is necessary to not accept what the child says at face value. It is necessary to analyse all the information available with great care to get to the truth.
The following behaviour constitute reasons for justified rejection:
- Physical harm
- Incapacity due to drink or drugs while caring for a child or
- Emotional or psychological cruelty, denigration, or other similar abuse.
This is brought about by a determined alienating parent with a personality disorder who is intent on driving the other parent out of their child’s life. They do not just stop at alienating the target parent but also anyone who assists the target parent from having a relationship with the child including family members, friends and sometimes pets.
In pure alienation the alienating parent may be bringing about the alienation consciously or unconsciously. Cases of Pure alienation are a child protection issue.
For pure cases of alienation, a Clinical Psychologist is required. They explain that where a parent does have a personality disorder, it is unlikely that a child can be helped to overcome alienating behaviours without a change of residence.Hybrid Alienation
The term hybrid is used to describe the dynamics whereby the behaviours of one or both parent’s leads to rejection by the child. In hybrid cases the parents do not have a personality disorder.
In a blog entitled “Caught in the Mirror: The Human Face of Narcissism” Karen provided clarification in her comments that indicates it is usually one parent who drives the alienation and that in less than 5% of hybrid cases are both parents cross projecting blame in a manner which is fixed and unchanging.
Hybrid cases are most likely to respond to therapy. This involves working with the required parent(s) to understand how they need to change their behaviour to make transition easier for the child.
The Woodhalls emphasise that hybrid does not mean the child has a “mild” case of alienation, it is a complex area and the child’s reaction may be severe.
In dealing with hundreds of cases, Karen estimates that approximately 20% were classified as pure. It’s unclear how accurate this figure is as in the UK not every parent going through a court process is routinely assessed for a personality disorder. Linda Gottlieb a consultant on unifying alienated children with safe parents through her Turning Point for Families program in the US has worked with over 3000 child victims of physical/sexual abuse and or neglect. She has compared the behaviours of those children with several hundred alienated children and in contrast she maintains
“…the argument in alienation cases generally goes: each parent contributes 50/50 to the rejection. Therefore most cases are hybrids. WRONG! Hybrid cases are very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very rare”
Power and control
The Woodhall’s use a model of power and control to assess the dynamics in the family. Who holds power in the relationship and how it is maintained over the other parent, who holds power over the children or if that person’s behaviour seeks to strip someone of their ability to make free choices or decisions. It’s purpose is to assess the ways in which generational, learned behaviours contribute to the dynamics that lead to the alienation. The power and control model has the following dynamics:
- Unresolved Trauma
- Personality Disorder
- Poor Interpersonal Skills
- Inability to Manage Rage
- Abandonment Issues
- Lack of Empathetic Skills
Working through this model they would look at transgenerational trauma for patterns of estrangement in the family tree and assessment of attachment relationships and the methods by which attachment with a target parent have been broken.
It is also important to look at the timing of allegations made against the target parent e.g. if they are made at a time when power and control are being rebalanced such as when a court initially awards the targeted parent initial contact with the child against the wishes of an alienating parent.
The transition bridge
The Woodhalls use a metaphor of a transition bridge to describe the child’s journey going between two parents who have separated.
The child goes through great stress as their lives are transformed by the separation. The child must work out how to fit in with their new reality where their parents, who were once a unit located in a single place, are now living in different homes and usually being hostile to each other. The child, who has formed an attachment to both parents, wants to stay connected to both parents.
Parent’s with empathy will do everything they can to help their children to transition from one parent’s home to the other. Unfortunately, for parents who lack empathy or whose focus is their own pain, they are unable to support the child’s transition from one parent to another. Hostility between parents will lead to emotional difficulties for the child. In the case of a parent who employ’s alienating behaviours the child will be worrying that if they do not show support for their parent, that parent will abandon them. As a result, the child has to begin to employ coping mechanisms and the bridge between the child and the target parent will get wider and wider. Eventually an event will happen a “trigger event” that will make it emotionally impossible for the child to transition across the bridge anymore and the child will refuse contact with the target parent and the bridge collapses – much like the child’s authentic self who deep down really does want a relationship with the target parent. That trigger event may be brought about by the alienating parent or the targeted parent and at this time, the child will show signs of psychological splitting where one parent is seen as all good and the other as all bad.
The book describes a list of behaviours that roughly describe how a child’s behaviour deteriorates into a full alienation reaction.
Resisting at handovers, not wanting to go back after a happy time with you. Child cries, clings, and says they do not want to go back.
The child is strongly resistant to coming to you. They may tell the other parent they are not going to see you, and this may be conveyed to you in advance. They may make allegations against you or say that time with you is boring and makes them unhappy. Child is withdrawn and sullen when arriving in your care and cold and distant for periods between one and eight hours, depending on the length of the time they are due to spend with you. Child may warm up and become normal midway through the time they spend with you but close down and become angry and distant at the end of that time.
Child is strongly resistant and may not always achieve transition. When child does achieve transition, may be cold, rude, obnoxious, attempt to run away, swear, be angry and rejecting, say cruel things to you. Child may return to normal for periods and say inexplicable things such as “I love you daddy” or “I really do like you, you know.” These are signs of the child swinging between splitting into good and bad feelings and struggling with feelings of guilt and shame about their behaviour. Child may flip back into unpleasant and vicious behaviour and will immediately do so when the alienating parent is nearby.
The double bind
Healthy people tend to avoid actions that hurt other people. Those who are unhealthy, who may have a psychological disturbance or lack empathy tend to be as adversarial as possible. They will use the court system to inflict as much damage as possible onto the target parent
The Woodhall’s describe the double bind that is present in severe alienation cases which is created in the court process when a parent who is psychologically manipulative uses the power they have over the child. This causes the target parent to behave in ways that are viewed negatively by the professionals in the court system e.g. showing anger or frustration.
Court practitioners may not know about parental alienation or, worse, refuse to believe it exits. In this scenario it is likely that they will see one parent who appears to be cooperative, patient and willing and another who is frustrated and perhaps angry. In addition, the child may also pick up on the anger and this is used as a basis to justify alienation. So whilst the target parent needs the courts help to combat alienation by the other parent, they must do everything they can to avoid the double bind even when that anger is justified.
The cycles of the court process bring what they describe as a “hamster wheel” of hope, fear and disappointment. The impact on the child takes its toll. Targeted parents may experience anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts and self-harming behaviour or in some cases Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They recommend that anyone experiencing any of these symptoms should seek help immediately. To help an alienated child a targeted parent needs to maintain mental health. They suggest solution-focused thinking as opposed to focusing on the problem and practicing mindfulness techniques.
The Woodhall’s book includes a section on strategies to cope with the court process and the child’s behaviour.