This is a lot to read, but critical for professionals to get this that it is no small thing to enable this form of abuse to ruin the lives of children when you are in a position to make life better for them.
Do you know how to recognize harmful behavior in children who have been turned against a parent?
Excerpts found below are borrowed from the above document and may include occasional notes by My Advocate Center as this review is part of a larger study geared toward reducing childhood trauma and improving safety for parents and children.
Good grades in school, excellent performance in sports and performing arts, and polite, compliant behavior in settings apart from the rejected parent comprise only some aspects of healthy psychological functioning. Children who suspend critical thinking and judge parents as either all good or all bad are prone to transfer such cognitive practices to peer relationships, resulting in the rupture of friendships at the first sign of conflict.
Alienated children’s relationships with their favored parents may appear ideal because of the absence of conflict and frustration. In some cases, though, children pay for such harmony by neglecting their own needs.22 Often these children feel responsible for their favored parent’s emotional well-being. They comfort distressed parents, serve as confidantes, and assure parents of their allegiance. Alienated children often sacrifice age-appropriate independent functioning in order to gratify favored parents’ needs to keep the children close at hand and dependent.
The children believe that they have their favored parents’ approval to suspend the usual rules of morality when dealing with the targets of their enmity.
Apart from what may be covert or subtle corruption of character and respect for authority, alienated children suffer overt irrational anxiety or hatred of a parent and declare their wish to completely erase good parents from their lives.
Such irrational feelings represent significant psychological disturbances, regardless of how well these children function in other domains.24 At the very least, unreasonably rejecting a parent is as serious a problem as are other irrational aversions and anxieties, such as avoidance of school, peers, or open spaces. Their obsessive hatred of rejected parents is at least as worrisome as fixed negative stereotypes and irrational prejudice toward members of religious or ethnic minorities.
Severely alienated children suffer significant impairments in their cognitive, emotional, and behavioral development.25 They maintain a highly distorted view of a parent. They are unable to give and receive love from a good parent.
What would be a normal response, if the parents were not separated?
If these children were living in an intact family, professionals would not doubt the wisdom of addressing rather than ignoring the problems.
It is not necessary to cite the long-term consequences of parental alienation to justify the importance of addressing the problem. The family’s dysfunction in the present is sufficient justification for intervention.26 In addition to alleviating the child’s obvious impairments, interventions are needed to improve the functioning of both parents. Some mental health professionals and lawyers too readily counsel rejected parents to accept the situation and wait passively for the child’s return. Those who make recommendations and decisions for these families should understand that the family is suffering and should be aware of the immense tragedy for a child to lose a parent and for a parent to lose a child.
It is easier to appreciate what is at stake when parental alienation is seen through the eyes of a parent who is the victim. One mother puts it this way:
It is like your child has died, but you can’t go through the normal grieving process. Instead you are stuck in this Twilight Zone-like nightmare with no end in sight. You know your child is being abused, and this is child abuse pure and simple, but no one will help you save their hijacked souls and you are forced to stand and watch, with your hands tied behind your back. She describes what mental health professionals term ambiguous loss or complicated loss, more difficult to resolve than grief over the death of a child because it defies closure.27 She also identifies the pain of standing by helplessly while her child’s character is corrupted.
In addition to the emotional impact on families, parental alienation is implicated in violence, suicides, and homicides. An example is a father who alienated his children and then conspired with them to kill their mother. Explicitly recognizing the power of the father’s influence, the district attorney charged the man with having “coerced, persuaded and enticed his children to commit this atrocious crime upon their mother.”28
Researchers have limited data on what happens over time.
Researchers can extrapolate long-term outcomes, though, from several well-developed lines of investigation. These include: the impact of exposure to poorly-managed parental conflict, the consequences of intrusive parenting, and the risks to future development associated with parental absence and unresolved conflicts with parents.30
The literature on parenting most relevant to understanding the consequences of parental alienating behavior are studies on parental psychological control, also called intrusive parenting. This is defined as parenting behavior that “constrains, invalidates, and manipulates children’s psychological and emotional experience and expression.”33 Examples of psychological control include: “If I have hurt her feelings, she stops talking to me until I please her again.” “Is less friendly to me if I don’t see things his way.” The concept of intrusive parenting was not created with alienated children in mind. But “manipulating children’s psychological and emotional experience and expression” is precisely how authorities on the psychology of alienated children describe the negative influence of the favored parent.34
This type of manipulative parenting is linked to subsequent higher levels of depression and antisocial behavior.35 Higher risk for depression is also one of the known longterm hazards of parental absence during childhood.36
Some of the dynamics of this elevated risk may not apply to situations where parental absence is caused by the child’s rejection, but most of the identified reasons for the negative impact of parental absence are relevant to the risks faced by an estranged child growing up apart from a parent and without that parent’s psychological contributions to development.
The greater the discrepancy between the amount of nurturing and involvement children received from each parent—and for severely alienated children it is the most extreme—the lower their subsequent self-esteem, life satisfaction, and quality and satisfaction with friendships, and the greater distress, romantic relationship problems, and troubled ruminations about parents these children experience when they are young adults.37
In addition, children who hold a parent in contempt risk feeling contempt for the aspects of their own personalities that reflect identifications with the rejected parents. The resulting diminished self-esteem may contribute to depression. Children cannot escape the knowledge that each parent is part of them. It is difficult to harbor great contempt for a parent without, at some level, feeling terribly impaired.
In subsequent years many of these children regret missing out on the relationship with the rejected parent. As they mature, many feel ashamed and guilty for having caused so much pain to a loving parent.
Why is it important to take action to prevent such abuse and harm?
Overcoming severe alienation usually involves extensive litigation, multiple failed attempts to modify the behaviors of the alienating parent and child, and sometimes an intensive intervention, all of which take a lot of money and time. The longer the process takes, the more the losses accumulate. The longer the absence of contact between parent and child, the more lost opportunities mount for the creation of family memories. School performances, music and dance recitals, scouting trips, science fair projects, sports events, proms, and graduation ceremonies all create memories marred in future years by the parent missing from the photographs.
Can educational programs help?
The programs teach about the impact of parental conflict on children and the importance of avoiding bad-mouthing and alienating behavior. They offer no guidance, though, on how to respond when the other parent engages in alienating behavior that places the children at risk for joining in a campaign of denigration and rejection. The programs exhort parents to refrain from behaviors that encourage alienation, but they make no suggestions to proactively protect children from succumbing to a parent’s alienating behavior or to stem the tide of alienation before it becomes severe. In short, parents receive no advice on how to respond effectively to the challenges posed by their children’s rejection and provocative, contemptuous behavior. As a result, alienated parents typically make mistakes that compound the problem.43
Counseling is not only ineffective in many cases of moderate and severe alienation. Often it makes things worse. Counselors who lack adequate understanding and competence in dealing with parental alienation may be too quick to accept at face value the favored parent and child’s representations of events.53 This can result in misdiagnosis and misguided treatment.
Detailed and Unambiguous Court Orders are Strongly Recommended
Parenting coordinators and therapists who work with high conflict cases emphasize the importance of the court issuing detailed and clear orders. A parent who is intent on obstructing the child’s contact with the other parent will exploit every loophole and ambiguity in the orders to accomplish this goal. For instance, the parent may claim that the child is coming down with a cold and can’t make the shift between homes. Or the parent will sabotage court-ordered treatment because the orders failed to specify which parent is responsible for getting the child to the therapist. Attorneys who represent rejected parents should anticipate every conceivable excuse to keep children from their clients and then ensure that the orders protect against these contingencies. If this is done at the stage of the initial temporary orders, it could help prevent alienation from taking root and becoming more severe. Attempts to corrupt a child’s view of a parent most effectively crowd out the child’s positive feelings and memories when the child has no reminders of the parent’s love and no time to enjoy that parent.55 The child becomes more dependent on the favored parent and more likely to see the absent parent through the distorting lens of the parent doing the bad-mouthing.
When their parents separate, children have no norms about what to expect. If they have regular contact with both parents from the outset, this becomes the status quo and the norm. If they lose contact with a parent, they come to regard this as normal. The longer children are apart from a parent, the stronger the negative attitudes, the more resistant to change, and the more difficult it is to reunite children with their rejected parent. The longer the children’s will dominates the behavior of adults, the more difficult it will be for the children to appreciate and accept that decisions about contact are not theirs to make.
Can courts do more to safeguard relationships between targeted parents and children?
One provision of many court orders, designed to safeguard children’s welfare, may have undesirable consequences. Parents are admonished to not speak negatively about each other to the children, not involve the children in parental conflicts, and not discuss the litigation with the children. The problem is that alienating parents, either intentionally or inadvertently, regularly violate this provision.
This places parents who are targets of badmouthing and smear campaigns in a bind. If they do not speak to their children and correct misinformation that persuades the children to see them in a bad light, they give their children no help to cope with the bad-mouthing, and may stand idly by as their relationship with their children gradually deteriorates.56 But if they do speak to their children, they risk being seen as criticizing the other parent, involving their children in the parents’ conflicts, or inappropriately exposing the children to litigation matters.
Lawyers and judges should recognize some limitations of court orders that attempt to regulate parent-child communications about the divorce. For example, parents should shield children from most adult-adult issues and not undermine the other parent’s relationship with the child—that is the true intent of such court orders. But a parent who is the target of bad-mouthing may need to defend his or her parent-child relationship by sensitively providing information to counter accusations the child hears from the other parent.
Even the most unambiguous and detailed orders will not help if they are not enforced. A parent who obstructs the children’s contact with the other parent may benefit from the status quo. In In re Miller and Todd, a New Hampshire court awarded custody to a mother who successfully interfered with the father child relationship.57 The court found that the mother alienated the children from their father, but reasoned that the children had spent the majority of their lives with her and that is where they felt most comfortable. This is typical for such cases. The absence of contact establishes a status quo that the court honors in order to spare the children drastic changes.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court vacated the award.58 It recognized that the father was denied contact with his children for more than two years, and that awarding custody to the mother because of the lack of father-child contacts rewards the mother for violating court orders.
The decision quoted the Vermont Supreme Court: Although obviously well intended, the court’s decision effectively condoned a parent’s willful alienation of a child from the other parent. Its ruling sends the unacceptable message that others might, with impunity, engage in similar misconduct.
Left undisturbed, the court’s decision would nullify the principle that the best interests of the child are furthered through a healthy and loving relationship with both parents.59 This reasoning gives voice to the most frequent complaint parents make regarding their custody litigation:
Repeated violations of orders go unpunished, with some parents making a mockery of the court’s authority.
Experts agree. Dr. Joan Kelly notes, “[A] significant number of these parents have come to believe . . . that noncompliance with court orders, whether for facilitating contact between the child and rejected parent or attending divorce education classes or therapy, brings no negative consequences.”60
Are some professionals encouraging misconduct and willfully causing psychological harm to children and safe parents?
In some cases a child runs away from the rejected parent’s home into the welcoming arms of a parent intent on driving a wedge between the child and the other parent. Law enforcement authorities can be effective in such situations by retrieving the children, giving them stern lectures, and returning them to the parent from whom they ran away. The police are more likely to do so if the court orders anticipate such an event and direct law enforcement personnel to enforce the parenting plan.
Unfortunately often the police dismiss such incidents as family matters that need to be settled in court and not by police intervention. A parent is less likely to harbor a runaway child if he or she expects swift sanction from the court for violating orders. Instead what often occurs is that the children remain out of touch with their rejected parent as the litigation slogs through a quicksand of legal maneuvering and failed psychotherapeutic attempts to remedy the problem.
Drawbacks of leaving children with the parent using alienating tactics:
Leaving the children with their favored (abusive parent who is manipulating the children and exploiting the court process) parent may be less stressful for some children in the short run, and may be a default option if the court determines that the rejected parent lacks the capacity to assume full-time care of the children. In terms of alleviating alienation, though, this option has significant drawbacks.
It is not recommended when the favored parent has a history of sabotaging treatment (e.g., repeatedly failing to bring children to appointments, or repeatedly terminating treatment until locating a therapist who supports the favored parent’s position in the litigation).
It is not recommended when the favored parent exposes the children to an emotionally toxic environment, such as intimidating the children into rejecting the other parent. The literature on domestic violence describes the manner in which efforts to turn children against a parent sometimes represent a continuation and extension of behaviors by the other parent intended to harass, control, and punish a former spouse or partner.66
Are many court professionals currently getting it wrong?
According to a consensus of studies, treatment of severely alienated children while they remain apart from the rejected parent and with the favored parent is more likely to fail than to succeed and it may make matters worse by further entrenching the child’s distorted perceptions of the rejected parent.67 This is true for all models of treatment of irrationally alienated children proposed in the literature. Extending unsuccessful treatment while the child remains with the favored parent carries the hazards of delaying, and in some cases preventing, the eventual delivery of effective help.
Custody evaluators and guardians ad litem often prefer this option because they believe it is less intrusive and requires less of an adjustment on the children’s part than removing the children from the primary care of the favored parent.
Typically, court orders for treatment under this option are open-ended with vague and non-specific treatment goals (e.g., to reunify the parent and child, or to improve the parent-child relationship).
This is the reality for most parents being pushed out of their children’s lives. Is this intentional?
If treatment fails (which is more likely than not with severely alienated children who have no contact with the rejected parent outside of therapy sessions), the rejected parent wants to return to court as soon as possible (assuming finances allow), while the favored parent delays the process as long as possible. When the case is back before the court, the judge is likely to order an updated evaluation by the original evaluator. The timing of the re-evaluation is subject to the evaluator’s schedule and is usually prolonged by the favored parent’s obstructive and delay tactics.
The longer the delay, the older the children, the more accustomed they become to living estranged from a parent, and the less likely the court will be to overturn the status quo.
Note: in going through this body of work, it seems that there is great incentive for an abusive parent to violate court orders and engage in mental cruelty by manipulating and coercing children as it is so easy to get away with causing harm this way.
To what degree will abusive parents manipulate and collude to avoid intervention?
Collusion to Discourage Interventions and Placement with the Rejected Parent:
When the favored parent worries that an evaluator, guardian ad litem, or the court are likely to hold the favored parent in large measure responsible for the children’s alienation, and may place the children primarily with the rejected parent, often the favored parent encourages the children to pretend that they have overcome their alienation. Cooperative and superficial polite behavior replaces the former avoidance and disrespect. After months and sometimes years of no contact and scornful rejection, the children begin to comply willingly with orders for contact.
In an attempt to obscure the fact that the children had ever been alienated, the favored parent and children rewrite history. In one case, after the court heard evidence about a child’s animosity toward his mother’s extended family, one boy falsely claimed that he had been having weekly phone contact with his maternal uncle. Through texts and emails requesting to meet, greeting cards signed with love, and surreptitious voice recordings, the children fulfill their assignment to create a record that the favored parent subsequently uses to argue in favor of maintaining the status quo. Toward the end of a trial, a teen contacted her mother after months of avoidance to ask to meet for dinner.
The mother was aware that the offer was a ruse. If she refused the invitation the father would claim that the mother was not doing her part toward reconciliation. If she accepted the invitation, the judge would hear that the mother-daughter relationship was on the mend and no additional intervention or custody modification was needed. After hearing the details of the children’s communications during the contact, I advised the mother to be aware that her daughter likely was recording the entire interaction. The mother replied, “Come to think of it, she left her cell phone in the center of the dining room table during the entire meal.”
It exposes the power that the favored parent has wielded all along to remedy the problem and underscores that parent’s role in fomenting, strengthening, and supporting the children’s suffering.
At the same time, it reveals a previously unseen malleability in the behavior of the favored parent and children when sufficiently motivated by the court’s authority.
The sham, intended to convince the court to take a hands-off approach, instead helps the evaluator and the court appreciate that the successful resolution of alienation requires the court’s firm expectations, oversight, and enforcement. When the children believe that, as far as the court is concerned, failure is not an option, they are more likely to engage meaningfully in efforts to repair the damaged relationship.
The fear of getting the favored parent in trouble with the court provides children with a face-saving excuse to “follow the rules” and return to a normal relationship with the other parent. The children then feel relieved to shed the burden of having to disrespect one parent for fear of disappointing the other.
Can the court or professionals expect the abusive parent to do right by the children and other parent after winning?
The parent with whom the children are aligned has carried on a lengthy campaign to support the status quo of no contact between the children and their other parent. It is unlikely that the aligned parent will be inclined to relinquish the campaign in the immediate aftermath of the court’s decision.
Tips for Lawyers Representing a Parent Who is Alienating the Children – page 67.
1. If your clients are aware that they are undermining their children’s relationships with their other parent, impress upon them the damage this is likely to cause the children in the near-term and in the future.
4. Ensure that your clients understand the possible legal consequences for interference with custodial contact and for violating court orders.
The Targeted Family Usually Does Not Recover, but Faith Remains
Despite weathering cruel treatment and untempered hatred that would drive most people away, many rejected parents maintain a steadfast commitment to their children’s welfare and invest considerable resources trying to restore positive relationships. Very often the tragedy extends to an entire half of the children’s family who remain astounded and deeply hurt at the formerly loving children’s complete estrangement.
Challenge to the Legal Community and to Healthcare Professionals
The outcome of cases with severely alienated children spells the difference between elated parents who recapture their identities as parents versus bereft parents who mourn the loss of their children and whose children grow up with parents who may be perpetrators of emotional abuse, who force them to make a child’s version of Sophie’s Choice, and fail to honor their right to love and be loved by two parents.
If they don’t find their way back to their rejected parents when these children grow up and have their own children, the next generation is deprived of a legacy.
Helping these families is challenging and a heavy responsibility.
It is not often that legal and mental health professionals get the chance to alter the course of generations.