One of the most tragic outcomes of high-conflict divorce is when a parent becomes alienated from their child through no fault of their own. Parental Alienation Syndrome occurs when a child aligns with one parent and grows exceptionally hostile toward the other parent, often altogether rejecting them for no good reason.
Parental alienation is damaging to both the alienated parent and the child alike. Alienated parents feel devastation and grief at being separated from their child and knowing their child is being dangerously manipulated. The child can suffer a range of emotional problems, including lacking empathy, having a distorted view of reality, and absorbing destructive relationship patterns.
For these reasons, it's important to identify signs of parental early. If you wait too long to counteract it, the rupture in the relationship can become irreparable.
Parents at Risk for Alienation
Parental alienation can happen across genders and socioeconomic groups. You're most at risk, however, if you're involved in a highly contested divorce, and your co-parent has a serious personality disorder.
Parents with extreme narcissism, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder can be so wrapped up in their own ego or need for control that they wouldn't hesitate to manipulate their child's mind to destroy the child's relationship with the other parent. If your spouse has been diagnosed with one of these disorders or has displayed symptoms of a disorder, you should be on your guard for the possibility of alienation.
That said, the stress and emotional pain of divorce can drive parents who never displayed signs of a personality disorder to alienate their child.
If your ex is engaging in some of the following behaviors, you may be at heightened risk for parental alienation:
Your ex withholds visits.
Parents who try to alienate their children often ignore the court-ordered parenting plan and continually find excuses to deny the child's other parent legal visits or physical custody. Sometimes they may even plan fun activities during your scheduled time together so your child won't want to visit you. If your co-parent blocks your access to your child, or your child objects to seeing you for no apparent reason, speak to your lawyer immediately. You can likely obtain a court order that ensures you have access to your child.
Your ex denigrates you to your child.
If you learn that your child's other parent regularly puts you down, blames you for the divorce, or otherwise vilifies you in front of the child, you are likely at heightened risk of alienation. Go on high alert if your child frequently disparages you using language, phrases, or comments that parrot their other parent.
Your ex consistently withholds information about your child.
Some co-parents attempt to control the child and alienate the other parent by refusing to share news of important happenings in your child's life, from the dates of musical recitals to significant medical information. This is unfair to both you and the child, and could cause your child to become alienated from you.
Your ex has threatened parental abduction.
In most instances, it's illegal for your co-parent to leave the state or country with your child without your permission or hide the child from you. If your ex has threatened to take your child away, has falsely accused you of sexually or physically abusing the child, appears to be making arrangements to leave the state or country, or meets other risk factors for abduction, notify your lawyer right away.
How to Counteract Parental Alienation
If you are a parent at increased risk of alienation, or your ex is showing signs of attempting alienation, speak to your lawyer as soon as possible about potential judicial solutions. The court may issue an injunction against your co-parent or take other measures, such as temporarily placing the child in your sole custody.
You should also take affirmative steps to neutralize or repair any damage that your ex may have done to your relationship with your child, including:
Although you may want to instinctively defend yourself against accusations or your child’s expression of hostility, stay calm and even. Don't make counter-accusations against the other parent or blame them, as such actions can backfire.
Reassuring them of your love.
Tell your child you love them and how much you care for them. Show interest and express support for their activities and accomplishments. Take the time to listen to them and show through your actions that their hostile attitude toward you is unwarranted.
Continuing to reach out.
Even if your ex is preventing you from seeing the child, find other ways to stay in touch until the court takes action. For example, you can send letters, emails, texts, or cards. Always keep trying. It's also smart to keep a journal that reflects your attempts to contact them so you can prove your efforts to the courts.
Getting therapeutic help.
If you suspect parental alienation is occurring, you will need professional help fighting it. Get in touch with experienced mental health experts to find out whether the problem is indeed parental alienation and, if so, to learn more about how you can lessen its effects.