Keys to understanding parental alienation

Last month we asked if parental alienation can exist in the absence of a precise definition. Perhaps I can shed some light on the subject.

In reality, the definition of parental alienation is pretty simple. Parental alienation occurs when one parent damages, and sometimes destroys, a child’s normal, loving, relationship with the other parent.

Longstanding and unresolved feelings of abandonment drive the alienating parent. When the alienating parent faces separation or divorce, the old, negative feelings resurface. The parent pulls the child into the adult conflict to keep from feeling abandoned again.

Mom or Dad isn’t specifically looking for a child to help keep the old feelings away. Anyone will do. A child, however, is often a convenient and willing participant. The child is already upset about the family’s breakup — and looking for security. The alienating parent and child form an unhealthy, but mutually beneficial relationship. Their bond is all-consuming, and the targeted parent is often locked out, both figuratively and literally, of the child’s life.

When confronted with parental alienation, targeted parents often ask themselves, “What happened?” Parental alienation typically blindsides the parent. He or she mistakenly believes that the alienating parent covertly planned the whole thing. Actually, there is nothing covert about the alienating parent.

Emotions drive the alienating parent. Facing the ultimate adult abandonment, this parent will do anything to avoid the old, painful feelings. Mom or Dad doesn’t stop to think what motivates his or her behavior or the effect the behavior has on the child. Sure, the parent knows he or she is making negative comments about the other parent in front of the child, but unconsciously the parent is saying, “The old fears are back and I have to do whatever it takes to keep them away!”

An alienating parent doesn’t have the emotional distance to say, “My behavior is hurting my child and I have to stop!”

A targeted parent doesn’t have any emotional distance either, and that’s why he or she misses the clues that provide a window into the family’s future. Parental alienation behaviors typically look like the highs and lows of any dysfunctional family. Unless the parent knows what to look for, he or she won’t see a pattern of behavior. When these parents finally have enough emotional distance to see the forest for the trees, they’re often like someone standing on the train tracks outsidea dark tunnel. It’s too late to avoid the Parental Alienation Express emerging from the darkness.

At this point many targeted parents turn to the courts in an effort to save their relationships with their children. Sadly, the courts are ill-equipped to address parental alienation. While the alienating parent may not know what drives his or her behavior, he or she is a quick study when it comes tomanipulating the court system and ensuring an outcome that leaves the other parent on the outside of the child’s life.

Targeted parents need legal and mental health professionals involved in their cases who understand parental alienation and how to address it legally and therapeutically. Even then targeted parents may be left with meaningless court orders if judges do not impose consequences on a parent who fails to support a child’s normal, healthy relationship with the other parent.

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