The concept of “parental alienation” has gathered more notice in recent times as more parents and experts are examining what it is and how it affects both children and adults. The increase in awareness is a positive move in the right direction, as the problem has a significant impact on thousands of families (from a sample studied by Colorado State University).
Why should we be concerned with parental alienation, and what connection does it have to stepparenting?
What is parental alienation?
Parental Alienation (PA) is a form of mental and emotional child abuse that aims, at its heart, to damage, if not destroy, the relationship between parent and child. It is an unfortunate after effect in many divorce cases as parents may continue to harbor ill feelings toward one another and take out those feelings by trying to “punish” the other parent by either trying to make the child think less of that parent or interfere with their ability to have a relationship.
PA can be almost subconscious for an ex-hating parent to make negative comments about the child’s other parent. Sometimes, this may amount to letting off steam after an argument or general venting about divorce frustrations that, unfortunately, take place in front of the child. Parents should always be mindful of any derogatory comments made in front of children about the other parent because children identify with being part of both parents. Talking about how bad, lazy, unintelligent, or anything else we might think our ex is, makes the child believe this about themselves.
The next level of PA includes calculated efforts to keep parent and child apart or to purposely make the child think less of, or even dislike their other parent. PA to this extreme is more than an accidental verbal slip, but rather a campaign to divide and destroy. Examples include:
Manipulation to make a child feel guilty about showing an interest in their other parent (e.g. asking about them or their family, wanting to spend time together, showing pleasure and pride in the relationship etc.) or making them feel bad about going to visitation or accepting contact (e.g. crying because they’ll be lonely without the child or condemning the choice to maintain the relationship).
Making the child unavailable for calls or visits with the targeted parent including making excuses for the child’s lack of availability, refusing to answer calls or visits and cutting contact short.
Allowing the child to think that the targeted parent hasn’t made contact and isn’t interested in a relationship. This may include disposing of cards and gifts, not informing the child of attempts to make contact and leading the child to believe that they have been abandoned.
Offering incentives to not like the targeted parent or to make the child choose not to go on visitation (e.g. rewards for saying bad things about the targeted parent, offering favorite activities or treats as an alternative to visitation).
The most extreme level of PA succeeds in erasing the targeted parent (and even extended family) from the child’s life. Contact may be completely blocked to the point where the targeted parent may have given up on ever seeing the child again, and the child may have completely bought into the notion that their other parent is a terrible person that they are better off without. The child will usually feel anger toward this parent and feel that they have every evidence to support the fact that the parent abandoned them or was a bad person that the alienating person thankfully protected them from.
We should be concerned about PA because:
It creates poor self-esteem, depression and other mental health problems in the child.
The child grows up feeling unloved and unworthy of love, even if they accept that the alienator has “saved” them, which can lead to many problems forming healthy relationships as an adult.
It robs the child from the love and attention of a parent who is interested in being part of their life, and potentially relationships with siblings, grandparents etc.
Should the child learn the truth, PA often backfires in the face of the alienator, destroying that relationship; yet, the child discovers there’s no one they can trust and their whole life was a lie.
What do stepparents need to know about PA?
Stepparents may either be alienators or targeted and erased:
As a stepparent, we tend to provide support to our spouse as they parent their children. At times, the stepparent may join in with their spouse to insult or lie about the other parent, or become involved with blocking contact. Example: A mother shared that she has difficulty tolerating her husband’s new wife because when she calls to talk to her children during her ex’s time, she can often hear their stepmom in the background coaching the children about what to say, or the children report that she hides their phones from them so that they cannot communicate with her.
Stepparents may also be targeted and erased by alienating parents. Example: A stepmother described how her stepchildren are routinely exposed to their mother calling their dad curse words, talking about how lazy, angry, and what a loser he is, while also being coached not to like or listen to her because she’s “not their mom”. Her five-year-old stepson confided that his mom gives him candy whenever he joins in on calling his father and stepmother bad names or says he doesn’t like them.
A stepparent, as part of a child’s family team, can help to be a support and advocate in the event of PA. Though it’s never easy to intervene in the established routines of our partner or their ex, if we see patterns of PA-type behavior in our spouse, we can help to curb these actions because we know how they can have a long-term detrimental effect on the child. If our spouse is the one being alienated, we can serve as the rock of support they will need to endure a very painful experience. Alienated parents can easily become overwhelmed to the point of severe depression, and even become suicidal. Encourage your partner to document everything that occurs (every attempt at contact as well as every act of alienation), to seek help for their emotional needs, and fortify them to never stop trying to make contact and keep the relationship with the child alive.
Parental Alienation is one of the ugliest outcomes that can emerge from divorce. Armed with the knowledge of how PA is inflicted on its victims, stepparents can help to improve the wellbeing of their stepchildren and spouse by not engaging in these harmful behaviors but instead providing love and support to their family during this difficult time.
For more information, visit the Parental Alienation Awareness Organization.