This is a heartbreaking topic – children who become alienated from a parent, and too often his/her extended family as well.
Parental alienation occurs when one parent continually demeans, criticizes and marginalizes the other parent and their family. Unfortunately, we see this too often during contentious divorce. The child is privy to hearing faults and misdeeds , real or perceived, of the alienated parent. Children hear such statements as “he/she left us” instead of the reality that the parent was left or “he/she doesn’t love us any more”. In the extreme, there may be false allegations. The alienating parent makes no effort to speak privately about their partner/spouse to family and friends when they only have bad things to say. The saying “Children have big ears” especially rings true about listening in on conversations when their life is being turned upside down.
The children may be said to be “busy, out, or asleep” when the alienated parent calls or comes to spend time with them. They become a ‘weapon’ used to hurt the other parent. They are often asked to carry messages from the alienating parent. “Why are you not giving mommy money for us?” “Why do you have a girlfriend [boyfriend] and spend time with her/his children?” “If you loved us, you wouldn’t have left.”
The alienating parent may have no awareness of the harm to the children. He/she is overwhelmed by devastation and feels s/he is protecting the children from the other parent. The alienator projects his/her rage at the other parent and believes that the children feel that anger on their own. Alienators do not believe that they initiated that rage and then cultivated it. Hopefully, the alienated parent does not engage in the war and loves the children enough to become informed about alienation and how to secure help.
The alienated child becomes’ ‘parentified’, feeling that they need to protect and defend the hurt and angry parent. The child often parrots the exact words of that parent, using words or phrases that are not uttered by their age peers. The child’s comments about the ‘bad’ parent are strong and all encompassing. There is no admission of anything good about that parent. Most children have negative and positive things to say about their parents. After all, we are all human. An alienated child sees NO good in the ‘bad’ parent.
The harm to children is multifaceted. They are in great pain. Not only do they lose contact with a parent (and their extended family), they are learning that, when people come apart, ‘war’ is inevitable and warranted. That angry feeling and behavior can seep into their personality and affect friendships and future relationships if they part ways. At a time when the family is coming apart, children lose half of their primary support. Even if the alienated parent was not as active, in parenting, as the other, they usually want to have contact with their children. Sometimes those parents left the household in order to avoid their partner/spouse and keep the peace.
When doing parent/child reunification therapy, I work with both parents and the children to help them understand that they will all benefit from working through their differences. Parents learn to move on with their lives and realize how much their children will be affected and limited if the present situation continues. They come to realize that there are major benefits for their children if they can alter that situation. War destroys. Working together peacefully builds.