Mildly Alienating Parents Can Sometimes Be Helped To Stop Abuse, Steps You Can Take To Help Your KidsWritten by: Rob Print This Article
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If you’ve read books or other publications on parental alienation, you may have the impression that divorced parents who are alienators are unlikely to stop this form of abuse for any reason. There are a couple of common misconceptions here. First of all, even though parental alienation is usually discussed in the context of divorce, the fact is that parental alienation often starts long before a divorce or separation as the psychological factors that drive the most severe alienators include life-long personality disorders that were present long before the children were born. Secondly, it turns out that not all alienating parents are incurable. This is particularly true of mildly alienating parents who are angry but are not personality disordered. Often these mild alienators are prone to nasty verbal remarks about the target parent but do not engage in false abuse allegations and extreme interference in contact with the kids. If this is the pattern you see in your situation, there is some reason for hope. With appropriate teaching and enforcement of rules and boundaries, you can help your kids resist alienation. In mild cases of alienation, you may even be able to help your ex stop his or her behaviors. Even if you cannot get the ex to stop, taking appropriate steps early with your kids can often inoculate them sufficiently to prevent their alienation from becoming severe even in the face of a very nasty ex who is constantly badmouthing you.
Douglas Darnall, Ph.D., is a psychologist who works with many children suffering from parental alienation and is the author of Divorce Casualties: Understanding Parental Alienation. His analysis is that there are three types of alienating parents:
- Naive alienators
- Active alienators
- Obsessed alienators
Darnall contends that all parents occasionally are naive alienators who carelessly drop a remark here or there that puts down the other parent. Some may inadvertently slip into using alienating language as they struggle to counteract the badmouthing the children are hearing about them and behaviors the children have engaged in to support the alienating parent. These alienators generally do not cause extensive damage to kids because their alienation behaviors are sporadic and the kids continue to have enough contact with both parents that they can see for themselves what each parent is really like. Some of them, particularly those who are target parents trying to cope with difficult problems who just don’t have the skills and practice needed to stay completely away from judgmental language, they don’t really qualify as alienators in my view. However, Darnall tends to categorize this group more by words than by intent or context.
Active alienators know what they are doing and may know what they are doing is wrong, but do it anyway because of how angry they are. Darnall claims some of them may even feel guilty about it later. The children suffering from an active alienator generally show signs of harm, but it may not be obvious what that harm is at a casual glance. Often these kids miss some of their time with the target parent because of interference by the alienating parent. This makes them more susceptible to the distorting influence of what is an active alienation campaign.
Obsessed alienators are another matter entirely. These parents are focused on destroying the other parent and giving the children no choice but to hate that parent. They don’t care if what they are doing is wrong, and frankly they generally mistakenly believe it is right. Often these obsessed alienators are suffering from a personality disorder that results in them showing behaviors across the board that indicate they believe they are above the rules and the law. The children of obsessed alienators often show marked harm with behavioral problems, insecurities, eating disorders, substance abuse problems, poor performance in school, and other obvious signs. Frequently they echo the alienating parent’s complaints about the target parent and may actually believe what they are saying, in part because they are often denied much of their time with the target parent and therefore are highly influenced by the streams of badmouthing and distortions coming from the alienator.
Mild Alienators May Be Helped By Appealing To Their Self-Interest
I would clump most of the naive and and some of the active alienators into the category of “mild alienators” who are sometimes upset enough to trash the other parent but in general are not engaging in extreme forms of alienation including false child sexual abuse allegations, extensive community-wide distortion campaigns, frequent malicious violations of court orders, and other severe behaviors that you see nearly all of the obsessed alientors use in their alienation campaigns.
Some of these mild alienators can be helped to realize that their behaviors are harmful not only to their children, but to themselves, as well. Children who are subjected to parental alienation often become adults who avoid or turn against the alienating parent. When a angry but mildly alienating parent is confronted with information like this and shown there are better alternatives, many of them are capable of change. The book The Co-Parenting Survival Guide: Letting Go of Conflict After a Difficult Divorce by psychologists Elizabeth Thayer and Jeffrey Zimmerman has practical advice on how to restructure the relationship between the parents to be business-like contact that is about simple logistics (schedules, school events, medical and therapy appointments, etc.) and what is best for the kids. If you read this book or another title like it and can get your mildly alienating ex to read it, too, there’s a chance that she or he will turn around and start to behave more reasonably.
If your divorce has resulted in nasty words and a mild lack of cooperation that is affecting the kids but has not involved false criminal and abuse allegations, extensive perjury, and systematic harassment against you and your family, this strategy of using a good book to help bridge the communications gap and reduce the conflict may be useful to you.
Another step that may be useful is to hire a conjoint therapist who specializes in divorced families. You must chose carefully to ensure you are getting a competent therapist who will not easily be manipulated. Finding one of these therapists is difficult. Often the best advice is word-of-mouth from other parents in high-conflict alienation cases. If you can get your mildly alienating ex to work with a therapist like this, there is a chance the therapist may be able get the mildly alienating parent to understand that stopping the badmouthing is going to help everybody, including the angry badmouthing parent.
But if your ex is personality disordered, whether formally diagnosed or not, don’t count on being able to change her or his behavior by well-intentioned communications or any other means. These people are for the most part incurable by today’s mental health care system.
Even attempting to provide a book to a personality disordered parent is risky. It may be used against you in some way, often as part of the distortion campaign or via false accusations and perjury in court claiming that you are engaging in harassment by providing a free book with a title that “denigrates” her or him.
Therapy can also be risky with these personality disordered types as they are adept at lying and emotionally manipulating therapists into filing false child abuse and domestic violence reports. If you are a man, avoid any therapist who even hints at specializing in “women’s issues” as these therapists are particularly prone to aiding abusers. A similar argument can apply to women struggling with an alienating male ex. Alienation is not caused by gender. It is a problem caused by psychological deficits generally stemming from an abusive childhood that probably occurred long before you met your ex and certainly before you had any adult responsibility for her or him. The best therapists understand that severe alienation is connected to personality disorders and both genders suffer from personality disorders.
Personality Disordered Alienators Seldom Stop Abusing
The most damaging parental alienators engage in many high-conflict behaviors including far more than simple badmouthing. They often make false abuse and criminal allegations against the target parent. Frequently the children are trained to lie by the alienating parent against the target parent. There is almost always an extensive distortion campaign designed to turn the community against the target parent. As a result, the extreme alienator usually has many accomplices including childcare providers, doctors, teachers, scout leaders, churches, friends, and of course the courts and local police department.
These extreme alienators usually cannot be persuaded to stop with any kind of reasons short of extreme coercion. But even that often does not work, as you see on the rare occasion an enlightened judge tells an alienator he or she will end up in jail on contempt if the abuse continues and then observe the alienator simply continues to abuse despite the ultimatum. In such cases, the only way to stop the abuse is to limit the abuser to supervised visitation monitored by a neutral third party who can stop the visit if the abuse resumes. Unfortunately, most courts do the exact opposite and put the target parent on supervised visitation based upon false allegations and thereby enable and encourage the abuse to continue and intensify.
Usually these extreme alienators are driven by personality disorders and mental health problems that originate in dysfunctional childhoods. Personality disorders are very difficult to treat successfully. In practice, this means there is very little chance of recovery or even a significant improvement in behavior except for those very few patients who admit they have a problem and put serious effort into working on it.
The near total lack of success at treatment presents a big problem because severely alienating personality disordered parents can make life for the children and the “hated parent” very miserable so long as they are around. In today’s climate of abusive courts, most judges enable and assist these alienating parents in executing their abuse by disregarding obvious malicious violations of court orders while putting the children into the primary or sole custody of a parent who would likely be described as extremely abusive by any competent and honest third party without a financial motive to hide that conclusion.
As a target parent of a moderate to extreme alienator, you should prepare yourself for the reality that you are probably going to be in this conflict for a decade or more. Such alienators generally continue their abuse for their entire lives. Only when the kids leave their homes do the children start to get some relief from the abuse.
When alienated kids start to distance themselves from the abusive parent, they may start to develop more appreciation for the target parent. Unfortunately, they often fail to understand that they are very badly damaged by the abuse they suffered throughout their childhood. Alienated kids tend to have many problems with adult relationships, including falling into destructive romances with people who are psychologically damaged much like their abusive parent. Many of them also suffer high rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse disorders, and other mental health problems.
Helping Your Kids
One of the important things you need to understand well is that a target parent can help alienated kids resist the alienation and to reduce the damage they suffer from it. Usually there is little you can do to control the severely alienating parent and attempts to reign in that parent often result in the courts siding with the abuser. But you can control your own behaviors, and you can try to educate and influence your children to behave reasonably and to judge you and others based upon their own experiences rather than believing what they are told by other people.
There are a few things that you should keep in mind that you can help teach your children:
- Help them develop critical independent thinking skills
- Just because somebody says something bad about another person doesn’t mean it is true
- Let them know you will always love them
- Show them there are boundaries and that disrespectful behavior has consequences
Children need to be reassured that kids need both their parents and should be able to love both their parents. Ideally they should be hearing this from both parents and from many other people. Realistically, moderate to severely alienating parents will never convey this message to the kids. Therefore it is all the more important you give them this message and surround them with like-minded people who will also reinforce this message and other lessons that are intended to help them think independently and to reassure them they will always have many people in their extended family and friends who love them.
When you talk about these issues and concepts, do not engage in badmouthing the other parent. Paint these concepts as rules that apply to everybody, and that they apply to you, too. If you mess up and violate one of the rules, apologize for it. Most kids have a strong understanding of fairness and justice until malicious adults mess up their minds.
When a child starts to repeat the badmouthing from the alienating parent, don’t tolerate it. Tolerating it only invites more of it. Set a boundary by making a rule that it is not right to say nasty or untrue things to people because it makes them feel bad. Turn this around and try to make the kids think about what it would feel like if somebody badmouthed them. Make sure the kids know there will be consequences for such behaviors. For young kids, a time-out is usually appropriate. Send the kid to his or her room with the message that they get to stay there until they can be nice to other people. For older kids, this plus temporarily taking away a privilege may be sufficiently motivating. Every child is different, so you will likely have to experiment with consequences to find one or more that work well.
Also make clear to the kids that the rules apply to everybody. Tell them that if you were to talk that way about their other parent, you would be breaking the rules and that is why you try hard not to do it. And if you do it by accident, you will apologize just like they should. Invite them to call you out on when you mess up, if you do. And suggest that they don’t have to listen to either parent badmouth the other, nor to other people badmouthing. They can walk away or say they don’t want to hear it or if they are brave enough ask the badmouthing person to stop. Teach them a get-away strategy for when they are not brave enough such exclaiming “I have to pee!” and then rushing to the bathroom, closing and locking the door, and then using the toilet. The goal here is to help teach the kids to be reasonable and civil, to not imitate the alienating parent, and to find a way they can protect themselves from maliciousness when it becomes too much for them to tolerate.
Once kids start imitating the alienating parent, they are often on a slippery slope to strongly identifying with that parent because it can set off a whole series of loyalty conflict and guilt issues that increasing polarize them against the target parent. This is because these kids realize at some level that what they are doing is wrong and the guilt that accompanies the behavior angers them even more at the target parent. The kids want boundaries, they want to be told that what they are doing is wrong and they must stop. They may resist in the moment, but most of these kids will appreciate what you did to set boundaries at a later point in time. The earlier you start to teach them about alienation and appropriate behaviors and boundaries, the easier it will be to prevent an all-out alienation disaster.
Educational Materials for Kids
There are relatively few educational materials available for use with kids as risk for or suffering from alienation. The two that are most likely to be applicable to mild alienation cases are a book from Dr. Amy Baker and a video from Dr. Richard Warshak. You should start using materials like this as soon as you possibly can because early exposure to the concepts in them can go a long way towards blocking the worst effects of alienation.
Kids need to be taught that children should not be forced to choose between their parents. This is not just for their own benefit, it is also for their future children’s benefit. Dr. Amy Baker’s book I Don’t Want To Choose is aimed at kids from around the end of elementary school to early high school. It is a workbook with exercises to get them to think about how they have a right to love and spend time with both their parents and that they are responsible for how they treat each parent.
Dr. Richard Warshak’s video Welcome Back Pluto is aimed at both parents and children. It introduces the idea of parental alienation, tells children that the conflict between their parents is not their conflict, and does this all while not being overly blaming in its approach. This is important because many alienated kids will resist anything that too strongly says the alienating parent is doing something bad. In our review of Welcome Back Pluto, we offer a chapter-by-chapter discussion of this video that we believe is most likely to be helpful to kids and parents early in alienation before the impact to the kids is severe.
Resources for Alienated Target Families
There are more resources available for target parents and families coping with the destruction of alienation. These books are excellent, but probably not suitable for use with kids unless used with the help of a skilled therapist. They are good choices for target parents and relatives who are trying to understand how to help the kids.
In his book Beyond Divorce Casualties: Reunifying the Alienated Family, Douglas Darnall offers advice and worksheets to help family members afflicted by alienation understand their plight and developing better coping behaviors. The reviews on this book are generally good, with the caveat that no book can help change the behavior of severely alienating parent. Target parents can, however, benefit from learning how to better respond to the dysfunctional behaviors of their alienated kids and may also benefit from advice on how to avoid further inflaming an already bad conflict with the severely alienating parent. Usually the best strategy with severe alienators is the no-contact and low-contact strategies advised for use with those who suffer personality disorders. Unless you plan to stop seeing your kids, no contact may be hard to achieve. In general, you should stop all communication with the alienating parent other than brief written communications such as by email about only topics that directly concern the kids. If you slip up on this, it often results in an escalation of abusive communication by the alienating parent with lying, manipulations, threats, and other attacks aimed directly at you.
Richard Warshak’s book Divorce Poison New and Updated Edition: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing is probably the highest rated parental alienation book that focuses on advice for target parents and their families. As a therapist, Warshak has treated very severely alienated children. Divorce Poison explains many of the alienation strategies used in these cases. It explains how the alienation affects not just the kids and the target parent but also entire extended families and even friends and associates of the family. It is complete enough that it covers the general forms and specific examples of most of the nasty tactics you are likely to see in practice. This book tells it like it is, including that sometimes the alienation is so severe that there is nothing the target parent can realistically do to reverse it. It even has a section on what to do if the situation is so bad that it is intolerable and/or unfixable. For extreme alienation cases, this is probably the best single book available today because it contains a good mixture of description, explanation, analysis, and advice.
As alienated kids get older and become adults, they may gain enough perspective to realize that the alienating parent badly harmed them. Amy Baker’s book Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties That Bind presents a study of 40 adult children who were victims of parental alienation. This book explains how alienators work, why they behave that way, the damage caused to target parent, and the damage caused to the the kids both during childhood and as adults. Many of these kids are going to need extensive help with learning good relationships skills to avoid repeating the destructive cycle modeled by their abusive alienating parent. A book like this may be a way for a parent to reach out to an older child to help them understand what happened during their childhoods and to re-establish contact with the message that “I don’t blame you” that may help alleviate lingering feelings of guilt these kids often have over rejecting one of their parents. You and your children may have lost what could have been a good childhood time with you, but as adults who can free themselves from the abusive alienating parent, they can create a new relationship with you that can be a rich and rewarding experience itself. When these kids realize that they are not alone and many other kids went through this nightmare, it can help them take the steps they need to step out from under the dark cloud of parental alienation.