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.