Updated: Sep 28, 2022
It seems contrary to logic that if you pour your heart into your children that they will wholeheartedly love you in return. The reality is though that not everyone recognizes they are raising children with pathologic people, and when they do, those strong held belief systems to stay married through better or for worst prevent you from separating yourself from these toxic scenarios. Afterall, these scenarios mostly seem manageable, right? That is until they aren't, and typically this is quite abruptly, and you become the parent on the outside, ostracized and isolated, completely befuddled by your new reality.
Parental alienation is a diagnosis now given to children who have been exposed to parental alienating behaviors. Admittedly, this is a largely unrecognized travesty in spite of its severity. Narcissism, reactive abuse, and even gaslighting are still phenomenons to educated and licensed therapists and clinicians, so it is even a great misnomer to legal authorities and child protective agents.
Parental alienation is identified through the presence of five key factors. The first is when the child refuses, opposes, or avoids a relationship with their parent, as contrary to adult logic, children don't reject their parents, even when their relationship is far from optimal, as they are wired to seek their love and attention. The second factor is that these children, prior to the abrupt decision to avoid their parent, did have a positive relationship with the parent previously. Importantly, there is no evidence of abuse or neglect perpetrated by the rejected parent, but there is evidence of the other parent utilizing multiple parental alienating behaviors. Finally, the child will exhibit behavioral manifestations of parental alienation.
Parental alienating behaviors are complex. One parent essentially targets the other in effort to damage and sever the relationship between the child and the child's other parent, often referred to as the target parent. This really is best understood in the context of family violence, whereby parental alienation is the outcome of an abusive process perpetrated by the alienating parent.
My first exposure to this was while I was going through my own divorce, I joined a support group for divorcees and one of the women in the group was having the most heinous experiences with her former spouse. There are always two sides to every story, right, but the circumstances she endured were just the most atrocious insults. It was as if he relentlusly poked every button that she and her children had, over and over without rest, which, of course, resulted in their near constant state of panic. Often in these circumstances, you'll see the target parent start to fight back and then they get labeled the toxic parent as the abuser relaxes, but skilled clinicians identify this as reactive abuse. Narcissists are masters at creating this response in their victims so they escape blame, maintain their excellent reputation, and then they can blame a crazy-ex or essentially kidnap their children.
Parental alienating behaviors can include the alienating parent discrediting the target parent by sabotaging, undermining, and manipulating their relationship with the child. These tactics can go unrecognized for years as they can be quite covert, yet exceedingly malignant. It is thought that at least 19 percent of the population in the United States has been exposed to parental alienating behaviors. This contrasts with parental estrangement, where the parent-child relationship has been negatively affected, usually with a sound rationale for the child's rejection of the parent. Complex though, because often what the child believes as sound reasoning is often manipulated perceptions developed over time by the alienating parent.
The Alienating Parent
To understand the experience of the alienated child, it is important to grasp the characteristics and behaviors of the alienating parent who creates the predicament for the child. It has been suggested that alienating parents present with paranoid, histrionic, or narcissistic personality traits and have affective disorders, #suicidal ideation, and lack of resilience around the separation and loss. They also tend to have dysfunctional family histories and poor relationships with their parents. Their desire for vengeance, coupled with feelings of anger and frustration, may inhibit them from having a more moderate view of the relationship between the child and the targeted parent. As a result, the alienating parent engages in behaviors and processes that prioritize their own needs above the child's needs, which causes me to hypothesize that parents on the spectrum to be at high risk of becoming the alienating parent as well. As the growing population of individuals with autism grows, this may become more recognized and while the intent may come from a different place, the outcome is nonetheless, any less tragic.
A small study published in 2005 found that alienating parents use similar tactics to cult leaders to alienate the child from the targeted parent (Baker). These similarities include requiring excessive devotion, the use of emotional manipulation and persuasion techniques to reinforce dependency, denigration of the targeted parent, creating the impression that the targeted parent is dangerous, deceiving the child about the targeted parents' feelings, withdrawal of love as punishment and erasing the memory of the targeted parent. The idea that alienating parents use similar tactics to cult leaders is supported by the Haines et al study as well (2020), who argued that processes evident in cultic groups, such as psychologically abusive group processes, isolation, control, and indoctrination, also held true in the case of the alienating parents' tactical agenda. Again, to add to this, my suspicion is that we may see the less auspicious behaviors of many parents with autism come into play here as their role in their children's lives can also be very self-serving.
The Targeted Parents
These parents typically present with a history of passivity, emotional constriction, and over-accommodation of demands made by alienating parents. While this is the more typical target parent, consider too the partner of those with autism, often catering to their every need to assure fits don't occur, anxiety is managed, and their many sensory needs or unique perspectives are honored. This doesn't equate to passivity, but rather a strong advocate, which then fits the "over-accommodating profiling.
Targeted parents may also avoid seeking to maintain a relationship with their child for fear of being rejected or hurt. Some researchers suggest that targeted parents contribute to their own alienation as a result; however, Haines et al (2020) argue that targeted parents may withdraw from their child after realising they cannot meet the alienating parents' demands and after recognising when all avenues for resolution are exhausted. They may also fear legal repercussions or subsequent consequences to another child who has not yet been alienated. Targeted parents also discuss not wanting to disrupt or subject their children to conflict.
The Alienated Child
There is no evidence that specific characteristics or protective factors in children will increase or protect them from the likelihood of parental alienation occurring. Despite this, researchers have suggested that anxious, fearful, and overly passive children may lack the resilience to withstand the alienating process; however, the psychological consequences for children subjected to parental alienating behaviors are clear, with both negative immediate and long-term effects. These children suffer self-esteem issues, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, increased suicidality, school-related difficulties, and a greater risk of being alienated from their own children in the future.
Children exposed to parental alienating behaviors may develop a confused sense of self-perception and fail to remember how to trust their perceptions and feelings, resulting in an uncertain identity, lack of self-esteem, and deep insecurity. These difficulties can lead to the inadequate and age-inappropriate development of independence and individuality. This can lead to an increased vulnerability to mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, eating and feeding disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, and other psychosomatic disorders. These difficulties can persist even when alienated children reunited with the targeted parent.
Given the devastating impact parental alienating behaviors can have on the alienated child and their future self, it is important to gain more insight into finding ways to resolve parental alienation, alienating behaviors, and their consequences. While more is needed, much research has been done with resulting themes of depression, poor self-esteem, feelings of guilt and shame, increased alcohol and substance abuse, and an increased likelihood of experiencing alienation from their children have been found. They also tend to only perceive negative aspects of situations and have poor coping skills in stressful environments (Verrochio et al, 2015).
The Maccalister study, published just this year, found 40 percent of their study participants shared difficulties relating to personality dysfunction ranging from a formal diagnosis of borderline personality disorder to a variety of difficulties, including emotional dysregulation, fear of abandonment, splitting, excessive reassurance and validation seeking, mistrust in self, impulsivity, inability to resist urges, and the need to impress others. Some participants also reported experiencing longsanding controlling or perfectionist tendencies which they related to exposure to parental alienating behaviors, mainly aimed at pleasing the alienating parent. Posttraumatic stress disorder can result from living an unstable lifestyle. Others still suffer psychosomatic symptoms such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, hypersensitivity to sound and the environment, cognitive "fog," and alopecia. Fifteen percent of participants described experiencing self-harm through cutting. Thirty percent reported experiencing suicidal ideation from adolescence into adulthood. Half of these participants reported becoming targeted parents into adulthood.
Parents provide a secure base for infants from which to explore the world. The bond between infant and parent strengthens when the infant feels safe, has their needs met, and experiences a continually warm and nurturing relationship with their primary caregiver. As a result, the infant begins to develop positive emotional regulation and self-soothing skills. Growing up mentally healthy requires that a child experience both a secure environment where a parent and child find enjoyment, and have social, economic, and healthy security. When children do not experience warm and nurturing environments during their early years, their internal working model of the world can be affected, resulting in unstable attachments, reduced resilience, and over-developed fear centers in the brain (Bretherton, 2020).
When these behaviors are present in the home, at its best, the child endures suboptimal conditions, but at its worst, the child is exposed to a range of abusive behaviors such as coercion, control, manipulation, and neglect. If a child's threat appraisal system becomes heightened and unmanageable and caregivers do not actively help to regulate their physiological arousal, the child becomes unable to categorize their experiences successfully. The child's ability to respond flexibly to a perceived threat is damaged over time, resulting in hypervigilance, problems reading social cues, unpredictable levels of emotional reactivity, intense feelings of fear, reduced memory function, and learning difficulties (Verrochio, 2015).
The complexity grows still as these higher levels of emotional reactivity in early childhood are a predictor of numerous mental health issues in adulthood and because genetic predisposition and social learning within the family context also serve to increase the probability that children are more likely to inherit their parent's mental health issues and patterns of behavior. The finding of the Maccalister (2022) study that 90 percent of participants experienced mental health difficulties in adulthood seems consistent with the literature.
Add to that, it's important to understand that children exposed to early maltreatment are believed to be more vulnerable to a complex form of posttraumatic stress (CPTSD). This neglect causes the brain to prioritise stress monitoring over higher functional cortisol development. Repeated interpersonal trauma and disturbances in self-organization in addition to re-experiencing, hypervigilance, and avoidance leads to complex-PTSD and to be frank, CPTSD is considered a less stigmatising and more accurate diagnosis than borderline personality disorder (BPD) when individuals experience dysregulation and interpersonal difficulties and also have a history of repeated relationship trauma. Substance abuse and sex and pronography addiction is also a common escape used to numb emotions, ultimately to reduce the impact of parental alienating behaviors on their lives, to avoid emotions, or even to create chaos when life becomes too stable.
There is Hope
The key is education. Educators, child advocates, clinical therapists, psychiatrists, primary care providers, police officers, and consumers do need education on this incredibly complex family dysfunction as they often add to the trauma because of their ignorance and assumptions. Understanding attachment and relational disorders is necessary in helping those exposed to parental alienating behaviors, and of course, trauma-informed training. Schema or Narrative Therapy can help these victims piece together and make sense of their experience. Understanding their stories will also help people exposed to parental alienation detect and address patterns of intergenerational transmission of parental alienation. Interestingly, while the Baker Strategy Questionnaire has been used as a screening tool to identify victims of parental alienation, the reality is that this abuse creates confusion, lack of trust in their own intuition, and inability to accurately distinguish between their experience from high conflict divorce or custody disputes. When a child rejects a parent, no matter the accusation, child abuse should be suspected in the alienating parent.
Age helps us understand, but like my own scenario, that wisdom doesn't often come until after the marriage is over and perspective is gained, even therapy and healing too late to impart on the children. The belief, supported by research, is that reading books, taking courses, and engaging in online support appears to offer greater understanding and acceptance. The reality seems to be though, that regaining contact with the children after alienation is not typically successful... "you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't."
The target parents commonly disclose profound difficulties in the literature. They fight to maintain relationships with their children. They struggle to communicate with the alienated parent. They are hurt, fearful of abandonment, and manipulated, betrayed. They have to endure legal battles and great financial strain, constant threats from CPS and educators. And through all of this, they too have to process their own traumas and emotions, mature their own coping skills, and grieve their losses. Prioritizing their own mental health takes courage, but this is often misunderstood as selfishness to the children. Target parents also struggle with suicidal ideation.
Baker, A. J. L. (2005). The long-term effects of parental alienation on adult children: A qualitative research study. American Journal of Family Therapies, 33:289–302. doi: 10.1080/01926180590962129.
Bretherton, I. (2020). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Dev. Psychol, 28:759–775. doi: 10.1037/0012-16188.8.131.529.
Haines J., Matthewson M., & Turnbull M. (2020). Understanding and Managing Parental Alienation: A guide to Assessment and Intervention. Routledge; London, UK.
Harman, J. J., Matthewson, M. L., & Baker, A. J. L. (2021). Losses experienced by children alienated from a parent. Current Opinions of Psychology, 43:7–12. doi: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.05.002.
Maccalister, H. (2022). The impact of parental alienating behaviours on the mental health of adults alienated in childhood.
Van Der Kolk, B. (2003). The neurobiology of childhood trauma and abuse. Child Adolescent Psychiatry Clinicals in North America, 12:293–317. doi: 10.1016/S1056-4993(03)00003-8.
Verrochio, M. C., Marchetti, D., & Fulcheri, M. (2015). Perceived parental functioning, self-esteem, and psychological distress in adults whose parents are separated/divorced. Front. Psychol, 6:1760. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01760.