Behind Parental Alienation

Behind Parental Alienation
image source; creative commons

There are so many parents and children suffering out there from Parental Alienation. It’s tragic. I know this because my you tube video on the subject has too many responses…too many people are relating to this issue. Today, let’s take a look at what’s going on behind the scenes. What motivates the alienator to abuse their children by disapproving of their relationship with the target parent. Hint: Narcissism and PAS are often found in the same scenario…but not always.

PAS is one of the Narcissist’s favorite strategies to take control of the children during divorce. Many of the narcissist’s actions are based on fear, insecurity and past trauma. Parental Alienation is no different. Unfortunately, the person they are attempting to pay back (you, me) is not technically the one who ends up damaged. Hurt? Yes, it hurts like hell to be on the receiving end of such bitter and unnecessary disregard. Damaged? No, we aren’t the ones who end up damaged.

The real victims are the children.

Often, they aren’t mature enough to manage the behaviors and emotions.

You can imagine the confusion your child experiences. Why is dad angry and disappointed with me if I have nothing negative to say about mom? They soon learn that to share with their father, their pleasure and (normal) relationship with their mother is a big no-no. They learn that to agree with father and tell negatives to earn his approval. They soon become guarded and lose their innocent candor.

Your children learn that in order to get love from their father (or mother, if she’s the alienator), they must agree with their constant complaints of their other parent. While the alienating parent is washing out the brain of the child’s good memories of the target parent, he is replacing them with negatives, including lies. It doesn’t take long for the child to believe these lies and misrepresented facts as the new truth. It’s their new reality.

That said, I’ve explained the basic premise of PA in an earlier post, but now I will try to explore the actual reasons for it. I use the father as an example here, but of course, mothers can play this game equally well.

Before I get into that I want to share a personal story:

Early in my separation, my ex and I had agreed on shared parenting.  One evening, I made a routine phone call to my children. It was a call I would normally make once a week to double check their return time (to my house etc). What happened was strange. My son was a little bit distant on the telephone. My daughter was even more so (she is two years older than my son who was 11 at the time). In any event, the call would be ominous.

They were due to return to my house in a few days but my son asked if it was okay to stay with his dad because dad wanted to take them on a ski trip. These requests for them to stay with their dad longer than the shared parenting schedule we had set was becoming annoyingly typical.

I said no, I’m really sorry but I’m really looking forward to seeing you and I don’t want to change plans at the last minute. It’s really important to me that you and your sister come to my house on the scheduled time. “ I finished with something like “Maybe your dad can take you on the next weekend, during your time with him?” I was playing the bad guy, yet again in not allowing them to stay with their dad for whatever special event he had planned for them. If I agreed to everything though, I wouldn’t see my kids at all.

We were on a land line. Do you remember those? Well, this is where the funny thing happened. After we said our goodbyes, my phone rang a few minutes later. I picked up but no one was there. It was only background noise. In a split second I realized that it was the noise of my ex and my kids. I guess my son hadn’t disconnected the call completely, hence why my phone rang me back. Then I heard my ex-husband—talking about me. Not in a nice way either. He was telling the kids that they didn’t ‘need’ to go to my house and that it was ‘okay’ to stay with him. He also told them that their mom ‘didn’t care’ if they stayed with him longer….I was listening like a fly on the wall, holding my breath…

My son in his boyish, not yet broken, 11 year old voice was begging and pleading with his dad to let them go to mom’s. He explained to his dad that mom was looking forward to seeing them. Mom would be sad if they didn’t go to her house. His dad interrupted him and told him that his mom ‘didn’t know what she wanted’ and that she ‘changed her mind all the time’. I could hear my son’s voice peaking in pitch with his growing anxiety. I am quoting these because I wrote it all down the minute I hung up the phone. I still have that note.

It was the saddest thing I had ever heard. Not for me. For my son. The pain in his voice and the confusion were palpable. My daughter in the meantime was agreeing readily with her father. Did I feel betrayed? You bet your ass I did. I also was keenly aware of the power my ex had over our children. I reminded myself that my daughter was a child. She may have been 13 at the time but that’s nowhere near an age to stand up to her father, even if she wanted to.

This accidental telephone call, was a gift because it confirmed what I had begun to suspect. He was trying to keep the children and possess as much of their time as possible even when they were supposed to be with me.

Why am I talking about this story from many years ago? Well, I hope you can learn something valuable from it. For example, PA can be very subtle. Recognize the signs EARLY and don’t dismiss them.

Why does it happen?

Well there are many theories as to the cause of PA. One certain fact though, is the alienator is in FEAR of losing his children no matter how illogical. FEAR is the opposite of love, so very little of good comes from it. The other certain factor is the alienator is trying to regain CONTROL over a situation he feels he has lost. He may further attempt to RETALIATE against the target parent as a consequence for their abandonment. He may feel that if she has chosen to walk out why should she get the kids? In their mind, there should be a consequence.

All of this adds up to punishing the children. So, how can we help our children cope with our absence, their parent’s anger and misrepresentations?

1) Start TALKING-open communication and allowing the children to express what’s on their mind—anything, will open up discussion and help ease the child’s anxieties. Silence is not the answer.

2) RE-affirm your relationship with your children-either by reminiscing on old, fun or humorous memories, reminding them how much you believe in them, continuing to recognize birthdays, special occasions and continue or start new traditions.

3) EXPLAIN to them that their father’s (mother’s) anger toward you (the target parent) is not their fault. If daddy is angry, that’s not something they can change. Their job is to be the kid.

4) REMIND them that no one is perfect- they aren’t perfect. I remember telling one of my kids ‘remember that math test you failed? I didn’t judge your whole academic abilities on that one exam, right? So, is it fair to judge me based on that ______ mistake?” You’re not perfect, they’re other parent is not perfect either. We have to accept that we make mistakes. Apologies are important and eventually we move forward as a family.

5) Re-WASH or RINSE their brains with the good memories and reality of what your relationship was like in the past and hopes for the future. Don’t stop planning for the future with your kids whether that’s tomorrow, next week, next month or next five years. This shows them that you believe in them and are there for them no matter the situation.

I hope this helps you understand Parental Alienation a little better. Mostly, I hope you are able to help your children cope with it. It is a form of child abuse. Also, don’t forget to make sure you’re not falsely accusing your ex of PA. Read my first post on the subject, watch the video and/or read my book, where I outline questions to ask before diagnosing PA.

Bottom line? No parent should be deprived of a relationship with their child(ren).

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Mother with children image source; creative commons

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39 Replies to “Behind Parental Alienation”

  1. I see this happening with my best friend. She’s keeping her child from the father and even talking badly about the father to her child, who is five years old. She says her child doesn’t care about his dad anymore and doesn’t even call him “daddy” but calls him by his first name. It breaks my heart. I don’t think it’s right.

    1. Aw that’s terrible, Chrys! That’s exactly how it starts. I can’t believe for a second her son wouldn’t love to see his dad! It should be criminal 🙁 must be hard for you to watch.

  2. The kind of behavior you describe is despicable indeed. Would that anyone who engages in it be subjected to the same heart-wrenching sadness, the fear and uncertainty they inflict on the innocent; the ones who shouldn’t have to choose.
    I spent entirely too many years believing I was the spawn of an outright monster. When I was 12, a phone call from across the miles changed all that and I learned I had been purposely sequestered from my real father; a rather decent man, who’d been enlisted in the US Air Force at the time of a gruesome accident -involving only myself at age two- and could not get back home. It was then that he was deemed unacceptable.
    All those wasted years…makes me ever so glad I’ve had many more to make up for lost time 🙂

    1. Hi Diedre, I’m so sorry you missed out on your father during your childhood, all because of a lie or a misrepresented half truth. Usually there is quite a bit of resentment from adult children of PA when they learn the truth. Unfortunately there are some cases where the adult children still can’t mend the relationship (or choose not to). I’m happy to hear your story has a happy ending. Thanks for sharing your story here! 🙂

    1. It really is. It’s shocking but best to be aware of it and prepared (as much as a person can be) to help our kids try to understand it before it destroys. Nice to see you, Dan!

  3. Hi Lisa,

    I have always felt that children are the innocent victims of parents who keep fighting even after walking out on each other. So TRAGIC! They are torn between the two, yearning for their love because they want both. They don’t know who is trying to pull the strings, emotionally blackmail them and why.

    Such children don’t just lose their childhood, they lose a major part of being loved and their emotions, some have to struggle with emotional challenges and upheavals within themselves, wondering how to handle them.

    I don’t know whether I have shared this thought with you but I often say that this law which gives a 50- 50 right to parents is very unjust and bizarre! A mother bears the child for 9 months, gives birth, bears the birth pangs, feeds the child, many times takes time off, sometimes has to give up her job and I am not forgetting the body changes that she willingly accepts for the wonderful experience of being a mother. What is a father’s contribution? Just a sperm? and he claims full rights? isn’t that unfair? If a father gives financial and emotional support, a mother gives that too. I have always felt that a mother’s right should be 80% if a couple decides to separate. Hopefully in the coming decades women can claim that too!

    1. Oh, my goodness Balroop. You’ve really hit the nail on the head. You’ve said what so many of us don’t say anymore which is that the moms do all the work when it comes to child bearing… 🙂 I also agree with your statement on the kids being victimized. It’s the hardest thing about divorce and when I see couples who are able to resolve their differences without bringing children into it—I applaud. I stand and ovate LOL. Seriously, though father’s rights are important too. One of the ways custody should be defined is by the history of roles. If mom was the primary caregiver (which I was) then that should continue. If dad was then that shouldn’t change either. But I have a problem when a father who was not very involved suddenly becomes super-dad and sues for full custody. To me, that smacks of a power play and using the children to get back at the mother…SIGH. Thanks for sharing your valuable thoughts on this controversial topic, Balroop <3

    2. Totally get what you are saying but as a father of 3 children ranging from 14 – 21 my concern is not the law. Probably obvious that the law doesn’t enter into many of my decisions regarding family and love and children based on the fact that when my wife came to me with her intention to divorce I did not retain a lawyer, fought her on nothing and offered her everything I have including my love and support. Point being when we become parents there is no percentage under 100% that is acceptable. My kids live with my wife full time yet I see them and talk to them every day, take them to school, help them with homework and tell them I love them as often as I can. I still love my ex dearly and that obviously changes things and that is very atypical in a divorce but I do not see any reason for any “man” to reduce his responsibility for his children just because the law says its not his weekend. Children are never something to fight over no matter what the situation between the parents. Almost a year has gone by and I still have not read the legal garbage I signed that day in court but I am crystal clear on my responsibility as a father.

      1. Hi Dan, great points you’ve made here. I think the law is in place for people who don’t get it, people who don’t pay their support. Clearly, you are not one of those people. You are an exception in many ways, Dan. Your unconditional love for your ex and your children allow you to maintain generosity and kindness. Sadly, most divorcing couples don’t have that kind of rapport and the children definitely pay the price. I love this: “…when we become parents there is no percentage under 100% that is acceptable.” I agree. Unfortunately, there’s always give and take with child custody arrangements and each parent gives up some time…one of the hardest adjustments of divorce. UNLESS the divorcing couple can remain on good terms and share as openly as you and your ex. Thanks for sharing your view, Dan and standing up as a great example to many!

        1. Thanks Lisa. Of course you are correct and my experience is very personal and very unique. My wife is an amazing woman who, by bravely walking away from our life together opened my eyes to who I really am. I will never be able to repay her for again touching my heart after I caused her 30 years of pain, sorrow, and loneliness. She is my angel and will forever have my love and devotion no matter where her life takes her. I realize the law is in place to protect those who also bravely do what is needed for their own souls and for their children. There was no intent to downplay the need for the law and I do hope I offended no one. Thanks again to you Lisa and to your readers for the amazing conversation.

      2. Wow this comment just reduced me to tears absolutely amazing this is exactly how it should be. There are far too many controlling men and women in this world just to hear someone putting their kids first is amazing

  4. This was such an interesting article, Lisa. I don’t have kids myself but I am so sorry to hear what you had to go through. I am sorry to hear your ex treated you that way and I’m sure you – and him – only wanted the best for your children.

    Your story reminds me of a time in my childhood when my parents fought a lot (they are still married to this day, happily). I won’t go into too much detail but dad was the more aggressive one, and at one stage threatened to drive off me and my brother. I felt bad for my mother. No kid wants to see their parents fight – the world is so much more than being at each other’s throats.

    1. Hi Mabel, that sounds pretty scary especially from a child’s view. That’s why it’s terrible when parents drag kids into their problems 😛 They lose their innocence and that’s just not right. I’m sure my ex wanted the best for our kids and he thought he could provide that without me, it seems. However, we’ve come out the other side (the kids and I) and we’re doing really well. It’s a process though. Thank you for reading and commenting, Mabel.

  5. Hi Lisa,

    You said it all so well when you shared your story in this one. I just feel so bad for the kids.

    They are ones who really suffer because their tender hearts and minds cannot understand the hidden turmoil or war that actually goes on between their parents who are separated.

    Your tips are so apt, though it needs to be followed by both parents, or else only one side is the one who gives in each time, while the other simply takes advantage.

    It’s very rare that you see a mutual understanding between separated parents where the kids are shared in the real way, especially the time spent with each parent. One of my friend’s faced similar issues, though over time it got alright. But the damage is done to the mind of those kids, which is the saddest part.

    Thanks for sharing it with us. Have a nice week ahead 🙂

    1. Hi Harleena, I totally agree with you. And yes, both parents really need to be vigilant in respecting each other’s role in their children’s life. It is rare but I’ve seen some couples do really well with it. It doesn’t happen right away usually but in time. It’s definitely a process of give, take and push, pull until a divorced family can find a satisfactory balance. Some never find it though, as you mention. Thank you for weighing in on this important topic, Harleena. I appreciate your view!

  6. I think that’s my biggest issue with the way people are living these days. They become so focused on themselves and what makes them happy that they don’t pause to think about others, even their children. Guaranteed if we didn’t live in such an “entitled” world, a good 80% of the current divorces wouldn’t happen. Kids would be raised in an environment with both parents who many not be perfect, but who felt obligated to try. Society wouldn’t be suffering as it is.

    1. Hi Crystal, yes we are a selfish group of humans. On the flip side though, we only have one life. It’s not a dress rehearsal so we try to live happily. Divorce has its benefits believe it or not. Some kids are healthier and happier once the adjustment period is completed. But this topic really brings to light the ugly side of the ‘D’ word. Bottom line is kids need both parents in their life. Thanks for weighing in, Crystal. Much appreciated.

  7. Hi Lisa,
    Oh geez, this post really hit home–the part that you said PAS is rooted in “fear.” That really hits the nail on the head–my ex puts himself first and before the children, because of fear. It’s so sad. And while he may not openly talk negatively about me (that I know of), he uses much more subtle behaviors, i.e. expressing disappointment with “mom actions,” “She didn’t return x, y, z,” or getting the kids to feel sorry for him, “I have to pay all this money to mommy, so that’s why i can’t x, y, z,” etc.

    My DD1 is already a caregiver, so she really worries about her dad a lot and I constantly reinforce with her that it’s not her job to take care of mom or dad, but for mom and dad to take care of her…

    I hope she gets the message…I hope she understands… <3

    1. Jane I’m so glad you weighed in here because you’re truly in the middle of it right now and doing a great job–I might add. Your ex really does ‘nit pick’ at your mothering…from what I’ve read on your posts. FEAR is a such a terrible place to be in and we make bad decisions based on it. I remember my son at 12 YO asking why dad had to pay for his _________ fill in the blank and why I didn’t pay. It was bizarre. I had to sit there and tell my 12 YO what I was paying for (music lessons, soccer, school fees, football…) It was ridiculous. And yes, my daughter was the care giver. She (actually both the kids) worried abut him constantly. It was so inappropriate and sad. The best gift we can give our kids is to let them be kids and not to worry about us.
      Sorry, I went off there. You are doing an amazing job, Jane. Your head and heart are always in the right place and with that, no doubt your daughters will both get the message and understand.

  8. That is so upsetting and scary. I’m so sorry that happened to you and your kids.
    I have friends going through a divorce and they say awful things to each other in front of the kids. I honestly can’t imagine.

    1. Hi Tamara, I know it’s a horrible situation. The good news is we can work on it and it’s a process. I always say the antidote to PA is LOVE. just LOVE your children in spite of whatever the other parent is saying and the children will WANT to be with you. LOVE wins. I hope your friends work out their issues and stop with the bad mouthing. I think it’s common in the beginning but usually peeps get their act together as time goes on.

  9. How awful that you went through this and heard it via a phone call. My daughter went through something similar last year when she broke up with the father of her toddler. First he threatened to take the child from her (even though to this day he has never paid a dime toward child support and only asks to see his little girl for a few hours once a week–and even then tends to cancel frequently). Now he has accepted the fact that they will never be a family again, but every time he is with my granddaughter, he cries and tells his little girl how sad he is that mommy broke up their family. I HATE that!

    1. Hi Marcia, Oddly, I consider that accidental phone call a gift b/c it confirmed my suspicions and explained some of the changes in the children toward me. That was only the beginning…

      I’m sorry your daughter is going through this. I hope it gets better for her. It’s hard b/c there’s nothing we can do to help the other parent. The only thing we can do is help our children. He’s making all the mistakes and showing all the signs of a alienating parent: blaming the other parent, eliciting sympathy form a child (heinous), not paying support…BTW I should have mentioned in the post—often money is a motivator for the alienating parent. It’s hard for grandparents such as yourself, to witness this. I’ve heard many stories from Grandparents as well. Hope things get better, Marcia!

  10. My children seem to see through most of it I think. But there are days when I hate being the “bad guy”. Sorry you had to go through it too Lisa.

    1. Hi Liv, that’s good your children see through it. Usually it is beyond their scope of understanding—even as teens. Yes, it’s hard being the ‘bad guy’. When they’re grown they appreciate the bad guy though 🙂

  11. Things are way better now that my boys are young adults, but I still remember how bad the manipulation from their father was. He would tuck notes in with the belongings of my youngest – usually bible verses that he felt proved I would eventually take him back. My oldest was convinced that if he wanted to spend time with friends or whatever instead of going to his dad’s, his father would hang himself in the basement.

    Even the family counselors rarely understood how devastating these things were to my boys at the time.

    1. OMG, Vanessa! That must have been so scary for your sons. They then develop an unnatural concern for the alienating parent. But to worry that their father would kill himself is really sick. I’m not surprised the counselors didn’t understand the destruction. I think the awareness and understanding of this syndrome has only really come to light in the last 10 to 12 years. I’m glad it’s all worked out okay for you and your sons. I’m curious if they have a relationship with their father now.

  12. I’ve seen this happen so many times with my friends, and it is HEARTBREAKING. The kids can truly be pawns in their angry war. One of my beloved friends was out of the country on a mission trip for just one week, and her x took her kids OUT of the school they attended and made them go to a new school 45 minutes away from where she lived. (He decided to move out there.) He just showed up at their school and said “Say goodbye to your friends- you won’t be back here again.” Pulled them and never even told her, warned her- or THEM. Talk about trauma. Sigh. Worst case scenario for her… it was a NIGHTMARE.

    Reading all you wrote made me think of him and so many others…

    I hate that you had such a terrible experience with your X, and I agree that listening to that conversation was a gift. If confirmed your suspicions and then you at least had a new awareness and could better handle his manipulation.

    1. Hi Chris, Wow that’s really something your friend’s ex pulled, by moving his kids to a new school. Technically he should have had an agreement or consent order before moving them. The school should have confirmed with the children’s mother before allowing it. That’s where the law comes in handy…but negligence of the school is the least of this mother’s worries after the fact.

      Yes, that call was a gift of sorts. Although, I don’t think it’s ever easy to deal with manipulation of an ex especially when we try to play nice and fair. It goes against our nature to anticipate manipulative actions. I hope i’m raising awareness at the very least. Thanks for sharing here, Chris!

  13. I find it horrible. But does it not happen in many divorces Lisa?
    I am trying as much as I can to not let my anger against my ex (which kind or show up every time I hear his voice on the phone) flow away and make a mess in my little one life. It’s hard but we should all try to work through this together.

    For the moment my ex is just trying to use his son to make me say “yes” to things he wants, playing on the line of “if you are a good mother”. I don’t listen to him. And I have to protect my son. I’d like to be more flexible but if I say yes one time I also know that he won’t stop harassing me to get more and more.

    Anyway there is so many difficulties to face when we dirvorce. I feel like it’s a no end journey Lisa.

    Thank you for raising such an interesting topic. I always learn something when reading you.
    Stay blessed.

    1. ps – It must have been tough for you to hear this Lisa. We would want so much things to go as smoothly as possible for our kids. And being the bad guy all the time is not the best place to be in. But with time I guess kids get it, understand a bit more what it’s about.
      Take care.

    2. Hi Marie, I think PA happens in bitter divorces. If the divorcing couple can remain respectful and decent to one another, this usually doesn’t happen at all. I know what you mean in feeling like it’s a never ending journey…I remember feeling the same way 😛 However, it does end eventually. The only thing that never ends is the effects on the children and that’s why it is always best to minimize their emotional consequence. Time will resolve most divorce animosity…so, hang in there, Marie!

      We definitely want everything to go smoothly but it’s hard when your ex wants the opposite (which is to make things more difficult). Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Marie!

  14. As the child of divorce twice over, I can definitely relate to how former spouses anger at each other can have a huge impact on the kids–even if it’s not directly directed at them. Great article, Lisa!

  15. Oh, man… this is completely heartbreaking. As sorry as I am that you had to overhear that conversation between your ex/the kids, it must have affirmed a lot of things for you (ie, your separation notwithstanding).

    I have something similar happening around me and it’s SO hard not to get involved or say something to the parents who are clearly feeding their kids terrible ideas about the other spouse. I see the effect it’s happening on the kids, and that is just the saddest thing of all.

    Thanks so much for sharing this, Lisa. I always love coming here. XOXO and hope you’re having a great week.

    1. Hi Charlotte, thanks for reading. Maybe you could share the post with the mother (your friend you mention). It might allow her to see things in a different light without you having to say anything to her. 🙂 Have a great week, Charlotte!

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