I have had a run recently in my clinical practice on cases of parental alienation syndrome. Instead of talking cooperatively in the manner I teach in my book The Power of Two, these spouses and ex-spouses interact as adversaries toward their partner. Worse, they develop an exaggeratedly negative view, more fiction than reality, of the other partner.
So what is parent alienation syndrome? And who does it?
Parent alienation syndrome
Parental alienation syndrome, a term coined in the id 1980’s by child psychiatrist Dr. Richard A. Gardner, occurs when one parent attempts to turn the couple’s children against the other parent. A parent who is angry at the spouse or ex-spouse accomplishes this estrangement by painting a negative picture of the other parent via deprecating comments, blame and false accusations shared with the children. They may also hoard the kids, doing all they can to thwart the other parent’s parenting time.
In my clinical practice, the mother most often has been the alienating parent, turning the children against their Dad. At the same time, I also have had multiple families in which Dad is the toxic parent, poisoning the children against their mother. In general, the alienating parent is the least emotionally healthy, and often the more wealthy (to be able to afford legal challenges).
The sad reality is that parents who poison their children’s natural affection for the other parent are doing serious, even abusive, damage. PT blogger Edward Kruk, PhD updates the research on this important point:
“A survey taken at the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts’ annual (2014) conference reported 98% agreement “in support of the basic tenet of parental alienation: children can be manipulated by one parent to reject the other parent who does not deserve to be rejected.”
For the child, the biopsychosocial-spiritual effects of parental alienation are devastating. For both the alienated parent and child, the removal and denial of contact in the absence of neglect or abuse constitute cruel and unusual treatment. … . As a form of child maltreatment, parental alienation is a serious child protection matter as it undermines a basic principle of social justice for children: the right to know and be cared for by both of one’s parents.
An alienating parent usually shows narcissistic and also borderline tendencies.
Narcissism is selfishness on steroids. Narcissistic individuals tend to be self-absorbed. Most centrally, they show deficits in ability to listen to others’ differing perspectives. Instead they hyper-focus on what they themselves want, think, feel and believe without taking into consideration others’ desires and ideas.
A narcissistic alienating parent uses the children as weapons, pawns in his/her battle to destroy the other parent. They claim to be protecting the children against the evil other. In fact, by using the children in their perpetual fight to hurt the other parent, they show little capacity for taking into consideration what is in the best interests of the child.
Kids need both parents. They do not however benefit, and indeed are harmed, when one of their parents portrays the other in a relentlessly negative light. They do not need parents who fight their way through divorce and post-divorce. They are harmed when parents put them in the middle of their power battles. They are harmed when a parent uses them to accomplish their own angry agenda, ignoring the needs of the children.
The central element in borderline personality disorder is emotional hyper-reactivity. The excessively intense emotion often gets expressed as anger.
In addition to getting emotionally aroused too often, and too intensely, people with this disorder often have difficulty self-soothing. Their distress thus tends to be longer-lasting than the distress that most people experience. In this regard, they have deficits in emotional resilience, in the ability to recover once they have felt frustrated or disappointed. They become at risk therefore for developing a victim self-image, blaming others for whatever goes wrong—which in turn enables them to victimize others. “I’m a victim so I have a right to victimize you.”
Borderline disorders become evident in the way that an alienating parent twists reality. They offer trumped up accusations against the healthier parent, accusations that actually are projections of how they themselves are. “Your dad is selfish,” says the actual selfish parent. Or “Your mother is crazy,” says the dad who is himself emotionally unhealthy.
Alienating parents typically also engage in another quintessential borderline pattern, a habit that therapists refer to as splitting. They enlist others to join their side in fighting against the supposedly evil other, splitting the family into us against them.
Individuals with borderline personality features get mad when someone of import to them won’t give them what they want—e.g., a spouse who has decided to leave the marriage, generally because the alienating partner was not capable of healthy, loving and collaborative partnership. Their goal then becomes to destroy the other parent’s relationship with the children. They corral in the children to join them in this battle as a fighter for their side. They do all they can to deprive the other parent, their enemy, of being able to continue to be a parent.