You’re probably familiar with parental alienation if you had a parent who often tried to turn you against your other parent.
The concept of parental alienation is something I was familiar with but never knew the proper term for. It’s commonly used in custody and divorce proceedings, so unsurprisingly, I never came across it.
However, thanks to Amanda Sillars, the founder of Eeny Meeny Miney Mo (EMMM) Foundation, I finally have a word to describe the many behaviors my mother pulled in an attempt to hurt my and my father’s relationship.
Growing up, my mother often spoke negatively about my father. When I was younger, she’d encourage me to hit him and be mean to him. Even as an adult (before I went no contact), she often called just to complain to me about how awful he was.
For the rest of this post, I’ll discuss what parental alienation is, its signs and examples, the effects it has on the child and targeted parent, and how to heal.
What is Parental Alienation?
Parental alienation is also known as parental alienation syndrome.
Parental alienation is the process where one parent (alienating parent) negatively influences their child’s (alienated child) relationship with the other parent (targeted/alienated parent).
In other words, it is when one parent tries to get their child to reject, fear, or avoid contact with the other parent with no reasonable justification. And this can happen even when the child and targeted parent used to have a very positive and close relationship.
This shows that parental alienation is not only a form of psychological child abuse. But that it’s also a form of abuse towards the targeted parent.
Although the word “parent” is included, alienating or targeted parents don’t necessarily have to be a mother or father. It can also be a grandparent, stepparent, sibling, and even non-family member.
Parental alienation often emerges in divorce cases or in custody conflicts where a parent attempts to manipulate their child’s testimonies. But it is also found in intact families like mine.
So divorce or separation can make alienation worse due to easier prevention from the child having contact with their other parent. But it’s important to also acknowledge that parental alienation can happen without divorce or separation as well.
10 Signs of Parental Alienation
Here are some signs, examples, and behaviors to see whether your parent was an alienating parent.
Unfairly criticizing the other parent
One common sign of parental alienation is when the alienating parent often unfairly criticizes the other parent to the child.
Your alienating parent may name-call, insult, make implications, or make backhanded compliments about your other parent. They may also refuse to use your other parent’s name and refuse to accept or acknowledge anything good about them.
As a child, you may have questioned or doubted your other parent. With all the negative things you hear about them, you may wonder if they’re a good parent or even a good person. You get the message that maybe your other parent doesn’t care about you or even loves you.
- Your father can’t do anything right.
- Did that idiot call you today?
- That b**** said she’s going to pick you up tomorrow.
- I’m surprised she remembered your birthday. Good for her!
- What kind of mother says no to her own child?
- It’s great he got you dinner. I guess he finally got enough money to feed you, huh?
Making the child feel like their other parent doesn’t love them
I think this is one of the more common signs I dealt with from my own mother.
Growing up, she often implied or straight-up told me that my father doesn’t love me or want me. I was often told my father wanted to abort me when my mother was pregnant. She claimed my father also considered leaving her (and unborn me) at the time.
This was something she told me for years to come. Whenever there’s any conflict between them, she’ll bring it up as “evidence” that he’s a bad person and a bad father. Of course, she never mentioned the fact that he ended up staying and marrying her. And what’s “funny” is that my mother did leave me, my sibling, and my father for some man across the world.
The alienating parent in your life might’ve constantly told you negative things about the other parent. And they seem to rarely mention anything positive to balance it out.
On top of the unfair criticisms, they may have told you or implied that your other parent didn’t want you, is too busy for you, or doesn’t care about you.
- If daddy loved you, he wouldn’t be working all the time.
- Your mother wanted to give you up for adoption back then.
- Mommy has a new family now. She doesn’t have time for you anymore.
- Your father doesn’t care about you.
Accusing the other parent of abuse
The alienating parent may claim or imply that the other parent is abusive without reason or evidence. They can take an innocent or normal situation and twist it into something sinister.
For instance, if the other parent was helping their child change or bathe, the alienating parent may accuse them of sexual abuse.
Or if the other parent says “no” to the child or asks them to do something, the alienating parent may claim they’re being controlling or emotionally abusive.
Also, if a child is reluctant to or avoids contact with the other parent, the alienating parent would use that as “evidence” of wrongdoing by the other parent.
The alienating parent may use outside forces such as CPS, the court, therapists, and other forms of support to try to get the other parent in trouble. These forces may be used to support their claim that the other parent is abusive or dangerous despite the lack of evidence supporting it.
For example, here are what alienating parents might do to get the targeted parent in trouble:
- Call CPS to report the other parent for abuse
- File for a restraining order on the other parent
- Go to a professional to claim the other parent is abusive
- Reach out to organizations for “help” on an abusive partner or ex
Encouraging the child to go against the other parent
As I mentioned before, my mother often encouraged me to talk back and be mean to my father growing up. Even as an adult, she did the same and “rewarded” me with things or praises for defying him.
Your alienating parent might have encouraged you to defy your other parent by claiming you don’t have to obey them. They might’ve claimed that your other parent’s rules are unreasonable or even abusive. Like with my mother, they might’ve also rewarded you for going against your other parent.
On the other hand, your alienating parent may also emotionally manipulate you whenever you disagree with them about the other parent. They may sulk, become angry, withdraw love and affection, threaten to do so, or inflict punishment.
You know that it will upset the alienating parent if you wanted to contact your other parent or you enjoyed spending time with them. Even mentioning the other parent or acknowledging their existence might set the alienating parent off.
Forcing the child’s loyalty to them
Whenever my parents fight, my mother would almost always force me to choose sides. And when I try to remain objective, she’ll accuse me of always siding with my father. Thus, I’m now part of the conflict because I never side with her. Basically, if I don’t 100% side with her, I’m apparently 100% against her.
My mother also used to joke, “If your father and I get a divorce, who would you choose?” It’s obvious there was a “right” answer because one answer would be met with glee and the other one – rage.
I hated giving an answer but she would insist. (In the end, she chose for me. She abandoned me and my sibling so she lost custody of both of us).
Alienating parents tend to expect their children to be completely loyal to them.
Whenever there’s any conflict, your alienating parent may pressure or even force you to take their side. They make it clear to you that any unbias on your part or favor towards both parents is unacceptable. The alienating parent might also try to guilt-trip you to their side.
- Mommy’s your number one, right?
- You’ll choose daddy. I know you best.
- I’m the one in the right.
- I do so much for you, of course you’ll choose me.
Interfering with the child’s time spent with other parent
Whenever you want to spend time with your other parent, the alienating parent may interfere.
They may schedule a better activity or event so you’d choose to spend time with them instead.
They may intentionally schedule appointments or important meetings during your times with your other parent so you’d have no choice but to go to those.
Or they may call or text non-stop while you’re with your other parent so you can’t really enjoy your time with them.
Back then, when we’d watch TV together, my mother would walk back and forth in front of the TV. Or if we’re playing something together, she’ll randomly have something to say to us or ask us. Basically, whenever we’re doing something together with our father, she’ll try to break it up. And it’s not like we’re intentionally leaving her out. We invited her to join and she’d say no.
Also, if your other parent was meant to pick you up from school, the alienating parent might pick you up earlier or even keep you from school just so the other parent doesn’t even get that chance.
The alienating parent might do a lot of things, some of which can be extremely petty, just to keep you from spending time or bonding with your other parent.
Keeping the other parent from taking part in the child’s life
If your parents were separated or divorced, the alienating parent may have tried to keep your other parent from being a part of your life.
They may have kept gifts, cards, or letters to you from your other parent. They may have failed to inform the other parent of important events in your life like birthdays, graduations, and appointments. And they may have refused to let you or the other parent know anything about each other so neither of you can reach out to the other.
The alienating parent may also intentionally prevent you from spending time with family and friends of the other parent to further keep you from having any sort of connection with the other parent.
And to truly try to eradicate the other parent’s existence in your life, the alienating parent may even act like they don’t exist at all. Or they may have even tried to get someone else to replace them like a new partner whom they try to get you to call “mom” or “dad”.
Interrogating the child after they’ve spent time with other parent
When I’ve gone somewhere with my father and his side of the family growing up and returned, my mother would interrogate me like I did something wrong. “Where did you go?” “Who was there?” “How dare you had fun!” And then, I got hit.
Whenever you’ve returned from spending time with your other parent, your alienating parent likely wants to know what happened in detail.
They may ask questions, hoping to find anything bad about the other parent. Or they want to make sure that you didn’t enjoy it, at least not as much as when you’re with them.
Because of the fear of the questioning or the consequences your answers may cause, you might’ve changed the story to a more negative one so the alienating parent would leave you alone. Or you might even avoid spending time with the other parent to avoid having to deal with the interrogation.
Telling the child things about other parent that are inappropriate for a child
Other than the whole “your father wanted to abort you and leave us both”, my mother told me other things that happened before I was born that aren’t appropriate for a child.
She’d complained about how it was like dating my father and went on and on about how she paid for everything and even gave him sex. She said she was the perfect girlfriend (and wife), giving him everything, including her precious youth. Yet he’s such a loser who never reciprocated her kindness.
As a child, I couldn’t comprehend much of what she was complaining about. All I could pick up from it was “Oh, I guess dad’s a bad boyfriend” and “Maybe that’s why mom is so angry all the time”.
Your alienating parent may have told you many negative things that occurred in their relationship with your other parent. However, it’s information irrelevant to you or occurred before you were even born.
They may have also told you things like your parent’s dating history, criminal records, mental health problems, or addictions. These are all things you didn’t need to know as a child because you weren’t old enough to understand. It likely only made things confusing to you and maybe made you doubt your other parent, which is exactly what the alienating parent wanted.
Encouraging an unhealthy bond with the child
The alienating parent may encourage their child to be dependent on them. They may have the child believe that they can’t function without them.
It may also be the other way around where they may rely on the child and claim they can’t be happy without the child in their life. This is also known as emotional incest, where the parent makes the child their surrogate spouse.
In this type of relationship, the parent turns to the child for emotional support. The child is expected to meet the parent’s needs, including going against the other parent to “protect” this one.
This unhealthy bond where personal boundaries are overlapped and blurred between the parent and child is also known as enmeshment.
In an enmeshed relationship, the parent and child are unable to separate their emotional experiences from each other. They usually become so overly involved in each other’s lives that they lose their autonomy.
You can learn more about parental alienation and its signs in Understanding and Managing Parental Alienation. It provides resources on how to identify parental alienation and a guide to evidence-based intervention.
Effects of Parental Alienation on the Alienated Child
Many researchers consider parental alienation to be a form of psychological child abuse. However, some argue it’s just “parental conflict” or the child’s “conflicting loyalties”.
Though that may be the case, a parent’s active participation in turning their child against the other parent is a form of abuse because of the harmful effects it leaves on the child.
A study reported that children’s exposure to parental alienation might have lifelong ramifications for their psychological well-being.
According to research, children may suffer from various personal development disorders as a result of the chronic stress parental alienation causes.
Children that have experienced parental alienation are at a higher risk for disorders such as:
- Eating disorders and body image issues
- Addiction and substance use
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Other mental and psychosomatic disorders
Damage to the parent-child and other relationships
In severe cases, there is often long-term or even permanent damage to the relationship and contact between the child and the targeted parent. This may also affect siblings as well.
By alienating the child, the child doesn’t get what might otherwise be a healthy and meaningful parent-child relationship.
The child may also miss out on relationships with extended family members on that parent’s side. They may also miss out on certain childhood experiences, activities, and other relationships essential for healthy development.
Because of parental alienation, the child lost what could’ve been a significant support to their growth and development. Meanwhile, they get riddled with various effects left by this form of abuse instead.
Damaged or a loss of a sense of self
Parental alienation can have serious negative effects on the child’s psychological and emotional welfare. It can change their perceptions, not just of the targeted parent, but of themselves.
According to the research, “the imposed, active rejection, denial, and reality-distorting image of a previously loved parent are damaging to the child’s self and core”. It might cause severe feelings of guilt or even self-hatred in the child.
The child may internalize their hatred or rejection of the targeted parent. Or they may believe that their targeted parent didn’t love or want them.
They may also forget how to trust their own feelings and perceptions because they’ve depended on the alienating parent on what to believe and think.
All of this may also cause self-isolation, shame, insecurity, low self-worth, and low self-esteem.
Other effects of parental alienation
Here are some other effects of parental alienation according to research:
- Future relationship problems and difficulties
- Possibility of becoming targeted/alienated parents
- Personality difficulties
- Suicidal ideation
- Feelings of grief and loss
- Feelings of anger
- Trust issues
- Feelings of abandonment
- Maladaptive coping
- Confusion about their experience
- Attachment problems
- Reduced or delayed educational and career attainment
- Other effects of childhood abuse
How to Heal from Parental Alienation
For the Alienated Child
After reading the signs and effects of parental alienation, you might have a better idea of whether you had an alienating parent and how it affected you and your relationship with your other parent.
I hope it can help you be open to accepting your other parent back into your life if possible, at least little by little.
If you had an alienating parent, your relationship with them might be enmeshed. If so, it’s important for you to learn how to set boundaries and be your own person.
You were also likely parentified by your alienating parent. Check out this post to learn more about parentification and how to begin healing from it.
In addition, according to an article on Psychology Today, alienating parents often show either narcissistic or borderline tendencies. Check out this post to see whether you have a narcissistic parent and what you can do about it.
It’s also important to work through your experiences so you can begin healing. You can consider therapy. A professional can help you process your experiences and develop tools to heal. Connect with a certified therapist and access the most complete online therapy toolbox.
Also, here are some books on parental alienation you can check out. You can sign up for a free trial of Kindle Unlimited to read some of these titles for free or at a discount. If you prefer audiobooks, you can sign up for a free trial with Audible and claim a title for free. It would be yours to keep even when you cancel.
For the Targeted Parent
Although my site focuses on helping adult children of abusive parents, targeted parents are also victims of this form of abuse.
According to research, targeted parents reported mainly negative emotions related to parental alienation. They also reported illnesses, physical strain, nightmares, and weight loss.
Studies reported that most targeted parents feel uncertain about what they can do to improve their situation. Many feel dissatisfied with the support offered by institutions.
Unfortunately, the only way to deal with parental alienation is to either get legal support or somehow re-establish a connection between the targeted parent and child. However, both ways require external influence. So it’s no surprise that many targeted parents feel lost, stuck, unjustified, frustrated, and powerless.
This article provides a roadmap for the treatment of parental alienation. However, it requires the alienating parent to stop their alienating behavior.
While navigating this difficult situation, most parents prefer to cope using emotions-focused coping skills.
Here are some books for targeted parents that can hopefully help. Sign up for a free trial of Kindle Unlimited or sign up for a free trial with Audible.
You can also find various research and academic articles on parental alienation here.
Hi there, I’m Estee.
Having been raised by an abusive mother, I developed an interest in mental health to better learn, understand, and manage the effects the abuse had on me. My experiences inspired me to create Hopeful Panda.
In my free time, you’ll find me cooking, organizing, playing video games, writing, or spending time with my family. You can read more about me and my blog here.
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