My introduction to parental alienation was several years ago. A father was constantly telling us all about his ex-wife’s bad traits, and when the child returned from visitation with him, he was caustic toward his mother.
I got confused about whom to believe and was clueless about how to handle the mom, the dad, and the child.
My first reaction was to think badly of the mother. If the dad was spewing all these terrible things about her and her own child was echoing them, there must be some truth to it all, I thought. Still, this mom seemed concerned for her child’s well-being. Rarely did she say anything negative about the child’s father. She was deeply saddened by what was happening to her child and fearful she would lose custody.
As the situation worsened and the two parents went back to court, I heard the term parental alienation thrown around and began to research this topic. There are many layers to parental alienation. Today I’ll define the term and help you understand what is involved in the alienation process. I’ll also discuss what it does to the children caught in the middle.
What is parental alienation?
Lawyers and mental health experts have varying definitions of parental alienation, but it’s basically a deliberate attempt by one parent to manipulate, sabotage, undermine, and destroy the relationship between the other parent and the child or children. It can be done either consciously or unconsciously.
Many times the goal is to completely sever the relationship between the other parent and the child. Dads Divorce says parental alienation “results in the child’s emotional rejection of the targeted parent, and the loss of a capable and loving parent from the life of the child.” Often the court system looks at parental alienation as psychological abuse.
How is the alienation accomplished?
The alienating parent will use the following ways to accomplish the goal of interfering with or undermining the child’s relationship with the targeted parent:
- Badgering or being hostile toward the other parent in front of the child
- Constant criticism and overt disrespect of the other parent
- Coaching the child to reject and respond negatively to the other parent
- Making the child fearful of the other parent by convincing him that he is not safe with the other parent
- Lying to the child about the other parent’s behavior, motives, and level of concern or interest in him
These techniques can cause the child to fear the other parent. The child can become hostile toward the targeted parent and reject any display of physical affection or love. Sometimes the child can even become hostile toward the extended family members of the targeted parent. So the child is alienated not only from his parent but potentially also from grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.
This experience of alienation and the resulting loss of relationships can cause mental and emotional damage to children in their formative years, leading to a higher risk of mental illness. I believe it can also affect children’s spirituality, as they become reluctant to trust authority figures and those who should care for them.
What to look for in the children who have been brainwashed
All children will be upset with their parents from time to time; dad wouldn’t let them eat pizza, or mom told them to turn off the TV. But kids who have been brainwashed are unusually angry and will say malicious things about one parent in particular. They might come across as vicious toward this parent and hold extreme views about the parent.
Here are a few examples of the way alienated children may behave:
- They might be adamant about never wanting to see “that parent” ever again, for either no reason or reasons that don’t make sense to you.
- They have frivolous or illogical complaints, for example, “My mom is wrong. She’s just wrong. She doesn’t love us kids.”
- The children can see no good in the other parent. They may say things such as, “That woman is the devil! And she’s mean!”
- They have no guilt about their disrespectful and hurtful behavior toward the targeted parent.
- They will tell outlandish stories about how horrible the targeted parent is.
- They will tell you this is how they really feel, attempting to protect the parent who is trying to alienate them from the other parent. “Nobody told me to say these things. This is how I really feel.”
What church leaders should and should not do
Here are some things church leaders can do to accommodate and help children who are experiencing parental alienation:
- Don’t say, “Oh, come on now. Your mom can’t be that bad.” The children may launch into a tirade of all the horrible things the mom does. This serves only to frustrate the situation.
- Just listen to the children without lending any credence to the negativity. Thank them for sharing with you, and be empathetic toward them.
- Try to build trust with the children. Remember, the ability to trust the people they care about has been damaged.
- Work on building up their self-esteem. Remember, their self-esteem may be damaged because they believe one of their parents doesn’t love them. Comment when they make good choices, notice their skills, etc.
- Help the children show respect toward the adults at church. They have been programmed not to be respectful to their parent, and this will carry over to other adults in authority.
- Teach them to be thankful by modeling gratefulness.
- Help the children to learn to accept blame when they do something inappropriate. Say something as simple as, “Is what you did helpful or hurtful? In our class, we work on being helpful. How could you be helpful?”
- Let them know you care about what is going on in both homes.
- When possible, gently educate the children on what the Bible says about honoring both parents. Help them understand that they can still honor someone they disagree with.
- Slowly and gently tell them about how much Christ loved them and what He did to show His love for them. They may not realize someone could love them like their heavenly Father does.
- Help the children understand how freely God forgives. In the short term, this may help them be more merciful to the parent being unfairly targeted. Later on, this understanding may help children forgive their mom or dad for alienating them from the other parent.
- Be cautious about drawing conclusions with limited information. Without a clear picture of both sides of the story, you will be at a disadvantage in knowing how to respond. Talk to other staff members at church who may know more about the situation. Strive to lovingly support and encourage the targeted parent without taking sides.
Finally, prayer is of utmost importance. These are unnatural situations between parent and child, and it will take courage, determination, empathy, and understanding to cope with and help many of these children. I’ll write more on this topic over the next few weeks.