Parental alienation is a behavior or set of attitudes (conscious or unconscious) of one parent, which turns a child away from the other parent. There are many degrees of parental alienation and most of us probably have done it unwittingly, if only occasionally. In divorce situations, this sort of alienation can actually become very harmful to children, whether or not the alienation is justified. In comparison, there is a condition called Parental Alienation Syndrome, which is an extreme set of behaviors and attitudes in the child, which is very rare, and also very controversial. In PAS, there is a rigidity and obsessive preoccupation with unfairly denigrating one targeted parent to the exclusion of the other, presumably initiated by the one parent in a so-called brainwashing function. Because PAS is so hard to prove or document it is generally not considered admissible in child custody hearings, nor is it documented in the DSMIV. For these reasons, it is not being addressed in this posting.
For any child of divorce, ambivalent feelings toward both parents is inevitable, even healthy, but also can be an exacerbation of the normal mixed feelings that accompany separation-individuation. In cases in which both parents offer positive, albeit different resources and opportunities for a child, it is obviously critical that both parents keep their private negative and hurt feelings in check. Allowing a child to naturally come to see their parents as real, flawed human beings is a normal part of growing up and needs to evolve at a pace in which a child can process and integrate their experiences. However, in high conflict divorces, or those divorces in which there is a pattern of ongoing attack and retribution (which probably mirrors pre-divorce dynamics), a virtual war between spouses occurs, and forces children to cope, whether they are ready or not. This can be ongoing and insidious, spreading to family and friends, and certainly to the children, who must witness their often public and humiliating displays of hostility.
In these divorces, usually one partner is highly controlling and/or narcissistic, with an agenda of overpowering the other through any means possible. The means IS the end; the high conflict IS the agenda. Many times this takes the form of alienating behaviors toward each other through manipulation of finances, schedules, or through continuous litigation intended to wear the other partner down. In these situations the goal is not so much to resolve differences and move on from the divorce. Instead, the goal is the process itself; that of slow torture, with the unwitting victims being the children.
Many times high conflict divorces are the outcome of an abusive marriage, and many times the behavior of one parent is truly reprehensible. In these cases, parental alienation by the non-controlling parent, can actually be protective behavior toward the children. When children witness abuse, it is considered by trauma experts to be “secondary abuse”, and certainly if they experience it directly, action must be taken.
It becomes dicey in situations of verbal or emotional abuse, which generally are not regarded by state agencies or courts to be “real” abuse. Furthermore, it is very hard to show or prove, even though the scars can run deep. To complicate it further, divorce often occurs at a nadir of marital conflict, at which time the abused parent is already demoralized and weakened emotionally, making it that much harder to gear up for an even bigger fight in court over the best needs of the children.
Regardless, children, even moreso than adults, need validation and reality testing of their perceptions. If a parent is truly inappropriate or abusive, and the other parent fails to take action for fear of causing alienation, a further wound of abandonment occurs.
In these situations, contact with a therapist or legal professional is imperative for advice over how to proceed in the best interests of the child. Guardian ad litem evaluators can be assigned to make independent recommendations to judges on behalf of children. If physical custody is joint, then parenting coordinators can be assigned to aid high conflict couples, in adhering to the divorce agreement as well as in decisions regarding ongoing needs of the children in the post divorce years.