Parental Alienation Syndrome, Part 1

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As a divorced parent, you worry when the other parent makes derogatory remarks and tries to give your child a negative image of you. But when do mere derogatory remarks turn into a harmful psychological phenomenon that psychologists have labeled parental alienation syndrome?


Parental alienation syndrome occurs when one parent’s efforts to consciously or unconsciously brainwash a child combine with the child’s own bad mouthing of the other parent. In severe cases, the child won’t want to see or talk to the alienated parent.


Once the alienation reaches such a point, it’s difficult to reverse, and permanent damage is done to the child and to the relationship between the child and the alienated parent.


Warning Signs of Parental Alienation:

How can you tell if your ex is attempting to alienate your child? Here are some warning symptoms psychologists have observed in children suffering from parental alienation syndrome, according to Dr. Douglas Darnall, PhD:


  • Giving a child a choice as to whether or not to visit with the other parent.
  • Telling the child details about the marital relationship or reasons for the divorce.
  • Refusing to acknowledge that the child has property and may want to transport possessions between residences.
  • Resisting or refusing to cooperate by not allowing the other parent access to school or medical records and schedules of extracurricular activities.
  • One parent blaming the other parent for financial problems, breaking up the family, changes in lifestyle, or having a girlfriend or boyfriend.




  • Refusing to be flexible with the visitation schedule in order to respond to the child’s needs, or scheduling the child in so many activities that the other parent is never given the time to visit.
  • Assuming that if a parent has been physically abusive with the other parent, it follows that the parent will assault the child. This assumption is not always true.
  • Asking the child to choose one parent over the other.
  • The alienating parent encouraging any natural anger the child has toward the other parent.
  • A parent or stepparent suggesting changing the child’s name or having the stepparent adopt the child.
  • When the child can’t give reasons for being angry towards a parent or gives reasons that are vague and without any details.
  • Using a child to spy or covertly gather information for the parent’s own use.
  • Arranging temptations that interfere with the other parent’s visitation.
  • Reacting with hurt or sadness to a child having a good time with the other parent.
  • Asking the child about the other parent’s personal life.
  • Physically or psychologically rescuing a child when there’s no threat to their safety.
  • Making demands on the other parent that are contrary to court orders.
  • Listening in on the child’s phone conversation with the other parent.


What causes parental alienation?

What causes a parent to want to damage the relationship of their own child with the other parent at their own child’s expense? Intentions differ from one parent to the next, but psychologists have suggested the following as potential motivators:


  • An alienating parent may have unresolved anger toward the other parent for perceived wrongs during the relationship and may be unable to separate those issues from parenting issues.
  • An alienating parent may have unresolved issues from their childhood, particularly in how they related to their own parents, which he or she projects onto the other parent (whether or not it’s factually accurate).
  • An alienating parent may have a personality disorder, such as narcissism or paranoia, which makes him or her unable to empathize with the child’s feelings or see the way their behavior is harming the child. Such personality disorders may also make the alienating parent more likely to be jealous of the other parent’s adjustment to the breakup and cause the alienating parent to have extreme rage toward the other parent.




  • An alienating parent may be so insecure as to his or her own parenting skills that he or she projects those concerns onto the other parent, regardless of reality.
  • An alienating parent may be so wrapped up in their child’s life that he or she has no separate identity and sees the child’s relationship with the other parent as a threat.
  • Sometimes new spouses or grandparents push the alienating parent into inappropriate behavior for their own inappropriate reasons, and the alienating parent isn’t strong enough to resist them.


What causes a child to buy into the alienating parent’s brainwashing?

The child may:


  • Feel the need to protect a parent who’s depressed, panicky or needy
  • Want to avoid the anger or rejection of a dominant parent, who’s also often the custodial parent
  • Want to hold onto the parent the child is most afraid of losing, such as a parent who is self-absorbed or not very involved with the child.


 
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