An abusive relationship can easily result with a child actively participating with the targeted parent that the true psychopathy of parental alienation has become complete. The willing and active denigration of the unfavored parent by the child is one of the eight requirements of Parent Alienation Syndrome as defined by Richard Gardner.
But, not all children subjected to the alienation process actually submit. The prior relationship between the child and each parent plays a significant role as does the relationship and behaviors between the two parents.
The child's responses to the alienating process and to the behaviors of each parent are influenced by their own psychological, cognitive, and developmental strengths and vulnerabilities and by external arrangements involving the rejected parent.
The Abusive Relationship
( For this first section I have borrowed heavily from "THE ALIENATED CHILD: A Reformulation of Parental Alienation Syndrome" by Joan B. Kelly and Janet R. Johnston)
Gardner and Wallerstein & Kelly have all reported that for the most part
the behaviors and emotional responses of alienated children is their strongly expressed resistance to visiting the rejected parent
and, in more extreme cases, an absolute refusal to see the parent in any setting, including
a therapeutic one, and a desire to unilaterally terminate the parent-child
These children want only to talk to lawyers who represent their viewpoint and to those custody evaluators and judges whom they believe will fully support their efforts to terminate the parent-child relationship once they hear all the “facts.” To all, they strongly advocate their right to choose whether they will see their parent.
Another feature of alienated children is the manner in which they present their stories. Their allegations about the rejected parent are mostly replicas or slight variants of the aligned parents’ allegations and stories. These scripted lines are repeated endlessly but most often are hollow, without underlying substance, texture, or detail to support the allegations.
They have adopted the allegation(s) but, unlike children with histories of abusive relationships, do not have compelling supporting information. Generally, alienated children sound very rehearsed, wooden, brittle, and frequently use adult words or phrases. They appear not to be guilty or ambivalent as the children denigrate, often viciously, the rejected parent. Sometimes, they appear to be enjoying themselves. There is no obvious regret.
One of the sobering aspects of these presentations is that in an abusive relationship alienated children have essentially been given permission to be powerful and to be hostile and rude toward the rejected parent, grandparents, and other relatives. Furthermore, assisting in orchestrating the obliteration of a parent does not bode well for their future social and emotional adjustment. Sadly, even previously cherished pets, now in the custody of the rejected parent, might be denigrated, and the children proudly describe the virtues of their new and extremely perfect replacements provided for them by aligned parents.
And finally, alienated children often idealize or speak glowingly of the aligned parent as an adult and parent. They refuse to consider any information that might undermine this viewpoint of their perfect companion and parent, and they vigorously reject any suggestion that their obsessive hatred of the rejected parent has any relationship to the views or behaviors of the aligned parent. They might describe how that parent is suffering, has been harmed economically and emotionally by the rejected parent, and is worthy of their total allegiance. It is important to note that some alienated children-although they present as very angry, distraught, and obsessively fixated on the hated parent in the therapist’s or evaluator’s office-appear to function adequately in other settings removed from the custody battle. They might retain their school performance, might continue to excel in musical or athletic activities, and at least superficially seem reasonably well adjusted.
A closer look at their interpersonal relationships, however, often reveals difficulties. Alienated children’s black-and-white, often harshly strident views and feelings are usually reflected in dealings with their peers as well as those in authority. However, it is in the rejected parents’ home that the child’s behavior is severely problematic and disturbed. They might destroy property; act in obnoxious, even bizarre, ways; and treat these parents in public with obvious loathing, scorn, and verbal abuse. They prefer to be in contact constantly with their aligned parent by telephone, at which times, they whisper hostile observations about the rejected parent’s words, behaviors, meals, and personality. If they are resisting or refusing contact, all efforts of the rejected parents to communicate directly with their children are rebuffed, including demands that the parent never contact them again, stop harassing them with presents and letters (which often are discarded or unopened), and cease their useless legal efforts and court appearances. No one factor produces the alienated child. A full understanding of this pathological development in the parent-child relationship, most often separation engendered, can then lead to an effective plan and structure for legal, judicial, and therapeutic interventions directed at resolving the profound alienation of the child from the parent.
Age And Reasoning Ability
Kelly and Johnston write that It is unusual to see children whose alienation from a parent is consolidated and hardened prior to age 7 or 8. Younger children tend to forget the scripts that have been developed for them by an alienator. They release their anger, and have inconsistencies in their presentations. They are not particularly useful allies or loyal soldiers; they fail to follow parental agendas and too often enjoy themselves with the other parent once out of range of the alienator parent.
For children to form alignments with a hostile parent and correspondingly reject the other parent, they need sufficient intellectual and emotional maturity. Alienated children commonly express moral outrage and judgments so they must also have achieved the developmental stage in which moral valuations and judgments are functional. Also, the rage and contempt expressed by many alienated children reflect normal increases in anger expected in pre-adolescent and adolescent youngsters. All these conditions coalesce to create a receptivity to the alienating processes and negative behavior toawrd an alienated parent.
Older siblings can and do also play significant alienating roles as younger siblings mature. Children younger than 7 or 8 with intense anxiety at separation from their custodial parent are at considerable risk for developing a truer and stronger alienation as they get older. Some well-rehearsed younger children with alienated older siblings might only appear to be alienated as they imitate the older sibling and are kept in the mode of parental rejection by the vigilant monitoring of their sibling. But, they are very much at risk for developing their own toxic alienation as they mature.
Overall, the most common age range of the alienated child is from 9 to 15, although some older adolescents and young adults also can become alienated. There appear to be no sex differences among these youngsters in propensity to become an alienated child. (Johnston & Campbell, 1988; Lampel, 1996; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980).
Child Feels Abandoned
It is common for a child to feel abandoned when a parent leaves the family home. Children who were especially close with the departed parent or experience extreme confusion regarding the separation are especially vulnerable. If there is the sudden
appearance of a new lover the child is likely to become furious and interpret any diminishing of attention as complete abandonment. In many households a child lives securely confident of the stability, attention, and unconditional love experienced with the suddenly departed parent.
In many high-conflict divorces nonresidential parents do not see their children for a number of months due to legal conflicts regarding visitation and the absence of court orders. When this occurs, feelings of abandonment and anger often increase dramatically and coincidentally put children at the mercy of the alienator. The alientor has unfettered access to reinforce the child's alienation since they are especially vulnerable due to the fear and anger caused by the belief they have been abandoned.
It should come as no surprise that children with greater adjustment issues are more vulnerable to alienation. Anxious, fearful, and passive children lack the resiliency to withstand the intense pressures of the custody battle and the aligned parents’ alienating behaviors. It might be psychologically easier for them to choose a side to avoid crippling anxiety. Children with a poor sense of reality are more likely to be vulnerable, particularly in the absence of professionals and family members who would be able to help the child make sense of the confusion created by the divorce.
Children often feel responsible for the divorce and those with poor self-esteem are especially susceptible to promises of enduing love from one parent when the other parent is perceived to have been rejecting and acting ambivalent toward the child.
Some children have cognitive limitations that increases their vulnerabilities, including confusion, rigid thinking, concreteness, and inferior analytic and problem solving skills. In contrast, children who are insightful, clear thinking, morally developed youngsters more often can maintain balance throughout the high-conflict divorce. Although pressured by alienating processes and parents, they can analyze their parents’ behaviors. And, they can better cope with the changing nature of their parent-child relationships despite their anger and sadness and, can stay connected to each parent.
The Abusive Relationship
The relationship between an alienator parent and child may appear healthy and supportive but in reality it is an abusive relationship. And, the foundation of the relationship creates vulnerabilities in trusting children. Those children who are very dependent on the alienator parent, either emotionally or physically, are also more likely to respond to the alienating processes and behaviors. Some of these children have a history of being conditionally loved and erratically rejected by the same alienator. They are hungry for approval.
Other factors inherent in the abusive relationship exploit a child's vulnerabilities. The child’s complete rejection of the targeted parent might offer a long sought opportunity for the alienator to achieve total acceptance and unconditional love. Threats by the enraged, alienator to disown the child if they choose to visit the other parent are extremely powerful alienating behaviors and are very difficult to resist. Other children who may have already been more closely aligned with the alienator parent will more readily reject the targeted parent to preserve their own fundamental identity. In addition, some youngsters have assumed the role of rescuing the depressed and hurt parent in the marriage or after separation. This role reversal, in the context of protracted legal conflict, creates a vulnerability to strongly align with that needy, alienating parent.
Parental Separation From The Child
When separation or divorce results in the infrequent or total lack of contact between a child and the targeted parent the abusive relationship with the alieator can be severely exacerbated. When there is no opportunity to spend significant time with the rejected parent and his or her extended family children are not able to test and retest the reality of that parent and his or her behavior. The child cannot compare their current observations with their own distorted memories or with the negative accounts of the alienator parent.
Furthermore, false allegations of sexual or an otherwise abusive relationship often arise during separation which typically results in limited and/or supervised visitation for many months. The existence of this framework of supervision promotes a child's acceptance that a parent is dangerous or hurtful and it is a fertile time for the alienator to relentlessly denigrate the target. Once evidence accumulates that no abuse has occurred, damage to the parent-child relationship is often quite extensive and creates formidable barriers to reconstructing the relationship between rejected parents and their children.
When children have few external resources-such as therapists, extended family members, or other trusted adults-their vulnerability increases, particularly if they are emotionally isolated with the alienating parent. It is important, of course, that these helping individuals avoid taking sides and remain emotionally available to these children as safe harbors for discussion.
Click to read about the role of the Alienator In An Abusive Relationship
Click to read about the role of the Targeted Parent In An Abusive Relationship
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