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Parental alienation is a situation where one parent uses the children to destroy the other parent's relationship with the children. It is an insidious process, and a process that can only be halted if caught early and early intervention is taken. This intervention may include the need to get a judge to stand-up and say "enough is enough, I'm not going to give these children to a parent who is doing everything in their power to destroy the children's relationship with the other parent." It can also result in other remedial steps as well. But in order to get the court on your side, you have to present a thoroughly persuasive case because it is often difficult, at least early on, to distinguish between true parental alienation and just some residual bitterness that is temporary. I have some very personal experience dealing with parental alienation and its psychological pathology. Below is an article I wrote for The Family Lawyer, a publication read by family law attorneys throughout Georgia. After reading this article, if you think either you or your children might be a victim of parental alienation, please don't hesitate to contact my office right away at (770) 594-8309.
The article is below:
I was married to my beautiful wife in June of 1992. We had a wonderful wedding ceremony on one of the premiere golf courses in the area. My wife's family showed up (numbering in the 100s), from both her mother and father's side of the family. My family was also present, except only members from my mother's side of the family were in attendance. They numbered 7 or 8 people. My mother's only demand at my wedding was that "if you invite your father I will not be at your wedding." Given my long-held opinion about my father, it was not a very big deal for me at the time. For reasons I could not fully articulate at the time, as I had no real personal experience to base this on, I just was not real fond of my father, and this request was really not a large matter to me. So the wedding went on and we are celebrating our 10th anniversary this week. The ironic thing is that for the upcoming July 4th holiday, we will probably spend it with my father in Florida and I rarely speak with my mother anymore. I relate these events here because this article is on parental alienation, and this is a real world example of parental alienation at work, more than two decades after my parent's divorce.
What is parental alienation? Clinically speaking, it is not just one parent badmouthing another parent in front of the children. Even parents in happy and solid marriages are prone to say denigrating things about their spouse to their children from time to time. This problem becomes exacerbated when the parents are seeking a divorce from each other. However, this is not entirely abnormal. A divorce without such hostilities, at least in my experience, is truly the abnormal situation. This is even the case where the denigrating remarks are intentionally targeted by one parent to alienate the children against the other parent. This is because "in the majority of these situations, the alienating parent will regain his or her emotional control, feel guilty about their words and acts, and back off from these alienating tactics." Some harm may be done in these instances, harm that may not always be easy to take back, but children are not as fragile as we often like to believe, and parents are people and need to work through their anger and grief. This sort of thing regrettably happens. In most instances, however, we are not talking about a true pathology.
Instead, parental alienation occurs over a continuum of degrees. Douglas Darnell neatly describes the continuum of parental alienators into the following categories: naïve alienators, active alienators, and obsessive alienators. Although any category of alienator can be harmful, it is only the latter category of alienator, the "obsessive alienator," that creates this insidious and long-term pathology known as parental alienation.
"The obsessed alienator is a parent...with a cause: to align the children to his or her side and, together with the children, campaign to destroy the relationship with the targeted parent...the obsessed alienator enmeshes the children's personalities and beliefs into their own...the obsessed parent is angry, bitter or feels betrayed by the other parent. The initial reasons for the bitterness may actually be justified (verbal or physical abuse, betrayed by an affair, financially cheated...). The problem occurs when the feelings won't heal, but instead become more intense because of being forced to continue the relationship...because of their common parenthood."
The obsessed alienator generally has the following characteristics:
- Obsessed with destroying the children's relationship with parent;
- Succeeded in enmeshing the children's personality and beliefs about the other parent with their own;
- The children will parrot the obsessed alienator rather than express their own feelings from personal experience with the other parent;
- The targeted parent, and often the children, cannot tell you the reason for their feelings;
- The obsessive alienator's beliefs often become delusional and irrational. No one can convince the obsessive alienator that they are wrong, anyone who tries is the enemy;
- Unquenchable anger because they believe they have been victimized by the targeted parent and any action they take is justified;
- A desire for the court to punish the targeted parent with orders that interfere with the targeted parent's ability to see their children. This confirms the righteousness of the obsessive alienator's actions in regard to the targeted parent.
- The obsessed alienator will often make allies through family and organizations to buttress the righteousness of his or her cause.
The prognosis for parental alienation is not good if allowed to entrench, "there are no effective treatments for either the obsessed alienator or the children. Once the alienation is entrenched, the children become 'true believers,' and they are lost to the other parent for years to come." Due to the clinical prognosis, if allowed to continue, it is imperative that early identification of the symptoms be made and steps taken to prevent or at least ameliorate the pathology.
As family law attorneys and judges, we are often the only people in position early enough to spot the development of the pathology and with any power to take steps to prevent or ameliorate its effect on the children and the parties. For the child, it is a loss of a relationship with a parent, loss of a relationship with that parent's side of the family, loss of that parent's resources and other psychological ramifications that exaggerate the normal effect of divorce on children, as well as aspects that are not normally seen in children of divorce. The effect can be nearly as devastating to the alienated parent as that parent is deprived, sometimes through the use of court processes, of any relationship with their children. A clinical psychologist should be consulted for more details if you think you have identified this pathology developing in your case.
As for me, what is done is done and no one can go back and undo what has happened. The sense of loss is real. I know no one on my father's side of the family, despite that side of the family numbering in the hundreds. The dislike of my father became such a natural part of my life that I took it for granted and it took me this long to fathom exactly why I held these feelings. There is no articulate reason for the opinion I held of my father, and it certainly was not anything he necessarily did. I just simply did not want to see him. The prognosis for treating a pathological case of parental alienation is not good. For your client and your client's children, the point in time that this issue must be addressed is here and now before it becomes entrenched and spells the beginning of the end for your client's relationship with his or her children.
Johnson, Bette Magyar, Ph.D., Parental Alienation, Family Law Forum, Minnesota State Bar Association Family Law Section (November 1998).
Darnell, Douglas, Divorce Casualties: Protecting Your Children From Parental Alienation, Taylor Publishing (August 1998).
Johnson at 29; Darnell.