When children reject you: using empathy to challenge the alienation process

One of the most painful experiences for targeted parents is when the alienation process begins to escalate and children begin to become difficult, challenging and sometimes downright obnoxious.

We may not be familiar with the child who is overly empowered within what is called a ‘fused dyad’ with the other parent and so when that behaviour appears it can seem almost as if your child has turned into someone else. Some parents liken it to their child being possessed, others worry that their child is mentally unwell. Understanding what has happened and why is a very important step to learning how to deal with it.

In an alienation scenario, when one parent is angry or holds unresolved frustrations or is quite simply determined to drive the other out of a child’s life, it is often the case that the child will be elevated to a position of power within the fractured family system. This position of power, is often equal to that of the parent who is angry, who upholds the child’s ‘right’ to do as he or she pleases. Parents who are in this position will often speak about their children being ‘more emotionally aware’ than they are and will tell you and others that they are only being guided by their children because if their children say something is wrong then that must be the truth. This is a very dangerous position for a child, who should not be wielding decision making power at the top of what is called the ‘attachment hierarchy.’ To be in control of the broken family system in this way is, in fact, extremely damaging to children over time.

A healthy attachment hierarchy is when two parents, in relationship together, share the decision making and guiding power that runs a well functioning family. Contained within this hierarchy, children know that their parents are in charge and that they, as children, do not need to do anything other than concentrate on their own developing selves. When families separate however, the sharing of the decision making and guiding power often breaks down, creating a space in which the children themselves become elevated to the top of the hierarchy, often sharing power and decision making with the parent they now live with on a daily basis. The other parent in this scenario is pushed to the outer margins of the family system and quite often begins to be viewed by the parent and child as being unnecessary in daily life.

Children who are at the top of the broken family hierarchy are placed in a position of risk. Children should not hold the same level of decision making power as a parent, the role of a parent is to be the guide and decision maker in a child’s life, gradually handing over the reins to the developing young adult. When children are taken by a parent into a fused dyad in this way, they are often what is called ‘spousified’ which simply means that they have replaced the role of spouse in the parents life or they are ‘parentified’ which means that they are taking care of the emotional needs of a parent and not the other way around. Both of these corrupted roles within a family system are damaging to children and are signs that the attachment hierarchy is broken and harmful to the child involved. When a child is in one of these positions, they can very quickly become extremely difficult to handle when with the other parent as they refuse to recognise that parent’s validity in their lives and actively fight them for the decision making power.

A child in this position will often

  • Use sarcastic statements when with you.
  • Try to undermine everything that you say.
  • Refuse to come with you when you turn up to collect them.
  • Act aggressively towards you and your family
  • Sneer at you and call you names
  • Act as if you are somehow ‘less than’ they are
  • Tell you that you are no good, that you don’t do anything right
  • Demand to be taken home to their ‘real’ parent
  • Blow hot and cold, they may drop their defiance for a while only to pick it up again when its time to leave
  • Tell lies
  • Make false allegations against you
  • Remain silent in your company

There are many other behaviours that children who are elevated to this position will use, the main thing that targeted parents must be aware of is that when they begin to act like this, the alienation process is well underway.

The end game in an alienation process is when the children simply refuse to make the transition to you. This is often the result of a ‘trigger’ event which enables the child to justify complete withdrawal. A trigger event can be engineered by a child who is in this elevated position and many children will push continuously to try and create this just so that they can ‘decide’ to completely withdraw. It is important to remember at all times, however, that trigger events, just like the behaviours that the child is displaying are unconsciously driven by the child who is using the only coping mechanism available to them. Children in these circumstances are extraordinarily vulnerable, they are hurting inside, they are psychologically harmed and they are doing whatever they can to survive. All targeted parents MUST, at all times, keep in mind that their children would not behave like this if the pressure upon them did not force them to do so. With that in mind, target parents can assist their children to avoid the trigger event by following these golden rules.

When a child is in an elevated position of power and is displaying the symptoms above you must:

  • Not try to reason with them, they are not in a position to listen
  • Not try to use logic, there is nothing logical about what is happening to them
  • Remain patient, calm and collected, do not become angry and feed their self righteousness, it only pushes you into the trap set for you by the other parent.
  • Develop a thick skin, your child is in a vulnerable psychological state, you can help if you let their commentary about you flow by you without reacting.
  • Be firm as much as you possibly can but avoid scenes which could become the trigger event your child is unconsciously seeking. Remember, they want you to confirm for them why you are the bad person they have been told you are. You must avoid that at all costs.

The most powerful tool in your toolbox is empathy

Children in this vulnerable position want you to confirm for them their desire to reject you. Their desire to reject you is born of trying to cope with the terrible pressure placed upon them by the anger and unresolved frustration and the conscious or unconscious determination of the other parent to evict you. If you fall into the trap of confirming for your children why they should reject you by, for example, being drawn into arguments, by shouting at them, by becoming angry at their unreasonable behaviour or other such scenarios, you will unwittingly give them the justification they are seeking to withdraw.

Empathic understanding and the ability to empathically respond to their behaviour will protect them and you from arriving at that trigger point.

Empathy is the ability to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’ to step into their world and see things from their perspective. To walk a mile in your children’s shoes when they are in this position is the most powerful thing that you can do, for yourself and for them.

Walking a mile in alienated children’s shoes

Terri’s story

Terri was six years old when her parents separated, she can remember the day very well that her father told her that he was leaving. He asked her if she was alright, far from being alright, Terri felt as if her world was spinning out of control. She watched him carry his bags to the car, after that night all she could hear was her mother crying and alternatively raging about her father. Her hurt and pain about losing him became thoroughly mixed up with her mother’s all encompassing rage.

For short while she saw her father every weekend but each time she did so her mother would come crashing into the time with complaints, demands, tears and shouting. terri began to feel that she didn’t know her father anymore and felt that he was the cause of all this chaos.

Back home with her mother, Terri began to hear that her father was not a very nice man, that he had done this and done that in the marriage to her mother and that he was pretty much worthless as a father too. Together, as Terri grew up, she and her mother shared all sorts of good times together, cosy times, nice times. In the middle of this was a sense that it was she and her mother against the world.

When Terri reached eight years old she felt that she was big enough to take on her father and stand up to him. After all, her mother hadn’t been able to but she would show her mother how it was possible. She would make her mother proud and safe again by rescuing her from her father. Terri began to tell her father how bad he was and ‘stand up’ to him and ‘put him straight.’ Terri’s father, on seeing his daughter becoming more and more defiant against him spoke to her mother about it who told him that his daughter was ‘twice the man that he would ever be’ and praised and thanked Terri for doing what she had been unable to do. Terri’s father, increasingly shocked by his daughter’s behaviour, took to trying to reason with her and be logical, he told her she was being poisoned against him by her mother and that she was brainwashed and alienated. Terri didn’t know what that meant but she did know that her father was turning out to be everything her mother said he was, mean and shouty and angry with her.

The mistakes that rejected parents make

Terri’s dad fell into the trap set for him by Terri’s mum. Not knowing that his daughter and her mother were in a fused dyad in coalition against him, when Terri began to show the signs of this he went straight to the source of the problem and demanded that her mother share decision making power with him again to try and bring Terri back into the role of a child in his life. Terri’s mother however, had elevated her daughter to the role of replacement spouse in her life, using her as a confidante, friend and comforter. The only thing that Terri’s mother could do was uphold that position when challenged by Terri’s father. Role corruption in this family system was well established.

If Terri’s father had known about how alienation arises he would have been equipped to deal with it in a smarter way. Simply using the word alienation and knowing that it is happening is not enough, target parents must know how alienation arises, how it progresses and how to react when it is clear it is happening. The most powerful tool to use against alienation is empathy. If your child is behaving in ways that seem like an alienation reaction to you, your first task is to step into your child’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. Walk a mile in those shoes and understand the way in which your child perceives what happened in the separation, the kinds of behaviours in the other parent that your child is being subjected to and the ways in which your child is acting in the only way he or she knows how in such difficult and painful circumstances.

Children do not want to reject their parents, its not in their nature to say I choose this one or that one. Children who reject are in a vulnerable place and if you are the target parent your role from now on is to understand, as much as possible, the pressures placed upon your child. When you do understand that, from your child’s perspective, you are in the place where you can really start work on interrupting what is happening.

Remember, empathy, its not about your experience its about theirs. Its not about what is happening in your world, its about what is happening in theirs. Its not about you feeling good, its about making them feel good.

You are not powerless as a targeted parent.  When you have walked a mile in your children’s shoes you are ready to begin the process of using empathic responding to disarm your child and change their perspective. When you do this you actively interrupt the messages they have been given about you. When you interrupt those messages, you are acting against alienation. Equipped with the right knowledge and the right tools you can make a difference to what is happening to your child.

Next week: Empathic responding with an alienated child.

55 thoughts on “When children reject you: using empathy to challenge the alienation process

  1. Thanks for this Karen. Great stuff.

    I guess this will be a chapter in your book? If we order a copy and pay you now, will that make the book come out more quickly?!! … Don’t answer that question if it distracts you from writing the book! 🙂



    1. Nick, I am trying really really hard! Not hard enough some would say…I will be collating all of my written material in March however and I hope that what I will have will be the book, finally! Then I can concentrate on my Phd!! Thank you for being patient K 🙂


      1. You know, I’m struggling with this right now and my kids. I’m hurting so terrible inside cause I just don’t get it. Anyway, after reading this it gives me hope that I can work on things in a completely differant way


      2. This is precisely the situation I have and I am desperate to seek those empathetic responses as so scared of loosing her by saying the wrong thing. Thank you so much.


  2. Karen – I look forward to reading your further thoughts on this; my experience is that understanding is definitely the key to ‘living with’ the reality of alienation. Dealing with the frustration and feelings of powerlessness as a child is abused in this way is more of a challenge.


    1. Yes Rachel, the corrosive experience of knowing that, as one parent put it to me, the other parent is breaking the child’s mind and perspective, as damaging as watching them break arms or legs, is one of the biggest burdens that targeted parents have to carry. I will write next week about empathic responding and then about living with the experience of alienation. My focus is on trying to make the skills and knowledge as accessible as possible for target parents who hold the magic key to normality and a healthy future for their children. K


  3. There is always so much in what you right that rings true with what I myself have observed. I think that in divorce, there are always degrees of what you describe above, and I myself always feel in a half-way state with this, coming close to being rejected at times. I have no doubts that parents seek to alienate. Alienation and spousification are just terms, of course, but I’ve seen the way that lots of mothers talk about their children, ‘my man,’ ‘my number one’, ‘my little hubbie’, and all.

    It’s a pity that there are not more people trying to achieve what you are doing, and going after understanding rather than bringing their prejudices to the table. It’s so important.

    Thanks for the reminder on how to deal with this slippery stuff. I suppose we all try to be as empathic as possible, but I know myself that attempts to reason and use logic get the better of me, and I also know that these don’t work. Thanks for making me question and think about why they don’t work.


  4. I agree that a targeted parent needs to understand what is happening to the children. Once that understanding is there, it is easier to put the bewilderment and personal feelings aside and focus on the needs of the child. The problem for me is how can this information reach parents before they have created the trigger event and alienation is complete and how can it be presented in such a way that the parents do not start to see alienation everywhere. As Warshak states in his book we as parent are probably all guilty of doing things wrong, but alienation really only applies where it is a targeted campaign.

    Also I think it is very hard for any parent to go through this alone without support, as there is a tendency to get bugged down in the details and loosing track of the bigger picture: who cares that the child’s table manners are terrible, when the child is experiencing stress like that, or why burden the fragile relationship with one child who is still coming by asking questions about a sibling who is not? etc.


  5. Karen, thank you for this – timely for me. My daughter was court ordered to have contact with me over a year ago after 2 years absence, but the relationship remains roller-coaster delicate whilst she is tightly gripped in a co-dependent dyad with her father -who still uses tactics to sabotage contact where he can. This winter is posing particularly difficult challenges here that I hope will gradually dissipate. Your advice here is a great support – to remind me that she has spouse status with her father so no wonder there are ‘power games’ when I relate to her as a parent during her visits. She is suffering from transition, playing ‘puppet’ to her controlling father and just trying to survive the mind-bendingly confusing situation she is living in. I just need to be the kind, easy-going, non-reactive, parent who lets her be herself; in the hope that as she separates in the near future, I am the one she turns to for a free space in which to live and be. I look forward to more words of wisdom from you.


  6. This is just what I need. I reflexively want to respond like I did in the past, but recognise it’s not working. I’m learning that one can’t just be a ‘good enough’ parent in these situations, one has to be outstanding.


    1. Yes, that’s right. And the world has yet to recognize just how difficult things are for separated moms and dads. Tragedy is that we have lawyers, courts and groups that make things worse for children, when collaboration between two parents should be encouraged instead.


  7. So much if what is written has happened in my case. If Karen, fearlessly, writes against the aligned parent and in support of the target parent then the alienating people that are “researching” her are up in arms against her causing her of all sorts of things.

    However, if, when Karen writes detachedly, as she has here, explaining the mechanism and pattern that damages the children then, even then, these alienating people do not accept the rational explanations offered and do not change their stance.

    The worst part is – it’s not this dangerous world that hurts damages and abuses our children – it’s actually and ours (albeit our exes).

    The pain for these children is unimaginable and yet those that purport to love them only inflict harm.

    What to do?


    1. To PapaMissingKids – Amy Baker’s new book (April publish date?) is called ‘Surviving Parental Alienation – a journey of hope and healing’. Pre order –

      Karen – your empathy blog seems to have stirred lots of response – would you consider doing a seminar on this subject? ‘Normal’ parenting courses and books are useful tools but parenting an alienating, sometimes toxic, child requires an even greater understanding…


      1. Hi Patience, we are holding our next workshop for parents in London soon, we will cover some of these things in this workshop. I would be happy to hold a seminar just on parenting an alienated child though, I get a lot of requests for help on that subject as well as a lot of requests for assistance with writing to alienated children. I will write about both in the coming weeks and perhaps set up a seminar on the subject in spring. If people let me know they are interested I can run one in different parts of the country, I don’t want everyone to have to travel a long way to attend. When we run seminars we usually charge around £30 per person if someone organises the venue etc so if anyone is interested, let me know and I will see what we can fit in this year. K


      2. I would definitely be interested in a London-based seminar on parenting an alienated child Karen – please put me on your mailing list for this. I would be willing to try to find a venue. Thank you.


      3. Patience, thank you very much for information about this book.
        Regarding Karen’s seminars – I have attended 2 and cannot say enough about have valuable – or invaluable – these are. The first one had Nick Woodall’s presentation and that was equally priceless.
        I can’t stress how much these seminars are helpful for us and if/when there is any reunification at any other point then how to deal with it and therefore they are also helpful for our children.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I understand empathy but what do we do when our new partner has none? We just experienced our first trigger episode and now my partner does not want anything to do with my child ! Please help with steps to take
        Thank you!


  8. A so self-centred alienating parent can even turn the targeted parent’s empathy into his/her use. This is particularly true when the alienating parent is so focused on ‘destroying’ the targeted parent; hence the welfare of the child is of little or no importance to the alienating parent. Therefore, when a targeted parent employs empathy the alienating parent may spin it around to say that the targeted parent is aloof and uncaring.

    So, Karen, when writing about empathy could you please address the issue of when a dangerously alienating parent tries to take advantage of the targeted parent’s empathic stance


    1. On without doubt your empathy will be turned against you if your child is in the care of a determined alienator but that’s the point, you have to be able to empathise and empathise and empathise and keep on empathising even when the going gets tough and the very effort you are making is being used against you. If you are facing a pure and conscious alienator you will find that they possess an uncanny ability to twist and turn every action you make, every step you take, into the worst thing you could possibly be doing for your child. To outwit a pure and conscious alienator you need to understand how their mind ticks, to understand how their mind ticks you need to understand their life history, to understand their life history you need to be able to empathise…to outwit a pure and conscious alienator you have to stop opposing them and start looking at them, feeling your way around them, meditating on their behaviours and learn about them. If you put yourself in opposition to someone like this you will create a win/lose outcome in which only you can lose unless you can build a strategy to outine them, , to outwit a pure and conscious alienator you need to look for the ladders over the wall, the holes that you can dig up to create a tunnel, the bricks you can take out and peer through, you need, in short, to be flexible flexible flexible, nift and nimble, swift in your mind and your heart needs to stay open open open…I will write more about all of this soon but yes, you are right, the very determined alienators will wriggle their way around your efforts and use your efforts against you. Doesnt mean you shouldn’t do it though, empathy keeps you open and flexible and connected and present.


  9. Yes, I can see how an alienating parent would coach their children about how to see the other parent’s empathy as manipulation. Good point.


  10. Has much been written about parental alienation by adults who were alienated as children and have since made the transition and restored their relationship with the targeted parent? The testimony of Moira in Richard Warshak’s Divorce Poison is very powerful. What else is out there?

    I wonder what my daughter will make of this when she grows older. If she probes she will discover that her mother bore false witness againt me in court to prevent her from seeing me. What will that do to her relationship with her mother? My daughter is very literate and articulate, so maybe she will write a book about it. I hope I don’t come out of it too badly…


    1. There is a book called ‘Adult Children of Alienation – Breaking the Ties that Bind’, by Amy Baker that covers this very area. I highly recommend it. Like Karen, she helps to make sense of the complex psychology, and different types, of PA. Amy also has a new book about to be published; I believe it features stories of reunification of children with targeted parents – available on pre-order.
      I will welcome Karen’s book on empathy as I have found little reading in this area.


      1. Patience,
        Are you able to tell us of this reunification stories book? I would love to be able to focus on that and had often thought of writing such a book myself.


  11. Can’t wait to hear your next instalment. It is the techniques we develop and the understanding of how we are being manipulated by the target parent which will help us maintain healthy relations with our children and a better working relationship with our Ex. I would like to add an empathic approach to your ex is also helpful. Whilst sympathy with your ex is probably the last thing on your mind it will help your cause when you understand why he/she might be trying to alienate you. (e.g it could be a case of him/her being fearful of losing the children to you).

    It’s something akin to removing the barb of a sting. It can only be done with a great deal of care and understanding

    Kind regards


  12. It is clear from what ‘Anonymous’ wrote that alienating parents only care about their (alienating parents) interest, and NOT that of the child caught up in what does not have any thing to do with him/her (the child)

    ‘Anonymous’ should look around and see that no child loves any one parent more than the other, because basic instinct tells the child that he/she needs both parents. Except where a parent is utterly of a despicable character, a child will always love his/her parents equally, so the fear of losing a child to the other parent is a delusion, and why should a child be suffered out of one’s delusion?

    I am unfortunate to be going through separation a second time. But with my first experience, the child (who most of the time is with me, the dad) is now an adult, and he goes the extra mile to show his love equally to both parents.


  13. i am 28 years old and this has been completely my experience. my parents didn’t divorce but my dad travelled a lot and when he was home they fought a lot. we had just moved 1000 miles away and i had trouble adjusting in my new school, instead of trying to help me fit in with my peers, my mom decided i should be her best friend and more. she confided marital and financial struggles, and encouraged me to be everything my father was not, isolating me from anyone and anything that would give me a different view of How Things Should Be. i took care of my younger sibling, but to a lesser extent than i took care of her emotions. i was not allowed to see friends outside of school, but i saw nothing wrong with this- or i did, but what recourse does a ten year old have? if she said it, i did it- and largely still do. how do abused kids break this cycle? because in my experience the parent will not.
    my dad tries. i hated him for so long, but he does try. my sibling and i are grown, so it’s just my dad and mom. he tries to break up our almost constant contact, and now we dont even live in the same country!!! time zones mean i am exhausted.
    but i realize that i am going to, like in everything else, have to take responsibility and fix this! … they call this “spousification”- well i want a divorce!!!
    thanks for posting this and for any help.

    also if my story seems a little off it’s because it is. i have changed specifics so that she can’t find this post. she would be angry and hurt. not that she’s looking but my life has been surveillance so it’s just one of those things.


    1. Elisha you have my complete sympathy, or even cyber-empathy – if that is possible.
      At least you are educating yourself and I hope and pray that you will find the right support that is available through this blog, etc.
      Perhaps once you understand the mechanics of what happened in your life then you will also be able to familiarise yourself with available tools so that perhaps in the future you will be able to be as ideal a parent as possible. These things can play out as similar patterns in future life and fortunately it seems your pattern is already breaking. God bless! 🙂


  14. we unfortunately have a family law system unable to appreciate the damage being done by parents who use children as the ultimate weapon, the children’s act is completely useless when it comes to dealing with such cases, research into how countries like brazil deal with parent such cases proves that locking up the parent who causes such misery does work! its the ultimate deterrent, children alienated from one parents is emotional harm, so when private law cases come to court! as seen in the case of A (A Child) [2013] EWCA Civ 1104 – Mother’s implacable hostility and an Order being made for no direct contact

    why don’t the courts use the same test used in public law and just remove the child on the grounds of emotional harm, well it just shows that we have a system that has a completely imbalanced criteria in law that predicates one parent by using a separate standard in the children’s act.

    Child abuse is child abuse! emotional harm has profound long term effect on the lives of our kids!


  15. I don’t generally approve of threats of prison sentences. States that put people in prison are usually barbaric or fascist. States that find more constructive solutions earn my admiration. In the case of parental alienation, which I agree is a serious offense, mothers (and fathers) could best be rehabilitated through therapy and enrollment in courses where they learn more about the consequences of their actions and about the value of the other parent. While the other parent is taking care of the children. The offending parent should be given a chance to improve herself.


  16. A bit tough to apply empathy when, as adults, your children still reject you and eschew any form of contact or communication at all. What do you do then? Keep sending birthday cards until you die?


    1. It is tough Paul but your task is not to allow the frozen state of their mind freeze yours too. Read more this week and next. K


  17. I think it is important to remember that a child can actually not want to see his/her father because of what the father has done to them. Careful alienation does not take over from the real fear some children have.


    1. Far to many children are denied contact over stupid disputes, children then decide to take sides, so how do the courts deal with this, well they don’t do very much from my experience, we have a system completely inadequate.


      1. The court can only do as much as the evidence before them permits. Most of the time, however, collecting the evidence is very expensive.

        An alienating parent so biased an entire region of children’s centres that the only option available to use in obtaining evidence for the court to effectively see a case through was only by the use of an independent social worker.

        When the court has ordered contact, it is not the court’s duty to go out there and enforce it, but the court can enforce the order only if the targeted parent can come back to them with bona fide evidence of the alienating parent obstructing the ordered contact. Going back to the court with such bona fide evidence for an enforcement order to be given is not cheap.

        In summary, when money is not so much a constraint to a targeted parent for obtaining bona fide evidence, particularly in cases where the children are under 10, the court (system) is quite effective.


  18. I’m in the U.S., but the judge didn’t bother to even take the time to look at the stack of evidence I had that he was following his father’s footsteps in alienated my daughter from me, her mom, as had happened to him and his siblings when he was the age of my daughter. My daughter is exhibiting extreme at-risk behavior, but a man who owns three real estate companies and has the power to talk a 5th wife into marrying him seems to have the power to manipulate indifferent court system. =( Sometimes I feel I can’t stand another night of worry and heartbreak.


  19. I’m having a horrible time with my ex wife she is driving my 4 children into a uncertain world of poor parenting skills
    and lack of emotional understanding
    I need help advice I have a son of 13 very hot headed and verbal and physical with his younger 11 old brother
    Who has been very rude at school and also swears alot
    My 9 year old son gets bullied by his brothers and I’m trying my best
    And my 7 year old daughter has alot
    Of anxiety with been passed from pillar to post
    I’m very hurt and upset and need help and advice


  20. Thank you sincerely for this article and the information and advice. Without going into the how it happened, it is happening to my little 41/2 year old. While I have been personally drained and distraught after the limited time I have with her, what has been ripping out my heart is wondering what is going on for her. Reading your article has given me hope that by using some of what you have written, I will be able to help both of us through this.


  21. I would appreciate soe help, my 4 year old son has always had a close relationship with his Dad, they spend time together most weekends, this time is spent playing 1:1, going to zoo, stays in hotels, meals out,etc. He is constantly being bought New toys and there are few rules. he often says iam boring and he wants to live with his dad, etc.
    his dad has recently got a girlfriend who has a young child, and since their introduction, my son has been wetting himself, sucking his thumb and being regressive. He has also been rejecting myself, my partner and his sister.telling us to shut up or go away, hitting, says he hates us,only wants his dad, etc.
    I understand he must feel out of control and rejected, and is trying to control us and his contact arrangements by telling me to take him to his dads, etc.
    Would appreciate any advice


  22. Empathy will would help. My stepdaughter lives with us full time. I have been with her for four years. Her mother is a manipulator, educated as a therapist. Life style choices lost her custody rights. Very vindictive in actions. My stepdaughter has made me the target so anything connected to me is bad. We initially got along well, but her mom has through her visits and constant phone contact alienated her. She is constantly fighting with anyone she can get to fight with her. I refuse to let her treat I me like garbage so I am now the evil step mom. It’s to the point I find myself avoiding her. She is constantly snearing, making nasty faces and verbally mean. Not something I like to have the three year old and one year old see all the time. I have tried not getting upset, but she will continue this for behavior unrelentingly. I Feel bad for her, as she will not allow herself to reach out to me. I am afraid she will decide to move back with her mother at thirteen and then find herself stuck with a very volatile personality and instead of happily ever after find herself fighting her mother as well. Really feeling like I am running out of options.


  23. Help! How does it work when a violent parent moves on without a blink leaving 2 previous broods behind and years later re-enters their lives to destroy the ex spouse parent and relationship with the children they have been raising alone for years?
    Please let me know about your seminars.
    Thank you.


  24. my parents abused me as a child. I reported them. He got 14 yrs. She cut a deal. To protect my children from her (she was very much an abuser not a naive bystander) I have no contact. When my children reach their teens she has contacted them behind my back and in my opinion groomed them, not for sex but to perpetuate the abuse on me and get me back for reporting the abuse I had as a child. She undermined me, fed them lies about the abuse, paid for things i cant afford or have said no to, encouraged them to leave home young and sever contact with me. I came accross this by chance and the list of how children can behave when an adult is turning them against an ex is exactly how my sons became once she was in touch (which I didnt know at the time). Is this the same thing? What could I have done to prevent this? (they knew she wasnt safe and thats why we had no contact, I felt I gave age appropriate information without being graphic)


  25. Karen thank you so much for this article and others I have read today. I wish I had been aware of this concept some years ago. It has really helped me see how I should be dealing with the situation I find myself in.
    Sadly i have come to the conclusion that I have been doing pretty much everything to encourage my daughter to continue in her behaviour towards me. Now aged 12 , since the age of 4 or 5 my daughter has been able to choose when to come , when not and contact that was weekly on a week night and every other weekend now has become every other weekend and normally only one day every other weekend as she chooses not to come at short notice for planned weekends.

    Incredible stress for me and my new wife and all contact and arrangements have to be via my daughter. The mother refuses to talk / communicate and so all this added pressure on my daughter.

    Empathy empathy, I must remember, not anger and hurt. I have found myself taking my anger out on my daughter recently. Frustrated at the ‘selfish’ person she has become, at how she can be so manipulative.

    your article gives me hope, but I fear the damage has already been done by my lack of understanding and empathy 😦


  26. Karen, your article details the process and results of parental alienation with the accuracy of 20/20 hindsight. However, EMPATHY won’t prevent, stop or restore the damage to children and families. EMPATHY of the targeted parent towards a child won’t heal or address the real needs of the targeted parent, an enabling spouse, or other siblings. And, of utmost importance, it won’t result in recognition of parental alienation within the courts, health and legal professions. Building EMPATHY among those who have suffered from the problem and converting it to activism is the path to mitigation.


    1. I don’t think this article is about anything other than skilling rejected parents with empathic responding so I am not sure what your comment actually means in this context Dave.


  27. I just want to say that when I read this Article I had chills throughout my whole entire body. I have never read something that is so spot on and identical to my current situation. I have researched and read a ridiculous amount of literature on narcissism, sociopathic behaviors, and borderline personality disorder and now im getting into parent child alienation. Unfortunately 3 weeks ago we had the trigger event and my children haven’t spoken to me since. I have endured a lot of pain and abuse over the years but nothing touches what I feel now. Losing your children, I believe is the worst pain a mother can endure. Im not even hurting for me. I’m in agony over what my children are having to go through and I’m scared that they will turnout to be like him. He’s a narcassistic sociopath and the control he has over my kids is like nothing I’ve ever seen. So what do I do now. They won’t talk, they won’t come on the court appointed time. I’m being given the silent treatment from hell. They are punishing me I don’t even know what I have done, if anything so can fix it.


  28. I started to notice this a few years ago and didn’t know what had been happening. The only difference is that I’m the custodial parent and I’m being alienated by the non-custodial parent regarding our two sons. I have messed up in major ways over the years, feeding the triggers I guess you would say, by defending myself, getting angry, shouting, talking against my ex the same way he talks against me…not knowing what I was doing or how much worst things were getting because of me trying so hard to prove myself. Not to mention, I strongly suspect my ex is a person with undiagnosed Narcissistic Personality Disorder because of all the abuse I have and still go through. Now that my sons are 13 and 16, I really feel like giving up at times. I’m exhausted because everything I try to teach them, tell them, suggest, do, attempt…all of it is rejected. I feel absolutely helpless.


  29. Naquiyah, I am exactly in the same situation as you. I managed to avoid talking bad about the other parent as I knew it’s harmful for the children and I had to bite my tongue so many times. At times though, I was so hurt, angry and frustrated that I shouted and fallen into the trap. I entirely agree with Karen though. Empathy is the key so I am going to follow her advice. Good luck and never give up x


  30. This feels a little like a Catch-22. I understand the need for empathy and compassion. Truly. But how does a parent not get repeatedly walked on by the child? Where does a parent draw a line with that child when the child berates them? If we draw a line for bad behavior, then we risk walking into that trap Dr. Woodall describes. If we don’t draw a line, then the child learns that their behavior is okay because they have not hit a boundary. Does empathy in the midst of a fused dyad mean a child’s structure is disregarded?


    1. No John, we use empathy with the boundaries so that the child learns something opposite to that which she/he is being taught by the enmeshing parent. So boundary setting with kindness means that when the intervention to set the boundary occurs – ‘I want you to stop doing that because it is hurtful and we don’t hurt other people in this home’ we recognise that the child has been trained to hear that as ‘you are a bad person and I am going to punish you and you should be afraid of me.’ Therefore we take corrective action after the boundary setting intervention and show the child via our actions that they are still safe and supported and loved – ‘I want you to stop doing that because we don’t hurt other people in this home ‘…….wait for a few minutes and then go to be alongside the child physically to show them that you are still there, encourage them to do something with you or talk with you about something else – DO NOT – seek forgivenness from the child because they are now shunning you, if you do that you will play straight into the game playing being taught by the other parent. K


      1. Thank you for the clarification. I can see that I have occasionally fallen into the trap, vis-a-vis, “the forgiveness follow up” you mention. I hope I can undo any reaction formations that may have hardened in my son as a result. I suspect that will come with just moving forward with the method you cite above, with the hopes that becomes the new reaction formation.


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