Boundary setting and the alienated child

Back from a workshop in Leicester this weekend where we met another group of parents suffering the pain of alienation and forced separation from their beloved children.  Once again, far from it being a wholly miserable and gloomy day, we laughed as we discussed the different difficulties faced in the alienation process.  Laughed because sometimes the recounting of the actions of the alienated child and alienating parent sound so ludicrous when they are shared out loud. Though facing those action is painful indeed, sharing them with others who recognise them allows relief to flood through and laughter to come.  In a world where loneliness and isolation are feelings that arrive on the day that your child rejects you, finding others who understand can be a life saver.  For some in the room it was the first time they had laughed about what was happening.  For everyone faced with alienation, laughter is good medicine and protects against the most harmful impacts of the alienation process.  When we can laugh at a problem we know that we have externalised it and recognised it as something ‘out there’, something which is being done to us, not something we have caused.  When we laugh we have gained perspective and recognised that this is a problem shared by others.  Alienation is an isolating and demoralising experience, laughing protects against the damage that it does.

But onto the subject of today’s post because it is one which is current in my mind as we continue the process of getting our new projects ready for you.  So many parents who come to us ask about how to cope with a child who is in the process of being alienated or who is showing signs of heading down that slippery slope.  How do I manage, is the question being asked, when my child is defiant, rude or angry with me.  What do I do, when my child puts up resistance to my discipline?  What you do is perhaps surprisingly different to what you want to do or feel compelled to do.  What you do is counter intuitive and contrary to your urge to keep your child happy.  What you do, is act like every parent would in the circumstances where a child is causing problems, what you do is hold your boundaries.

Boundaries are a critical issue for a child who is experiencing an alienation reaction.  This is because in order to alienate a child you have to remove the normal boundaries that are set for them by their parents.  This is done either consciously or unconsciously by a parent who is alienating and is part of the wider campaign to bring the child onside against you.  If you then mirror that behaviour in the alienating parent and remove all of the boundaries when the child is in your care too, you are simply helping to escalate the alienation reaction not reduce it.

Our boundaries are critical interventions in a child’s life.  Boundaries are rules, expectations, requirements and exhortations to behave in a particular manner.  Boundaries are set for a child when you as the parent require a child to behave in a particular way.  Boundaries are part of all of our lives, from the social inhibiting boundaries of good public behaviour to the personal expectations that someone will treat you with respect, we all grow in a world of boundaries and for the child at risk of alienation, those boundaries are what can prevent the reaction from escalating badly.

To understand how children at risk of alienation are affected by the removal of boundaries by the alienating parent think about the stereotypical portraits of teenagers that we see on the tv.  Those kids who say nothing apart from ‘whatever’ with a shrug of their shoulders, those kids who sulk and refuse to engage with their parents.  When children reach their teenage years they are naturally tasked with pushing boundaries, that is the purpose of those transitional years.  Teenagers gradually push at the boundaries that their parents set, progress to negotiating  their own boundary setting and eventually  they are in charge of their personal values and expectations and capable of setting and maintaining their own boundaries as they become adults.  The early years of being a teenager can be rocky as the boundary pushing commences but the child is not yet able to negotiate with ease.  Coupled with parents who are at first startled by the change in their child, the early months for teenagers can be somewhat difficult and unsettling as everyone gets used to the changing regime.

For children who are alienated their behaviours have become early teenager behaviours and then some.  That is because the boundaries around their behaviours in one household have been removed or distorted and they have been given more power than they are capable of dealing with.  Younger children in these circumstances will become surly, rude and difficult to manage.  Older children will behave like teenagers but turbo charged, aggressive, rude and impossible to deal with.  When you are faced with this in your children you have two choices.  You can mirror the boundarylessness of the alienating parent or you can committ to the healthy parenting that your children need and step up and stand up to your children.  It won’t make for happy blissful days and nights, but it will stop the alienation reaction from escalating and give your children what they need to get them through.

Put simply, when confronted with rude, aggressive and difficult children do not give in to the temptation to back down and give them all of the control in the hope that it will make them like you again, it won’t.  What it will do is escalate their sense of entitlement to tell you what to do and it will make them increasingly anxious.  Entitlement comes from being over empowered by the other parent who is busy indulging them and telling them that they are in charge of what happens.  Anxiety comes because children know deep down inside that they should not be in this position and that the power they have been given is too much for them to handle.  They don’t want to be in this place, they have been pushed into it.   Return them to the place that they are comfortable with, child to your parent and do that by setting and keeping your boundaries, even in the face of their outrage and continued efforts to be in charge.

Most of all do not take any of this personally.  If you take it personally when an alienated reaction sets in you risk being entangled in the game that the alienating parent is playing.  If you find yourself at risk of fighting with your child or berating your child for hurting you, walk out of the room.  Similarly, if you find yourself indulging your child or failing to set and maintain boundaries with them, get help to toughen up.  Even if, every time they come to you it is rocky and difficult do not give way just to keep the peace or just to have a nice time because if you do you will find that you are feeding their entitlement to make decisions about whether they stay in your life or not.  Do not be afraid to set boundaries and hold them, it is healthy for your children and interestingly, can immediately stop a child from escalating aggression and other difficult behaviours.

Saying no helps children at risk of alienation.  Debating, pleading and threatening does not.  Practice saying no, even when every part of you is terrified that it will make things worse, you will be surprised at their reaction.  When you say no, mean no, not maybe or perhaps but no.  When you say no, give a reason why but keep it short and make it clear it is not for debate.  One of the things that children at risk of alienation do (just like teenagers) is seek to engage you in debate so that they can manipulate you and manage you (mirroring what the other parent is doing).  If you have to leave the room to end the possibility of debate do so.  You have to be the leader, you have to be in charge.  If you spend your time looking for their approval you will lose this ability.  It is not your children’s role to approve of you, it is yours to approve of them and their behaviours, make that knowledge stick in your mind and in your behaviours and you will soon get the hang of boundary setting and when you do you will be surprised at what you find.

More on boundary setting in the book Understanding Parental Alienation: learning to cope, helping to heal which I continue to get ready for publication.  Also coming soon is our new site from where you will be able to download podcasts and other resources to help you in your journey as parent to an alienated child.  We are working on it all right now and will announce our launch here very soon.

19 thoughts on “Boundary setting and the alienated child

  1. Thank you for a brilliantly informative post Karen …

    It’s only now after more than 5 years of no relationship (with very few sporadic meetings in between) that I am now coming out of my isolation and actually laughing and being happy….. AND as I begin to understand the information here for THE DAY I do meet them again (never gonna give up hope!).

    Karen, what about if they are not teenagers but much older – ie much older. In that case do we still instil an authority and firmly say to them “don’t talk to me like that – I am, was and always will be your father and you will not talk down to me!” ?


  2. Thanks Karen. Laughter is rare in tribal warfare, so it is great to hear about some in Leicester.

    We have an interest in how the rejected parent handles boundaries when s/he has several “ganged up” children ignoring him or her. I’m sure you will have written about this somewhere – Can you point us to it please? Or will it be in your book?


    1. Ganged up children are simply children who are all captured in the alienators delusion. You can split and separate those children and work with each of them differently if you have a face to face or even indirect relationship with them. Divide and rule is the issue here, the alienating parent has recruited each child into the campaign, it is pointless to face all of them together as it becomes exhausting and they hold the line too firmly. You have to explore the individual relationships with each child to understand where the weaknesses are. I have written quite a lot about sibling pressures in the book yes.


  3. hi Leicester I believe was the single most important day I’ve had in 6 years thank u so very much the email u gave me seems to be incorrect please could u give me it again u can find me on face book or just email me thanks 😄 Also yes boundaries in my case he had resorted to within weeks tying my daughters shoe laces for her when she was 10 and had been tying her own from the age of 4 as one example and began throwing paddy sat me when on my access I refused to do this !!


  4. Yes, boundaries are something I wrestled with during the years over which my children became alienated. I always attempted to maintain those boundaries on the basis that if they were going to get none from their other parent, at least one of us had to continue to treat them in the way that they would have been treated if we had stayed together as a family.

    Unfortunately, it was not always easy to do that, as the children and I were frequently manipulated by their other parent and the new partner into lose lose positions where neither option that I felt I had in respect of how to handle those situations appeared to have potential for a positive outcome.

    I did not always stick to my principles, and on occasions I relaxed the boundaries that I would normally have set thinking that to do so might be the lesser of the evils. However, it never seemed to make any difference so I finally reached the conclusion that I should just do what I felt was right, and best for the children, which was continue to set boundaries.

    Sadly, it finally reached a point where I do not think it would have mattered how I handled any given situation, the influences over my children of their alienating parent, the new partner, and both those extended families was so intense and relentless that there was only one option left to the children to survive, and they became completely alienated.

    Opinions were split amongst my own family and friends on how I should have dealt with situations, with some suggesting I could just have gone along with every demand that was made of me. There have been times when I wondered if perhaps that is what I should have done, and if so would the children still have relationships with me and my family?

    So it was extremely refreshing to read this article, and to hear that removing those boundaries would most likely just have accelerated the alienation process.I feel much more confident now about the occasions where I did stick to my guns, and did not give into the pressure being placed on me to capitulate from people on both sides of the family.

    There are now limited opportunities to demonstrate that I am still the same parent with the same values as before, but after reading this article I feel far more confident about the approach I took with the children, and should take if and when opportunities arise. Whilst there are no signs that this approach has been appreciated, I live in hope that when they are older the children will appreciate the stance I took, and will understand why I did not give in to, or give up on them.


  5. Karen, once again thank you for Saturday’s workshop. I completely agree with you that boundary setting is the cornerstone in not just parenting alienated children, but parenting any child.
    However, to throw a cat amongst the pigeons isn’t there also a case for picking your battles? If you are struggling with rudeness, insolence, children going through your things etc. maybe the less than perfect table manners can wait?
    Also if you are reaching the point where a “trigger” event may lead to complete alienation is it not possible that telling a child off, for something you clearly believe is wrong, no matter how sensitive you try to be, can be that trigger event?


    1. Hi Kat, yes you are correct in that and when I am talking about boundary setting here I am not talking about sweating the small stuff, I am talking about setting boundaries around the big things – just like you would not allow a child to smoke, letting them call you names, letting them do as they please and letting them walk all over you is one of the big boundaries. So table manners you can let go of but rudeness in the extreme you cannot. Tidying their room you can ignore but telling you they are not going to bed you cannot. And it is tough because they will use this as ‘evidence’ of why they should reject you if you allow it to go on too long which is why being the leader of the pack in the household whatever they do to try and push your buttons is what you have to learn to do and be. One of the biggest mistakes that parents who are facing alienated children make is to plead, persaude, apologise or take things personally. You have to toughen up when it gets to this stage and nip it in the bud fast. Don’t get into arguments with them, deal with the transitional periods and as soon across that toxic boundary set those boundaries. You will be surprised how well children respond to boundary setting especially when it is done consistently and confidently and when it is not personalised. If you follow the stand offs with a lot of time for the child to talk about it (which means don’t pick your time to set a boundary 2.5 minutes before they leave you) you will help them to unfold the reasons why they are so dysregulated and they will share things with you that are troubling them. You have to think about timing, pace, consistency and not taking it personally. All of the trigger events that I have seen have been because the boundary setting was being done ad hoc not consistently, the timing was wrong or the parent was taking it personally. You have to get objective not subjective in this sphere. You are parenting troubled children, you need to get the right skills working asap.


      1. “You will be surprised how well children respond to boundary setting especially when it is done consistently and confidently and when it is not personalised. If you follow the stand offs with a lot of time for the child to talk about it… you will help them to unfold the reasons why they are so dysregulated and they will share things with you that are troubling them.”

        Karen that I have seen: both how well they respond to boundaries and that it can lead to them opening up and telling you stuff. I have found this most astonishing (its like it is a different child) and now I understand why!


  6. oh my gosh Karen, we need some laughs! Black humour always being the saviour when standing too close to the emotional Kafkaesque edge lots of us sit on. So my suggestion is that on your upcoming new site you have a section within the forums for the craziest, most ridiculous, delusional or self important things said – maybe separated out with a special section for Cafcass and court workers too.
    I’ll start the ball rolling with the Guardian saying “I can do great things; I have all the power; I work outside of the box; I’ll take you all away camping together for the weekend if I think that’s the best thing to do”. Needless to say he was nothing, and did nothing, of the sort and kept himself resolutely within the box to damaging effect.
    My second offering was the ‘resident’ parent hysterically accusing my husband and I of having sex, naked, in front of their son (and my daughter). This false accusation was bandied about time and time again, thrown up in court, and allegedly spread around a range of mutual contacts. Eventually it was begrudgingly downgraded, with no apology, to the ‘explanation’ that my husband’s son had seen me come out of a tent pulling a jumper on over my t-shirt, and ‘his young mind (age 11) must have jumped to conclusions’. I do laugh at that now, but it took some time. It makes you painfully wonder though what emotional torture must have taken place to elict such a claim.There was a particularly foul additional edge to that rumour, but I’ll save that for the forum!


  7. Thanks Karen and Nick for putting it all together, the why, how and what can help. I put this into practice at the weekend, succeeding on a few occasions to reduce the ‘void’ for my child yet keeping boundaries with my ex. It felt good to look at the result on my child’s face, more relaxed, open and more smiling. That feeling of being confined eased within a narrow window of opportunity. After 4 years of separation my ex still has to be present, (with no justification) and no other opportunity for free conversation or empathy.

    P.A.- one child severe (the elder girl nearly 18) the other a boy of 11 and moderate/severe. That is clear, the other elements such as -is it a pure or hybrid? are much harder to recognise. Some characteristics exist strongly, some not at all.

    Laughter? Becomes easier when you know the right direction to head in- to be able to help our children ourselves, to feel less guilty, knowing the ‘wrong frame’ has nothing to do with me. People doing the wrong things in charge. To realise the ‘tools’ of Court for what they are -the most clumsy misshapen, club of old wood presented within a very expensive box complete with a ribbon.

    To hear that a child places faith in the alienated parent, entrusted to look after the relationship until things get easier, gives a lot of strength.


  8. Boundaries.

    If you mean by “boundaries”, standing up for yourself, that is all well and good, but you have to be very careful.

    The reason your “boundaries” don’t work very well is because your former partner has different ideas about where those “boundaries” should be.

    If you consider yourself the target parent then insisting on your “boundaries” will only increase your risk of alienation.

    You have lost the hearts and minds of your children and the task you have is to win them back. On winning them back, if done successfully you will find that those hearts and minds are not yours to play with as you choose, but something innately in the power and control of your children. Nobody can steal their personalities.

    This is a delicate process but also one that needs to be carried out with a certain amount of self-belief and inner conviction. For this reason I believe it is very important you recover your self-esteem and restore your confidence.

    When you re-discover your faith in yourself and belief that parenting your children is something you do separate from your former partner’s unique way of parenting, then a pattern of “boundaries” will develop born out of the respect your children develop for you.
    In the early stages of reunion the most important factors are your Dandlebear and a bridge he is helping you construct that ensures safe and secure passage for your children. It is your sensitivity and your big ears and your willingness to absorb the distresses of your children that will endear them to you. Your attention to the very personal interests of each child will gain their respect (no boundaries required). E.g. You know that Jane likes a short pink Minnie Mouse toothbrush and she likes to go to sleep with the door 10 cm ajar, just enough to keep the bogeyman away. It behoves you to attend to such personal detail. You may be able to add some personal extras that will help the children identify with your uniqueness……e.g. The crazy bedside lampshade in her favourite colour. To identify in your children’s minds your acceptance of your former partner the picture on the bedside table shows all of you on the beach at sunny Skeggy ……former happy days for the whole family.

    Your personal dissatisfaction with the 9pm bedtime routine that your former partner has instilled upon the children will have to suffice for the time being.

    It is only when the children develop a confidence in you that they will begin to take note and respect your boundaries. (Of course your former partner’s 9pm bedtime routine is not something you should be criticizing whatever your opinion on the subject happens to be).

    Kind regards


    1. Not sure I agree with you entirely because not setting your boundaries with your children on the big issues – like their descent into name calling or refusal to do as you ask or rudeness is what pushes them into the alienation reaction faster. You are talking about deep empathic responding BEFORE you set boundaries, which is ok if kids are not in the most difficult places of an alienation reaction but a bit like trying to stick sellotape on wet paper if they are. I am though very much in favour of deeply empathic responding with children in transition, that is what keeps them from tipping over into alienation if it is transition and not deliberate alienating behaviour that is the cause of the problems.


  9. Yes. What I have said reflects more on my way of achieving the relationships I have managed to retain with my children. I fully accept my view of boundaries (known as limit setting in some parenting books) is not most peoples idea of the way forward. I have been impressed by the work of Gottman and have tried to shape my relationships around something he calls “Emotional Intelligence”. Whilst most parenting is traditionally based on countering poor behaviours (Boundary setting) Gottman shows how much more important it is to accept one anothers feelings in order to maintain good mental health.
    ref: The Heart of Parenting by J Gottman.

    Kind regards


  10. Having read this blog above this afternoon, as well as these two:

    I am saddened by the fact that had I known any of this just four months ago i may have been able to prevent total alienation of my darling daughter and the continues partial alienation by my son.

    Although my setting of boundaries was probably the straw that broke the camels back it was because it came out of nowhere having backed down in a concilliatory manner for so many of the preceeding months/years.

    Yes, the relationship with my ex has been personified in his continuing relationship with the children. And his use of the children against me. I don’t know how to stop that – I left so it didn’t happen to me any more. How can I stand up to him?

    The children have been overempowered since day one, but he has never seen it that way. He actively prevents/discourages communication between any of us. I thought he had my interests at heart. How do I make contact with my girl when her father (a GP) says it is making her mentally ill? (“She has had to start medication because of you contacting her”)

    I have been in a new relationship myself for some of the time we have been apart and my children have both been made aware by me it will not go further until they are happy (another huge mistake). This is so unfair on my BF but for the fact that I am unsure I can support his family dynamics on top of my own. I am not ready for him to tell me, as Karen says:

    “The way out of this is to begin to insist that your relationship with the alienated parent comes first and that your relationship is built into the foundation stone of the new family life that children are expected to live in”.

    Lots more to read and much more to learn…


  11. Whenever I tried to discipline my teenager daughter and give consequences.. she threatened to leave my house and called her father ,and he would come to pick her up and yelled at me in front of her. She would stay with him for as long as she likes and came back whenever she felt like it. It happened a few times before. I can go to court and file many contempts and spend lots of time and money. But the bottom line is, how do you enforce boundaries when she does not want them and will leave your sight/house whenever she wants ? I have no leverage and she is not afraid to leave me which is her father would like to see. Any advices would be really appreciated.


  12. I have lost both my son and now my daughter (15) because of boundaries ( which are normal and what I believe in).

    There are no rules at their mums and I’ve been well and truly allianated

    Not much I can do and Social Services are pretty useless and don’t seem to understand anything about alienation ‘Mum has a very different parenting style’ is all I hear to which I reply – NO! Mum has no parenting style at all

    Unfortunately family courts listen to Social Services and subsequently the absolute politically correct clap trap they spout rather than recognising a total lack of parenting and the fact that it’s damaging to a child’s well being and future prospects

    I agree on setting boundaries- but Social Services need to be better trained on this vital aspect of parenting and to take alianation more seriously – the system has to change to help targeted parents!


  13. How should I deal with my 14 year old son “deciding on his own” that he doesn’t want to come to my house on the stipulated days. His mother organized other activities like guitar class and tells him its his decision if he doesn’t want to come with me. It has gotten to the point that he even refuses to come with me when I go to pick him up at school.
    I told him he had to come with me because it’s not his decision, that our time is important etc etc, but he was completely defiant and even blocked me in WhatsApp.
    Some people tell me to not contact him for a while to make him feel that he is going to loose his father, but I don’t know if this is right. our relationship has always been strong despite his mother and grandmother trying ever trick in the book to alienate him since he was 2 years old, but it seems that it is only now that he is a teenager that they are succeeding.
    I would really appreciate any help you can give me.


  14. And what happens when the teenager just runs away? Now, the only option I have is to call the police, but he will refuse to come home (Because his father told him he has that choice at 16) and then he could end up on States Custody or Juvenile detention. Or just let him stay gone and hope he comes back eventually? It feels like an impossible situation.


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