The landscape of parental alienation is extremely complex and made more so by the ways in which alienating parents in the severe category are skilled manipulators of other people. Skilled alienators will use other people to achieve their aims such as friends, family, practitioners, parish priests, GP’s, schools, hospitals and the target parent him/herself. Skilled alienators can be cunning and secretive or they can be chaotic and visibly destructive. Where-ever they are on the scale however they can rope in the target parent as well as a raft of other people to convince the world, the children involved and, in some cases even the target parent that the cause of the rejection is justified and not parental alienation. Here is an example of how this is done by a covert but very skilled alienator.
Rachel is a powerful business woman who is in charge of a large company. She has a reputation for being determined, gritty and very outspoken in her management of people. She gets the job done but she does not make many friends in doing so, she is often lonely and finds leisure time difficult because she spends so much of it on her own.
Daniel is a teacher, he works at a local comprehensive school teaching English. He is well liked by his peers and children seen to get on well with him too. He too however does not have many friends and spends a lot of time with his own parents and his brother. At weekends David often goes fishing with his brother for long hours, sometimes overnight.
Rachel and Daniel decide to separate after a spell of difficulty in their marriage. They have two children aged 10 and 12 and decide that the children will live in two homes. Rachel moves out of the family home so that she can live closer to her work. This is not too far from the children’s schools however so she is confident that she can continue to drop off and collect the children when it is her turn to do so.
One year after separation, the children no longer spend time at Rachel’s home. David says that the children decided for themselves that being with their mother was too difficult for them. He says that she is snappy with them and that she treats them as she treats her staff at work. The children echo their father’s descriptions and say that their mother is bossy and that she does not do the things that proper mothers do. Both children describe the time when their mother was angry with them, one of them says that his mother hit him on the head once.
People around the family say that they are unsurprised by what has happened. David was always the one who was more child focused and of course he is a teacher and so is used to spending time with children whilst Rachel can be a cold fish who is unfriendly.
David regularly takes the children to out of school events and is always very jolly and always keen to talk to people about what happened to the children and their mother. He is very sympathetic when he talks about Rachel, he feels so sorry for her but can see why it has happened, she was never really bonded to the children properly and she always put her work first.
Rachel keeps herself to herself. She does not have very many people to talk to outside of work and so concentrates on working hard to avoid the pain of losing her children.
Skilled alienators are people watchers, they understand the target parent at a very deep level. They understand how the target parent is viewed by others and they make it their business to covertly use those views held by others to build up an alienation reaction in them. Skilled alienators can see the invisible lines of tension that run between the target parent and the children, they know where the target parent is vulnerable and they make use of it. These alienators are superbly skilled at hiding their real intentions which they wrap up in a blanket of absolute sympathy which seems to verge upon compassion but which is pulled back from that by the repeated phrase ‘of course we have to do what is best for the children,’ or words to that effect. Skilled alienators appear to be co-operative with anyone who interacts with the family and rely upon the effectiveness of their control over the children’s experience to maintain the illusion that it is the coldness and the failure of the other parent which has caused the problem. Unaware parents and practitioners who are confronted by the skilled alienator can be left believing the idea that the children have rejected their parent because of something she has done, rather than questioning why a child would reject a parent outright on the basis of what sound like isolated incidents of a parent being angry and not justification for complete severance of the relationship.
Other ways that skilled alienators convince others that this is justified rejection and not parental alienation is to ensure that the child is able to articulate their rejection in ways that justify it. This can mean taking something that a parent has actually done and expanding it in the child’s mind so that the child believes that it is sufficient evidence. This taking of a nugget of reality and expanding it is extremely problematic for the child because it distorts both the original action and the child’s emotional and psychological reaction to it. A child who goes back repeatedly to a seemingly innocuous event and describes it as if it is evidence of the evil that a parent has done to them, is demonstrating that they have been coached to believe that something which actually happened is much worse and much more dangerous to them than it actually was in reality. The difference between a child who is justifiably rejecting a parent and one who has been told that their rejection is justifiable is that the child who has really been damaged will rarely reject a parent outright but will seek to go back and try again, sometimes to be hurt again, sometimes to the degree where they have to be persuaded to think differently. The reality is that a child who is being harmed by a parent will usually blame themselves first before they are able to blame the other parent and can often not understand what a parent is doing that is harmful.
This is a taster from Chapter Three of our book Understanding Parental Alienation: Learning to Cope, Helping to Heal which is nearing completion and will shortly be ready for our readers.
I find these blog entries incredibly supportive and encouraging, and sometimes very surprising. Thank you – and keep up the incredibly good work. Looking forward to the book release!
Glad they help Stephen. We have been working intensively on the book over the past week, we think one more week of writing will do it. The difficulty we have is that we are doing such a lot of work with families at the Clinic that finding the time to write is quite difficult and it is a difficult subject to write about as well as work out what to put in and what to leave out. But we think we have cracked it now. This is a handbook for parents and their families which is focused on helping them to build the kind of strategic plan that we know is effective. Too many parents are affected by this problem and head into the courts or to therapists hoping they will find answers when what they get is confusion and ongoing suffering. We want to help people to avoid all of that and, whilst we cannot give magic formulas, we can create alienation aware parents with the skills and capacity to navigate this horrible problem through to a better place.
I’m anxious for your book, Karen… even though my education is in counseling, parental alienation is not something I’ve learned much about, and I’m at a total loss on how to handle it with my daughter – she’s 23 and my ex-hubby has been systematically been manipulating her since our divorce 7 years ago. I’ve continually reached out to her (etc etc) to no avail, but in reading what you said above, it makes me feel understood… I’ll definitely be purchasing your book. Thanks for tackling this difficult and painful subject.
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Can I just check that I have correctly understood the last bit please Karen, about the difference between justifiable rejection and when a child has been told that their rejection is justifiable?
Am I right in saying that justifiable rejection, is the sort of behaviour I have been told by foster parents typically happens with looked after children. Despite often having suffered quite horrendous abuse at the hands of their natural parents, they still crave the love and attention of those parents, and after a while want to see and even stay with them again. This is despite the fact that there is every chance they will suffer further abuse, and as a consequence they may go through that cycle between being safe and abused many times before the finally realise it is not them that has the problem, but their parent(s).
This compares to children who have been told their rejection is justified, who resist any and all attempts to get them to spend time with the parent they have rejected, and sever all contact, even though they have never been abused, are never likely to be abused, and have only ever been loved and cared for in the past by that parent. When they give a reason for the rejection it will tend to be irrational or disproprtionate to their own reaction, and does not justify their rejection of the parent.
In both intances the children are likely to blame themselves, before blaming either of their parents, and in the latter instance whilst it is the alienating parent who is harming the child, if and when the child blames one of their parents, it will be the one they have rejected.
Hopefully I got that right….or thereabouts?
The more I read your articles Karen, the more I am convinced that my ex would fall into the severe category you describe of the most skilled manipulators, along with her new partner who seems to be similarly skilled, which makes for a rather formidable and toxic cocktail, which the professionals we have encountered have failed to recognise or counter.
What I see in my own son is the latter situation, with some onlookers commenting that the way he behaves towards me you would think I was a dangerous predator who had caused him severe harm and is to be avoided at all costs, when in fact they have previously observed that we had a normal and close loving father son relationship.
His manipulators do not seem to have had to use any particular incident, possibly because I don’t think there were any, at least not of any significance that I can recall. Aged 12 when the problems started, prompting the last bout of Court hearings, his own ‘case’ seemed to consist soley of “I want to see Dad, but just not at the moment”, a ‘moment’ that I might add has now lasted rapidly approaching two years.
The only thing he has said in addition to that is “Dad doesn’t listen to me”, which whilst those that know me, and have seen us together assure me is not true, at times I have almost started to believe it is, because on the rare occasions I have managed to speak with him and heard him say it, he sounds so very convincing.
Thankfully, when I have expressed doubt in myself I am brought back to reality by others asking me what exactly it is that I am supposed not to be listening to, because my son never has given a single reason for suddenly ceasing his relationship with me and the rest of his paternal family. When I have had the opportunity to do so, rightly or wrongly, I have asked him for a reason, but none has ever been forthcoming, and I have not had anything to NOT listen to!
Sadly, the so called professional who became involved, that is the Cafcass Guardian, did not seem to possess the word ‘WHY’ in his vocabulary and made no attempt to even ask the question, let alone establish the reason WHY despite my son having said he wanted to see me, he was so reluctant to make any commitment to when and how that would eventually happen.
I commented on a previous article about false allegations that I almost wished there had been some in my own case, so at least there was an opportunity for them to be disproven and thus for the manipulative behaviour of the other adults to be exposed. In this case, I wish I could be given reasons for my son’s rejection of me, even if they were untrue or irrational, because at least it would give me something to work with. Instead, I am left listening to the sound of silence, whilst being accused of not listening to that silence, and told that is the problem and reason for rejection….its a lose lose situation all around!
I guess I am wondering if this almost complete silence is also a behaviour you tend to encounter in cases of severe manipulation and thus alienation, and whether even if the Guardian had bothered to ask the question ‘WHY?’, he would have been any more likely than me to have illicited any sort of rational answer from a child in the very difficult position my son finds himself?
I would be very interested in karen’s reply to Jay because that is my situation too, almost word for word, except daughter instead of son. I’d be interested to correspond with you Jay.
Jay/Max, feel free to communicate on here or, if you email me at Karen.email@example.com and give me permissions I will exchange your contact details for you. k
Hi Karen everything you write about narcissistic Alienator parent rings so true in my case. Everything described is happening in my case now. How do I prove this when she has manipulated the system and made out the it me the problem how possibly could it be her. Help for the sake of my children there the only one who will be scared by this
hi Jay and Max,
Yes you have got the difference correct. In our experience though the child who has been coached to believe that his rejection is justified will blame the parent that they are rejecting and there is no self blame evident at all. In fact if you approach children in this situation with the idea that the parent is not to blame and challenge them gently asking them what is so bad about what the parent has done, they will often escalate their claims (this is where you often head off into false allegation territory with these children).
A child who acts as if you are a dangerous predator when you previously had a good relationship is a child who is in the severe category who has likely been coached to believe that the things you have done (however small and inconsequential) are monstrous things. Thus we get kids telling us that dad grabbed their hand and caused terrible harm or mum pulled him back by the collar and shouted at him and that was evidence she is a child abuser.
Children who are alienated often cannot answer the parent they have rejected when they are asked why. What could they possibly say to justify it – they know and you know it – that is why they want to keep you away, so that you don’t ask and you don’t force them to confront what they have done. The reality is that they do not want to have done this, why would they choose to reject a parent? They are not programmed to do that, they are programmed to love their parents. When they choose to reject is not really a choice it is a coping mechanism.
What is interesting about your case as you describe it is the silence that surrounds what you are supposed to have done. That and your son saying you don’t listen to him. We work a lot with children in the age range 11 – 14 who say exactly this, my dad (or mum) doesn’t listen to me. When we encounter this we usually find the following things are true about the world around the child –
1. They have a relationship with the alienating parent which is indulgent – the parent over indulges and over empowers the child. Often the aligned parent has not repartnered and the child is in a quasi spousal relationship or there is a new partner who is being shoe horned into the role of replacement parent.
2. The rejected parent has a very different personal and parenting style to the aligned parent, sometimes with dads, the juxtaposition of loud, jolly, outgoing, confident, masculine man and quiet, manipulative, enmeshed over indulgent mother for example which creates an alignment in the child with the indulgent parent who exploits the child’s inability to deal with dads boistrousness.
3. Permission giving by the aligned parent to dismiss the role of the other parent and their necessity which is often coupled with over idealisation of a new partner by the aligned parent.
Also true in these circumstances are that children in this age group are trying out new and more independent senses of self and they are not able to practice them out safely with a parent because of the undermining by the alienating parent and the disadvantage that the more distanced parent has of not being able to be in the life of the child daily.
I am writing all about this today actually for the book, working out the dynamics that caused the alienation is part of the task of building a strategy. In the face of silence, it is empowering to be able to do that because it gives you the answers and also the knowledge of what is likely to happen if you do different things.
Silence is a big problem for everyone affected by this issue. Silence from CAFCASS on the issue is common, first off there does not appear to be acceptance that PA is a problem, secondly the training around the issue is non existent and thirdly the usuall CAFCASS approach is the he said/she said approach and the assumption that it is both parents who have caused the problem.
Which does nothing to liberate your children or give them a voice, it simply condemns them to utilisation of a dysfunctional coping mechanism which offers half their heritage the ‘proof’ that the other parent was the problem and the other half the ongoing worry about what such an action will do to them as they grow older.
And what it does is serious, life changing and life long in my experience.
Children do not choose to lose a parent, they have to be coached, persuaded and given permission to do so, a burden which they then carry for life unless it is lifted from their shoulders.
Child abuse, nothing less.
Thanks for your response and insight Karen, and whilst it saddens me that I have been unable to resolve the situation for my son and liberate him from the invisible chains that hold him, I at least feel reassured knowing that I am gradually gaining a greater understanding of how this situation has evolved and is being maintained.
I can certainly see elements from all three of the points you raised, in the first, he has certainly been over indulged and over empowered. In the second point, his mother and I certainly have different parenting styles. Whilst I probably set clearer boundaries, within those boundaries I take a more relaxed approach. Ironically, shortly before he severed contact, my son was talking to a similarly aged child of a friend when we left them to hang out together, and my son disclosed to the other child how he liked it that he had so much more freedom when he was with me.
Your third point also seems to hit the nail right on the head. The children have certainly been given permission to dismiss my role. I watched back through some old family videos recently and cringed as I heard them being encouraged, in what at the time I thought was just a bit of harmless fun, to treat me like I was nothing even when we were all still together as a family, and what has happened since has just been a continuation of that.
There also certainly seems to be a mutual over idealisation between my ex wife and her new partner, not long after they took up together when I was trying to make arrangements for the children I remember her telling me what a wonderful father he was, totally ignoring the fact that he had abandoned his own kids for her and was having nothing at all to do with them. It was even recognised by Cafcass at that early stage that she seemed to be trying rewrite history and replace me with him as the father to her children.
As I commented after a previous article, there seems to have been a lot else going on, for example pressure from an elder sibling who had already herself severed all contact several years before my son finally succumbed to the expectation that he would do the same. When initially he did not, it appeared their mother and new partner moved their focus directly onto him until they succeeded in getting him to sever his paternal relationships. Then there is his eldest sibling who lives with me, who has been free to come and go as she pleases, and thus maintained a relationship with her mother, but has been picked upr when it suited, and then dropped like a stone at other times by their mother, I can only presume as a warning to the younger children that her maternal love can be withdrawn on a whim.
The difficulty is knowing how to sort out a situation like this. I am tempted to go back to Court one last time, but with the impotency of Cafcass I fear it will be yet another waste of time, and as it has before, will simply make the situation worse rather than better. Then of course, I carry your final words heavily in my mind, as I have done since this situation started over six years ago
‘And what it does is serious, life changing and life long in my experience.
Children do not choose to lose a parent, they have to be coached, persuaded and given permission to do so, a burden which they then carry for life unless it is lifted from their shoulders.
Child abuse, nothing less.’
….and I think no, I cannot give up, no matter how futile it may appear, I have to keep trying. I am looking forward to reading your book and any further insight that will give me to the situation, and how to try and deal with it. I will also email you with permission to pass my details onto Max as sharing experiences and mutual support has to be a good thing, and if I can help someone in a similar position I’m always happy to do so.
Thanks again for your comments Karen
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It is all so clear from the outside looking in but when you are actually in this situation the Alienator appears to be so convincing. It also continues through the childs adult life unless they are strong enough to think for themselves!!! When will the law change to stop Parental Alienation? It is mental child abuse.
Totally agree. It is now time for action.
Have you made the connection yet between the alienator and psychopathy?
If you have, can you show visitors where to find the article?
If you haven’t, I think this may be the most exciting and horrifying revelation to impact the field of parental alienation.
I’ve only this weekend made the connection myself – a true OMG moment.
Also, as law is the 2nd ranked profession where they collect…. i’ll leave it to your imagination.
In Rachel and Daniels case, from the facts that were given, maybe there was no alienation practised. Maybe the children were speaking the truth and their father believed them. Maybe he had more nurturing skills than the mother, I can’t see that the father is manipulating the children, he is just acknowledging the mothers normal non abusive behaviour. It seems they agreed shared custody, and therefore have the children prioritised. And being a lone parent is very difficult, without the added stressors of new home and routine for Rachel. Knowing the demands of business, she was probably out early in the morning and home late at night, tired and hungry to arrive home to tired and hungry children. It is very difficult. And maybe the home environment with Daniel was a little less stressed for them, he would normally have set hours being a teacher and was available to them for a longer period after work. In this case working around Rachel’s working hours, to give her the quality time needed to be with her children when she’s relieved of the normal stressors of a working mother and tweaking the routine to make it work better for herself and therefore her children, a happy mother is an effective woman. Instead of bringing a dimension of parental alienation into a modern day parenting situation. It seems a bit extreme to slap the diagnosis of parental alienation on to this case, and it is really to miss the pathological nature of this form of child abuse.
nearlybel, I have let this comment through but if your mission is to come here and stamp your feet and demand that cases of parental alienation are reformulated as cases of pathological child abuse by the rejected parent then this is your last post. This is a safe place for people who are being abused and whose children are being abused by parental alienation. YOu may not believe in it, if you do not then you must go somewhere else and say your piece about that. Here is one of the few safe places where parents can read about what is affecting them and talk about it, safely, without people like you taking their own personal experience and judging others by it. The case you refer to is real. Daniel turned out to have a severe form of narcissism and his children were eventually removed from him after it was shown that he was sharing inappropriate sexual information with his children and causing them to reject their mother because of it. There, that’s your pathological child abuser. I work with these cases they are not made up. If you want to discuss, learn and think about the issue from a different perspective you are welcome here but if all you are going to do is try to reframe everything to fit your own belief system you are not.