What to do and what not to do when a child is showing signs of alienation

As we push on to get the book finished and ready for you we have reached the point at which we are compiling quick reference points, the do’s and don’t’s if you like of coping with parental alienation.  Today I am writing the what not to do checklist and I thought it might be useful to have as a handy guide for anyone who is experiencing withdrawal currently.

A child who is in withdrawal from you will act in distinct ways and it is important that you understand the difference between what is an alienation reaction and what is a natural part of the child moving in between two homes.  Children who are moving between homes will often display the following behaviours, this does not mean that they are becoming alientated but it does mean that they are struggling with transition and when a child struggles with transition, withdrawal can be a possiblity.

Transition difficulties

  • Withdrawn on arrival often quiet and non responsive or demonstrating unsettled behaviour.  Older children may sit for some time before they join in activities, younger children may appear clingy and anxious.
  • Child settles very well and shows relaxed behaviour, enjoying their time with you and appearing their normal selves, towards the end of their time with you child may tell you that they do not want to go back to the other parent, they may become quiet and withdrawn. When it is time to leave they may become clingy and tearful.
  • Handovers become difficult with the child increasingly pressuring both parents to allow them not to go to the other parent.

Signs of alienation reaction

  • On arrival child may be quiet but also angry and may push the parent away, settling takes a very long time and the child may appear restless throughout.
  • Child says angry things in outbursts that can be followed by tears and then a desire for closeness.
  • Child may behave in confusing ways, refusing to accept your authority and being very angry in their behaviour but responding and settling when challenged appropriately.
  • Child may tell you things that they have been told about you or ask you questions about areas of your life which are not visible to the other parent.

Whilst a child who is being alienated may show signs of transition difficulty, a child who is simply experiencing transition difficulty may not be being alienated and it is therefore very important to observe your child’s behaviour as closely as possible so that you deal with the problems appropriately.  A child who is actively being alienated needs different input than a child who is suffering transition difficulties. In both cases the child requires you to know that difference.  If the signs of transition difficulty are present  but  your child is not acting angrily, coldly, verbally abusive, physically resistant which may sometimes be followed by tears, shame, guilt and sorrow,(signs of alienation), it is important to discuss with the other parent how to reduce transition problems for your child. If the other parent is not receptive to that, follow these steps to ease the transition for your child.

  • On collection and arrival at home, allow your child to sit quietly or sit with you for as long as they need to.  Younger children may need around 30-60 minutes to recover from transition, older children can take up to two hours or so to fully make the crossing to your care.  During this time do quiet things together, make sure you are available to your child physically, watch tv, play quietly and let your child be.  They will show you when they are ready by wanting to play and becoming more interactive.
  • Give your child a clear structure to the end of your time together, do not expect them to be able to pick up their things and move back to the other parent without warning. At least two hours before it is time to move to the other parent begin a routine of preparing them. Make sure they eat within plenty of time to enjoy their food.  Let them know verbally an hour before it is time to leave. Begin to gather up their things and signal to them half an hour before transition time. Make the last half hour quiet and close, talk about the things you did and the things you will do when you are together again. Leave games ready to pick up again. Smaller children will benefit enormously from this kind of  attention to transition time. Older children will find it easier and will fuss and complain less.

But what if a child is showing signs of alienation?

If your child is showing transitional difficulty and signs of alienation it is important to know what to do and what not to do. This is your handy checklist of coping with the behaviours that children show when they are coping with being alienated from you.

Do Don’t
Check a child’s angry behaviour in ways that prevent escalation – be curious about it rather than attacking it. ‘Where did those words come from?’ is far better than ‘how dare you talk to me like that’ when a child is being alienated. Don’t attack your child when they show anger towards you. Avoid the trap of being angry in return as it increases the child’s anxiety and increases the emotional temperature.
Relax the boundaries slightly letting the child get away with a little bit more than you usually would but holding the new boundary firmly. Do not tighten the boundary so much that the child feels squashed and punished for their behaviour, this is the quickest way to give the alienating parent all the opportunity they need to escalate the alienation.
Give the child a simple answer to questions they might ask you about your private life. Tell your child that ‘there are things that adults should not talk to children about,’ is far better than telling the child off for asking in the first place. Avoid shaming the child for asking the question. Keep in mind always that the child is being used as a conduit and does not understand that what they are doing is wrong.
Clarify in simple terms the truth about any lies that they are being told. Make sure that your behaviours do not confirm the lies that they are being told as you do so. Telling your child that you did not hurt the cat when they were a baby and that you would not hurt the cat then or now, is better than telling them that they cannot possibly know that you hurt the cat and that they are being told lies. Don’t be drawn into counter attacking by telling your child that they are being told lies. If they experience you attacking the alienating parent they find themselves in a double bind of not knowing which parent to believe. Concentrate on letting them feel comfortable with your body language and behaviour and reassure them through simple rebuttals and calming repetitions of the truth.
Help your child at all times to understand that there are always two or more sides to everything they are told. Show them how different people see things differently at different times. Do not tell them they are alienated or that they are being influenced by the other parent. This only drives them into a defensive place and increases the alignment with the alienating parent.
Check your child’s verbally abusive behaviour in assertive not aggressive ways. Don’t match their aggression with aggression of your own, it simply confirms for them that you are what the alienating parent says you are.
Learn empathic responding skills and use them at all times. Pay attention to the times when the child drops the rejecting stance and name it and let them know you are glad to see them relaxed and happy. Do not Spend your time telling your child there is something wrong with them. Reduce your verbal criticisms.
Make sure that your child spends time with your wider family as much as you can. When alienation really strikes it affects everyone even beloved pets. Keep making sure that your children are with your wider family as much as possible. Do not Isolate your child because you are worried about their behaviour, if you keep them away from their wider family because of their outbursts or unpleasantness you are reinforcing the alienating parent’s power over them, keep sharing your children, warn everyone in your family about the problem and get them to help out too.
Be aware that alienating parents will use ‘trigger events’ to seize the opportunity to take the child into a fully alienated stance. Trigger events are those which the child and the alienating parent can use to ‘justify’ withdrawal. In many respects when a child is being alienated any event can become a trigger. Make sure you document your time with your child, take photographs, videos and notes in case you need to challenge distorted reports of events that have occurred. Make sure that your child knows that they are loved and welcome at all events and that your child shares in recording events such as weddings and parties and outings. Talk to your child about the things you are doing and help them to share in creating memories so that they are participating in the things you are doing. This helps if a child then says that they were unhappy with you or that an event distressed them. It also allows you to reality check with your child on a regular basis.
Allow a child who is recounting things they have been told to do so without comment. When they have finished, reassure them that what they believe is not true but do it as simply and easily as possible and then move on. Show them how things that they are saying cannot be true if you can by simple explanations, then reassure and move on to doing something else. Do not get into detailed and complicated discussions about what a child is saying when they are offloading things they have been told. Do not challenge them on every point and force them to go through things over and over again.

If you know your child is being alienated there are some critical things to do to protect them over the longer term.

1. Record everything that is happening in a detailed diary.

2. Make sure that your child does not experience you blaming the alienating parent for their behaviour.

3. Learn empathic responding skills and use them always.

4. Do not panic or become too angry in response, stay steady and focused and curious about their behaviour not indignant.

5. Do not take it personally, this is not their real feelings.

6. Get expert help if you think you need it.  You need it if you feel that you cannot cope, you are being drawn into a battle with your children or you are regularly feeling out of your depth.

This is another excerpt from the handbook which will be published soon.  We continue to offer coaching for targeted/rejected parents at the Family Separation Clinic and will be holding workshops in London in Autumn 2015 for families affected by parental alienation.  For more information see http://www.familyseparationclinic.co.uk

9 thoughts on “What to do and what not to do when a child is showing signs of alienation

  1. Reblogged this on Moms' Hearts Unsilenced and commented:
    Excellent dos and don’ts regarding an alienated child. I could have used some of these a long time ago, but this advice will help keep many of us on track. It is very hard not to take personally. Extreme Parental Alienation is so crushing it’s almost debilitating.


  2. This is how my teen daughter would behave after coming home from her dad’s or after communicating with him on her cell phone: She was distant when she’d return from him, she had an almost disgusted look of anger on her face when she’d look at me. One evening there was a tornado warning. It turned out it only knocked a tree down on our deck and scattered things around the yard (but uprooted an old oak not 50 meters away). I went down to her room (my room was in an upstairs loft) and went to her closet and told her we needed to take cover, away from windows and towards center of the house (she knows the safety precautions since they taught them at school and we had gone through tornadoes before). She refused. I sat in her closet ready to forcibly pull her in if I needed to. This is just one instance. I didn’t really know about alienation at the time except that her dad and her paternal aunt were unkind and did not speak to my mother in law, but often negatively about her when they got together, esp. with my father-in-law, who had been divorced from her many years. What I was sensing was that something different would come over her when she talked on her cell phone or was spending the night at his place. She would dress in very boyish or provocatively. Lots of eyeliner went on. She would come back with piercings she did herself. I did not have this article then. I became very upset about her gauging her ears because I knew she’d be shunned towards drug users, etc., at school. It also scared me that she was doing those things. I didn’t know what to do; I was overwhelmed. I knew her dad would not help, but I had no idea the extent of his evil schemes and how he would use this and her to destroy our relationship.


  3. Maybe a stupid question. I understand that the alienation ‘remedy’ will vary depending on the differentiation. But can I assume that this guidance is more or less applicable to all cases of dealing with alienated children, in both hybrid and pure cases? Powerful advice, yet very difficult to follow at times. Thanks for continued blogging.


    1. Hi, yes treatments need to vary depending on pure or hybrid. We are also refining the hybrid category right now to better develop treatment routes that work quickly. Pure is the category which responds very quickly to removal from the alienating parent – though factors such as children’s ages and length of time they have been alienated and the position of the rejected parent will also affect that. Hybrid will respond to therapeutic assistance accompanied by restarting the parenting relationship immediately but only if it is the in the right hybrid category and so on. It is a complex process to analyse but essentially the core of the matter is that the aligned parent has to be either removed, constrained, educated and supported to stop the behaviours that cause the alienation and the rejected parent has to be good enough or capable of changing to be good enough.


  4. My son is being alienated constantly. He still goes back and forth and i am the custodial
    Parent but after being with his father he is robotic, stand-offish…but quickly rebounds. He regresses with counciling sessions, phone calls with father, etc but if he is in my custody he rebounds quickly. Is this pure form? I guess my question is do i need to push for protection from his father? My son is 13. The verbal and emotional abuse is documented and continuous. Im worried about making him worse …damned if I don’t and damned if i do …do i just let it go since my son is normalizing quickly in my custody or will I expect this to escalate if his father isn’t forced to stop???? Help.


    1. In my experience yes, you do need to seek protection if it escalates badly, you also need to be able to identify the difference between normal teenage behaviour and splitting, I will write about this shortly.


  5. I really hope that Karen will write about this for you diamondbird342.

    I recognise my situation in what you wrote (above) but for me it started in 1996 while I was still with her dad. I didn’t even know about PA/splitting back then, all I knew was that he was ‘excluding me’. She was always (in the beginning) different when her dad wasn’t around/in the room, but she changed completely when he entered stage right. His verbal and emotional abuse was always present though mostly it was low level when she was around. I defended myself, argued with him, tried to get him to see it wasn’t right but he went right on doing it. As an adult she ‘tried’ to apologise to me once for an incident while we were all on holiday in our caravan and she did what he always did, yelled “WAIT!” at me when I asked her to breathe in so I could get past her. Months later when she ‘tried’ to apologise, he rushed right in to rant about how RUDE I was and how I deserved it because I wasn’t a nice person. The ‘apology’ died on her lips as he confirmed yet again what an awful person I was. Never again did she ever apologise.

    I hope Karen can help you to avoid what happened in my case.


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