Manage Parental Alienation: React, Don’t Respond

By on December 3, 2012

Being the victim of parental alienation creates a toxic environment that can trigger intense pain and intense rage for the alienated parent, the children involved, and even the alienating parent. For the parent who has become estranged, it requires heroic amounts of self-control not to take the bait and lower oneself to the level of the perpetrator.

Each day I read messages from parents who have suffered compromised relationships with their children because of an insecure current or former spouse. For parents who have healthy relationships, this sounds off-kilter and even improbable, but parental alienation is real and does exist. Most of us feel safe in our role as a parent, and trust that our love for our children will not be questioned—yet sadly there is a community of parents who are struggling to reclaim their identity as parents, due to the deep distrust of the partner they created their children with.

What is parental alienation? The term conveys how a child’s relationship with one parent can be poisoned by the other. This can take many forms and happen under a variety of circumstances.

The American Psychiatric Association does not include the condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders because parental alienation has not been defined as a mental disorder. To quote the Huffington Post, “The bottom line – it is not a disorder within one individual,” said Dr. Darrel Regier, vice chair of the task force drafting the manual. “It’s a relationship problem – parent-child or parent-parent. Relationship problems per se are not mental disorders.”

For good parents whose children have doubted them due to the influence of the other parent, the issue is not so much how the problem is classified, but what can be done about it.

This week, I spoke with Betty Bobay—a longtime marriage and family counselor who is now a guidance counselor in the public school system—about this important topic.

“As tempting as it may be to react to accusations with a vicious phone call or letter, it only adds to the toxicity,” she says. “Taking the higher moral ground requires the self-control and maturity of the parent your best self wants for your children. REACTING comes easily to us as human beings; it’s the reptilian fight-flight part of our brain. RESPONDING requires saying no to our animal instincts and accessing instead. Our reasoning brain will help us respond with patience, tolerance and kindness.”

Instead of reacting, find positive avenues to channel your love for your children. “Many parents keep a journal of firsts: first words, first steps and other first accomplishments. A journal written by an alienated parent may one day help your child to see how invested you have been in them—which may help debunk some of the lies that have been perpetuated by the alienating parent. I’ve found that grown children love reading what parents wrote about them when they were younger. Their defenses are always down as they giggle and relish the pride the parent had in their daily antics,” says Betty.

It is the role of the alienated parent to seek to build bridges in any way they can.

The alienated parent must perfect the art of showing up, however challenging or painful that may be. The opportunities differ depending on the ages of the children–young kids have school plays and soccer games; grown kids have college graduations, new jobs, and start families of their own. The alienated parent not only needs to remain devoted, but also has to be sensitive to the best and most appropriate opportunities to show love and connect.

A few weeks ago, an alienated parent that I know offered to give his adult daughter a ride to the airport. She accepted, and this allowed for a much-needed one-on-one conversation, their first private conversation in several years.

Many people are under the impression that the older children are when parents divorce, the more likely they are to adjust to the presence of a new partner in their parent’s life. Betty has found that this is a myth: “If anything, the older they are, the more history they have of idealizing their family, and the more betrayed they feel when the dream comes crashing down around them right at the developmental age when they are starting to look for a long term partner themselves. If the parents remain friends, the children seem to adapt much more easily. But if there is an alienating parent who rewrites history and stays hostile and depressed, the children will inevitably have to take a side and unfortunately, the alienating parent’s lies are potent weapons against the former spouse.”

Ultimately, even if unfairly, much of the burden for resolving alienation falls on the children of divorce. If an adult child chooses to examine his family of origin and unravel the strands of information that have formed his perception of each parent, he’ll have the opportunity to uncover alienation if it exists. His drive to address deep, painful issues like this can be ignited by a significant event like a wedding or birth, or it can happen slowly as he begins his adult life in college or on the job. Every alienated parent hopes for this kind of unveiling—and many get their wish.

Exercise 1: Next time the alienating parent provokes you by lying to your child, write that parent a letter that expresses your most explosive and honest feelings. Don’t hold back, but also, don’t send it. This is an opportunity for you to let our your feelings safely without causing further toxicity. If you scream at the alienator, no good can come of it. If you bottle up your emotions, they’ll seep out and upset your friends and family. Another side effect: your mental and physical health is compromised when you hold on to anger and stress. Better to write out your thoughts than to take them out on your loved ones who tip-toe around you as you burn with anger.

Exercise 2: If you have young children that are being unduly influenced to distrust you, commit to showing your face whenever possible. Keep a calendar of their activities and whereabouts: school events; parent-teacher conferences; play dates (even if you aren’t the organizer and aren’t attending); extra-curricular events; doctor appointments; birthday parties; school breaks and trips. Know when report cards come out, and when volunteers are needed at school. Familiarize yourself with their friends and their friends’ families. Get a handle on your children’s lives even when they aren’t living with you so that you can (a) show up whenever it is appropriate (you always belong at school events, for example, but crashing a kid’s birthday party at a private residence–not so much) and (b) so that you are completely fluent in your children’s lifestyles and are able to discuss all aspects of their life with them. Being an expert on your children helps establish trust and credibility that sometimes even the alienator can’t ignore. I’ve seen this approach be successful in breaking through.