Programming and Brainwashing
Programming. When one parent attempts to alienate a child from the other parent, she’s essentially teaching the child to hate and fear the other parent. Hatred of the other parent is the end goal or program. It’s like installing computer software—there are directions, procedures and instructions for how to organize information. For example, the other parent is late for the scheduled child visitation pick-up. The programming parent comments, “A good parent who really loves his children would be on time.” This is a set of instruction that translates to: “Your father is a bad parent who doesn’t love you.” This is a negative interpretation of what is most likely a neutral event, but the set of directions from the offending parent don’t allow for neutral interpretations like heavy traffic, a flat tire or being held up at work.
According to Clawar and Rivlin (1991, p.7):
- The programming may be willful (conscious) or unintentional (unconscious).
- The goal is to control the child’s thoughts and/or behavior.
- The program usually contains themes intended to “damage the child’s image of the target parent in terms of his or her moral, physical, intellectual, social, emotional, and educational qualities (as well as his or her parenting abilities).”
Brainwashing. Brainwashing is how the alienating parent teaches the child the program of hate. It’s the application of the program. Brainwashing “is a process that occurs over a period of time and usually involves the repetition of the programme (content, themes, beliefs) until the subject responds with (attitudinal, behavioral) compliance” (Clawar & Rivlin, 1991, p. 8).
The alienating parent teaches the child the program via messages that include verbal and non-verbal cues and rewards and punishment. Brainwashing techniques can be used separately or in combination for a more powerful effect. The alienating parent often uses allies such as friends, family, church members, therapists and the court system to help her or him successfully alienate. Programming and brainwashing typically work in tandem. For example:
The program: You should hate your father and be as angry with him as I am.
The brainwashing techniques: Mother makes faces when child is on the phone with father, rolling eyes and grimacing. Mother asks child questions after child spends time with father and makes negative and fear-instilling statements such as, “Did he remember to feed you? Are you scared sleeping there at night? You can come home if you want to–just call me and tell your father to bring you home. You have more fun with me, don’t you? If it weren’t for me making your father take care of us, he’d spend all his money on his new wife and her kids and we wouldn’t have a roof over our heads.” Mother removes all photos of father from child’s room, computer or photo albums. Mother rewards child with special privileges, gifts or affection if child makes negative statements about the father or refuses to see the father.
The child or brainwashing victim may be either an active or passive participant. “In other words, some children are fully aware of the intent of the programming/brainwashing parent and actively participate. Others may not be aware of the desired ends of the programming and brainwashing parent and are unknowing agents and victims themselves in the process” (Clawar & Rivlin, 1991, p. 8).
Brainwashing Techniques: Isolation, the Stripping Process, Repetition, We-ness and Inferior Status
Isolation serves to keep the child from receiving information that contradicts the program. For example, friends and family members who don’t buy into the abusive parent’s program are vilified and cut out of the child’s life. There is often collateral damage when a parent chooses to alienate because the child is often denied access to grandparents, aunts, uncles and other people who love them.
The stripping process can be physical (taking away toys or privileges) or emotional (withholding love and affection). Repetition or repeating the message or program is essential in any kind of learning endeavor. Remember, the abusive parent is teaching the child to fear and hate the other parent ( and anyone who doesn’t collude with her) and disavow his or her normal and natural feelings of love for the other parent.
We-ness is a sociological term used to distinguish an in-group from an out-group. The alienating parent defines all out-group members as unacceptable. For example, It’s Mom and kids vs. the world. It’s just the three of us now. No one understands us. We have to look out for and protect each other. The targeted parent becomes the outsider from whom the children must be protected.
Inferior status involves making the child feel unfavored or less loved. “Children are keenly aware of being less favored by a parent. Lowering of status within the family can be done by exclusion, rejection, or denial of affectionate contact; it is extremely painful, and, in and of itself, may be powerful enough to bring the child in line with the parental programme” (Clawar & Rivlin, 1991, p. 4). For example, a 10-year old boy sees how his sister is rewarded with praise and gets to stay up late with mom to watch TV for rejecting their father and actively being rude to him, so the boy follows suit in order to raise his family status.