Parental Alienation (PA) is an empirically documented phenomenon often associated with familial situations that involve divorce or separation. While the suite of behaviors is recognized by a number of state-level social service and legal organizations as a form of child abuse, it’s important to differentiate it from the Syndrome (PAS), which has not been validated by the professional psychological community. In the former, manipulation of the child by a parent is the root. However, the latter stipulates that the child initiates a strained or disrespectful dynamic. In the article below, we’ll outline five of the major symptoms of PA in order to provide greater context for identification and understanding of the phenomenon.
1. Manipulation of Imitative Learning
Parental Alienation is often misconstrued as a suite of behaviors or ideologies initiated by a child. Hence, the popularity of PAS among certain circles as an explanation for the patterns exhibited. However, because of the way human children learn social behaviors—by imitation—they are highly susceptible to manipulation by an abusive or psychologically imbalanced parent. This is especially true during stressful life events involving the divorce or conflict between parents. The parent with active custody or the party seeking control will use the child’s reliance upon them to instill attitudes of disdain or disrespect towards the other parent or guardian.
2. Developed Co-Dependence with Alienating Parent
Because the alienating caregiver will often be emotional fragile and feel a need to control the child, the child will usually develop a highly sensitive awareness and responsiveness to that parent’s needs or wishes. This will manifest in several ways. First, they will consider those needs above those of anyone else—including themselves or their other parent and siblings. They will speak and act protectively of their emotionally abusive parent. Additionally, they will adopt that parent’s attitudes and ideological patterns pertaining to the non-custodian parent.
3. Assumption of Responsibility and Guilt
In a therapy setting, warning signs that the child has yielded to the pressures of PA manifest in expressions guilt over the divorce itself. They will often take responsibility for the complex emotional dynamics between their parents, while exhibiting a fierce loyalty to the manipulative party. Children’s language patterns will also skew towards the first-person plural, indicating a bond with the party that may resemble a caregiver or partner rather than a dependent child. This bond assumes the tenor and lexicon used by the manipulative parent. Whatever emotional grievances they have with their former partner, the child will adopt—broken promises, lack of honesty or integrity or cowardice. This is encouraged by the manipulative party and functions as a part of the abusive co-dependence they foster.
4. Stark Moral Dynamic
Once a child has yielded to this abuse, they will display a rigid moral attitude. The abusive parent is often characterized as pure or incapable of wrong behavior. Concomitantly, the alienated parent will never be viewed as correct, nurturing, loving, or capable. This dichotomy effectively compounds over time, and the child associates any behavior exhibited by the manipulative parent as positive, which impacts all future relationships. As well, they are more likely to imitate those behaviors as adults or seek to recreate the unhealthy and co-dependent dynamic with a partner.
5. Isolation from Outside Support
A hallmark of all domestic emotional abuse is the methodical isolation of the victim. In this case, the unstable parent teaches the child that anything associated with the alienated parent is undesirable. This includes siblings, extended family, long-term friends or familiar coworkers and neighbors. Because the child learns that appropriate language and supportive behavior for the abusive parent is the condition of acceptance, they often claim that it is their desire to cut ties with these supportive parties, which ensnares them more firmly in the cycle of abuse.
It’s important that social workers, caregivers, and legal actors recognize these symptoms as a form of parental emotional abuse. Rather than placing the impetus for the alienating speech or behaviors upon the child, therapists must examine the care-giving parent. They must carefully evaluate the legitimacy of their claims, which often cite non-existent abuse or failings of the other parent. A clearer understanding and broader acceptance of Parental Alienation would prevent the loss of time and resources alienated parties spend fighting for their children in court and forestall the psychological damage done to children.