Dr. Childress likens the Parental Alienation dynamic to a puppet show where the audience invariably addresses the puppet, without even noticing the puppet-master who is pulling the strings. Friends and family members, even well-educated mental health and legal professionals take the child’s claims at face value, and remain ignorant to the psychological damage that is really taking place.
Of course, there is much more to the psychology of Parental Alienation than what I have attempted to describe here. I encourage you to do your own reading. See recommended resources below.
Why alienating parents alienate
Most alienating parents have traits of borderline/narcissistic personality disorder–traits which likely originate from their own traumatic childhood. As a result, alienating parents regard people with whom they are close as “love objects” that belong to them, and to them alone. They are emotionally insecure about relationships in general, and they are driven by overwhelming fears of rejection and abandonment.
As their adult love relationship falls apart, alienating parents cling to their children in unhealthy ways. They do everything they can to ensure that their remaining “love objects” (the children) will not betray them by having affections for the rejected, “targeted” parent.
Alienating parents also engage in black-and-white thinking. They see themselves as a victim, and they see their ex-spouse as their persecutor. They see themselves as the all-good parent, and they see their ex-spouse as being all-bad. They convincingly portray these false images to the children, to friends and family members, and even to mental health and legal professionals. Alienating parents are believed, and seldom questioned, because of the passion and earnestness with which they tell their lies and distortions. They are able to hide their distorted thinking from the outside world, and present themselves as confident and caring parents, because it is only in the context of intimate relationships, where their fears of rejection and abandonment are triggered, that the abnormal behaviors and distorted thinking become manifest. This is part of what makes Parental Alienation so difficult to recognize and treat.
Alienating parents are unable to “share” the affections of their children after a divorce. They are highly motivated to erase the targeted parent from the children’s lives, and they are relentless in their efforts to do so.
Why children reject the targeted parent
In Parental Alienation 101, I described some of the tactics utilized by alienating parents to destroy the targeted parent’s relationships with the children. But why do these tactics work? Aren’t children smarter than that?
Dr. Craig Childress, a licensed clinical child psychologist, describes an experiment performed in the 1980’s. Researchers took baby rhesus monkeys and put them in a cage. The researchers then placed a rubber snake into the cage. The baby monkeys showed absolutely no fear. They had never seen a snake before and had no reason to fear it. The researchers then placed the baby monkeys into a cage with their mother. This time, when the snake was introduced, the mother reacted wildly, showing tremendous fear. The baby monkey mimicked the mother’s behavior almost immediately. From then on, whether the mother was present or not, the babies showed the same fear response to the snake.
Dr. Childress then goes on to describe how humans are likewise programmed to feel the emotions of others. There are actually neurons in our brain called “mirror neurons” that have this purpose. Dr. Childress writes:
The mirror neuron system allows us to feel what other people feel as if we were having the experience ourselves. It is this “psychological connection” system that allows us to feel what the actors feel when we watch a movie. We feel their sadness, their joy, their terror, as if we were having the experience ourselves, using our own emotional system to feel the experience of the actors.
Yet, when we are watching a movie we never lose awareness that what is happening on the screen is not actually happening to us, even if it feels that way. It is exactly this distinction that is lost in the Parental Alienation dynamic. The emotions of the alienating parent are not only felt by the child, they become reality for the child. If the alienating parent expresses anger or fear, the child does not just empathize with the alienating parent; she internalizes the anger or fear, and makes it her own. The child is taught to never think for herself. It is very much like being in a cult.
This unhealthy, interconnected emotional state is further reinforced by frequent cues from the alienating parent. Sometimes the cues are obvious (e.g. a fear response), and sometimes the cues are subtler. Again Dr. Childress writes:
For example, say the child returns from a visitation with the other parent and is asked about the visit by the [alienating] parent. If the child responds with a positive report, such as “I had a great time,” the [alienating] parent responds with a sad dejected state… Conversely, if the child reports a negative experience with the other parent, which would be consistent with what the [alienating] parent desires, such as “it was awful, I didn’t like it,” the [alienating] parent responds with nurturing support, “Oh, I’m so sorry sweetie. I know how hard the other parent can be to get along with. You poor thing.” [This] forms a joint psychological experience with the child, and results in a burst of positive brain chemicals that feel good. “I belong, I’m accepted, I’m understood.”
The child finds herself in an impossible situation. She still loves the targeted parent, but the negative psychological consequences from the alienating, “favored” parent are even more powerful. She fears being rejected and emotionally banished just as the targeted parent has been rejected. And so, the child enmeshes herself with the favored parent. It’s a matter of self-preservation. It’s a form of trauma bonding. It’s similar to the way a kidnap victim bonds with her kidnappers–i.e. Stockholm Syndrome.
Attachment-Based-Model-Parental-Alienation-Foundations, Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Divorce Poison, Dr. Richard Warshak
Co-parenting With a Toxic Ex, Dr. Amy JL Baker