I suggest that Parental Alienation is one of the most serious forms of child abuse yet goes largely un-recognised in Australia as a form of abuse. As far as I can tell, this process by which a loving bond between parent and child is ruptured by another (supposedly loving) parent is under-researched and under-reported. It can also be fatal to children because sometimes in extreme cases, the alienating parent will kill their child to hurt their ex-partner.
It can cause serious emotional issues for children who grow up without a significant parent in their lives, a parent who has been demonised for them by the other parent and who they demonise because their relationship with the alienating parent depends upon making the other, alienating parent a demon. There is often no justification for this so false accusations are sometimes used to create fabricated grounds to reject a ‘good enough’ parent.
Insufficient research has been done in Australia to define parental alienation and to identify its effects on children.
In Australia, alignment and alienation are sometimes confused with one another. Parents who seek to destroy the loving bond between a child and the other parent need professional help because they are so focused on their ex-partner they do not take into account the developmental needs of their children. Legal processes do not readily identify this process and often mistakenly believe that it is in the best interest of the child to lose one parent from their lives rather than deal with the conflict which leads to this situation.
Legal and allied social/family services inadvertently collude with this abuse by refusing to intervene or by making such interventions emotionally and practically prohibitive. They end up validating the behaviour of the alienating parent rather than recognising that alienation is more harmful to children than any relationship conflict.
Parental alienation can be very subtle. It can take the form of:
1. Fabricated disputes over shared care. Unfortunately, this is all too common. Such disputes can take the form of arguments over locations and times, children’s property (‘you can’t take little Jonnies/Susies bicycle because I paid for it’) and money. Although such disputes seem trivial they can have a cumulative effect because they force children to live in an environment of chronic conflict. Such children can become extremely and chronically anxious.
2. Subtle or direct denigration of the other parent. The child is then forced to defend, maintain neutrality, or support the alienating parent. Usually, only the latter is acceptable to the alienating parent.
3. Creating a loyalty conflict for the alienated child by demanding, their loyalty and allegiance at the expense of spending time with or acknowledging the other parent. This creates an ‘either-or’ forced choice for the child rather than more beneficial ‘both-and’. Children in such a circumstance can be very distressed when they are with the alienated parent because they are forced to be false with them.
4. Emotionally manipulating the child to care for one parent at the expense of the other. This can take the form of inducing a sense of obligation in the child that the parent they are staying with requires their care and ‘can’t live without them’. When a child forms the obligation, they must care for a parent this abusive process is called ‘parentification’. It can be very harmful because the child is forced to act adult-like to care for a ‘child-parent’ who should be caring for their child’s developmental needs instead of the child caring for their own..
5. Exaggerating or over embellishing the sense of blame for one parent (the alienated parent) that a child may have for the breakup of their parents relationship.
6. Actively engaging in forcing a child to believe false accusations or lies about the other parents behaviour. Sometimes this takes the form of the child repeating these accusations to the alienated parent but without any evidence to substantiate them. Even so, the child may hold these to be self-evident truths. ‘Your mother/father is not paying child support’ is a common choice. This behaviour is extreme, and is a form of brainwashing. It is especially devastating to the alienated parent because of entrenched presumptions of guilt in family law and because the facts are inadequate against false beliefs.
7. One parent may use administrative, legal, financial abuse, and even physical abuse (by attempting to provoke a physical interaction with the other parent in front of the child). This forces the alienated parent to withdraw from their relationship with the child for fear that ongoing conflict will be more damaging than their attempts to keep a relationship going, or because they can no longer afford to fight the other parent. This sort of behaviour places the alienated parent in an impossible situation, where they inadvertently cause harm, no matter what they do, either as an active agent or a passive one. Similarly, their child from whom they are alienated may be torn apart by their internal conflict at being unable to abandon either parent yet forced to choose one or over the other.