What is Parental Alienation and What Can You Do About It?

parental alienation

Most of us know someone who has experienced parental alienation. We’ve seen the devastating effects on both parent and child and wished we’d recognised the signs earlier and done something to prevent it. So, what is parental alienation, how and why does it happen and, most importantly, what can you do to prevent or even stop this behaviour taking hold?

What is parental alienation?

Parental alienation is a term used to describe the process of manipulating a child into holding unfavourable beliefs about their other parent. These beliefs might sound like:

  • They do not love me
  • I am not safe with them
  • Spending time with them is never fun so I don’t want to go
  • They are always mean to me

Parental alienation is a slow process and can happen both consciously and unconsciously. Many believe it begins post separation, however, the alienation process can begin at any point during a relationship, including from birth. Shockingly enough, most of us can admit to being guilty of flippant comments like ‘they never brush your hair right’ in front of our children. These statements may be innocent observations however, over time and with enough repetition, the seed of inadequacy can be planted, and the process of parental alienation begins.

Why do we do it?

There are a host of reasons why a parent might begin the alienation process (I say process because it takes commitment, consistency, and a lot of time to achieve this dubious success,which is good news as you will find out later).

One common underling cause of parental alienation is the urge to regain control. When we separate from our partner, we suddenly lose control over part of our children’s lives. When they visit their other parent, you are abruptly launched into a world where you don’t know what they’re eating, when they’re sleeping or who they’re spending time with. Your child returns home with wonderful stories of the great time they had away from you, and maybe that incites some feelings of inadequacy in you as a parent.

The other parent may come off as ‘the fun time’ parent, while you’re left feeling like the one doing all the hard yards – getting kids ready for school, doing homework, and enforcing chores. These feelings can be overwhelming and, when coupled with the desire to control the situation, can lead to parental alienation.

How do you recognise parental alienation?

Brainwashing is the most effective method of alienating a parent. Put simply, it’s the act of ‘badmouthing’ the other parent to make them look inadequate. This is normally coupled with some form of programming; essentially, picking a topic or desired outcome to stick to that the brainwashing can work towards. For example, perhaps the desired outcome is that the child fears their other parent. The brainwashing might sound like:

  • Are you scared sleeping there at night?
  • Their driving always scared me; does it scare you?

Generally, the brainwashing will start out very mildly; a comment here or there and, over time, these comments will become more overt as the child begins to agree with them. Positive reinforcement from the parent contributes to the child ‘offering up’ negative statements about the other parent.

What are the impacts?

There are various impacts to all parties when parental alienation is afoot. The most obvious and damaging is the breakdown of the relationship between parent and child. Repairing this relationship often can’t be done until the child is an adult, and sometimes even then it’s a challenge. During the process of parental alienation, a child may suffer from:

  • Anger
  • A loss of self-confidence and self esteem
  • Separation anxiety
  • Fears and phobias
  • Behavioural regression
  • Obsessive-compulsive behaviour
  • Anxiety, panic attacks and excessive feelings of guilt
  • Difficulty developing or maintaining relationships

What can you do if it’s happening to you?

If this is happening to you, it’s important to keep your child at the centre of everything you do. They are a victim too, and likely have no idea what is happening. It’s important to take prompt action as soon as you realise there is a problem. This is your best chance at successfully navigating parental alienation before it becomes entrenched and you see the negative impacts.

We strongly recommend that any parent who’s about to separate or has already, seeks either pre-separation mediation, relationship coaching or upon joint counselling with a practitioner that is aware of the impact of parental alienation. It’s important that both parents are educated about this issue and the lasting psychological damage it can inflict upon children.

If you need further support or guidance, we’re here to help.

At Joliman Lawyers, our experienced and professional family law team is committed to helping our clients solve issues like these and we handle all cases with sensitivity and care. Call us today for a complimentary appointment to discuss your situation and how we may be able to help.

Trevor Jolly

Trevor Jolly

I have a passion for all things Family Law. My wife Justine and I commenced Joliman Lawyers in 2002. I'm a Nationally Accredited Mediator and Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner. I am also a Parenting Coordinator and Conflict Coach.