Psychotherapists refer to parental alienation as a conscious or unconscious action that interferes with the relationship between the child and the other parent due to an inappropriate attitude of one or both parents as their relationship is falling apart. Such behavior is also referred to as emotional abuse because it puts the child in a situation that exceeds their ability to handle it, having a destructive effect on their ties with the other parent. Limiting physical contact with one of the carers is the most frequently encountered and most visible form of alienation. Manipulating the child’s feelings, emotional blackmail, discrediting the other parent and putting them in a bad light, convincing the child that the other parent doesn’t love them – these forms of abuse are less apparent but equally destructive to the child’s psychology. Often, the parent presents themselves as the child’s friend and confidant, sharing information that prevents the child from seeing the other parent as good and caring for them.
The good parent and the bad parent
For the child, the breakup of their parents’ marriage is a trauma – an experience that cannot be handled alone. In such a situation, the child’s dominant, unconscious desire is to keep the world that they have known so far, in which both parents lived with them and cared about them. As the parents break up, this world falls apart. To survive under such circumstances, the child resorts to a defense mechanism known as fission. Two parallel worlds are created in the child’s mind – the good and the bad, equivalent to two parental figures. The former is the equivalent of the world of the parent, to whom the child sends only positive impulses – in the child’s experience, it is good and safe. The latter is the world of the alienated parent – bad, hostile, and rejected.
“For his own good”
Anna (42) visited a therapist to discuss the problems of her son, Kacper, 8, whose behavior has changed several months ago – he is often downcast, reluctant to play, and often finds it difficult to fall asleep. Anna declares that these problems started right after her husband moved out of the house. Most meetings, however, were not dedicated to the child’s difficulties but her stories, in which she presented herself as the harmed victim. At the same time, her husband was depicted as an incarnation of evil. During the subsequent consultations, it became increasingly clear that the patient used alienation, considering it something good for the child. She did not see that her behavior harmed the boy, distorting his relationship with his father and deepening the split in the world of his experiences. “I believe that, even though Kacper is a small boy, he should know the truth about his father. I want him to know how his father has treated me. The sooner he can see through him, the better. I will spare him the disappointment because his father will probably abandon him soon as well. Our son has refused to visit him lately. I decided I wouldn’t encourage him to do it, and I’m not really surprised. After he’s moved out, Kacper has the right to refuse to contact him.”
How do we respond?
Alienation is a form of emotional abuse of a child. Such a situation requires an experienced therapist’s intervention, sometimes also an environmental therapist or a social worker. The primary aim of the intervention is to help the child get through the experience of this internal conflict. An important aspect is the building of a safe space, in which this conflict can be revealed, and the extreme emotions towards the parents can be expressed. The child gets an opportunity to bring the split parts of their mind together only if it is possible to unblock the flow of healthy experience from the child to the rejected parent and from the parent to the child. Therefore, it is imperative to work with the alienated parent, who also becomes a therapist for the child. The parent is also involved in therapy to regain their lost place and, frequently, restore their faith in their own parenthood.
Author: Mirella Krzyżanowska
A psychotherapist, using the psychodynamic method, sociotherapist, psychosocial skills trainer. The main field of her work is the psychotherapy of adults and young people from the psychodynamic perspective. She gained professional experience by managing individual and group therapy in psychotherapeutic support centers, among other things, by managing sociotherapeutic groups based on original psychological prevention programs. She helps patients with personality disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and psychosomatic ailments. Her work is supervised regularly by certified PTP supervisors.