By Luke Dalfiume, PhD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Co-Owner, John R. Day & Associates, Christian Psychological Associates
There are times in psychotherapy we work with a child whose parents are divorced. Sometimes the child has been exposed to alienating behaviors from one or both parents. This has been discussed at length by several authors. One of the first to do so was Richard Gardner, in his book The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Guide for Mental Health and Legal Professionals. Gardner spoke of a pattern of behaviors from one parent toward the other parent in the child’s presence designed intentionally or, most often, unintentionally, to turn the child against the other parent. The following are the behaviors of Parental Alienation Syndrome identified by Gardner:
- A campaign of denigration. The alienating parent frequently puts the other parent down in the child’s presence.
- Weak, frivolous, and absurd rationalizations for the deprecation. The parent has no, or limited, basis for putting the other parent down, but does so anyway. This is not to say they have no reason for feeling angry with the other parent, but rather that the other parent becomes “the root of all evil,” with many negative things associated with them.
- The child has no ambivalence—one parent is clearly all good, and the other parent is clearly all bad.
- The “independent thinker” phenomenon. The child believes their perceptions of the alienated parent are all their own. They are not aware of the impact of the “good” parents alienating behaviors.
- The child reflexively supports the alienating parent in the parental conflict, assuming all the alienating parent says to be true.
- The child has no sense of guilt over cruelty toward and/or exploitation of the alienated parent. The child has been exposed to such a coarsening environment they have come to believe that overt hostility toward the other parent is acceptable.
- The child has borrowed scenarios from the alienating parent about the alienated parent. A common one is, “They cared so little about me, they wanted to abort me.”
- The animosity the child has is not limited to the alienated parent, but extends to the family of the alienated parent (e.g., the child’s grandparents).
Linda Gottlieb, in her book The Parental Alienation Syndrome, identified some additional features:
- Transitional difficulty from the alienator’s home to the alienated parent’s home. Some transitional difficulty is to be expected, but when a child has been alienated, the transitions are exceptionally difficult, and they tend not to get better with time.
- Emotional enmeshment. The child does not appear to be able to think in an age-appropriate independent way from the alienating parent.
When alienation has happened, recovery is possible. Frequently, however, the alienating parent is either unaware of what they have done or aware and unwilling on their own to facilitate improvement of the relationship with the other parent. Many of the cases my practice is involved with are court-ordered. To be effective, the therapist has to avoid taking sides and be involved in treatment with the alienating parent, the alienated parent, and the child, at points doing family therapy to facilitate healing in the child’s relationships with both parents.
For more information or to book an appointment, contact John R. Day & Associates, Christian Psychological Associates, located at 3716 West Brighton Ave., Peoria—phone 309-692-7755 or 102 North Main St., Bloomington—phone 309-692-7755. Visit us online at www.christianpsychological.org.