Divorce is hard. It is emotionally and physically draining for all people involved, including children. When a divorce becomes a high conflict, children are caught in the crossfire and are treated as “prizes” to be won. Parents start pressuring their children knowingly and/or unknowingly to choose sides. These behaviors can escalate to “alienation”. Alienation is defined as a parent teaching their children to reject the other parent using fear (Templer, 2). Due to limited research, professionals often mistake alienation for estrangement. This misdiagnosis can have devastating effects on a family.
One misconception about alienation is that the alienated parent is responsible for being rejected by their child, whereas the alienating parent is considered to have little to no part in why their child is rejecting the alienated parent. Discerning whether a parent has been alienated or estranged requires specialized skills and knowledge. Unfortunately, many professionals who are assigned to such cases often have little to no training in this area.
Misconceptions about alienation prevent families from getting the help they need and can even have legal ramifications. Here are some examples of harmful misconceptions:
It is generally believed that if a child does not want to be with their parent it means they have done something to deserve it. However, the reason could be that the alienating parent programmed the child.
It is generally believed that the child would not align with the abusive alienating parent. However, children are vulnerable to manipulation. The targeted parent often tries to enforce appropriate discipline and fill the hole left by the alienating parent. In so doing, the targeted parent is looked at harshly and viewed as not respecting their child’s wishes and feelings.
Enmeshment (blurred boundaries between two individuals) can be confused with healthy bonding. When children feel that they are not recipients of unconditional love they can be manipulated into doing what the alienating parents desires.
Professionals who have these or other misconceptions may come to the conclusion that the alienating parent is stable, whereas the targeted parent is not; this instability, real or perceived, is often the result of depression, anxiety, and anger that’s developed from the trauma of being alienated. Another example is if the targeted parent is falsely accused of abusing their child; the parent may exhibit instability due to the fear being jailed, losing their children, or financial pressure. The unfortunate reality is that even strong, emotionally stable individuals may become anxious, depressed, and angry when under the pressures of alienation.
Mental health professionals play a critical role in high conflict divorce cases and have the power to make things much worse or better. Given the high stakes, families are encouraged to carefully select a professional with the proper skills and training.
Carol is a therapist at the American Fork Center for Couples and Families. She is a licensed associate marriage and family therapist.