Parental alienation occurs where one parent refuses to allow the other parent to see, visit or interact with their children.
Much pain and sorrow exists on Mother’s or Father’s Day for those parents whose children have become alienated from them – often through a high conflict divorce. Parental alienation happens when attachment is broken between a parent and child through the methodical efforts of the other, high-conflict parent. The child becomes enmeshed with one parent and rejects the other through manipulation and without justifiable reason. According to psychiatrist, Dr. William Bernet, professor emeritus of Vanderbilt University and a researcher into the phenomenon, “Almost every mental health professional who works with children of divorced parents acknowledges that parental alienation—as we define it—affects thousands of families and causes enormous pain and hardship.” (Parental Alienation, AACAP News, Sept 2013, pp. 255-256.)
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There are criteria that Bernet and others refer to in diagnosing parental alienation, including a child’s lack of guilt over abuse of the targeted parent, ambivalence from the child and animosity towards the extended family and friends of the targeted parent. In the child’s alternate reality, the parent has been made into a monster.
Some of the strategies employed by the alienating parent can include poisonous messages about the targeted parent, undermining the targeted parent’s authority and encouraging the child to betray the trust of the targeted parent. This leaves a bewildering reality for the targeted parent and is heartbreaking. These toxic tactics can and do succeed. The child can be incredibly nasty and vicious towards the targeted parent – a nightmare for a parent who would give their life for their child. The picture the child paints of the parent in their mind justifies their actions and lack of remorse.
An American Story
Justice Murray Blok wrote in his case analysis: “A.J. professes to have X’s best interests at heart, but his actions seem entirely at odds with his words. I therefore find that X is an alienated child and that he has been alienated from his mother by the words, actions and behaviour of his father.” Some of these included bad-mouthing his ex-wife to the children, asking them to spy and suggesting that she didn’t love them. The campaign was assisted by A.J.’s mother who fueled the parental alienation further.
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Estrangement occurs for good reason and is different, but parental alienation has been described as a form of emotional abuse. After ruling that it was a case of parental alienation, X and A.J. were ordered into a family reunification program and the parents have been forbidden from making denigrating remarks about one another in front of their children or extended family.
An Australian Story of Parental Alienation
Bill was contacted 22 years later by the daughter to share her story. She said, “I had questioned why she never contacted me, or showed me love anymore, not knowing how hard she had tried for all those years. I just didn’t understand what happened and what had been going on. . . I had to lock away my happy memories of mum in a box whilst my emotions moved into a dark and lonely place. I grew up with a feeling of no identity. Not allowed to think or feel for myself. I was only encouraged to talk negatively about my mum – that she was a bad person.”
It was only after her mother had died that she began to unravel what had happened to her. Then history repeated.
The daughter grew up and had children with someone just like her father. After they had separated and moved to opposite sides of the country things went very badly and one day the children just did not come back from a visit.
Bill O’Chee says, “This is a lot more common than some would believe. There are probably thousands of children across Australia who are completely cut off from parents and grandparents because of it. Now this young woman is working to take cases of parental alienation out of the hands of lawyers and put into the hands of highly trained psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists.As she says, there are thousands of fathers and mothers who have been denied access to the children they love.”
One of the guiding principles of the family court is that children should have a relationship with both parents – in the absence of violence or neglect – recognizing that this is in the best interests of the child.
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