Parental Alienation: What You Need To Know (Part 1).
An Interview With Parenting Expert And Coach, Christina McGhee
There are many challenges to the parent-child dynamic that arise during divorce and in its aftermath. One such dynamic is known as parental alienation syndrome or PAS, where one parent becomes rejected by the child and the other becomes favored. In this two-part interview with internationally recognized divorce coach, parenting expert, speaker, author and divorceify professional, Christina McGhee, we delve into what parental alienation means, how to identify if it is happening to you, and some practical steps to take to help address this challenge.
Sonia Queralt: Can you tell us a little bit about what you do and how you help people through the divorce process?
Christina McGhee: I am a divorce coach who works with parents in all stages of the divorcing process from the very beginning aspects to years down the road. Overall, my goal is to provide parents the support and information they need to make the best possible choices for getting their kids through this really difficult time.
For so many parents, after you get your final order, that’s when real life kicks in. While a divorce decree offers a framework, there are so many issues that come up for parents that they weren’t expecting or anticipating. Those questions and concerns parents struggle with aren’t ones that a decree can typically resolve.
And let’s face it, parenting is really tough under the best of circumstances, and when you’re trying to parent out of two homes, it definitely adds a new twist.
Queralt: One of the terms we hear consistently, and now more than ever, is “parental alienation.” There are many misconceptions around this term. So, what is parental alienation?
McGhee: Parental alienation is a dynamic that involves one parent actively pressuring or strongly influencing a child to turn against or completely reject the other parent. It typically happens when parents are going through the process of separation and divorce. However, it can also occur in situations involving parents who never lived together. Although it’s not always recognized, it can also happen in the context of bonus parenting relationships. For example, a biological parent may try to turn a kid against a bonus parent, or it’s possible that a bonus parent might advocate or strongly influence a child to reject their biological parent.
Overall, alienation occurs when a parenting influence in a child’s life manipulates reality with the ultimate goal of erasing another parent from that child’s life. Kids are placed under enormous pressure to literally choose one parent over the other. There is absolutely no space for a child to love both of their parents.
Typically when you talk about alienation, you will hear about parents who are encouraging the rejection, they are referred to as “alienators” or as the “favored” parent, while the other parent who is being rejected is referred to as the “target” parent or the “unfavored” parent.
Queralt: One of the other misconceptions is that parental alienation is extremely common and present in all divorces. Is that true and how common is it?
McGhee: I think one of the reasons it may seem more common is because it’s starting to get more attention, we’re actually talking about PAS more, and it’s slowly becoming more recognized in our family courts and family law systems.
Queralt: Can you give us some examples of parental alienation that you’ve seen through your work?
McGhee: I had a person in one of my training sessions share that they worked with a client once whose child refused to spend time with her because she made her child eat chicken. Another mom I coached said her child stopped seeing her because since she had gotten remarried, her child claimed she only had time for her new husband. Yet this Mom had a history of being a very involved parent and just a few months before had had a very loving relationship with her child.
A much more toxic case I worked on years ago involved a son who claimed he couldn’t spend time with his dad because it made him feel physically ill. However, previously when he and dad saw each other everything was fine and they really enjoyed their time together. Things changed when dad stopped complying with mom’s demands. As a result, mom put so much pressure on this child to reject his dad that he would literally become completely nauseous and have severe digestive issues that required visits to the doctor to avoid seeing his dad.
Queralt: How can people identify that a parent isn’t just being “difficult” and that in fact their behavior rises to the level of parental alienation?
McGhee: Although things are definitely better, we still have a long way to go in terms of identifying and responding appropriately. For parents dealing with a difficult divorce situation, sometimes it can be really tough to tell the difference between alienation and high-conflict because the way a high-conflict parent behaves can be very similar to how an alienating parent acts.
In determining parental alienation, it’s really more about the response of the child than the actions of the parent.
Not every child who is exposed to alienation becomes alienated and not every child who rejects a parent has been influenced by alienation.
One of the symptoms parents often talk about first is their child not wanting to spend time with them. Kids might be refusing contact, or they may resist following a structured parenting schedule.
One of the primary differences between high-conflict and parental alienation is that when a child is genuinely being alienated, the reasons that they give for not spending time with a parent or for distancing themselves aren’t justifiable. The intensity of their response doesn’t match up with the reason they give for not seeing a parent.
On the other hand, I caution parents to not jump to conclusions. Just because your child is refusing to see you doesn’t mean alienation is present. There are some situations where a child may have a completely justifiable reason for distancing themselves from a parent. When a parent has behaved badly, been verbally or emotionally abusive, invalidating, inflexible or broken promises – kids may independently make a choice to stop having contact with a parent. The critical difference between the two is the reason for the rejection makes sense given the context of the situation.
So if we go back to the child whose parent made her eat chicken, well if that child was a vegetarian it might make sense that she wouldn’t feel respected. If a teen wants to spend more time with friends (which is a normal developmental thing) and has a parent that is being inflexible about the parenting schedule, you might see some pushback from that child.
And that’s why it’s crucial when a child is pulling away to tease out… Do they have a justifiable reason for distancing themselves from you? Really take an honest look to see if you’ve done anything to contribute to what’s happening, what’s your part in the situation?
One of the critical indicators of alienation, however, is that children consistently view one parent as all good and the other parent as all bad. Kids see the targeted parent as someone who does not deserve their respect or affection, and as a result, children are incredibly disrespectful, mean and often hateful to the target parent without remorse or regret. All of this is done to maintain the love and approval of the alienating parent.
Recently, I coached a father who had a four-year-old daughter. During his separation, he and mom continued to live in the same house. Because mom felt rejected and wanted dad out of the house, she made it a habit of being incredibly rude, abusive and demeaning to him in front of the kids and she encouraged the children to do the same. What caught him off guard was how quickly his daughter’s behavior changed. He said it was like she became a different child overnight. She started trying to hit and spit at him. She would say things like, “You’re stupid, daddy. I don’t love you. You need to leave.” He was absolutely leveled by her anger and meanness, and he had no idea what to do about it.
Like in the story I just shared, alienated kids will also mimic adult concerns about the targeted parent and claim them as their own. The words or phrases they use sound like they are coming right out of the alienating parent’s mouth. Kids adopt alienating parent’s perspectives and beliefs but if confronted will absolutely insist that they can think for themselves and that the other parent is not influencing them.
Sonia Queralt: Let’s review the signs parents should pay attention to when it comes to parental alienation.
McGhee: Some common signs to look for include:
- When a child consistently relates to one parent as “all good” and the other parent as “all bad.” Kids literally cannot find any redeemable qualities about the target parent even when there is clear evidence that contradicts that belief.
- Refusing contact with the “target” parent usually for reasons that don’t make sense given the circumstances or past history with that parent.
- Children behave in a disrespectful, hateful or demeaning way towards the “target” parent with no regret or feelings of remorse.
- Kids mimic or take on the opinions or perceptions of the alienating parent as their own.
Dealing with parental alienation is incredibly challenging and it’s not a situation that gets better overnight. It takes tremendous dedication, patience, and persistence.
You’ve got to get access to good information and support as soon as possible. There are several ways target parents can unintentionally make the situation much worse for themselves if they’re not careful.
To maintain a relationship with your child you need to respond quickly, and you want to be effective. It’s definitely a situation where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
For more on this topic, check out part 2 of our interview with Christina McGhee where we discuss resources and proactive steps you can take to protect your child and yourself when parental alienation arises. We share practical tips, helpful strategies and resources for parents facing this incredibly challenging scenario.