Parental Alienation: What You Need To Know (Part 2)
An Interview With Parenting Expert And Coach, Christina McGhee
In part 1 of our Interview with internationally recognized divorce coach, parenting expert, speaker, author and divorceify professional,Christina McGhee, we focused on what alienation is and how to identify it. In part 2 we delve into proactive steps you can take and mechanisms you can implement to combat an alienating parent and repair your relationship with your child.
Sonia Queralt: In part 1 of our conversation, we talked about parental alienation, what it is and how parents can recognize it. In this segment, I’d like to build on that and hear what advice you have for parents who are dealing with this toxic problem. One of the things you said previously, is that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” If you are a parent who is seeing signs that your co-parent is attempting to influence your child negatively, maybe they’re bad-mouthing, telling children things that aren’t true or interfering with your parenting time, what are some preventative steps parents should be taking?
Christina McGhee: As I mentioned before, one of the most important things a parent can do when facing this type of situation is to be proactive. While I wouldn’t suggest parents automatically assume alienation is going on, if your child doesn’t want to see you, don’t dismiss it. If you’re seeing some of the signs we talked about before or you suspect the other parent might be trying to turn your children against you, take action sooner rather than later. Get educated about parental alienation and get connected to some form of support.
There are a lot of really good books about the dynamics of alienation and how to deal with a hostile aggressive parent. Some of the best are:
- Richard Warshak’s Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing
- Amy J L Baker’s books Co-parenting with a Toxic Ex: What to Do When Your Ex-Spouse Tries to Turn the Kids Against You or The High-Conflict Custody Battle: Protect Yourself and Your Kids from a Toxic Divorce, False Accusations, and Parental Alienation.
- Richard developed a DVD program called Welcome Back Pluto: Understanding, Preventing and Overcoming Parent Alienation which explains what alienation is, how to recognize it and what to do about it for older children (and their parents).
- Amy authored a book for children between the ages of 6-12 years old called Getting Through My Parents’ Divorce: A Workbook for Children Coping with Divorce, Parental Alienation, and Loyalty Conflicts.
Those are just a few options, there are certainly others. The critical point I want parents to hear is… you absolutely need to be informed. It’s very hard to protect yourself or your kids from something you don’t understand.
It’s important to remember that the dynamics surrounding alienation are incredibly complicated and emotionally exhausting. To be effective at combating this situation, you need to have a good support system in place for yourself. I can’t stress enough how beneficial it is to connect with people who understand what you’re going through and to have access to objective feedback. For some, support might involve finding an experienced coach or therapist who can help you learn how to stay connected to your kids and not make it worse. Others might find being involved with a local support group really helpful or engaging with an online forum that is focused on countering alienation and getting feedback from other parents who have dealt with similar circumstances.
Combating alienation is a marathon, not a sprint and if you want to go the distance you need to make sure you don’t burn out.
Queralt: In addition to getting access to good information and support, are there other things parents need to be thinking about?
McGhee: Absolutely. When you’re dealing with a highly conflictual co-parent or alienation is occurring, it’s essential to stay focused on not making things worse. Sadly, there are lots of parents in these types of situations who unintentionally dig a much deeper hole for themselves and don’t realize it until it’s too late.
For example, when a child says they don’t want to spend time with you and resists contact, lots of parents make the mistake of giving their child space. They think if they respect their child’s wishes and stop having contact with them for a period of time that eventually their child will come back to them. Unfortunately that almost never happens.
When alienation is present, you’ve got to do everything you can to stay connected to your children using any reasonable means necessary. If your child doesn’t want to be in your home overnight or for the weekend, then approach them about spending an afternoon together or going to have dinner.
Depending on the dynamics, you could also consider going to their school and having lunch with them. The focus should be on making meaningful connections. Keep it light and stress-free. Parents can also stay connected by sending kids texts, emails, cards or a good old-fashioned letter. You want to do whatever you can to get your foot in the door and then build from there. The goal is to find ways to reinforce for your kids that you love them, they’re important to you and you’re thinking of them. Even if they don’t respond back, keep reaching out.
Which raises another critical point, don’t take the rejection personally. And that is really hard to do, especially when your child is giving you every reason to believe you no longer matter to them or the other parent is doing everything they can to interfere with your relationship.
When your kids are being disrespectful, you got to have a thick skin and continually remind yourself that they are under a tremendous amount of stress to reject you, to take a side. Alienating parents demand absolute allegiance from children. The mentality of alienating parents is “you’re either for me or against me.” When the alienating parent is a child’s primary parent, it can make it extremely difficult for children to gain the emotional distance or mindset to resist that kind of pressure. Remember parental alienation is a lot like brainwashing and you continuing to show up and love your kids no matter what, is their only hope.
And in order to be there for your kids, you need to have hope too. That unwavering hope and love is sometimes the only thing that keeps parents going when times get tough.
Queralt: Do you see parental alienation occur more often with certain personality types in children or specific age groups?
McGhee: Based on my experience, the dynamics of the situation and a child’s sense of self are more of a factor than their age. Some children, regardless of how old they are, just have a stronger sense of self than others. Basically they are able to think for themselves and form their own opinions. You might refer to it as self-esteem, resilience or personality. Kids who feel good about themselves are typically more capable of resisting alienation.
For kids that are more vulnerable to that pressure, over time it erodes their critical thinking skills.
As I mentioned earlier, similar to brainwashing kids become pressured by the alienating parent to think in terms of black and white. They see one parent as all good and the other as all bad. They become unable to process more than one reality.
The author I mentioned earlier, Amy Baker, has done a considerable amount of research in this area. She interviewed children that had been alienated and also talked with target parents. What she discovered was that alienators only used three very simple key messages to indoctrinate kids. They involve convincing children that the target parent is: Not safe, Not loving and Not available.
Queralt: Can you give some examples of how an alienating parent might send these messages to their children?
McGhee: Alienating parents have some very subtle and insidious ways of instilling those ideas into children’s minds.
For example, a parent might create a sense of doubt before children leave to spend time with the other parent by saying things like… “You’re not scared, are you? I mean, if you feel nervous or you are worried about being with mom/dad, you can just call me. If you get homesick or it’s just too scary over there, I’ll come get you.”
They also tend to overshadow children’s time in the other household with excessive phone calls and texts. They will insist on having unrestricted access and call incessantly until they speak to the children. They also often insist that kids stay on the phone with them for long periods of time. The goal is to make sure children understand having a good time when they’re with the other parent is not okay.
Alienators frequently interfere with contact. They’ll show up late or when a parent comes to pick up the child, they won’t be there. They’ll create no-win situations for the other parent by scheduling events for children during the other parent’s time. For example, an alienating parent might accept an invitation to a birthday party for a child, knowing that the child will of course want to attend. They set the other parent up to be the bad guy by saying something like…”Well, you need to let your dad know you want to stay here this weekend and go to Brittany’s birthday party. And if he really cares about you, he won’t say no” or “ I can’t believe Mom is going to make you spend Spring Break at her house instead of letting you go to Disneyland with us.” The subtle message is the other parent doesn’t really love you.
Queralt: That can be incredibly confusing for a child.
McGhee: Definitely, basically the alienating parent is building a case against the other parent that ultimately puts children in a position of believing that parent is unworthy of their love. There is absolutely no space whatsoever for a child to love both parents. In order to have the approval and love of the alienating parent they must reject everything about the target parent.
To further the rift, alienating parents will also distort facts to make the target parent look bad or untrustworthy. Children may say things like… “You don’t really care about us. If you did you wouldn’t be taking away our home.”
When this happens it’s critical that parents don’t try to set the record straight with kids or try to convince them that the alienator is wrong. Instead offer them an alternate perception of reality and validate their feelings. You might say something like… “Wow it must be really upsetting to think about leaving the only home you’ve ever known. I know Mom is angry about selling the house and I don’t agree with what she’s told you. I have a different perspective.”
Queralt: That’s a really powerful approach to a very challenging dynamic. What role does parental alienation play in court? Is it something that is often identified by judges and family court professionals?
McGhee: How and when alienation is identified and addressed really depends on several factors. It varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Even through alienation has been around for a very long time, it’s still incredibly controversial.
There are some court systems that will absolutely not recognize it and other court systems that openly embrace it. However, even when you have a situation where the court may be sympathetic, it can be so difficult to maneuver the legal system when you’re a target parent. Alienators are really good at using the system to their advantage.
For example, it’s very common for alienating parents to accuse the target parent of abuse.
So think about that… if you want to stop a parent from having contact with a child, what better way than to file an order with the court saying that your child is in danger. Because family courts are committed to the best interest of children, contact stops immediately until a comprehensive investigation can be done.
To make matters worse… these kids are so enmeshed with the alienating parent that many will actually testify against the target parent to back up the alienating parent’s accusations.
Remember to combat alienation, the target parent and the child need to be having consistent regular contact. Without it kids often get pulled in deeper.
Queralt: When parents and the court start these investigations and bring in outside agencies, that can become a lot for a child to handle. That creates another challenge for the child to navigate.
McGhee: Absolutely, and that also presents another catch. When the target parent realizes what’s going on, they often feel a sense of urgency to get their child into therapy or to get a professional evaluation. They make the mistake of thinking a professional will be able to set things right, see the truth and fix the situation. But not all professionals are experienced in dealing with parental alienation and many get indoctrinated just like kids.
Unfortunately involving professionals can sometimes backfire. One of two things often happens, either the alienating parent coaches the child on what they should say to build their case against the target parent or the alienating parent interferes with the process by insisting the child doesn’t have to participate. Either way, instead of children getting the help they need, they’re put in more of a bind.
It’s really, really tricky. I worked with a mom once who had three sons. Early on, Dad convinced their oldest son that mom was a horrible mother. As a result, her oldest son became really defiant and eventually insisted on moving in with dad. The mom allowed him to move because ultimately, she thought it would be the best thing for him and hoped that over time things would get better.
However, once her son moved, the alienation got worse. He wouldn’t have any contact with her, he didn’t answer her phone calls and when she did see him he was extremely disrespectful. As her two younger children got older, both Dad and her teenage son started trying to influence them. Eventually she ended up going to court and requesting a parent evaluation. Sadly, things went pear-shaped really quickly. In the end, Dad was awarded custody of the two younger boys. Turns out he was able to convince the parenting evaluator that mom wasn’t the best parent for the boys.
Queralt: That’s incredibly painful. It seems that the healing process and rebuilding the relationship between the target parent and the child is something that would take a significant amount of time and dedication.
McGhee: Well, it can, but again, it really depends on a number of factors. When target parents can get support and information in the early stages, it can make a big difference. They not only avoid making the situation worse but they can also learn to be proactive and repair the damage before things become toxic.
Queralt: Let’s review some of the key points in proactively addressing a parental alienation situation.
- Get Support. If you are seeing signs that concern you… don’t wait to take action. Get informed about alienation and get support. Alienation is extremely complicated and emotionally exhausting, to be there for your kids you need to understand what you’re facing and have a tribe to support you.
- Stay Connected. Do whatever you can to stay connected to your children. If your child is resisting contact, work on getting your foot in the door. Find ways to let them know that you love them and they have a place in your life. Be creative, send emails or texts, use snail mail or consider having a social media page so they can stalk you if they want.
- Validate Feelings And Offer A New Perception. Whenever possible, offer your children an alternate perception of reality. If they confront you with untruths or accusations, instead of trying to defend yourself validate their feelings… “I’m really sorry you had to hear that, I don’t agree with what Dad told you, sounds like he is really angry with me.”
- Choose The Right Professionals. Use discretion when seeking professional help for your kids or yourself. Make sure you engage people who have experience dealing with alienation and understand the dynamics. That includes lawyers, counselors, evaluators, therapist or parenting coordinators.
Queralt: This is such a big topic. I feel like we have just scratched the surface. Christina, thank you again for taking the time to share this invaluable information with us.