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Parental Alienation is Emotional Abuse of Children
Amy J.L. Baker
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Amy Baker is the author of Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties That Bind, W.W. Norton, April 2007. This article was written for EQI.org. Her website is AmyBaker.com

Parental alienation is a set of strategies that parents use to undermine and interfere with a child's relationship with his or her other parent. This often but not always happens when parents are engaged in a custody battle over the children. There is no one definitive set of behaviors that constitute parental alienation but research with both parents and children has revealed a core set of alienation strategies, including

- Bad-mouthing the other parent

- Limiting contact with that parent

- Erasing the other parent from the life and mind of the child (forbidding discussion and pictures of the other parent)

- Forcing child to reject the other parent

- Creating the impression that the other parent is dangerous

- Forcing the child to choose

- Belittling and limiting contact with the extended family of the targeted parent.

Parents who try to alienate their child from his or her other parent convey a three-part message to the child:

1. I am the only parent who loves you and you need me to feel good about yourself

2. The other parent is dangerous and unavailable

3. Pursuing a relationship with that parent jeopardizes your relationship with me.

Children who succumb to the pressure and ally themselves with one parent against the other often exhibit a set of behaviors that have become known as parental alienation syndrome. These include:

1. The first manifestation is a campaign of denigration against the targeted parent. The child becomes obsessed with hatred of the targeted parent (in the absence of actual abuse or neglect that would explain such negative attitudes).

2. Weak, frivolous, and absurd rationalizations for the depreciation of the targeted parent. The objections made in the campaign of denigration are often not of the magnitude that would lead a child to hate a parent, such as slurping soup or serving spicy food.

3. Lack of ambivalence about the alienating parent. The child expresses no ambivalence about the alienating parent, demonstrating an automatic, reflexive, idealized support of him or her.

4. The child strongly asserts that the decision to reject the other parent is her own. This is what is known as the "Independent Thinker" phenomenon.

5. Absence of guilt about the treatment of the targeted parent. Alienated children will make statements such as, "He doesn't deserve to see me."

6. Reflexive support for the alienating parent in the parental conflict. There is no willingness or attempt to be impartial when faced with inter-parental conflicts.

7. Use of borrowed scenarios. These children often make accusations towards the targeted parent that utilize phrases and ideas adopted wholesale from the alienating parent.

8. The hatred of the targeted parent spreads to his or her extended family. Not only is the targeted parent denigrated, despised, and avoided but so too are his/her entire family. Formerly beloved grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins are suddenly avoided and rejected.

Discussion with "adult children" of parental alienation syndrome (that is, adults who believe that when they were children one parent turned them against the other parent) highlights the way that parent alienation represents a form of emotional abuse. Although several definitions of emotional abuse exist, a widely accepted one was developed by Hamarman and Bernet (2000) based on earlier work by Garbarino, Guttmann, and Seeley (1986), and it includes 7 behaviors:

- rejecting

- ignoring

- isolating

- corrupting/exploiting

- terrorizing

- verbally assaulting

- over-pressuring

This definition provides a useful framework for understanding the experiences of the adult children of parental alienation syndrome. In explaining how the alienating parent was able to turn them against the targeted parent, they described many of these emotionally abusive behaviors. Additionally, these described 7 additional behaviors that could be considered emotional abuse as it pertains to parental alienation:

- sharing personal details about adult relationships with children

- making children feel responsible for adult problems and well-being

- exposing children to use of alcohol and drugs

- threatening abandonment

- exposing children to domestic violence

- making children feel that the other parent does not love him/her

- making children feel that the other parent is unworthy of their love.

Discussions with the adult children also revealed that they believed that the experience of parental alienation was associated with several different negative long-term effects including depression, drug abuse, divorce, low self-esteem, problems with trusting, and alienation from their own children when they became parents themselves. In this way the cycle of parental alienation was carried forward through the generations.

Few of the people interviewed were aware that there was a name for what they experienced and it seems that the parent that they became alienated from was not always aware of the cause of their losing contact with their child.

Clearly, the best way to prevent this from continuing to harm children and parents is through greater awareness that it is possible for a child to suddenly reject a parent with whom he or she had a loving and closing relationship. Children who are feeling a strong need to choose sides in parental conflicts should seek help from a neutral adult as soon as possible and parents who believe that they are being targeted for alienation should seek mental health and legal assistance..