I’ve written a fair amount on parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome (PAS) or parental alienation disorder (PAD). I’ve said before that I’m in no way qualified to give an opinion about whether the behavioral changes displayed by an alienated child fit the American Psychiatric Association’s definition of a discrete syndrome or disorder.
But what I do know is that certain parents attempt to alienate children from the other parent and that that effort can result in personality changes in the child.
Now here‘s an excellent overview of the matter that lay people like me can understand (The Colorado Lawyer, 3/1998). It’s not new, but it is educational. It’s by social worker Leona Kopetski and looks to me like a good reference for anyone interested in PAS or PAD.
Kopetski divides her article up into sections describing the psychological characteristics of the alienating parent, the alienated parent and alienation’s effects on the child both short and long term. She makes it clear that parents who alienate aren’t all of one sex any more than alienated parents are.
What is true is that parental alienation tends to be the result of a family dynamic. Briefly, alienating parents tend to be self-centered and narcissistic. Those people are used to making demands on their environment and having those demands met. When they’re not met, there’s hell to pay. Alienated parents play the same game on the same team, just a different position. Where alienators demand, the alienated accedes to those demands.
As with all such family dynamics, each parent’s behavior contributes to the dynamic and each parent’s personality type receives a perceived benefit from both its own behavior and that of the other parent. Therefore, for example,
The accommodating characteristic of the alienated parent sometimes includes a willingness to provide some justification for the alienating parent”s accusations…
[S]ome fathers of very young children have reported that they accommodated a maternal desire that they provide economic support for mother and child, emotional support for mother, and refrain from interfering with what would now be called an enmeshed mother/child unit. The marital balance was upset when either the child (because of a normal developmental push such as often occurs around age four, for example) or the father (believing that the child is now old enough to relate to someone other than the mother or responding to a change in the cultural definitions of expectations for parents) insisted on increased involvement.
When it comes to children, Kopetski readily acknowledges that divorce adversely affects children, but adds that, psychologically at least, they learn to adapt over time. But alienated children not only experience the trauma of divorce and the threat of losing a parent, they also readily see the needs of the alienating parent and strive to accomodate them. They do that because they fear losing that parent. Therefore, they display what the article calls “anxious attachments,” which Kopetski describes this way:
In a desperate attempt to maintain a relationship in the only ways possible (identification and alliance) with the parent who is, at the end of the alienation process, the only parent from a psychological and sometimes physical point of view, the child will mirror the personality and the distorted perceptions of the alienating parent. The blame for anxiety consequent to the insecurity of attachments will be externalized and attributed to the other parent.
In short, the child is placed under pressure by the alienating parent to agree with her/his criticisms of the other parent. Fearing the loss of the alienating parent, the child complies, which in turn fits perfectly with the narcisisstic personality type of the alienating parent.
Not surprisingly, the alienating family dynamic has detrimental consequences to the child both short- and long-term.
The psychological distress is a result of the malignant emotional environment. The most common symptoms in young children are unusual distress during transitions from one parent to the other, sleep disturbances, regressions in achievement of regulation of bodily functions, and failure to achieve expected levels of impulse control. In elementary school age children, disorganization, inability to attend school work with resultant lowered grades, social isolation, and moodiness are often seen.
Teenagers often emancipate prematurely from adult control, becoming defiant and rigid. Such emancipation sometimes includes school refusal, with or without the permission of the parent. Alienated children of all ages show more problems with impulse control than normal, and many children show less ability to be considerate of the feelings of others (except when they accommodate a chosen parent) than normal for the child”s age.
But, mere psychological distress is not the same as psychological damage, which comes later in the child’s life and can be exacerbated by the legal system.
In the area of development of realistic self-concept and self-esteem, alienated children can develop several kinds of problems. These children are often overvalued in ways that are detrimental and are undervalued in ways that would be helpful to them. Because their symptoms have strong emotional appeal and thus become a valuable part of the legal evidence, they become the object of intense, nurturing attention, often under the guise of empathizing with the child. Their symptoms are discussed repeatedly with the child, and are blamed on the behavior of the alienated parent.
Psychological symptoms thus can sometimes become a perversely valued part of the child”s identity. Because other equally or more important aspects of the child”s experience are less valued and receive less empathic or sympathetic response, the child must use the acceptable symptoms to engage necessary and life-sustaining attention from others. Attempts to engage around interests or concerns that do not parallel the interests of the adults are unsuccessful. Sometimes, especially if the accusation used to justify alienation is child abuse, the alienating parent and allies that parent gathers will assert that the child has been permanently and irreversibly damaged. Such a prediction ensures that the child”s self-concept will be damaged and ignores both important conflicting research as well as information that can be gained directly from the child.
Finally, Kopetski says that alienated children may be taken to mental health professionals, but are unlikely to receive the help they need. That’s because the alienating parent will attempt to control access to the “right” type of professional, i.e. one who confirms the parent’s biases in the matter.
To be clear, what Kopetski describes is child abuse and should be seen as such by courts. Of course, the judicial process is not always able to draw proper conclusions about parental alienation by judges who aren’t trained in the nuances of clinical psychology. But that’s not an argument against trying. Indeed, it’s an argument in favor of educating judges, mental health professionals and the public generally about the realities of parental alienation and the stress and damage it visits on kids.
Leona Kopetski’s article takes a long step toward doing just that.