PARENTAL ALIENATION OR GATEKEEPING
WHAT IS IT?
I started to write this article in response to a good friend of mine who happens to be experiencing the effects of parental alienation. I have travelled along the journey and experienced the sadness, hurt, anger and frustration that goes hand in hand with separation and the nasty behaviours of an alienating parent. I have relived my experience through the experience of my friend, now 20 years on.
My friend’s journey is not unlike mine, although did not fold like I did to my friend’s credit. I ended up avoiding the world and sleeping the depression away so as not to face a reality that I had no control over. It’s ironic that I am now in this very field of work. 20 years ago I was a destroyed soul, broken and unable to function, I suffered a mental breakdown and for the following twelve (12) months, I engaged in counselling with a psychiatrist.
My story is one that took me quite a long time to come to terms with, I have four children and understand that I am a grandfather four times over that I know of. Disappointing as it is, I have not properly seen my children since 1996.
My ex-wife levelled allegations against me that were fabricated and distorted and obtained an intervention order that I did not fight (big mistake). I had no idea of the legal system back then and just agreed to the order. Some months after, she included the children on the order at which time I was so depressed I could not face reality, it was far too painful. She went through the legal system like a dose of salts without any fight from me, I had none, she was able to obtain orders in her favour by default.
Kicked out of our home as a result of the order, I took nothing more than some clothes. I left everything behind, thinking, hoping and praying, things would get better and we would be a family again with my two beautiful girls and two rascal boys. This was not to be. I recall the first weekend following, I requested to spend time with the children. My ex agreed and gave me two out of our four children, claiming two were not that well. Borrowing my father’s car I travelled over an hour to pick the kids up and took them on an outing, little did I know that it was to be my last. On the way home, I was overcome by emotions and was crying whilst driving at which point my second eldest (daughter) and third eldest (son) started asking if I was ok. I remember saying to them, “make sure you look after mummy, you know she is not well” and that I miss them so very much whilst howling (I was trying to be strong and it was just not working for me).
My ex-wife was troubled, she was in and out of hospital being diagnosed with mood disorders and borderline personality disorder. She also suffered with bulimia and would binge during the day and purge herself at night with laxatives. She would spend what little money we had on chocolates and junk food and often we had no money for the rest of the week to survive on. I was far from perfect myself though, I didn’t know how to manage, what to do, I was young and silly and couldn’t be told what to do. I was trying to do the best I could, keep everything and our family together. She was only 15 when our first came; I was 18. After 13 years of not knowing what to expect when I arrived home, I myself had a breakdown and tried to take my life by overdose.
When we arrived back to the agreed place (a park) my eldest child and youngest were waiting playing on the swings, my son flew out of the car, did not say goodbye and ran home. I found out the next week that he went home and told his mum that she is mean as did my daughter. When I called the next week to see if I could spend time with the children again, my ex informed me of what happened and firmly stated “NO you can’t spend time with the children and you will never see them again. I begged her not to do this, but she stayed true to her word. Not long after that call she disappeared with the children leaving a trail of debt behind that I had to face and pay off.
One could say that I have an intimate knowledge or firsthand experience of the effects of alienation.
So to my friend who is experiencing parental alienation, I dedicate this article and to everyone else who is going through something similar. Alienation is not gender biased both mum’s and dads engage in this type of conduct.
Remember the innocent children, they suffer more than you think and are the innocent victims.
Did You Know That…
Parental Alienation is a form of Child Abuse! It is the Ultimate Hate Crime and for the most part goes unpunished.
In my opinion, it is one of the cruellest and evil acts a parent can engage in, the ultimate hate crime. Parental Alienation often has dire consequences that cannot be measured. What is parental alienation you may ask?
Let’s be real though, not all parents engage in parental alienation and this article should be read and understood with that in mind. Most parents have good reason to act in a protective manner as safety of children is and should be the paramount consideration.
Parental alienation (or Hostile Aggressive Parenting) is a group of behaviours that are damaging to children’s mental and emotional well-being, and can interfere with a relationship of a child and either parent. These behaviours most often accompany high conflict marriages, separation or divorce.
These behaviours whether verbal or non-verbal, cause a child to be mentally manipulated or bullied into believing a loving parent is the cause of all their problems, and/or the enemy, to be feared, hated, disrespected and/or avoided.
It is also termed by Sharie Stines, MBA Psy.D CATC-V as an unhealthy coalition between a narcissistic parent and his or her children against the targeted, non-narcissistic, non-abusive parent. The innocent or targeted parent receives hostility and rejection from his or her children in this system. The psychological health of the children is used as arsenal in the narcissist’s twisted world.
HARSH WORDS YOU MAYBE THINKING…?
IT NEEDS TO BE TO HIGHLIGHT THE SERIOUSNESS OF THE LONG LASTING PSYCHOLOGICAL DAMAGE THAT SUCH BEHAVIOURS CAUSE.
Parental alienation and hostile aggressive parenting deprive children of their right to be loved by, and showing love for, both of their parents. The destructive actions by an alienating parent or other third person (like another family member, or even a well-meaning mental health care worker) can be child abuse – as the alienating behaviours, disturb, confuse and often cause fear in the child. This behaviour can rob the child of their sense of security and safety and lead to emotional or psychiatric reactions.
Hostile Aggressive Parenting (HAP) leads to Parental Alienation (PA). In other words, hostile aggressive parenting behaviours are the actions and parental alienation is the consequence. Hostile aggressive parenting by the abusive parent causes the alienation or withdrawal of the normal affection a child has for the alienated parent.
Research suggests that parents that engage in the behaviours use techniques similar to those employed by cult leaders.
Clawar and Rivlin (1991) write about Parental Alienation and HAP using different terms. They call it what it is: the programming and brainwashing of children to hate ‘the other’ or targeted parent. Lawyers and mental health professionals who work in the family law arena in Australia use the terms psychological conditioning and parental gatekeeping to reference different things including “the manipulation of the actual message content (thoughts and beliefs), negative modelling, coercion of ideas, limiting of choices, and/or the result of a (long) process of programming and brainwashing (alienation)” (Gardner, 1982). Clawar and Rivlin believe that alienation is just one result of a very complicated process and campaign of hatred.
Programming and Brainwashing
Programming. When one parent attempts to alienate a child from the other parent, he/she is essentially teaching the child to hate and fear the other parent. Hatred of the other parent is the end goal or program. It’s like installing computer software—there are directions, procedures and instructions for how to organize information. For example, the other parent is late for the scheduled child visitation pick-up. The programming parent comments, “A good parent who really loves his/her children would be on time.” This is a set of instruction that translates to: “Your father/mother is a bad parent who doesn’t love you.” This is a negative interpretation of what is most likely a neutral event, but the set of directions from the offending parent don’t allow for neutral interpretations, like heavy traffic, a flat tire or being held up at work. Or what about this example: mum says to the child: –
“Call me as soon as you get there to let me know you are okay.”
“If you get scared, you call me right away. Okay?”
“I’ll come get you if you want to come home”.
This sends the message that the child needs to be on guard and in fear of the other parent. The offending parent engaging in planting constant negative seeds in the tender minds of the child and the end result is catastrophic.
According to Clawar and Rivlin (1991, p.7):
- The programming may be wilful (conscious) or unintentional (unconscious).
- The goal is to control the child’s thoughts and/or behaviour.
- The program usually contains themes intended to “damage the child’s image of the target parent in terms of his or her moral, physical, intellectual, social, emotional, and educational qualities (as well as his or her parenting abilities).”
Often it is about one parent’s plight to gain control. The shadow of that is that they have an innate fear of losing control of themselves and of a life that they have no control over in any event.
Brainwashing. Brainwashing is how the alienating parent, programs the child to hate. Brainwashing “is a process that occurs over a period of time and usually involves the repetition of the program (content, themes, beliefs, distorted meanings) until the subject responds with (attitudinal, behavioural) compliance (Clawar & Rivlin, 1991, p. 8).
The alienating parent teaches the child the program via messages that include verbal and non-verbal cues and rewards and punishment. Brainwashing techniques can be used separately or in combination for a more powerful effect. The alienating parent often uses allies such as friends, family, church members, therapists and the court system to help him or her successfully alienate. Programming and brainwashing typically work in tandem. For example:
The program: You should hate your father and be as angry with him as I am.
The brainwashing techniques: Mother makes faces when child is on the phone with father, rolling eyes and grimacing. Mother asks child questions after child spends time with father and makes negative and fear-instilling statements such as, “
- Did he remember to feed you?
- Are you scared sleeping there at night?
- You can come home if you want to–just call me and tell your father to bring you home.
- Do you remember when dad …. The parent distorts a story and instils a distorted meaning to the event.
- You have more fun with me, don’t you?
- If it weren’t for me making your father take care of us, he’d spend all his money on his new wife and her kids and we wouldn’t have a roof over our heads.”
- You don’t have to do what dad tells you to do.
One parent removes all photos of the other parent from child’s room, computer or photo albums and any other item that may remind the child of the other parent, animals etc. That parent then rewards child with special privileges, gifts or affection if child makes negative statements about the other parent or refuses to see the other parent.
The child may be either an active or passive participant. “In other words, some children are fully aware of the intent of the programming/brainwashing parent and actively participate. Others may not be aware of the desired ends of the programming and brainwashing parent and are unknowing agents and victims themselves in the process” (Clawar & Rivlin, 1991, p. 8).
Brainwashing Techniques: Isolation, Withholding, Repetition, Unifying, Covert messages, and Inferior Status
Restricting time spent with the other parent or isolating the child serves to keep the child from receiving information that contradicts the program. For example, friends and family members who don’t buy into the abusive parent’s program are vilified and cut out of the child’s life. There is often collateral damage when a parent chooses to alienate as the child is often also denied access to grandparents, aunts, uncles and other people who love them.
The withholding process can be physical (taking away toys or privileges) or emotional (withholding love and affection).
Repetition or repeating the message or program is essential in any kind of learning endeavour. Remember, the abusive parent is teaching the child to fear and hate the other parent and anyone who doesn’t collude with him/her.
The alienating parent starts to not only isolate ones that do not agree with what they do, they distinguish who now is in the in-group and who is in the out-group (ones who are not to be associated with). The alienating parent defines all out-group members as unacceptable. For example a mother or father will start using language like:
- It’s Mum and kids vs. the world.
- It’s just the three of us now.
- No one understands us.
- We have to look out for and protect each other.
The targeted parent becomes the outsider from whom the children must be protected.
Covert Messages. Suppose the targeted parent tells the child to do a chore and the child resists as is so often the case with children being told to do something they don’t want to do. Now, suppose the child goes to the narcissist and complains about the “mean” other parent. The narcissist will then sympathize with the child, encouraging him or her to feel victimized by the “outrageous” expectations of the targeted parent, and will excuse the child from having to do the chore. Thus, the child is getting sucked into the web of PA. The targeted parent is outraged, bewildered, hurt, and betrayed. The child has been covertly empowered to disrespect the one parent who is actually trying to develop a decent human being. The narcissist sits back, effortlessly creating the destructive coalition with his or her child.
In essence, the children are empowered to disobey, disrespect, and disregard the non-narcissistic, non-alienating parent. On the surface, the children feel and believe they are benefiting and winning, but in reality they are playing a sordid part in the narcissist’s perverse mind games.
Inferior status involves making the child feel not favoured or less loved. “Children are keenly aware of being less favoured by a parent. Lowering of status within the family can be done by exclusion, rejection, or denial of affectionate contact; it is extremely painful, and, in and of itself, may be powerful enough to bring the child in line with the parental program” (Clawar & Rivlin, 1991, p. 4). For example, a 10-year old boy sees how his sister is rewarded with praise and gets to stay up late with mum to watch TV for rejecting their father and actively being rude to him, so the boy follows suit in order to raise his family status.
How Do You Counter Programming and Brainwashing?
The fact that this often happens unconsciously and unintentionally is bad enough. Adults who consciously and actively engage in these behaviours are reprehensible.
This is a form of child abuse, for which, sadly, there are rarely repercussions for the offending parent. In many cases, alienation begins while the marriage is still intact and very early on in a child’s life.
It happens when Mum says something that makes Dad look incompetent or uncaring, like:
- Your father can’t be trusted with the simplest task.
- Mum to the rescue!Or,
- Your father cares more about his career than us. That’s why he spends so much time at the office.
Never mind that Mum refuses to get a job to contribute to the household, which would allow Dad to spend more time at home. The constant conditioning and subliminal messages one parents sends to the children whilst the relationship is still intact is dangerous and could be the start of parental alienation.
If you know this is occurring, you need to do some gentle, but firm reality testing with your kids as soon as possible. Kids typically can’t substantiate the programs they parrot. Gently ask them to give you examples of when you were mean or selfish or never spent any time with them or whatever the accusation is. Show them pictures of you having fun together.
Using the example above, remind them of when you took time off from work to take care of them when they were sick. Ask them if those are the actions of a bad parent who doesn’t love them.
You also need to get your kids into counselling with a mental health professional whom understands the reality of parental alienation and how to combat it. The longer you let this go on without intervention, the more difficult it will be to undo the damage.
Engaging in Parental alienation is the worst thing you can do for your children’s long term emotional and psychological wellbeing, the effects of which will last their lifetime and impact upon their adult relationships and children. Ask yourself before engaging in this dangerous activity, do I want to be the cause of my child’s life of misery, depression, or other known consequences.
In Australia the Family Law Act 1975 provides that it is the right of a child to have a meaningful relationship with both parents, providing it’s safe.
As far as parental alienation is concerned in the eyes of the court two distinct recognizable possibilities exist:
- The existence of one parent trying to alienate the other;
- Whether or not the children are being affected by that practice.
Sound’s silly doesn’t it? It is important to remember when fighting PA in Australian courts that you focus on PA and the effect that it is having on the children, do whatever you can do to get the facts and present them so the courts can see the negative effect PA is having on the children, they after all are the focal points as the act is about protecting the interests of children.
Any parent, man or woman, who’s about to separate, I strongly recommend engaging in either pre-separation mediation, relationship coaching or upon joint counselling with a practitioner that is aware of the impact of parental alienation, specifically to educate both parents about this issue and the lasting psychological damage it can inflict upon children.
Remember your children are people like you, do you want them to suffer serious consequences from your actions? Things that you have control over? Do you want them to suffer psychologically and emotionally throughout their lives?
See what sort of consequences are known in part 2 of this 3-part series in my article on What are the impacts on children of Parental Alienation?
By Trevor Jolly
Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner, Integrative Enneagram Practitioner, NLP and NS Master Practitioner and Meta Coach.
USEFUL LINKS FOR MORE INFORMATION
VIDEOS WORTH WATCHING
- Dr Tara J. Palmatier shrink4men.com
- What the research says about adult children of PAS, By Amy J.L Baker PhD, Director of research at the Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection of the New York Foundling
- Clawar, S. S., & Rivlin, B. V. (1991). Children held hostage: Dealing with programmed and brainwashed children. Chicago, IL: American Bar Association.
- Gardner, R. (1982). Family evaluations in child custody litigation.New Jersey: Creative Therapeutics
- Kelly and Johnson (2001) “The alienated child”
- Gardner, R.A. (1998). The Parental Alienation Syndrome, Second Edition, Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics, Inc.
- The Recovery Expert, Sharie Stines MBA PsyD CATC-V