Parental alienation. Finally, it’s accepted that this is a real problem and that it occurs all too frequently.

More is being discovered about how a seemingly conscienceless alienating parent abuses their children and targets the other parent, usually (but not always) as the result of a toxic divorce. We are learning how their narcissism binds their alienated child to them. We see how this affects the target parent, the one who’s nearly lost (or completely lost) his/her child through alienation. Today, those in the mental health field have quite a bit of insight into the effects of alienation on children when they are young.

What does a child experience during alienation?*

Although not every tactic is used by every alienating parent, a common tactic is putting a child under pressure to choose between the target parent or the alienating parent, often by masquerading as the victim of the other parent’s “evil deeds” (which are often projection by the alienating parent). In order to side with “good over evil” the child must choose the alienating parent.

Another tactic is telling the child if they choose the other parent, they’ll never be able to see the alienating parent again. The alienating parent might emotionally blackmail the child saying they won’t love the child anymore if they aren’t the only one chosen. For a child, almost nothing is more terrifying then the idea of a parent not loving them. It puts the child in a kind of “Sophie’s Choice” bind, giving them a terrible power inappropriate to their age (or any age.)

Alienating parents can limit or even cut off the child from the other parent. The term “amputating parent” as been used to describe what the parent does overall but is particularly apt in this instance. This can be done a number of ways, either by the above tactic of making this the child’s choice, or by sabotaging visits with the other parent.

One case study shows that an alienating parent called the police on numerous occasions when her ex-husband came for his visitations with his children, claiming he was a dangerous stranger that was attempting to kidnap her children or otherwise harm them. This same parent eventually moved out of the region, leaving no forwarding address, effectively kidnapping the children herself.

Alienating parents might do the same to extended family as well, ensuring the children never know their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

They might create strict rules at home that require no one ever mention the other parent. Presents and birthday cards will be thrown out before the child sees them, or photos of the other parent may go missing, as if the other person never lived.

They often have inappropriate conversations with the child about adult relationships and other adult topics, creating a de facto confidant out of the child, in a bizarre, often untruthful confessional relationship. They might lie about the other parent being violent or otherwise dangerous.

They may move (even more than once) to ensure that they can create a new persona and invent a new, false personal history. If family, colleagues, friends, and community witnessed the other parent being a good parent (or even a middling-one) then those people may be discarded, unless they are willing to support the alienating parent in their abuse.

But where are grown-up children of parental alienation holding?

What happens once they gain autonomy and no longer are controlled by the alienating parent? Is there a way they are able to be reached?

Some stories don’t seem to offer much hope: I Am A Daughter of A Mother Who Alienated Me From My Father, Erasing Him From My Life…

Amy Baker and others advise that the alienated parent allows the child to take the lead in terms of discussing the alienation, but that they should be there for the child and just do their best to remain a steady presence.

But what if the child has been kidnapped or otherwise totally cut off from the target parent. Must the parent wait until the adult child contacts them? Should the parent instead contact the child?

Counselors don’t necessarily agree about how target parents who have been completely cut off, should proceed. Many parents have been able to locate their now adult child or children (today it isn’t hard, online searches are helpful). Whether or not to reach out to the alienated adult child seems up for grabs, with logic and emotion vying for priority.

I have to reach out, even though I know my son has been totally brainwashed against me. If I don’t, I’ll never forgive myself.

How can I contact my girls when they were kidnapped and now have spent over 20 years being taught that I was an evil villain? Even my [clerical adviser] says I should stay away until (hopefully) they will contact me. But what if they never do? What if the damage is permanent?

I am afraid to contact my son. My ex-wife has convinced him that I physically abused him when he was an infant and I am evil incarnate to him. I’m afraid if I contact him, he’ll call the police.

Every time I saw my children when they were adolescents they cursed at me, calling me every filthy name in the book. I know my ex taught them this, but I feel I just don’t have the fortitude to face another barrage of abuse. I tried dozens of times, but the results were the same. At what point do I settle for loving them from afar?

The damage isn’t confined to the children and target parents. New spouses, siblings (half or full), and extended family are also often victims.

From a spouse of a target parent: My heart is split in two. As a loving wife I want my husband to have a relationship with his almost adult children. Yet I see how his ex has prevented him from having a relationship with them. She lied to her new friends that he abandoned them and never gave her any support when she was the one who left the state. The truth is that child support has been and will continue to be withdrawn from every paycheck until they are 21 (which they nearly are.)The children themselves tell people they don’t have a father. Do I encourage him or do I just watch and wait?

From a grandmother: They left town with my granddaughters and I never saw them again. They all broke my heart. I wonder if they even remember me. I logically know the kids are the victims, and of course my kid is too, but my gut says aren’t my granddaughters themselves in any way responsible to find out the truth?

We are still learning about adult children who were victims of parental alienation. Can the damage be undone? See more Therapy Soup blogs on this important topic.

Heartbreak and Hope with Dr. Bernet

Video Expert Opinion

Video Opinion

*Many of the items on this list can be found in Amy Baker’s seminal work, Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome. (Based on interviews with 40 adults who believe that, when they were children, they were turned against one parent by the other.)