While writing my upcoming book on divorce, I have reviewed a lot of research on the terrible effects of parental alienation (described there by Richard Warshak, author of Divorce Poison New and Updated Edition: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing ), which is when one parent, consciously or unconsciously, destroys the relationship between a child and the other parent. The child is alienated from his parent to the point that he acts viciously hateful to this parent and wants to spend no time together.
Alienation can be accomplished via badmouthing, limiting time together, implications that the co-parent is a bad or scary person, and so forth. Alienation is abetted by the child, who often wants to please a primary caretaker and also has his own unresolved anger and confusion about the divorce. (This situation is different than when a child naturally wants to sever ties with a parent due to the parent being abusive or cruel; however, usually children actually want to stay close to abusive parents.)
The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Guide for Mental Health and Legal Professionals provides a comprehensive description of parental alienation written by psychiatrist Richard Gardner, who came up with the term in the 1980s. When reading about parental alienation, it struck me that in many couples that I see in counseling, there are much less aggressive, subtler attempts by parents to alienate each other from the children, although these are rarely conscious and even more rarely acknowledged. Especially in an intact marriage (even if it is conflictual or unhappy), both parents generally say, and consciously think, that they want to foster and support positive relationships between their partner and each of their children. Yet, frequently, parents engage in behaviors that lead to children realizing that they have to pick sides, and choose to ally with one parent over the other.
A common version of this is the “good cop, bad cop” dynamic that I discuss here. One parent takes on the role of disciplinarian, usually because of a combination of their natural personality and the fact that the other parent refuses to engage in discipline that is up to the first parent’s standards (or any discipline at all).
Children in this situation start viewing one parent as the hardnose, or the bad guy, and the other parent as the laid-back softie. Sometimes, children will identify with the disciplinarian, but more commonly, they will start to dislike the disciplining parent. This is not just because kids don’t want to be disciplined. It is often because of the way that the other, non-disciplining parent responds. For instance, many times the following exchange will occur:
Wife to child: “That’s it, you’re in time-out!” Husband: (sighs, smiles at the child as they walk into time-out) Wife: “What was that?” Husband: “What was what?” Wife: “You don’t support me with the kids! No wonder they act out.” Husband: “Act out? That was nothing. She was just sitting there. You’re really out of control lately. Calm yourself.” Wife: “You’re so patronizing, I can’t believe you! Maybe I could calm myself if you helped me with discipline!”
And so forth, in the usual escalation that occurs when one person feels invalidated. A child overhearing this learns that Mommy is “out of control” and mean, that Daddy is the one who is on the child’s side, and that Mommy starts fights with Daddy.
Here’s another version of how parents subtly teach kids to ally against one another:
Husband: “I need some quiet here for my call at 2.” Wife (long-suffering tone): “John, they’re children.” Husband: “Right, and I was a child who was quiet when my father needed quiet.” Wife (sighing): “Fine, guys, let’s go down to the basement — maybe we can come up and do something fun later if Daddy stops working.”
Another lesson that one parent is the “good one” and the other parent is bad, mean, rigid, and controlling. Over time, if these patterns are not addressed, children will start to view their parents as caricatures: one who is patient, loving, and selfless, and one who is impatient, self-centered, mean, or “crazy.” The children’s own personalities and preferences affect this as well; a more laid-back child will naturally ally with a more laid-back parent.
Additionally, children learn that to stand up for the “wrong” parent is to risk displeasure and disapproval from the other. For example, if in the time-out scenario, a 6-year-old child said, “It’s okay, Daddy, I know I was being bad,” it is likely that the father would either sigh and act as though the child saying this was indicative of how deeply his mother is emotionally scarring him, or that the father’s face would change almost imperceptibly and the child would realize that his father wants his “role” to be that of a hapless child constricted by his mother’s punitive discipline.
In the second example, a child who says, “Daddy is important so we have to be quiet for his work” would likely meet with an eye roll from his mother, who might say something like, “Oh, certainly, Daddy certainly thinks he’s very important.” With these passive-aggressive reactions, each parent ensures that the child realizes that allying with the “bad” parent is wrong, and in fact makes the child look foolish or deluded.
As children grow older, they will replicate the patterns that they learned at home with their peers and intimate partners. Children who are familiar with a good guy/bad guy or normal/crazy dynamic from their parents’ interactions will be subconsciously drawn to these patterns in their own lives, or will create them where they don’t at first exist. Additionally, adult children may never fully respect or enjoy time with the parent who was subtly put down during their formative years.
On the deepest level, children suffer from lower self-esteem when they perceive that one parent is deeply flawed, because that parent is half of them. So a child with a mother that they perceive as “crazy” will denigrate this mother even more due to the fear of being “crazy” just like her.
If these examples resonate with you, don’t wait to work on these issues. Couples counseling can help parents recognize these dysfunctional parenting patterns, which likely originated in both of their families of origin. In cases with older children who more overtly and consciously denigrate one parent and ally with the other, family therapy can be necessary to alter these patterns. Children deserve to be able to love and respect both of their parents equally.