Parental alienation: systematic programming or brainwashing of a child by one parent to denigrate the other parent.
Every second Wednesday of the month, parents from all over the area flock to a meeting sponsored by the Southlake Public Library. The standing-room-only gathering isn’t for storytime – in fact, kids are missing from the room and, devastatingly, from these parents’ lives.
Katherine Casey is among the regular attendees at the Parental Alienation Awareness Organization USA (PAAO USA) North Texas Chapter support group, which is open to parents, families and adult children stung not only by divorce but the forced estrangement of a child. Casey (not her real name), now 25, was caught in the ambush of a classic parental alienation case. Her dad spent years perpetuating lies that her mother didn’t love her and was “the worst mom ever.” Eventually her dad used his means to win full custody, limiting her unemployed mom’s contact to every other weekend and half of the summer with Casey. Even when she was with her mom – who took good care of Casey – her dad called every day, undermining her mom’s ability to parent.
Wanting to please her dad, Casey began to back out of her visitations with her mom, claiming she had camp or other activities. By the age of 13, at her dad’s bidding, she wrote her mom a letter telling her she didn’t want to see her ever again.
Four years later, Casey attempted suicide to escape the rubble of what was left of her family life.
Richard Warshak, Ph.D., a world-renowned parental alienation expert and author of the best-selling Divorce Poison: How To Protect Your Family From Bad-Mouthing And Brainwashing, says one in every four children of divorce is subjected to some pressure of choosing one parent over the other. The consequences can be tragic and life-altering.
Parental alienation has been around for as long as divorce, though many people have never heard of it until they experience it. While not considered a psychological disorder, legal and mental health professionals say it is a very real and damaging form of emotional child abuse.
Wendy Archer, an officer of PAAO USA who has experienced severe parental alienation, helped launch the North Texas chapter, as well as Bubbles of LOVE Day DFW, an annual awareness event. Immediately, she says families began seeking out the once-a-month meetings, driving as far as five hours one way in a desperate attempt to make sense of the alienation and hostile, aggressive parenting they witnessed at the hands of an ex-spouse.
Alienation cuts across genders, Warshak says. It can occur when one parent becomes convinced that the child doesn’t need the other (“target”) parent or the other parent cannot be trusted to provide good care, even though that parent is loving and capable. Then the parent does everything in his or her power to become the “favored” parent and brainwash the child to want to banish contact with the rejected parent. Alienation can run from mild to severe. Warshak admits that it affects almost all divorces to some degree, especially when conflict is highest in the aftermath of a custody battle. But most parents come to terms with their actions and act to correct them.
Others, however – approximately one in 10 – can’t put the divorce behind them and will use the children for revenge or as trophies. “Some parents will actually say, ‘I’ll make sure you never see the kids,’ and deliberately erase the other parent from the life of the child,” says Warshak, who consults with the White House on child custody matters.
The favored parent, who often displays the disarming qualities of a narcissist and loses sight of the child’s needs, is relentless in exploiting every loophole, calling and texting frequently when the child is in the other parent’s care (suggesting to the child that he or she is not safe or happy) and voicing negative attitudes about the other parent.
Young children are very susceptible to the influence of the favored parent and will often begin to identify with that parent, going as far as cooperating by making spurious statements – such as Casey writing the letter to her mother – and then denying being told to do so. The child’s statements reveal telltale signs of alienation, such as inauthentic, trivial or vague complaints – often in vocabulary beyond their development, Warshak says, suggesting a regurgitation of the favored parent’s words.
Worse yet, “When they are not treating the alienated parent with open contempt, severely alienated children remain aloof and express no genuine love, affection or appreciation,” writes Warshak in his groundbreaking treatise, “Managing Severe Cases of Parental Alienation,” published by the State Bar of Texas. “These children harbor strong and irrational aversion toward a parent with whom they formerly enjoyed a close relationship.”
Often the alienated parent is unaware of what is happening – and doesn’t discover it until it’s too late.
“I had to save her”
Heather Myers is proof that it can happen to anyone.
When the emergency-room physician’s husband, also a doctor, left her without warning in the middle of the night while Myers worked the late shift at the hospital, she didn’t care about money, the house or anything else but making sure she had the opportunity to raise her beloved daughter.
As the years passed and Myers remarried and had more children, her relationship with her ex-husband became increasingly hostile. He accused her of neglecting their daughter, even calling the police and Child Protective Services. (She was cleared of wrongdoing each time.) Her daughter started asking baseless questions, such as, “Mommy, why is your new family more important than your old family?” Bewildered, Myers spent the next two and a half years in and out of court fighting for her daughter, who was placed in the temporary custody of Myers’ parents. She did whatever was asked of her, she says, but it was never enough.
“My ex-husband’s harassment, threats and court intimidation from petty concerns and critical suspicions held our family in constant bondage,” Myers says. She admits she and her attorneys weren’t educated on the meaning of parental alienation and didn’t have a game plan to address it. Meanwhile, “My child was suffering in a system that only used her as a pawn in a money game, emotionally torn and constantly questioned.”
Rather than what was in the best interest of the child, it had come down to which lawyer could write the most complex recommendation, and which lawyer had more pull with the judge, Myers claims.
“I had to save her,” she says.
Myers ultimately relinquished custody so her daughter could simply lead a normal life. But her heart and faith in the legal system were irrevocably broken.
It’s a decision no parent should have to make, says Warshak, who works to educate the legal and medical community about parental alienation. The courts are recognizing the problem and are taking vigorous steps to stop it. Though each court handles alienation cases individually, when alienation is found to be a factor, the court will start by warning the favored parent of the consequences of alienation (e.g. possible loss of custody); second, the court will appoint a therapist to intervene; last, the court might suspend contact with the favored parent or place him or her under supervision.
Unfortunately, severe alienation cases present unique challenges and are notoriously difficult to figure out, even for professionals in the field of divorce, says Warshak, a clinical professor of psychology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Target parents often end up financially ruined and unable to defend themselves in court.
Jonathan Frye (not his real name) has been alienated from his daughter, now 13, since his divorce four years ago. Initially he and his ex-wife shared joint custody, but their daughter was always “too busy” with sleepovers and activities when it came to spending time with Dad. As is common with a target parent, he didn’t want to put pressure on his daughter, but he felt his ex-wife was prompting the schism. (A court-appointed counselor has since confirmed the alienation.)
His ex-wife was successful at getting Frye’s visitation reduced to weekend days only, though he still provides child support, according to Frye’s new wife, Marcia (not her real name). His daughter, who is suffering from bulimia, doesn’t always show up even for those brief visits. The relationship is “so fractured,” Marcia says.
Marc Charbonnet, LCSW, a social worker who has seen hundreds of alienation cases in his work as a court-appointed therapist, says the longer a child remains alienated from the parent, the less time the child will want to spend with the target parent.
“The child becomes more dependent on the favored parent and more likely to see the absent parent through the eyes of the parent doing the bad-mouthing,” Warshak adds.
Despite the child’s rejection, many alienated parents maintain a steadfast commitment to their child’s welfare and invest considerable resources to restore a positive relationship. It’s a torturous situation for the rejected parent, because they can’t put a lid on the grief.
Frye, who is a church leader in a men’s group aimed at developing father figures within families, has been in and out of court since September trying to establish a more equitable custody agreement. Marcia’s entire salary goes toward legal expenses. “He just wants a normal father-daughter relationship,” Marcia says.
“They are not paid to fix the family”
When parents separate, children are thrust into a new normal. If they have regular contact with both parents from the start, this becomes the status quo. If they lose contact with a parent, they regard this as the norm, Warshak says.
Alienation often begins before the divorce while the parents are still living together, Charbonnet says. Early signs include the child acting nervously or fearful around a parent who hasn’t done anything to warrant such a response or ignoring one parent while over-connecting with the other. Charbonnet says he is being asked to speak more frequently before lawyers to help educate them on how to detect mounting disaffection. The most important thing lawyers can do is refer a client to a trained therapist or prevention program from the get-go.
Robert Widner, a divorce attorney who also hosts a radio talk show called Divorce Rescue, says attorneys are not set up to deal effectively with alienation. “Do you think most attorneys are motivated to solve the problem? They are paid $300 an hour to manage conflict. They are not paid to fix the family,” he says.
Widner, however, offers an innovative approach to divorce with a flat monthly fee to keep expenses in line. He believes strongly that parents should put more money into counseling than legal fees for the sake of their most precious assets – the children. “Parents invest ridiculous amounts of money in divorce and not a dime goes to protecting the family,” he says. Widner recommends that every divorcing couple take a co-parenting class that addresses alienation: “There’s no question that parental alienation goes on. It’s just a matter of the degree to which it goes on.”
The court plays a critical role in identifying and stopping alienating behaviors, says Charbonnet, who trains judges on the matter. In counties such as Tarrant, where Charbonnet primarily practices, the family courts do a very good job of acknowledging that these types of cases need to be handled by skilled therapists. “If alienation is occurring and it’s not recognized by a professional, then it will continue,” Charbonnet warns.
Widner says in his experience, “The judges care a lot about these cases, but they only have two hours to hear your story.” His practice will often present the judge with a “chart of alienation” to demonstrate a pattern of behaviors over time. He, like other advocates, believes that alienation cases would benefit from the appointment of an independent “referee” who could spend more time determining the totality of the alienation.
“We called it ‘the game’”
Marcia Frye admits she herself engaged in alienating behaviors in her divorce from her first husband. “We called it ‘the game,’” she says. “Which parent could get the upper hand, and who could our daughter manipulate the most to get what she wanted?”
When the teen began exhibiting self-destructive behaviors, Frye realized “the game” needed to stop.
It was painful to admit her mistakes, but Frye apologized to her daughter, and, instead of actively destroying the girl’s relationship with her father, Frye began to encourage it. Suddenly, the relationships got a lot easier all the way around. “The better the relationship you make with your ex-spouse, the better your relationship will be with your child,” Frye says.
Warshak says that when a healthy bond with a parent is absent, children are at greater risk for a range of emotional and behavioral problems. The good news is even in severe cases, when the courts intervene and increase contact with the target parent, most of these relationships will see a positive change.
“No matter how bad the situation looks, it’s important to remember that the child’s love has gone underground,” says Warshak, who offers an innovative four-day program called Family Bridges to restore alienated relationships. “With the right assistance, the relationship can be rekindled quickly.”
“100 percent abuse”
In his report on Managing Severe Cases of Parental Alienation, Warshak admits that time does not always heal the wounds of alienated children. But once they grow up and move out of the orbit of the favored parent, many adult children do become more receptive to letting go of harsh judgments of the rejected parent.
“Every kid knows at some point that they are missing something,” offers Casey, who is recovering from a childhood in which she was alienated from her mother.
After Casey attempted suicide, her stepmother stepped in and put her in therapy. That’s when Casey came to terms with the fact that she is half her dad and half her mom. “Everything bad my dad has said about my mom is, in part, half about me,” she says she learned. It gave her the courage to confront her dad – and, a year later, to reach out to her mom. The two, in fact, have slowly rebuilt their relationship.
But she didn’t do it alone. It took the support of her roommate to give her the courage. “Family and friends carry so much power in an alienated situation,” says Archer, who herself is alienated from one daughter, though she reunited with her other daughter after years of draining legal expenses.
This time Casey wrote a letter to her dad to let him know she wanted both parents in her life. “He blew up and told me I was the biggest disappointment,” she recalls. Later he came around and apologized. Still, she suffers from regret. “I wish he would have let me make my own decisions about my family. I missed that time, and I’ll never get it back,” she says.
“Alienation needs to be 100 percent considered abuse,” Casey concludes. “Mentally and emotionally, it does so much damage.”
With the help of educators like Warshak and advocates such as Archer, parental alienation is gaining awareness. “It's not just important that family court judges, court-appointed social workers, counselors and attorneys fully understand the signs and remedies of parental alienation; it's absolutely critical,” Archer says. “The health, safety and well-being of the children that the family court system has a legal and moral obligation to help and protect are dependent upon this.”
Archer and Myers recently spoke in Washington, D.C., to urge Congress to address the need for more education and court reform for parental alienation. Myers says they want to see these cases sent immediately to mediation or a parental coordinator who can guide couples to responsible co-parenting versus never-ending litigious actions.
Widner is even more frank: “If you put a child in the middle of a divorce, it will kill a part of that child. The current political debate should not be about who should be able to get married, it should be how do we heal these broken families.”
Parental alienation: systematic programming or brainwashing of a child by one parent to denigrate the other parent.