As a single parent, or a parent with ongoing partner conflict, how careful are you about the way you communicate with your child when your ex/current partner is in concern? It is crucial to watch out for a set of harmful strategies termed “parental alienation”, especially if you continue to have strong negative feelings towards your ex/partner.
Parental alienation refers to the pathological alliance that is when a parent tries to damage the relationship between the child and the other parent. Behaviours that lead to parental alienation might include but are not limited to the following. The parent negatively talking about the other parent to the child. The parent limiting the child’s communication with the other parent. The parent not allowing the child to talk about the other parent. Hiding important information regarding the child from the other parent. The child being forced to reject the other parent. Encouraging the child to spy on the other parent. Withdrawing affection when the child talks positively about the other parent.
That being said, there are some misconceptions about parental alienation in the general public. Here are six of them:
- “Parental alienation happens only after divorce.”: It is true that parental alienation occurs most frequently after divorce, yet it can still happen among parents that are still together. In such cases, the aim may not necessarily be to damage the relationship the child has with the other parent. When the couple is in conflict, the parent who feels insecure or lonely may engage in parental alienation to compensate. Regardless of the aim, parental alienation is harmful for the child.
- “It is always the mother who alienates the child.”: Both mothers and fathers can and do engage in parental alienation.
- “The parent who is less seen cannot alienate.”: Even though the parent who cohabitates with the child may have more chances for parental alienation, the parent who is away can also behave in such a way. Parental alienation is a matter of intent rather than a matter of proximity.
- “The effects of parental alienation are always visible.”: Just because the child is not throwing temper tantrums or having school problems does not mean that the child is not negatively affected by parental alienation. Children’s age, developmental stage, temperament, and many other factors determine the way they experience emotional difficulties. Some children may look okay from the outside but may struggle quite a lot on the inside.
- “The effects of parental alienation resolve on its own.”: It is an important issue that should be taken seriously if a child is continuously insisting on staying with one parent or refusing to see the other parent. It can be a big mistake to assume that such behaviours will go away on their own in time. If not intervened, the emotional distance between the child and the alienated parent may continue to grow.
- “The child’s decision to cease contact should not be questioned.”: If the child decides not to see one of the parents anymore, the reason for this decision should be investigated thoroughly. The child may simply be giving up because of the constant alienation received from the other parent. If so, steps that would undo the damage should be taken.
It might be tempting to behave in ways that would eventually alienate the child from the other parent, especially if your relationship with the other parent is complicated. However, it is important to acknowledge that parental alienation is associated with many emotional and behavioural problems that children experience. If you feel like your personal issues with your ex/partner are coming in between you and your child, working with a mental health professional might help you to protect your child from the negative effects of your relationship problems.
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Dilek Demiray is an intern at Willingness. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and she is currently completing her master’s degree in Clinical Psychology. As an aspiring psychotherapist, she is interested in cognitive-behavioural and systemic therapies.
Til-Öğüt, D. (2021). Boşanma ve Ebeveynlik [Divorce and Parenting]. Varlık Publishing: Istanbul.