Parental Alienation: It Happens in Intact Families Too

(c) photography33/fotosearchWhen one parent speaks harshly to the other, the kids suffer. Source: (c) photography33/fotosearch

The following email, sent to me by a reader, convinced me that the time has come for me to write about alienation within families that appear to be "intact." There's no need for a divorce to precipitate emotional abuse in the form of turning the child(ren) against the other parent. Any time one parent speaks negatively to the other parent in front of the child and/or speaks harshly about the other parent to the child(ren), that is alienating behavior.

A description sent to me by a reader about parental alienation in his intact family. (Thank you for giving me permission to share what you wrote).

"I experienced PAS [parental alienation syndrome] at the hands of my mother. She would tell me things about my Dad that were always negative. She would say things like, your father sits on his ass all day watching TV and doesn't do anything or she would say he never loved her, or that he hasn't touched her (intimately) in years. On one occasion, I remember her referring to him as the sperm donor. Every time I would come home from college, she would try to be the better parent by saying negative things about my Dad.

"Well Dad has been gone 8 months and instead of grieving healthily she has chosen to express sadness for a brief period and then tell me tonight how during their marriage he demanded more food and left her with next to nothing and treated her like hired help. I know my Dad and he was never like that. He had his flaws like we all do, but it seemed like Mom always had to point them out to me.

Be the role model your children deserve. Kids learn by watching their parents. Modeling appropriate, respectful, good behavior works much better than telling them what to do.

"I got sick of her telling me about my Dad like that and told her tonight that I really didn't want to hear it. She got upset and when I told her to respect me, she immediately turned it around on her. She asked, what about her respect? Since, I can remember, if I had a bad day, she would always make it about herself, somehow some way. If my head hurt or if I had a rough day at work she would always have to interject how hard her day was or how much pain she was in. It's as if she needed attention more.

"I can't take it plus with my own grieving. They were not divorced and my Dad was to the point of crying a lot, but they stayed married until his death.

"Was this truly a form of abuse? PAS?"

What the research says about why parental alienation with or without divorce is considered a very serious form of child abuse.

Any parent who harshly criticizes, yells at, or name-calls to or about the other parent is abusing the child(ren) as well as their spouse, and all the more so if the angry parent does not allow the child(ren) to enjoy a loving relationship with the other parent.

Avoid food fights. A healthy child instinctively knows how much to eat. If he refuses to finish whatever food is on his plate, just let it go. He won't starve.

Researchers Amy Baker (a PT blogger!) and Maria Cristina Verrocchio conducted an extensive project studying this question in both intact and divorced families. In their study, of 739 adults who were asked to look back and rate their childhood experiences, a study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies in 2014, they found that when a parent criticizes the other parent, children experience this criticism as applying also to themselves. If the criticized parent is unworthy of love and respect, I must be too, or so goes a child's typical thought process.

The outcome: the child develops self-doubts, self-hatred, and a self-image as unlovable, all of which make for fragile mental health, with vulnerability to depression, anxiety, addictions, anger and more that can last throughout the child's lifetime—which is why parental alienation now is considered one of the very most harmful forms of child abuse.

My answers to the reader who wrote the above note

Is the description of what you suffered abuse? YES !

Your mother was emotionally and verbally abusive to your father, and indirectly therefore to you. She is continuing to be emotionally abusive to you by continuing to talk negatively about your dad to you.

As Baker and Verrocchio explain, when a parent acts warm and loving toward a child, the child feels valued and develops a sense of being a good and lovable person. But a parent who acts warm and loving towards their child acts in a hostile way toward the other parent, the child gets confused. Worse even, if the parent gets annoyed when children show affection for the other parent, these children tend to feel bad or worthless about themselves because within their heart they love and care about the parent whom they are supposed to be hating.

Fess up when you blow it. This is the best way to show your child how and when she should apologize.

Was what you suffered parental alienation? YES!

If it looks like parental alienation and it sounds like parental alienation it is parental alienation. Divorce can make the alienation worse, including preventing children from having any contact with the other parent. However, as I said above, within a so-called intact family, including one that will not end up in divorce, when one parent is critical of their spouse and belittles the spouse in order to turn children against him or her, that's likely to be parental alienation.

Sad, but true.