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By Mary Wilder

"Dad, why don’t you just leave us alone?" The letter fell to the floor as my husband groaned and buried his face in his hands. His heart was breaking—his children were refusing to spend time with him. It had been 18 months since we had seen them and contact with them was becoming more difficult: Mom said the children were unavailable to come to the phone; we had evidence of mail being kept from them; visitation was being withheld.

Sadly, this scene is repeated in many homes where divorce has occurred. Seemingly out of the blue, children who had previously enjoyed a happy, loving, secure relationship with dad or mom become resistant, withdrawn, critical and openly hostile. The phenomenon is known as Parental Alienation Syndrome and its effects 90% of all divorced families in the US (when broadly defined). ¹

Parental Alienation Syndrome occurs when one parent intentionally alienates a child or children from the other parent. The alienation is systematic and persistent and can be as mild as an occasional sarcastic comment ("You mean your dad actually parted with some of his money?") to moderate (mother refuses to list father as a contact on school records or provide school pictures) or severe ("You are never to mention your mother in this house!"). The syndrome was first identified by Richard Gardner in 1985. His research revealed the alienators are predominantly mothers; however, one or both parents may engage in alienation.

Whether perpetrated by father or mother, the effect on the child(ren) is devastating and can include long-term depression, uncontrollable guilt, isolation, hostility, and ego and identity dysfunction. Physical manifestations may include headaches, vomiting and loss of sleep when the child is faced with the prospect of an upcoming visit with the alienated parent. During adulthood, these alienated children may succumb to alcoholism or drug abuse, have difficulty holding jobs, and be unable to maintain healthy relationships. The effect on the alienated parent is no less devastating. The anguish of rejection, concern for the emotional welfare of the child(ren) and the potential bitterness aroused against the alienating parent can consume the entire family unless handled prayerfully and properly.

While PAS involves a complex psychological process, the symptoms in children are relatively easy to identify and distinguish. They include, but are not limited to:

  • The child, for unexplained or unfounded reasons, states that he/she wants nothing more to do with the alienated parent.
  • The child shows no mixed emotions (ambivalence) whatsoever toward his/her parents. When asked, he/she will describe one parent as all good and the other as all bad.
  • The child will express open rejection or hostility for the alienated parent and the extended family, including grandparents, aunts, uncles, step-parents, or step-siblings.

The motivations for alienation are varied, but generally begin with a desire on the part of one parent to extend visitation or custody arrangements. Viewed as a threat by the alienating parent, he/she launches a campaign of denigration. In addition, remarriage, disputes over child support, revenge, guilt, unforgiveness, issues with self-concept or a growing mental disorder may cause the alienation to begin.

If you are experiencing alienation first-hand, there are several opportunities available to counteract its serious effects.

  • First of all, don’t give up!!! God is still at work; nothing is impossible for Him. (Matthew 19:26)
  • Equally important is prayer. Enlist the help of anyone who will listen to pray with you. Pray for your children’s protection; pray for wisdom; pray for the alienating parent!! We often quote James 5:16 in situations such as this—"The effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much", but notice the entire verse reads: "Confess your faults one to another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much."
  • It is critical that you continue to have contact with your child(ren), whether directly or indirectly. Current research has shown that continuation of the relationship will diffuse many of the harsher effects of alienation, even in cases of severe alienation. ² The challenge with direct contact is that the child(ren) may resist visits with you, remaining withdrawn and hostile even when away from the alienating parent. Persist in your unconditional love and acceptance! This is a teachable moment. Your child(ren) are watching and they will see evidenced in you a real life example of God’s love and acceptance. Romans 5:8 reminds us that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
  • If the alienating parent is interfering with your visitation, take the appropriate legal action, realizing, however, that the courts will often do nothing. Use as many creative methods as you can to continue indirect contact with your children:
    1. Visit at their school
    2. Leave notes on their locker
    3. Take an ad out in the paper reaffirming your love and desire to see them
    4. Send notes and presents
    5. Make phone calls or send email
    6. Send flowers
    7. Tie balloons to the trees at their home
    8. Send a basket of goodies

    Children love these unique expressions of love, and while you may not see any outward evidence of change, their hearts will be won.

  • The alienating parent may resist even these efforts, going so far as to attempt to obtain a restraining order. DON’T GIVE UP! Be as involved in public events as possible—school functions, concerts, etc. Persist!
  • Exercise patience and self-restraint. The knowledge that a campaign of hatred is being waged against you is exasperating, humiliating and frustrating. The temptation to retaliate can be overwhelming, but completely counterproductive.
  • Children who are the victims of alienation will generally express contempt, hatred, and fear of you. Love them anyway. Your response to their actions and attitudes is being carefully observed by your children.

More importantly, you must come to the rescue of your children! Baffled and hurt by the "sudden" antagonism of children who previously adored you, many alienated parents decide it is best to do nothing. Children are abandoned to an environment of toxic criticism. Defenseless, the denigration proceeds uninhibited and children become completely enmeshed with the alienator. At this level it is unlikely that a normal relationship will with your children will be recovered.

Contact us at Compass Seminars![a] We offer practical resources; seminars for the professional community and the general public; encouragement and a prayer team to support you!

[a] Not officially endorsed by Smart Stepfamilies.

¹ Divorce Related Malicious Mother Syndrome Dr. Ira Turket, Journal of Family Violence, Volume 10, Number 3, 1995, p261

² Divorce Poison Dr. Richard Warshak, p. 131