By: Karen Woodall
I have been asked recently about alienating strategies used by parents and how to manage these. This is a starter post in terms of this topic which is vast in terms of the how and why of alienation. To begin with we will break down the alienation process into steps and relate it to everyday adult relationships. Then we will look at the vulnerability of the child and putting it all together, we will see how easy it is for anyone who wants to, in a family separation setting, to alienate a child against the other parent.
Step by Step Alienation Strategies (How An Alienator, Alienates)
Step One: The alienator decides that they are the better person than the person they wish to do harm to (alienate). On the basis of this a self righteousness will begin to grow and the alienator will start to believe that they have the right to control the relationships that people have with this person.
Step Two: The alienator searches the life of the person they wish to alienate until they find a flaw. People who do this become obsessed with their sense of self righteousness and develop a strong (often delusional) belief that they are doing the right (righteous) thing. Alienators in this respect will often stalk and study their subject until they have found the flaw that they believe proves their belief. When they find it they will exploit it, finding ways of using it against the target to damage and discredit them in the eyes of others.
Step Three: Whilst exploiting the flaw of the target, the alienator will then present themselves to the outside world as being an exceedingly good egg, hard working and focused and absolutely innocent of all wrong doings against the target. The alienator will work hard to keep the focus upon the target, often using third parties as proxy alienators to do their work for them so that they can remain undetected in the shadows.
Step Four: If the target reacts to the trap that has been set via the exploitation of something which is being used to ‘prove ‘ to the outside world that they are the architect of their own downfall, the alienator increases their activity against the target to drive home their advantage. This is sometimes accompanied by gentle but forceful attempts to suggest to the world that there is ‘no smoke without fire’. After all, if the target is reacting, it must mean that they have hit a nerve.
Step Five: When this point has been reached the alienator has usually placed themselves in a strong outwardly positive position (the good person) and has achieved their goal of placing the other person in the strong outwardly negative position (the bad person). Should the target spend time trying to rectify this split in the eyes of the outside world the alienator will make use of this to drive home the split of good and bad and demonstrate that the target is what they have said they are all along.
There, easy to do and achieve. With enough information about the target and enough self righteous determination, anyone can alienate another and justify it to themselves.
The underlying drivers of this behaviour are jealousy, low self esteem, lack of self awareness and often rage. These behaviours are common in parents who separate but they can become apparent in anyone who is in a position where they are consciously or unconsciously competing with a target. The issue is that what the alienator cannot see is that their projections onto the target are distorted reflections of their own hidden issues, which is why many parents who become targets find themselves labelled with those behavioural traits which really belong to the alienator. Put simply, what the alienator cannot own in themselves, they see in the target and this enrages them to the point where they feel justified in doing harm. Discomfort with one’s own deficiencies is at the heart of many alienation scenarios. The target being an innocent recipient of the defences used by the alienator to avoid self awareness.
Many target parents will say that there is a grain of truth in what is being said about them but that the exaggeration of this is beyond anything which is reasonable or even recognisable. This is the use of the flaw which the alienator has searched for in order to use against the target. Sometimes this flaw is an event, sometimes it is part of who the target is. I myself have been the target of determined alienating strategies in my own working life, a search of my name on google demonstrating how these attempts to place me in a negative light and alienate people from me have been carried out. Whilst that search doesn’t tell the full sorry tale of someone who was determined to do me harm, the use of those five steps against me, has acted in my own life to warn me of the damage that hidden drivers of jealousy can do to people who lack self awareness. Fortunately for me, the alienating strategies used against me failed to achieve the intended harm, but the whole episode remains a strong reminder to me that these strategies are used in every aspect of life by people, it is not simply limited to separated parents.
Now that we are aware of how alienators do their worst, let’s add in the element of vulnerability which is the child. Readers will remember that parental alienation is a combination of the actions of the alienator, the responses of the target and the vulnerability of the child. When a skilled alienator is at work and the target is a naive recipient of that behaviour, the child is going to have to be strongly resilient in order to avoid the descent into alienation and many children living in separated family situations are not that. When an alienating parent sets out to portray the other parent as being deficient and when part of that strategy is to pick a flaw and exploit it, the child becomes confused and uncertain. If the child is then continually reminded of the flaw of the target parent they become unable to determine the truth of their own experience and are then, in turn, alienated against their own internal sense of the target parent. Add to that the fact that a child is dependent upon parents for everything under the sun – food, clothing, warmth, safety, all those basic needs and so much more. It is simply not possible, when one contemplates life from the perspective of a child, for a child not to be vulnerable in this situation. If a parent sets out to alienate and that means consciously or otherwise and the target parent reacts, the child experiences the splitting of their internalised AND externalised world into one parent good and one parent bad. For after all, the target parent is behaving just how the alienating parent says they will. Should the child then be mostly dependent upon the parent using alienating strategies, then that is the parent the child is going to align with. To not do that is counter to biological survival as well as emotional and psychological safety. Some children are resilient and avoid being forced to use the coping mechanism of psychological splitting but these are usually younger children in a sibling group where one will be strongly alienated and carrying the psychological impact for the rest of the tribe. This elder child will often, over time however, set about being an alienator by proxy, driving behaviours in the other children to come into line with the prevailing mood.
And so there you have it, how to alienate, why people alienate and how children are vulnerable to alienating strategies. Sadly it is not difficult and it is all too regular a behaviour seen in separating families. But lest you think that alienation only happens in those circumstances, stop right there. Alienation strategies are used everywhere in the world, by competitors in business, by friends who fall out and by family members even when a family lives together. Alienation is a feature of human life and the range of behaviours which are seen are rarely confined to one group of people.
Becoming conscious of this is the first step to managing being a target of alienation, learning the antidote to alienating strategies when one is targeted is the next step, a step too many parents who find themselves in this situation are unaware of. And so next up in this series is how to act when one is targeted by an alienator, a super power everyone can and should learn.