Article: Child or Weapon? The Psychological Dynamics of Parental Alienation

By: Sharie Stones, MBA, CATC-V, LPCC-I

Parental alienation syndrome (PAS), a term coined by Richard A. Gardner in the 1980s, describes a condition—usually generated in the context of divorce or child custody disputes—in which a parent creates an alliance with their child against the other (non-abusive, nurturing, protective) parent. The child, influenced in part by the alienating parent, contributes to the dynamic by denigrating the targeted parent.

Parental Alienation as Created Drama Theory

According to Dr. C.A. Childress, attachment-based parental alienation is created when a person with narcissistic tendencies gets their child to reject the other parent as a way to modulate the narcissistic parent’s anxiety. According to Childress, this anxiety is threefold:

  1. Narcissistic anxiety: Tremendous anxiety over the threatened collapse of the narcissistic defense against the experience of deep personal inadequacy.
  2. Borderline anxiety: Intense anxiety surrounding overwhelming fear of abandonment.
  3. Trauma anxiety: Reactivated anxiety (emotional flashback) of childhood attachment trauma.
In essence, the parent with narcissism is trying to resolve these anxieties by creating a drama involving themselves (the perceived “competent/good” parent), the other parent (the “abusive” parent), and the child (the “victim” of the “abusive” parent). (Quotation marks are used to emphasize these are perceptions being created by the person with narcissism.)

The other parent is pitted against their child in order to regulate the anxieties of the alienating parent. The parent with narcissism essentially uses the child as a regulatory object to assuage deep anxieties via this created drama, wherein the narcissistic parent gets to be perceived as the “normal” or “good” parent while “rescuing” the child from the other, “crazy,” alienated parent.

The created drama “resolves” the alienating parent’s childhood unconscious narrative of abuse whereby the person, as a child, had to split off their perception of the abusiveness of their own parent(s) from cognitive recollection—thereby divorcing themselves from having to feel the rejection of their own misattuned parent(s).

Why does the child go along with this drama? Because they mistake normal feelings of grief as a sign the non-abusive parent is causing the child to feel bad because of the non-abusive parent’s supposed abuse.

This shifts the alienating parent’s focus away from feelings of inadequacy and abandonment, replacing them with feelings of superiority, particularly relative to the other parent in the scenario. Thus, this reenactment of trauma is the alienating parent’s attempt to achieve psychological mastery over their childhood trauma narrative. In the pathologically created scenario, the child (perceived “victim”) gets to be rescued from the “bad” parent by the parent with narcissism, aka the “hero.” This artificially resolves the alienating parent’s own early attachment trauma.

Why does the child go along with this drama? Because they mistake normal feelings of grief as a sign the non-abusive parent is causing the child to feel bad because of the non-abusive parent’s supposed abuse.

When a child’s family experiences divorce or separation, the child typically experiences feelings associated with grief. The parent with narcissistic tendencies is able to capitalize on these negative feelings by attributing them to the so-called abuse of the other (non-narcissistic) parent. The alienating parent will wage war against their ex in order to temper feelings of rejection and inadequacy, using the child as a pawn.

Parental Alienation as Domestic Violence by Proxy Theory

Parental alienation syndrome is not recognized as a disorder within mental health or legal circles, and not everyone agrees it is a “thing.” Tina Swithin of One Mom’s Battle describes what occurs as domestic violence by proxy. In other words, the alienating parent is really just trying to abuse their ex by using children as weapons.

While the parent with narcissism, prior to divorce, could not have cared less about the children’s school events, etc., post-separation they act like “super parent,” showing great attention to activities previously ignored. This is impression management.

Domestic violence by proxy is a pattern of behavior rather than a set of specific actions. The underlying motives for abusers are power and control. While in the relationship, the abusive person can abuse in more ways than one, usually directly. Once separation occurs, the children become the most effective means of abuse.

According to this theory, the abuser knows they are abusing and the actions are specific and intentional. Other people, such as therapists, attorneys, or child protection agents, are often duped by the narcissistic person’s behaviors and may come out against the non-abusive parent. An abusive parent may even end up with primary custody of children as a result.

What an Alienated Parent Can Do

If you are the target of parental alienation, what can you do to protect yourself and salvage your relationship with your children?

Realize you must keep yourself strong and hopeful and do not become defeated. Be creative in your strategies, keep your energy strong, and never let your ex or your children know how victimized you feel. Many people with narcissism are to weakness as sharks are to blood. You may get eaten alive if you let your children or your ex know how defeated you feel.

Don’t let your fears keep you from action. Don’t catastrophize. Stay in the present and try the strategies below:

  • Never react in anger. This only reinforces the alienating parent’s point of view you are unstable.
  • Empower yourself. Do not allow yourself to take the position of helplessness. Persevere and never give up. Let your children see you believe in yourself.
  • Live a victor’s life. Do not see yourself as a victim. Take care of yourself and live well.
  • Stop triangulating. Do not put your children in the middle. Let your child love the other parent without influence.
  • Take initiative in solving the problem. It may only get worse if you don’t, and no one else is going to do it for you.
  • Document everything. For legal purposes, make sure you keep accurate records of any violations you experience with the alienating parent.
  • Keep your cool. As mentioned above, any evidence you are upset can and likely will be used against you. Can’t you just visualize the other parent gloating, “I told you she was crazy”?
  • Always take the “high road,” but be as sly as a fox in the process. Do not allow yourself to be unethical or naïve.
  • Do not underestimate the parent with narcissism. They may stop at nothing to “win” this battle for their children’s allegiance.
  • Be the best parent you can be. Incorporate a parenting style that balances discipline, clear family structure, and flexibility.
  • Be an example and teacher to your children. Because they are exposed to narcissistic qualities, your children may have a skewed view of reality. Teach them healthy relationship skills, particularly empathy. In addition to this, teach them healthy morality and character development skills.
  • Enjoy your children. When they are with you, be a safe presence for your children to relax with.
  • Consider therapy. If the emotional toll becomes too burdensome, reach out to a mental health professional who can help you develop coping strategies and a plan of action.

References:

  1. Childress, C.A. (2015, May 28). An attachment-based model of parental alienation: Foundations. Claremont, CA: Oaksong Press.
  2. Major, J. A. (n.d.). Parents who have successfully fought parental alienation. Retrieved from http://www.breakthroughparenting.com/PAS.htm
  3. Simon, G. (2011). Character disturbance. Marion, MI: Parkhurst Brothers Publishers Inc.
  4. Swithin, T. (2017, February 4). Domestic violence by proxy. Retrieved from https://onemomsbattle.com/2017/02/04/domestic-violence-by-proxy

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