Silent Voices of Parental Alienation
Why is this project needed?
“Because 70.65% of divorced or separated couples end up in the court systems.
But only 8.70% of them feel they had received the right amount of support, advice, and guidance they needed thorough the court process”.
James Martin (not real name) a London based automobile engineer and designer shares his alienation story.
Introduction to the project
A 2018 study in the UK showed that alienation is acknowledged in approximately 25% of child custody cases, and the figures have since risen by an estimated 10% every year. In the US, research indicates that over 3.8 million children are believed to be alienated from a parent, and an estimated 22 million American parents are targets of Parental Alienation behaviors. There are no accurate statistics of Parental Alienation from Nigeria (which is one of the case-studies for this feature) but there are equally large numbers of alienated children and parents. However, regardless of the apparent mental, psychological, and emotional damage caused by alienation; claims, and allegations of parental alienation continue to increase in family courts all over the world, a clear indication that either people do not fully understand the damage these feuds cause to both themselves and the children who are caught in between, or they just don’t care. While on the other hand, there are the unending claims of the negligence and complicity of the family course system, social care workers, CAFCASS, divorce attorneys, and support workers charged with the responsibility of providing counseling and ensuring mutually beneficial solutions in family conflicts.
“According to experts, parental alienation occurs in any situation where a child is prevented from maintaining contact or close attachment bonds with one parent by the other as an act of revenge or clap- back where the alienating parent undermines the rights, feelings, and desires of the child, drowning them in their own animosity and toxicity towards the other parent, and use the child as a pawn or bargaining chip against the other. Even though alienation can happen with grandparents and the wider extended family, it most often prevalent against the other parent”.
What is Parental Alienation?
By ordinary definition, parental alienation is a group of characteristics that are associated with hostile and aggressive parenting behaviors specifically targetted towards the deliberate interruption of a child’s relationship with the other parent after a high conflict marriage, separation or divorce which causes severe destruction and damage to the mental and emotional wellbeing of the child. The psychologists studying parental alienation have a common consensus in agreeing that parental alienation is the most horrific form of psychological violence, a form of narcissistic behavior (as the absence of empathy is a key symptom and feature of narcissism)that is drawn out of the complete lack of empathy for the suffering of both the targetted parent and child.
One of the recognized experts on parental alienation Dr. Craig Childress defined it as the alienating parent’s complete lack of empathy for both the suffering of the targetted parent and the child’s love for their other parent. In every case of alienation, the narcissistic parent manipulates and emotionally exploits the child by psychologically destroying the image of the targeted spouse in the most brutal way, simply to destroy the love the child shares with the other parent.
For us to understand the importance of this project at this point, we must first and foremost understand the concepts of ‘marriage and divorce’. After having an idea and understanding of the institution of ‘marriage’, when and how it became an institution, and the numerous benefits it serves society and civilization, we thereafter dovetail into the concept of ‘divorce’ and how it became the alternative institution to marriage as well as the benefits it serves to society and civilization, then ultimately to parental alienation. We need to however analyze some scientific evidence of research on parental alienation, how it affects individuals and society; plus the role played by institutions of the state in enabling alienation or curtailing it.
“To turn a child against the other parent is to turn a child against himself or herself, – the greater number and frequency of alienation strategies children are exposed to, the lower their self-esteem”.
The first known researcher on parental alienation Richard Gardner invented the theory of parental alienation as a result of his conviction that the commonly widespread use of allegations of child sexual abuse in custody cases could not be true, rather made with the intent to deny contact. Another team of leading researches also discovered child sexual abuse to be a common form of false allegation in custody litigations. These findings eventually became the catalyst for more of the study and research in parental alienation that followed in the subsequent years.
This project is needed at this time due to the increasing growth rate of parental alienation over the years, the mental and psychological harm it causes, the lack of enough awareness about it, and the dangers it poses to society.
Marriage as an institution; And divorce as recourse.
The concept of ‘marriage’, and ‘divorce’ are one of the additions acquired by man throughout the process of civilization. Some research revealed that it is believed that the first humans to exist about 5 million years ago had no use for marriage, as humans of that time had different sexual partners, both male and female and food sharing was used as currency for sexual favors even between those of the same gender, and as females could collect fruits while still carrying and protecting their babies, neither partner had any verifiable gain from being committed to a single partner. The migration of the human race into the savannah, which was caused by climate warming meant a change in diet for humans to include a more meat-based one, requiring mothers to care more for their babies as they born earlier than before. And this meant that the children that are more likely to survive are those whose parents are more stabilized, these stabilized couples are therefore those who formed the very first marriage union, even though the type of marriage is nothing compared to what we believe it to be today because couples of that time only stay together for a period of between 3 to 4 years before one or both wander off and gets another partner; which is coincidentally the minimum length of time when most marriages collapse in these days. From then onwards, marriage became the recognition of the union of two people by their community or society, and as communities continue to settle down over time, so did the legal contract between men and women to enable them to organize a family, and laws were then created that gave men ‘some kind of assurance that the children they were raising were theirs’ and women that ‘their men would not leave them destitute’.
“The real origin in marriage comes from the innate desire of both partners to see their children survive rather than from having stabilized sexual partners.”
Divorce is the recourse to this union. It is the process of dissolution, cancellation, or reorganizing the marital contract that exists between a married couple under the rule of law of the country or state in which they live. Divorce often comes as a result of the breakdown of relationships and love, when living together becomes unpleasant and intolerable. As living in unhealthy and high conflict situations contradicts the main tenet of marriage itself, which is to coexist in peace and harmony, divorce becomes a viable option for warring partners. Even though divorce laws vary in different parts of the world, the general principle behind the intervention of court sanctions or other legal processes is to ensure that the rights and interests of both parties involved around the distribution of property, child custody, and support, alimony are protected.
It is this biological desire of both men and women to see their children’s survival which is fuelled by the ‘evolutionarily dominate strategy inherent in humans’ that causes couples to want to retain a dominating factor in the lives of their children, consequently leading to Parental Alienation. When parents separate, children, become unwilling victims caught up in the middle of the conflict, the sudden change affects them differently, with some more affected than others. They go through a lot of unexplained emotions of anger, frustration, guilt, confusion which may result in truancy and emotional outburst due to the powerlessness of not being able to express these feelings much less have them heard. But research is indicative of the fact the child’s behaviors are greatly influenced by the adult behaviors they are exposed to, so some children are fortunate to have parents who are willing to prioritize their needs above their own. and support their transition from having a single-family unit to a new healthy way of being in a split one, while others are not so fortunate. For children, whose parents have experienced some sort of domestic violence, abuse, or significant conflict, and are unable to contain their hostility towards the other parent, the transition is not so smooth and the outcome for the child is most often uncertain. Parental alienation is a parenting failure, the result of a parent’s misuse of their position as parents, abuse of their parenting responsibilities in such an untoward manner as to cause grave emotional harm to their child including alienating them from their other parent. Researchers described this is the most extreme and intense end of the parenting spectrum, yet it has gone both unreported and under-discussed.
A lot of people do not even know what parental alienation means, including those who are victims themselves. But what everyone knows, is the fact that some divorced or separating parents can be embroiled and drawn into so much toxicity and conflict, and they in turn consciously or unconsciously draw the children into the mix by using them as a pawn or bargaining chip against the other to gain custodial leverage, causing so much emotional damage to both the alienated parent and child. Parental alienation is the direct conditioning of the child through the deliberate and consistent denigration of one parent, intending to express negativity of the other parent’s personality, character, and traits portraying them as worthy of critique and condemnation. The messages are aimed to portray the other parent as unsafe, unloving, and unavailable while on the other hand, limiting the opportunities for the targeted parent to counter those messages by denying or limiting contact between the alienated child and parent. This is also achieved through creating conflict between the other parent and the child under the false impression that the other parent has rejected the child, and psychologically cementing the child to themselves, making the child completely dependant on them in an unhealthy manner.
Parental alienation is experienced by people of all races, gender, and ethnicity. And as divorce rates continue to soar in different parts of the world, so does the number of alienated parents and children. The consequences of Parental alienation are both short- and long-term manifestations on the mental and emotional wellbeing of the alienated child and parent, but most especially the child. It has been alleged by scholars to diminish the self-esteem of children who have been subjected to alienation.
“Parental alienation has been described as the worst form of child maltreatment, which causes severe mental damage to the child, warranting the World Health Organization to declare it as the worst form of child abuse on 25th April 2020, and declaring that henceforth, April 25th of every year shall be marked as Parental Alienation Awareness Day”.
Divorce has always existed since the very beginning of the creation of the marriage institution and it is now a very common modern phenomenon, and researchers say there has been an upsurge in disputes on child custody cases that have never been recorded in history since the early 1970s to date. The project, therefore, aims to amplify the silent voices of the victims of alienation, both child, parent, and society, look at the alleged complicity of the family court system, social welfare workers and divorce attorneys, to create awareness and intolerance for it, increase the pressure for change, and adopt much healthier approaches and alternative workable resolutions towards responsible co-parenting and urgently impressing on divorcing parents on the importance of not engaging in these behaviors.
It also aims to urge societies to adopt ‘divorce education’ in a bid to educate divorcing parents on the impact and harm alienation causes to the child, and themselves, as well as what to do, or what not to do to regarding the behavior of the other parent to avoid being alienators themselves, or making it worse if the other parent is engaging in it, and call on for more hands-on training for mental health and legal professionals on how to identify and work with all the speciﬁc forms of parental alienation so that they can be better informed when interacting with divorced families.
There is a great and urgent need for more targetted efforts, sensitization, and policy interventions, starting with awareness campaigns to educate everyone about what parental alienation is, how it happens, and the harm it causes as simply taking the high road or walking away as many alienated parents are counseled to do is not entirely sufﬁcient to counter the negative impact and messages of parental alienation on the children’s psyche.
Scholarly research and definition of Parental Alienation
Similar words: Isolation, detachments, estrangements, distance, separation.
Karl Marx first used the word ‘Alienation’ in the sociological analysis attempting to describe the separation of the worker from the product of his labor in a capitalist society. He described Alienation as the ‘loss of control over an attribute of the self, deriving from a disconnect’. He further categorized the aspects of Alienation into 4 categories:
- Alienation of the worker from the products of their labor.
- Alienation experienced in the production or labor process.
- Alienation from our species-essence, – or human essence.: Which is the alienation of man-from-man, or from man to society; This can be as a result of the loss of a charismatic group leader, the realization of the shortcomings and weaknesses of a person who served as a role model, a death in the family, a job change, divorce, or leaving home for the first time. This is the kind of Alienation that applies to Parental Alienation.
Even though there is no single accepted definition of the term, Parental Alienation has increasingly become a popular theory used in divorce courts and custody litigations all over the world. And even though divorce is a common modern phenomenon today, the term is only mostly heard ONLY in family courtrooms as child custody and welfare remains a major and significant matter of dispute at the onset of every divorce or separation, and amongst child psychologists and psychiatrists. Every parent has an inborn instinct to love their child, be with them and protect them; each, therefore, wants to maintain custody of the child in most divorce cases resulting to high conflict struggle of supremacy and whit, between who gets custody and who gets visitation rights, which often end in unhealthy situations and consequences especially for the child. The struggle by warring partners over who will have custody of the children begotten from the union and who will pay maintenance made child custody cases to become quite popular over the years, and as the parents ﬁght for custody of their children, they, in most cases consciously or unconsciously alienate the child or children from the rival parent by manipulating, interfering and undermining the child’s relationship with the other parent to get custodial leverage during court hearings.
The concept of parental alienation was first identified over 4 decades ago by Richard Gardner while studying children’s exposure to, and their involvement in parental conﬂict. He described it as “ a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child-custody disputes, and the primary evidence of it is the child’s campaign of denigration against a good, loving parent; a campaign that has neither basis nor justification, but simply as the result of brainwashing and programming by one parent against the other parent’’. Children who are victims of alienation do not just develop animosity towards their parents simply based on their being divorced or separated, the process of alienation is developed over a period under the influence and grooming of the alienating parent, who is usually the custodial one.
‘the child’s alienation has nothing to do with any dislike or hatred of the alienated parent, but more to do with the fear that if such acrimony is not exhibited, the alienating parent will reject the child. In every situation, the child is the greatest victim’.
The notion that divorcing parents, or parents battling custody, might encourage their children to choose sides against their ex is hardly new, it is a human phenomenon that has been around for centuries but only came into the limelight of research in the 70s when it gained increased recognition in both mental, health, and legal ﬁelds within family courts due to the increasing number of litigations on allegations of parental alienation. Psychologists have pointed out that there are some certain situations that enable and escalate parental alienation, and one of them includes the change in legislation on child custody. They argue that legislative changes tend to escalate litigation and conflict between the parents, and it has enabled fathers to be better positioned to gain primordial custody status. The combination of ‘the best-interest-of-the-child’ principle and the joint-custody concept further increases and intensiﬁes parental conﬂict in child-custody litigation, while on the other hand, the involvement of lawyers, family courts, and legislation allegedly contribute to the complex task of intervening in and resolving cases of Parental Alienation. This claim has been emphasized by both experts in the study of Parental Alienation and its victims.
Even though parental alienation was scientifically first identified and conceptualized by Richard Gardner an American Child Psychiatrist in the 70s, parental alienation has been in existence for centuries and experienced by people all over the world with differences and variations influenced by the social, cultural, and traditional dictates of the people. For this article, we would be looking at and studying Parental Alienation patterns in Nigeria and the UK, and analyze the dynamics that determine who is the alienating parent and who gets to be the alienated one, and the factors responsible for these disparities; which can hardly be separated from the social, cultural, and legal structures of the two societies.
It is easy for the mothers to be the alienated parent in developing societies like Nigeria which is not only patrilineal, but also a society where women’s rights are hardly recognized much less respected regardless of the constitutional provisions of the ‘Child Rights Act’ emphasizing on the ‘best interested of the child’ clause in both civil and shari’a laws, and litigations take a very long haul spanning over many years, a lot of court fees and little results. Whereas in the UK, it is mostly the fathers who get alienated, the story about the deliberate complicity of the courts in prolonging litigations and worsening cases of alienation remains the same. In both societies, the family court system and divorce attorneys are alleged by alienated parents to be culpable of either supporting alienation or enforcing it.
As parental alienation is a jurisdiction of the family courts and judicial systems of every country, data is not readily available. The secret nature of the UK family court system makes data not easily accessible, but some research findings have indicated that close to 90% of alienated parents in the UK are men. This is a sharp contrast to the Nigerian society where close to 90% of divorced mothers get alienated from their children.
Richard Gardener in his journals ‘Denial of the Parental Alienation Syndrome Also Harms Women revealed that in the early 80s running into the 90s, an approximate number of 85 to 90% of cases of alienation had the mothers as the alienating parent. And even though the fathers attempt to gain custodial leverage, they hardly succeed because children are generally more closely bonded with their mothers. In that period (the early 80s to late 90s), there was a huge denial of the existence of parental alienation by divorce attorneys at court hearings claiming that there was no such thing as parental alienation; even though they cannot deny that the children were alienated, but rather claim that the alienation was as a result of abuse or neglect of the child by the parent. During this period, divorce lawyers often argue that as parental alienation is not a syndrome as it is not listed in the DSM-IV category of disease (by medical definition, a syndrome is a cluster of symptoms occurring together characterizing a disease. And DSM-IV is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Dental Disorders volume IV) it, therefore does not exist. However, Garner argued that as the characteristics of parental alienation are a cluster of symptoms that often appear together in the alienated child’s behavior, children who suffer from parental alienation therefore usually exhibit some or all of the symptoms depending on the level of alienation, then Parental Alienation is a syndrome. The outlined symptoms of alienation include:
- A campaign to disparage the other parent
- The weak, absurd, or frivolous rationalization for the aspersion.
- Lack of ambivalence
- The independent thinker phenomenon
- Reflexive support of the alienating parent in the parental conflict
- Absence of guilt over cruelty and or exploitation to the alienated parent.
- Presence of borrowed scenarios
- Spreading animosity of the alienated parents to their friends or family.
The 3 stages of parental alienation as identified by Gardner are:
- Mild Parental Alienation: when a child agrees to visit the alienated parent but are intermittently critical and disgruntled.
- Moderate Parental Alienation: when the child is more disruptive and disrespectful.
- Severe Parental Alienation: when the child is hostile, paranoid, acting out to deliberately inflict ongoing grief upon the alienated parent, or even physically violent thereby making visitation impossible.
Gardner specifically empathized that when there is uniformity of occurrence between symptoms from mild to severe alienation, then all 8 symptoms will definitely be present. And it is because of the similarity in the consistency of the stages of alienation, that alienated children resemble one another in terms of character leading to a simple, easy, and pure diagnosis to be made. As a result of this, Gardner insists that even though lawyers in the late 70s and early 80s denied the existence of parental alienation because it has not been classed as a syndrome, parental alienation is indeed a syndrome because as it is the case with all syndromes, there is an underlying cause: the deliberate programming of the alienator parent in conjunction with additional contributions by the programmed child.
Dr. William Bernet, M.D is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and a graduate of Harvard Medical School trained and certified general child and forensic psychiatrist. Dr. Bernet has written professionals articles and chapters on a variety of subjects, including group and individual therapy with children and adolescents; humor in psychotherapy; forensic child psychiatry; child maltreatment; true and false allegations of abuse; satanic ritual abuse; reincarnation; child custody and visitation; parental alienation; testimony regarding behavioral genomics; and risk management.
He has testified in 15 states across the US and has several publications to his credit. In this interview, he shed more light on his experiences as a child and forensic psychiatrist and his understanding of parental alienation, the types and dangers of Parental Alienation, and how both parents and identified stakeholders in the family court systems can play a role in helping curb the menace or even prevent it from happening as well as an insight into the clinical perspective of ‘parental alienation’ and ‘parental alienation syndrome’ as propounded by Richard Gardner.
Who gets alienated: Is Parental Alienation gender specific?
Lots of people actually think that parental alienation is a gendered behavior, that it is peculiar with only a specific gender. For instance, women in Nigeria would naturally assume that parental alienation is specifically a male behavior due to the fact that men are the dominant alienators in that society, while on the other hand, men in the UK believe that alienation is specifically a female behavior due to the fact that it is women that are the dominant alienators in that society. But studies have shown that parental alienation is not gender-specific; and any of the 2 parents can be the alienator or the alienated. Gardner reported a gender shift in parental alienation in the west, which he claimed began in the late 90s, leading him to the conclusion that parental alienation is gender-neutral. His findings revealed that Fathers began to increasingly indoctrinate alienation into their children after having learned the strategies of alienation from the mothers in the early years, leading him to arrive at a ratio of about 50/50 with fathers being as likely to program and manipulate their children into alienation as their mothers, resulting to the mothers increasingly finding themselves victims of alienation. However, there are a lot of factors that determine who amongst the parents gets alienated, depending on the family dynamics, country, and society.
Alienation mothers: The Nigerian story
We shall begin with the Nigerian context of parental alienation. Even though there is very little research on the prevalence and patterns of marital dissolution in Nigeria, it is not exempt from the significant changes prevalent in the structure and organization of the family system in most developing countries of the world. The most significant of the changes is in the increase in the number of persons choosing divorce, and mutual or legal separation over conflicted marriages. There is however no sufficient data on the exact number of women and children affected by alienation in the country, but it is common knowledge that women are the most alienated parents due to several factors. Being a patrilineal society, Nigerian women are often always the alienated parents after a divorce, with the fathers assuming the role of the alienator, and even though Nigeria is a country of over 350 ethnic groups, alienation is present in most of them. One of the basic reasons for this is patriarchy, but it is not the only reason why mothers get alienated from their children. There are other contributing factors responsible, although the dynamics involved differs based on the cultural context of the families/persons involved.
Regardless of the fact that there is no adequate statistical data and documentation of divorce rates in Nigeria due to the cultural stigma associated with divorce and marital separation, divorce has always been a part of the nuptiality culture of many Nigerian societies. It is the patriarchal culture endemic in the social and legal structures of the people that ensures the women are always at the mercy of both their ex-spouses and the judicial system in every case of a divorce or separation, subsequently alienating them from their children, just as enumerated by these three alienated mothers, whose stories both point to an inefficient and unresponsive judicial system.
WRAPA: The Support system for alienation in Nigeria.
It is an already established fact that alienation is emotional abuse that negatively impacts gravely on the mental and psychological health of its victims. A World Health Organisation report in (2017) reported that 4 out of 10 Nigerians suffer from a mental health disorder, which is an estimated 30% of its 200 million population, a majority of whom are women and young adults. This is what led to increased awareness of the importance of mental health and wellbeing in the West African country. Even though little or no attention is paid to the root cause and reasons for the mental health epidemic especially among women and young adults, it has long been established that the leading cause of trauma to women stems from domestic violence, other forms of GBV, their marriages, and children.
National agencies such as the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and non-governmental organizations are the platforms that provide support and counseling for every kind of sexual violence, domestic and gender-based abuse including parental alienation. The Women Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA) is a non Governmental Organisation dedicated to actualizing the legal rights of women, in private and public through mobilization, sensitization, and the provision of legal and support services. Hajia Saudatu Mahdi who has headed the 21-year-old organization shared her views on alienated mothers and their numerous challenges of living with the stigma and biased prejudice of divorce. She disclosed to Silent Voices that WRAPA represents over 500 custody cases between 2018/2019 out of which an estimated 150 of the cases were won by mothers. She also spoke about the challenges of dealing with divorced partners on custody, visitation rights, upkeep, and most importantly compliance of set agreements.
Alienated Fathers: The UK story
Considering the Nigerian story, It is quite ironic what obtains in the United Kingdom, it is the complete opposite. In the UK, it is the fathers who are mostly the alienated parents and the mothers, the alienators. Two societies far apart, separated by distance, land, and sea, yet united in the common tragedy of parental alienation.
What influenced this gender shift after Garnder discovered a 50/50 paradigm in the late 90s? What changed? How do fathers get alienated more in the UK than mothers? Is the English society matrilineal hence the tilt in the percentage of alienated towards fathers, or if there is another factor responsible?
Earlier, we listened to James Martin’s story (not real name) a London based automobile engineer, and designer who has been alienated from his children for the past 10 years loudly decrying the alleged corruption, failure, and complicity of the family court system, describing it as ‘a system created specifically to favor and protect only the womenfolk at the expense of everyone else’.
Social workers play a key role in resolving family disputes especially in times of divorce, separation, and child custody, but this role has been brought to question time and again with strong allegations of corruption, unfair compromise and complicity in deliberately worsening cases of alienation (as stated by Mr. Martins above). However, Mr. Martin’s story is not an exclusive one, there are many other men with similar stories, experiences, challenges, and perceptions of how men are deliberately disenfranchised by the UK family court system that was specifically created to keep families together. These parents find support and comfort from volunteer counselors and each other across several online platforms created specifically to create awareness on parental alienation.
In defense of social workers, Duncan Ross who is not just a social worker, but a victim of alienation himself also believes that there is a ‘female agenda’ that is responsible for the alarming rate of fathers constantly losing contact with their children, something he says impacts heavily on their mental wellbeing, revealing that, that was the main thing that dissuaded him from seeking full custody of his son after his own separation. He further explained that it is more difficult for a man to justify why his children should have minimum contact with the mother, than for the mother to demonstrate the opposite because what obtains in the UK, is that it is the father who shouldn’t have any contact, – something to do with femininity, feminism, and maternal roles. And that is why men are often reluctant to be in the court arena because they feel the case is already based on them.
Mr. Ross emphasised that social workers face risks when dealing with abusive parents, and they have very little support in terms of supervision, which leaves them incapable of identifying alienation as it is often always a difficult and complex thing to do due to the skills and training required. He says even though some men alienation to cover abuse, – that is; they justify their partner’s exit from their lives with claims of alienation and the partner wanting to emotionally damage them to cover their abuse,- abusers can indeed be victims. He further explained why most social workers tend to overlook a lot of things when dealing with alienation, insisting that most times, it is difficult to not look away.
Contrary to opinions like those of Mr. Ross and Martins, above, Gardner stated the best interest of the child presumption mandated the court to disregard gender when ascribing custody but to evaluate based on parenting abilities and capacity. Therefore, women are only given custodial preference as it is assumed that mothers being female, are naturally superior to men in child-rearing, and the father has to provide compelling evidence of serious maternal deficiencies before the court would consider giving him custody, – just as required, and in line with ‘the best interest of the child’ presumption.
Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS), Social work UK and family courts.
Alienated Parents as abusers
Recent research by Brunel University London found out that not only are claims of parental alienation growing in UK family courts but as allegations of domestic abuse are often not regarded as evidence in courtrooms and neglected, and therefore not properly investigated, abusive men are wining time with their children by accusing the mothers of alienation.
Daily Independent reporter Oppenheim who reported the researcher, revealed that the study was conducted by a London former family court lawyer who is now a senior lecturer in law specializing in domestic abuse and family courts Dr. Adrienne Barnett. Dr. Barnett says Parental alienation is now a part of a ‘shrewd rhetoric’ in child custody battles especially concerning those who suffer from domestic abuse (just as indicated above by Mr. Ross) further arguing that Parental Alienation has got worse, more prolific, has spiraled in number since 2016 and has developed into an industry; a trend which she described as worrying.
“Playing the parental alienation card is proving more powerful than any other in silencing the voices of women and children resisting contact with abusive men. Parental alienation is not an equal counterpart to domestic abuse, it is a means of obscuring domestic abuse, and should be recognized as such”.Barnett 2020
Parental Alienation impact on Child self -esteem
“When children are told that a parent is not a good person, does not love them, and does not care about them, children appear to conclude that the cause lies within themselves”.
It has been scientifically established that one of the harmful impacts of parental alienation is that it diminishes the self-esteem of child victims. It has also been established that the psychological foundation for parental alienation is the parent’s lack of tolerance and empathy to the child’s other needs and perceptions, which also forms the foundation for psychological maltreatment and every other form of child maltreatment in general. Even though the intent of alienation may not be to hurt the child, but parents who subject their children to alienation are no doubt maltreating them psychologically because the psychological effect of alienation on the child from their other parent is that it makes them feel flawed, worthless, unloved, unwanted, endangered, guilty and of no value. This is backed by the fact that the most common parental alienation strategies are one parent’s constant denigration against the other one, in a consistent and total expression of meanness and negativity where every aspect of the other parent’s personality is depicted as worthy of criticism and critique; and even the good ones are portrayed as problematic and worthy of outright contempt, insinuating that the alienated parent is unloving, unsafe and unavailable.
When a parent alienates a child, it endangers the child’s self-esteem and confidence in four different ways. Firstly, the alienator parent’s deliberate denigration of the other parent’s characteristics and personality which ultimately leads to the message that the other parent is unavailable, unsafe, and unloving also relates to the child that they are not lovable; Cross-cultural research has also revealed that the feeling of being unloved by one’s parent is one of the strongest causes of lower self-esteem in children. The second way by which alienation diminishes the self-esteem of children is when the child internalizes the negative conditioning and messages told them by the alienator parent about the other parent. The child concludes that if one parent is no good, then they no good as well, or at least a part of them is not good because they feel that as the bad parent is a part of them, they too must also be bad. Therefore, the alienator’s parents’ constant denigration of the other parent is felt and experienced by the child as a rejection of that part of them that is associated with the alienated parent. The third strategy is when the alienator parent by their actions conveys to the child that they hate the other parent more than they love them, and therefore his/her love for them is conditioned on the acceptance of the negative messages being told to them, and ultimate rejection of the other parent, which is also internalized by the child as evidence of them not being lovable. The fourth strategy is the attempt to reinforce this message to the child by limiting all opportunities for the other parent to counter this messages, by deliberately creating appearances of the alienated parent’s outright rejection of the child and psychologically cementing the child to themselves making them completely dependable on them in an unhealthy way.
The parent uses this unhealthy dependency of the child on them to convince and encourage the child to believe that they know the child’s need, feelings and thoughts better than the child themselves do, manipulate the child to trust and rely exclusively on their opinions and guidance in such a way that the child loses the respect and trust of anyone else but them. These four strategies explain how parental alienation compromises the self-esteem and confidence of alienated children, a thought reform process that is reported as being the same with the techniques of emotional manipulation used by cult leaders to undermine the critical thinking skills of intended members and indoctrinate them into a cult.
Who owns the child?
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of life longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you.
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies, but not their souls.
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow.
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them.
But not seek to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite.
And he bends you with his might.
That his arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness.
For even as he loves the arrow that flies.
So he loves also the bow that is stable.
Parental alienation stems from a narcissistic desire to control, manipulate, and dominate the situation in order to be the preferential custodial parent, however, even though the alienator parent’s wish is to maliciously manipulate the child into denying the other parent out of spite and hatred of them, researchers have proved that ‘children need both parents for their overall health and mental wellbeing, therefore both alienated child and parent suffer same untold mental trauma. Parental alienation leaves the alienated parent with a lot of unanswered questions; bordering on their importance and value to the life of their child, ‘do I not have any rights?’ ‘am I a bad parent?’ Is that not my child anymore?’ ‘does being divorced/separated means I am no longer a parent?’ Did I deserve it? Should I have stayed back?
This is an important parenting question that is being asked by a lot of people in different societies around the world. Some will say the father, some will say the mother, while in some societies it is the state (Dr. Douglas Farrow 2017). But the truth remains that no one truly owns the child because the child is a complete human being in itself that is not to be owned by anybody. Just as poetically penned by Kahlial Gribran (1931) ‘Your children are not your children, they are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you’… The most anyone can claim to a child, either parent, organization, or state is custody and care. Caring for the safety, welfare, and needs of a child until they are old enough to care for themselves.
“And parenting is not just a parental responsibility, but a social one because the child will eventually be a member of the society in which they grow up. So how much love, care, and support they get from the same society determines the role they play in it. Children, therefore, deserve to be treated with the utmost love and respect that they would be expected to give back to others both as children and at adulthood. They deserve to have the love and care of each of their parents, family, and friends”.
There is no question to the fact that alienated children will exhibit elements of those experiences in their adulthood, as it is hardly possible that they can grow up to be mentally and emotionally healthy persons if, throughout their childhood, they were thought that a previously loving father was really vicious and loathsome. This would most likely lead to them having fractured relationships with other males; Likewise, if a child grows up being indoctrinated that their previously loving mother was vile, loathsome, and toxic, they would most likely have fractured relationships with other females in the future. But when the child eventually grows up to hear, understand what happened, and reconnect with their talented parent, they end up transferring the same anger back to the alienator; so ultimately in every situation of alienation, no one wins, everyone loses eventually.
And as alienated children grow into adults, the memories of their alienation do not fade with time, it grows with them until they seek therapy, just as shared by Muneerat Abdulsalaam, a Nigerian vlogger and YouTuber. She recounts to Silent Voices the unexpressed pain and trauma of alienation, being ill in the same hospital as her mother was but was not allowed to meet with her until she died. She emphasizing that it is not her parent’s divorce that traumatized her, but the alienation that followed it. Even though she claims to have healed from the hurt and trauma she had carried in her heart for years and the therapy she is undergoing, she cried as she recalls and shares her story.
Managing and living with alienation: Fighting an unseen battle with little or no armoury
Alienated parents experience guilt, self-blame, and trauma. The guilt they feel stems from telling themselves they should have stayed, and the self-blame they experience is by asking themselves if they did the right thing by leaving the abusive relationship or not. However, scholars have stressed that alienation begins the moment one parent (an abuser) begins to abuse, undermine the parenthood, personality, character, authority, and competence of the other parent in front of the children, parental alienation does not only happen when couples split, but it begins the moment the most common and destructive elements of an abusive relationship becomes evident. Alienation happens not just outside the confines of marriage, but within it
It is now a well -known fact that parents themselves suffer untold emotional harm from parental alienation, as we have heard from all alienated parents featured in this project, other researchers have established that, as well as Dr. William Barnett who has been researching Parental Alienation for the past 25 years. Mental health experts describe the pain of alienation as worse than death itself, stressing that victims suffer from a ‘non-death loss’ which is more painful and worse than death loss; because they have no closure, – their children are both present and absent at the same time, therefore closure is not possible for them. However, there are still people and societies that live in denial of parental alienation due to ignorance or deliberate intent to cause harm. Regardless, parental alienation continues to happen, and denial of its exitance continues to cause significant psychological and mental damage to men, women, and children over the years, as this denial has only added to the emotional burden of affected families and victims, and caused the delay of its ultimate inclusion and validation in DSM-V.
However, the long years of consistent research and documentation of parental alienation finally paid off, resulting in achieving the milestone of including Parental Alienation in the DSM-V, and the declaration by the World Health Organisation of Parental Alienation as the worst form of child abuse and domestic violence. This is a step in the right direction and a clear indication of the grave harm caused by parental alienation to all parties involved. Regardless of this milestone, there still exists a huge and urgent need for more and wider awareness, research, and impact assessment of parental alienation, which will, in turn, be a catalyst in finding lasting solutions, with emphasis on the need to embrace self-restraint, discipline and healthy co-parenting.
To contribute to the findings of the consequences of alienation on targeted parents and identify coping strategies and recommendations, the Journal of child and family studies (2020) researched intending to find out just how deeply alienation causes harm to victims found that alienation affects parents in different ways, depending on the level and individual context, manifesting in different aspects of their lives impacting their behavioral, emotional, cognitive, social, physical, and financial/work patterns. These consequences are exhibited through extreme distress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, loss of sleep (insomnia), despair, loss of self-esteem and confidence, shame, guilt, self-blame which often leads to suicidal and negative thoughts.
“Parents who are alienated from their children suffer from an ambiguous sense and feeling of extreme loss, which could lead to disenfranchised grief (disenfranchised grief is a grief that is repressed and not acknowledges by society, or when friends and family set a time limit on a grieving person’s right to grief)”. And when grief is repressed, victims are often left without the social support and sympathy they need to heal, as it denies them the opportunity to openly discuss and express their feelings much less get the sympathy and support required to facilitate their coping and healing process”.
Scientists have emphasized the need for more research to be done to strengthen the existing knowledge on harm caused to victims of alienation, as it is hoped that this continued research and reportage of findings and data gathering will continue to contribute to a better understanding of the phenomena within scholarly circles, and strengthen policy and decision-making processes that will lead to psychological and legal interventions. However, in its response to the escalating concerns about exposing children to abusive parents, and the escalating rise of domestic abuse and its devastating impact, CAFCASS and the Women’s Aid jointly researched to examine cases with these types of allegations, which are both currently within, and those outside the family court proceedings relating to safeguarding concerns. The research was also inspired by the Women’s Aid report on the dangers associated and recorded death of children due to parental disputes over contact times. This is the first time Cafcass data has been used with any voluntary sector to produce a joint report, to explore and establish the exact picture of the prevalence of domestic abuse allegations in contact applications in the family court system, connect the links between domestic abuse and other safeguarding risks as well as examine the legal outcome of proceedings.
The research, which sought to ‘inform rather than criticize’ the work of the family justice system, has as one of its most important areas of consideration, to examine the impact of domestic abuse, and court proceedings on children. And even though the study found proof of some children have experienced domestic abuse and other harmful parental behavior such as excessive drinking or violence, it also discovered a complex picture of domestic abuse within family proceedings, and the intricate challenges faced by the courts in distinguishing between cases that can be considered safe, and to allow parental contact with the child, and those that are not. The objective of the research is to ensure the safety and security of victims of domestic abuse and emphasize that they are not subjected to further harm following any court proceedings. The researched data, therefore, traced the flow patterns of the abuse and the experiences of children and young people faced with domestic abuse while going through family proceedings, and the findings illustrate the complexity of responding to domestic abuse allegations in the family courts.
“The main finding of the research was that domestic abuse was alleged in almost two-thirds of cases (62%), with fathers more likely to be the subject of allegations than mothers. The sample cases provided a complex picture of domestic abuse as well as other safeguarding concerns within family proceedings which demonstrates the substantial challenge for courts in determining which cases can safely proceed to contact with the child”.
The research pointed out that it was less common for unsupervised contact to be ordered in cases featuring allegations of abuse in 39% of the cases, than cases where the order at the final hearing was known, which is an estimated 48%. The research also revealed that there is a likelihood of cases with allegations of domestic abuse to conclude with a ‘no direct contact order’ than cases without as well as cases with an order supervised or monitored contacts. The cases with allegations of domestic abuse already had ongoing unsupervised contact taking place at the time of the application to the court in 67% of the sample cases, or within the six months before the application to the court in 33% of the sample cases. It should be noted that Women’s Aid and Cafcass however, cautions that any contact taking place before proceedings and consent may not always equate to an ‘agreement’ about contact, but may instead be an indication of ‘coercive control or fear’. The research also pointed out the significant impact of experiencing domestic abuse and other harmful parental behaviors such as excessive drinking or violence on children, and the support services available to them. While younger children received support at school to improve their attendance, school performance, and help with socialization, older children receive more specialist support, such as counseling, and in some cases, the local authorities work with these children under a formal ‘child protection plan’. It was discovered that children particularly older ones who had experienced domestic abuse had strong views regarding contact with an abusive parent and are less likely to want to have contact, while those stuck in the middle of ‘parental disagreements’ and having to act as communicators/mediators to make contact arrangements report being conflicted. Professionals have raised strong concerns about the impact of such situations on the affected children, just as some reports have indicated that some of these children expressed their desires of not wanting to spend time with a parent because this made things ‘easier’ for them. On a general level, all children featured in the study were described as having low moods, being upset, and confused, and experiencing low levels of discomfort.
Data used for this research are from CAFCASS case file records of domestic abuse which include any allegations made in that respect, including collecting data on whether the concern was raised in respect of the applicant or respondent, or both. It is noteworthy to mention that even though the research was not intended to record ‘evidence’ of domestic abuse, and there are some cases that have seen civil or criminal court findings of abuse, the research discovered cases where some parents made reference to ‘past’ domestic abuse incidents and agreed with contact arrangements regardless of that, and also those where no such issues were raised by either parent, but rather from professionals raising observation regarding the risk involved in keeping contact. The research findings also revealed that most cases of post-separation abuse are sometimes ‘new’ developments because there was no prior allegation of abuse pre-separation, but there were also cases that are a direct continuation of pre-separation abuse. However, it is noteworthy to point out that the femicide census 2017 stated that the post-separation period has been discovered to be one of the most dangerous for victims of domestic violence, and here, abuse includes harassment and breaching of non-molestation orders.
“The research not only found ample evidence on the adverse effects of domestic abuse on children, but also the diversity of range experiences, support, and responses they got because of the abuse which includes specialist support at school to receiving counseling. The research also found that much older children exhibit reluctance to continue contact with a parent who had been physically violent towards them or another member of the family”.
CAFCASS & Women’s Aid (2020)
The conclusions reached at the end of the research which investigated only on allegations of domestic abuse (not the extent to which it is evident) in child contact cases, called for a necessary case of caution in dealing with such cases. The research findings revealed that one of the complex challenge faced by the family court, FCAs and CAFCASS is that domestic abuse can take very many different patterns, shape, or form, as every case comes with its uniqueness and peculiarities requiring professional assessments of risks involved in granting or denying contact. It was also discovered that fathers were more likely to be the subject of allegations than mothers across several cases and that not only were fathers more associated with allegations of domestic abuse, but also other forms of abuse, like substance abuse and an established history of violence.
The research finding also found that there are more than three allegations of abuse against fathers than one against a mother, as there exist only a minority number of cases where women were alleged to have carried out domestic abuse. However, mothers were alleged to have been joint abusers (together with the father) in 35 out of 100 cases which featured diverse allegations, counter-allegations, and disputed matters. And it is these complexities that represent the tremendous challenges faced by the courts in distinguishing between cases that can be considered safe for the contact between the child and alleged abusive parent, and those that are not. It is interesting to note that domestic abuse data was raised in some cases from external sources like the police and local authority, but not by either party and from the work done during the study, it was discovered that arrangements that would not have been recommended by professionals were taking place before the application for contact.
This could be as a result of neither party feeling there was any current risk to victim or child or, due to fear and coercive control, which means that agreeing to unsupervised contact in such cases does not necessarily mean that contact is safe by both parties. It was also discovered that out of the 133 cases that featured domestic abuse allegations, it was found that 73% of the cases had other allegations other than domestic abuse, leaving only 14% without other allegations, which makes a clear indication to the fact that domestic abuse allegations do not feature in isolation from other allegations. Allegations of substance abuse and parental mental health problems were also strongly prominent in the research, as well as maltreatment of children in a smaller number of cases.
Also, the research findings established two major points, domestic abuse was not the main concern in some cases, but the fact that family proceedings must deal with a wide range of social/health factors, often as well as domestic abuse, and that contact was already taking place in most cases that had allegations of domestic abuse within the year before the application was made to the court. And that immediately after court applications, supervised or supported contact is more likely to be ordered at the first and final hearing in every case where a domestic abuse allegation was made just as FCAs are more likely to recommend supervised contact in cases with allegations of domestic abuse than those without. It was discovered further that FCAs recommend either an indirect or no contact in nearly a quarter (1/4) of cases with allegations of domestic abuse.
It should be noted that CAFCASS, has reiterated that this research is not a criticism of any agency, but rather an attempt to show to the general public especially, that the purpose for which an agency makes a record may not necessarily align with the needs and expectation of the court.
Coping recommendations: Living with disenfranchised grief
So, what do you do when dealing with a narcissistic- ex who is alienating you from your child? How do you prevent or stop alienation? How do you cope with alienation? The father of the theory and concept of Parental Alienation Richard Gardner said the first step in the treatment of denial is the acceptance of reality, therefore the first and most important step is for those concerned to recognize and acknowledge the existence of parental alienation with honesty and accept their reality even if no one else does. In the research for the journal of child and family studies (2020) Lee- Maturana et all, recommend more support, orientation, and understanding to victims of alienation, to enable them to cope with their realities. They stress that it is the lack of support and understanding for victims that leads to serious consequences financially, emotionally, psychologically, physically, socially, and mentally as a result of alienation. In their recommendations for support and a coping strategy for alienated parents, Lee-Maturana et all also emphasized on the need for ensuring working resolutions are reached in every case of alienation.
“It is important to ensure that a resolution is reached in all cases of alienation because lack of a proper resolution leaves victims in limbo and unable to move on (as stated by Ifeoma & Martins who have both been in court fighting custody for 10 years). Lack of a proper resolution exacerbates their feeling of hopelessness and helplessness, leading them to intense grief, worsen their anxiety depression, and guilt”.
As advised by Dr. William Bernet and other psychologists, psychiatrists, after acceptance, the most important thing to do in the face of alienation is to do your best to not engage in it or contribute to it as that could make it worse. By refusing to participate, you break the cycle of abuse and open up possibilities of nipping it in the bud. Even though Dr. Bernet believes that alienation can never truly be eradicated because it is an evolving issue around the rights of but he strongly believes making people more aware of the harm it causes through advocacy and awareness campaigns will go a long way in curtailing it.
Even though there are different ways and strategies victims can adopt to enable them to cope with alienation, Lee-Maturana et all insists that the importance of support, guidance, and understanding for alienated parents cannot be overemphasized. An overall summary of coping strategies for victims of alienation drawn from the research findings comes in highly recommended.
Any or a combination of these coping strategies can be adopted by victims of alienation to enable them to navigate through the difficult circumstances and cope with the pain of their situations.
- Mental activities: The pain and trauma associated with parental alienation is a mental one, therefore engaging in mental activities is one of the highly recommended coping strategies to adopt. Mental activities can include studying to improve one’s educational knowledge and qualifications or just to find out and learn more about parental alienation, reading, writing about their experiences in a journal or book, mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. Mindfulness meditation has been discovered to have the potential of being beneficial to victims of alienation and the people who provide services to them, as it is expected that the use mindfulness techniques could help them become calmer, less reactive and more clear-minded, and might help prevent arguments about how much these family members hate and blame each other, and possibly some of the ways the children try to protect themselves by protecting the alienating parent.
- Seek help: That is one of the most important things to do. Seek the professional help of psychologists, counselors, and therapists who are skilled in providing the tools to enable the victim to cope with their alienation.
- Social activities: Do not be a social recluse. Victims should be encouraged to socialize, meet with their friends, hang out, seek online support groups (there are a lot available on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and websites specifically dedicated to this cause) engage in volunteering activities, and help others.
- Keep busy: People suffering from alienation should endeavor to say busy with anything they like doing. They should embrace spending as much time as they can in their work, careers, or hobbies as a coping strategy.
- Family support: Victims of alienation need to have the support of their family and friends to enable them to cope with the pain and trauma they are experiencing. Having a loving and supportive family can help ease the pain and make coping easier for victims.
- Physical activities: Engaging in physical activities can be a coping strategy for victims of parental alienation. Alienated parents are encouraged to engage in physical activities that interest them from cycling, running, jogging, walking, going to the gym, rock climbing and any other form of general exercises that catches their fancy
- Hobbies: are a great getaway tool used by people in every difficult circumstance which can be effective when adopted by victims of parental alienation. Blogging, painting, coloring, singing, dancing, building, house decorating, and generally being artsy can be a great coping mechanism.
- Faith: The belief in God, is an integral part of human belief. Praying and attending church services or group prayer gatherings (depending on the person’s religious beliefs) is also another excellent coping mechanism for victims of alienation.
The findings of this project reveal just how powerful and harmful parental alienation can negatively impact on the mental wellbeing of the children, and suggest that for many reasons, alienation should be prevented as much as possible. People do not have to be married to enable them to be good parents, they should embrace healthy co-parenting. As Saudatu Mahdi, Secretary-General of WRAPA pointed out that ‘a child that passes through a seamless custody arrangement is a much happier and healthier child than the child who passes through a traumatic one’.
People should bear this in mind, and ensure that even if they do not do it for the other parent, they do it with for their child whom they love.
Let the bulk stop at your table…
Stop parental alienation.