When divorcing or divorced parents engage in tactics that give rise to parental alienation, the individual who suffers the most is the child.

By Simon Dippenaar & Associates, Inc. 

It may be tempting for an aggrieved parent suffering through an acrimonious divorce to want to portray the other parent in the worst possible light.

Hurt and anger can cause a parent to denigrate the partner in front of the child, causing parental alienation or its more severe sibling, Parental Alienation Syndrome. If one parent feels isolated and betrayed, it’s a natural response to want the child or children ‘on side’.

However, whether the other parent deserves the label of villain or not, this behaviour is extremely harmful to the mental health of the child.

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No one is innocent – except the child

According to Cafcass, the UK’s Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, parental alienation is rarely one-directional, i.e. aimed at one parent by the other. More commonly, it is a complex set of behaviours that may impact on every transaction within the family.

The post-separation environment is a high-conflict zone. Rarely is one parent entirely the victim and the other solely the perpetrator of emotional punishment. When parents are at war, the child becomes collateral damage.

Parental alienation is emotional child abuse and should be treated as seriously as any other form of abuse

Impact of parental alienation on a child

Parental alienation is emotional child abuse and should be treated as seriously as any other form of abuse. Despite this, it is often not recognised or acknowledged in child custody disputes. The alienated child often feels insecure, anxious and overwhelmed, experiencing feelings of guilt and confusion.

The alienated child may be confused as to the adult-child role, particularly if they are older, i.e. pre-teen or teenage.

Triangulation, the emotional manipulation of the child to create an emotional partner, is a common feature of parental alienation. In this scenario the child feels responsible and obliged to step in and protect and care for the victim-parent.

The child is robbed of the ability to form trust (the cornerstone of relationships) in intimate relationships and lacks confidence in forming and maintaining healthy relationships. The child may also display clinging behaviour and separation anxiety. They may develop anxiety and have poor peer relationships and other mental health issues. The alienated child suffers from a loss of a sense of self and is placed within a situation that is emotionally beyond their coping ability.

Anyone working with the child or the family should be alert to these symptoms and prepared to step in.

What can be done?

As per the philosophy behind the Children’s Act, the interests of the alienated child must come first. Whether parent, grandparent, caregiver or professional mediator, anyone playing a role in the child’s life must view every family interaction through the lens of the child. The focus should be firmly on the alienated child and the factors that have contributed to the alienation.

Then it is critical that steps are taken to rectify the situation. There is no evidence to show that waiting for alienation to resolve itself is effective, nor should children be allowed to decide which parent they should live with.

Triangulation, the emotional manipulation of the child to create an emotional partner, is a common feature of parental alienation

Rebuilding trust step by step

There are many instances of adults who were permanently alienated from one parent as children and have suffered life-long emotional consequences. To prevent this long-term outcome, there are ways to rebuild trust and re-establish a loving parental relationship. The child and alienated parent need to be assisted in the process of re-attachment, which must be sensitively phased and take account of the child’s developmental level, maturity and emotional resilience.

Here in South Africa and in other countries there are various psycho-educational and family therapy programmes that attempt to help severely alienated children of divorce rebuild the damaged relationship with the alienated parent. These programmes aim:

  • To initiate contact between the alienated parent and child
  • To provide psycho-educational training to the parents
  • To develop child-focused parental involvement
  • To re-establish reality and correct distorted perceptions of the self, both by the child and by the parents
  • To relieve the burden on the child and distance them from the conflict of loyalties between the parents
  • To rebuild the fractured emotional relationship by creating new shared experiences in a structured, safe and relaxed environment
  • To restore communication
  • To improve conflict management and family dynamics

Through these programmes children re-learn a healthy and balanced view of both parents and gradually renewed and happy parent-child relationships can develop. But it takes time. However hard it may be, the alienated parent must be patient.

Divorce and your child: how to prevent parental alienation

Is this you?

Have you experienced parental alienation? Are you estranged from your child or is your contact with your child traumatic due to symptoms of parental alienation? Simon Dippenaar & Associates Inc. is an established Cape Town law firm with extensive expertise in divorce and family law. We will ensure your legal rights are upheld and can link you to the appropriate support that will enable you to restore your relationship with your child.

Simon Dippenaar & Associates, Inc. has a reputation for empathy and professionalism, with a personal touch. We will listen to you and help you find a solution that is in the best interests of all parties – most importantly the child.

Call Simon on 086 099 5146 or email [email protected].

Further reading:

Parental Alienation – What Is It and How Can It Be Prevented?

Child Care and Contact After Divorce

Moving with Children Post-Divorce – What You Need to Know

Divorcing with Dignity

Divorcing a Narcissist