What's the Story with Parental Alienation?

Lately, parental alienation has been a hot topic in family law and the parenting coordination world. That term refers to one parent subtly or not so subtly alienating a child from the other parent.  A classic example is a needy mother who convinces her 10-year-old daughter that dad is unsafe.  The daughter aligns herself with mom’s thinking, fears dad and refuses to see him. 

Needless to say, everyone loses in this scenario: the child loses contact with a potentially good parent and lives in fear, the alienated parent loses contact with his/her child and the aligned parent is overburdened with parenting responsibility and hatred.  This extreme example often requires court and/or mental health professional intervention to undo. 

A less obvious and more common scenario is parental overprotection.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that today’s parents tend to assume a greater level of responsibility for their children’s mental and physical health than previous generations.  In an environment where school administrators must be prepared to defend average grades to outraged parents, where a child’s boredom is a parent's burden and where bullies on the playground result in community meetings, there is little room for letting children sort out their own life lessons. 

The truth of the matter is not every parent is ideal.  (In our heart of hearts, we know even we are not ideal parents.)  We want so badly to protect our children from pain or the uncomfortable knowledge that mom or dad is selfish, needy, depressed, alcoholic, unavailable or imperfect in the million ways we are imperfect as humans that we create unintended barriers.  We wrap them in soothing words and construct a safety screening to prevent further injury.  The alliance of good parent and the defense against bad parent gets built with tiny sighs, sympathetic looks, and minor changes to the schedule that make it more and more difficult for the “bad” parent to restore good standing. 

Parental alienation is a good example of a legal issue that ultimately will be handled in court.  If your reality or perception of reality (I’ll let you be the judge on that one) is that the other parent is alienating your kids from you, you may want to hire an attorney to advocate for you and your child.  Parental overprotection is an excellent topic for mediation.  If you believe that you and the other parent could benefit from an effective discussion about supportive co-parenting, you may want to call a mediator.  

This distinction, between seeing the world in black and white terms or seeing it in changeable shades of grey, is at the core of mediation and parenting coordination.  I am fortunate to see incredible clients who come to me wanting to gain a more nuanced understanding of the others' perspective and to work together to create solutions for their children and themselves.