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What is Parental Alienation (PA)?

PA occurs when one parent, usually the resident parent, undermines the child’s relationship with the other parent, resulting in the child’s rejection of that parent (target parent), based not on the child’s own experiences with the rejected parent, but rather as a reflection of the alienating parent’s attitudes.

How does PA affect a child?

The alienating parent’s needs are experienced by the child as more important and urgent than their own. They have to be loyal and devoted, and show they love the alienating parent best of all. Contact with target parent seen as a betrayal. Love becomes conditional, and the child feels they need to reassure the parent. In my experience, children tend to either align themselves with the parent they perceive as being more powerful (materially, emotionally and physically) to try to keep themselves safe, loved and validated, or, sensing the emotional vulnerability of the alienating parent, they take on an inappropriate caretaking role, sometimes feeling they need to step into the shoes once filled by the target parent. Either way, the child can swing from feeling intensely powerless in a painful situation to being powerful in ways that are not appropriate for them as a child.

How PA can affect you and how you can help yourself

PA is very harmful to children and heartbreaking for target parents. The following thoughts are offered as a broader strategy for managing PA.

Children affected by PA often adopt black and white thinking – one parent is seen as all good and the other, all bad. As target parents, we can get stuck in black and white thinking too. Our ex partner is all bad, family members are either all good or all bad, and as a target parent – a victim of PA – we are all good. As mothers apart from children, black and white thinking keeps us stuck. It doesn’t allow for the flexible, resilient attitude needed for us to champion our child’s right to a relationship with both parents. As painful as this might sound, I encourage you to consider the shades of grey in your personal circumstances. Here are some areas to reflect upon:

  • Put yourself in your child’s shoes and take an honest reappraisal of the situation. What would they say has happened to your relationship with them? It doesn’t matter if this isn’t the truth of the situation from your perspective. There is no one truth, we all have a different view and experience of the world. Look for any grains of truth that could guide you to adjust how you communicate with your child now or in the future.
  • Put yourself in your ex partner’s shoes and repeat the above. Even if your behaviour has been exemplary, having an honest look at the world from his viewpoint might guide you towards a different approach and/or help you to understand and support your child. Remember, this is not about letting him off the hook! Your reflections are about finding peace of mind and trying to build a relationship with your child.
  • What has changed over the time you have been separated? As mothers apart, we have a tendency to see our child as the age they were when we last saw them. Their behaviour, beliefs, values will change. How have you changed? For example, are you managing your emotions better now than in the early days after your divorce? Are you happier and stronger? Do you need to communicate your new perspective to your child or your ex?
  • How might life be if you weren’t separated from your child? Many families who are not affected by divorce and break up experience long lasting misunderstandings, rifts and estrangements. Most family units are far from perfect and many children either never truly separate from their mother (or father) or pull away completely, in order to separate. A mother’s job – whether you are a mother apart or not – is to let go so your children can come back to you.

Life changes everything and everyone. Failure to acknowledge this results in black and white thinking. If as a target parent you examine any part you had to play, honestly, without beating yourself up for any mistakes, the shades of grey you find can ease your pain and release you from anger.

Tips for communicating with your child if PA is taking place

  • Don’t react. It could be your child is being manipulated and is looking for evidence to reject you. Hold the adult place and don’t confuse your child with your ex partner even though they might sound like your ex partner.
  • Show empathy and understanding. For example, say “I read somewhere that sometimes children think they can’t love mum and dad once they are divorced, but you don’t have to choose”.
  • Agree to disagree. Don’t tell your child that she/he is wrong or doesn’t feel that way. Say you will agree to disagree and move the conversation on.
  • Being in the moment. Resist the desire to ask questions about your child’s life with your ex partner or continually ask how she/he is feeling. Focus on your time with your child. Be in the present. Have fun.
  • Talk about memories. Remind child of past happy times, show photos. Reminisce and repeat and build upon good times together.
  • Just love your child, even though you feel rejected and your child’s behaviour might be difficult for you to manage. Let them know you will always love them no matter what.

I wish you comfort and joy – you deserve nothing less.

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Sarah’s new self-help book: A Mother Apart

Support for women

Sarah specialises in counselling and training women. She helps non-resident mothers find inner peace by dealing with guilt, distress and other difficult feelings which can be experienced when living apart from their child. Her self-help book, 'A Mother Apart', published by Crown House, is available now. She also supports business women grow in confidence whilst growing their businesses. To find out more, please visit Sarah Hart's website

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