Serving the needs of separated and divorcing families

Parental Alienation and Extended Family

In Part I, we addressed the impact of parental alienation on the rejected parent. Although there is not enough written about the rejected or targeted parent, there is even less written about the impact of alienation on the extended family or siblings who are left behind.

Extended family and siblings also experience the tremendous and irrational loss by the alienated child leaving them extremely confused and heartbroken. They are the innocent victims of the domino effect of parental alienation.

Impact on Extended Family:   Consider grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins suddenly being cut off from the alienated child. They may have had a loving and affectionate relationship until the alienation was complete. Typically everyone who may “side” with the targeted parent is taken out of the picture. This is usually the targeted parent’s extended family but it may also occur with adult friends who may have known the child since they were born. Phone calls stop, family rituals shared together end, and extended family is left wondering what is happening. In some circumstances, the targeted parent’s family may blame them for the loss, wondering if there is some missing piece that they do not know. This adds salt to the wounds of the targeted parent. Some extended families will even declare themselves neutral but typically, this does not help to avoid the impending grief or the ultimate split within the family.

Sometimes the loss for the extended family may not be as abrupt as it is to the targeted parent. Some children will attempt to keep a limited connection until the pressure becomes too much. Extended families grieve the loss of the child as well as fear they may never see them again. In some cases this may be true and in others, the child may reach out to them in the future. Unfortunately, older relatives may pass away before this occurs.

Impact on Siblings:  When the targeted or rejected parent has step-children, these children end up losing an important family member. When the alienated child stops coming for visits and refuses any contact, these children are unsuspecting victims. Even worse is when the targeted parent has remarried and had additional children. The new child and siblings may have had a fair relationship until they were cut off. These children are technically half-siblings but seldom referred to as such. They are simply family which means their relationship is significantly impacted as well. If it takes years to reconnect, the young child has lost their primary years without their sibling. These are years that can never be replaced and are permanently lost.

An alienated mother brought her five year old son to my practice for counselling. His teenage half-sister abruptly left their home and crushed his mother’s spirit. Eventually he too was rejected by his teenage sister. He was grieving and felt extremely confused and anxious. In addition, he worried about his mother’s apparent depression. As a result, he was acting out.

Through puppet play, this five year old learned that a witch had “placed a spell” on his angry sister. He asked the witch how long the spell would last. He knew his sister was not acting like herself and the change in her behavior could not be explained any other way. He was told that it could be a very long time before his sister might return. He wanted to know if he would be a teenager or a grown up when he saw her again. Instead, he learned that no one knew how long the spell might last. Although this was not good news, it provided him a way to understand a totally irrational situation. This gave him an anchor so he could retain a small amount of hope while returning to being a child. Although this was not an ideal response, it was the best that could have been provided to this very confused child.

Lack of Services: Unfortunately, there are alienating cases in which nothing is being done by the courts to try and stop this form of emotional abuse. When the alienated child is a teenager, many judges will allow them to “visit” the rejected parent whenever they want. Unfortunately, this empowers the child and the alienating parent. The ideal protocol would be reversed, meaning that the courts would not allow a child to block visitation unless a family therapist met with the targeted parent and child for six or seven sessions to address the child’s concerns.

Some courts are ordering the targeted parent and child to “reunification therapy.” Although this can be a significant step in the right direction, it is far more complicated than this. It is my experience that reunification therapy will not work in high-conflict cases or when the child is totally brain-washed unless there is appointment of a parenting coordinator to ensure the reunification therapy has a chance to work. Unfortunately, most Judges do not order these two interventions together.

When children are allowed to stop seeing one parent without an attempt to address the problems, children are learning to avoid conflict rather than address it. They are learning to run away from problems rather than reconcile them. In cases of alienation, children are being allowed to cause tremendous pain and grief for their targeted parent and extended family. For the child who is trapped and must align with the alienating parent, they hope that the other parent and extended family will still be there when they are set free.

Susan Boyan LMFT

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