There is plenty written about parental alienation, the parent who brainwashes and the impact of alienation on the child. There is less written about the devastation of the parent who is ultimately rejected by their child as a result of parental alienation. Often this rejected parent is referred to as the “targeted’ parent.
Characteristics of the Targeted Parent: Researchers have attempted to identify characteristics of the targeted parent. Ross and Blush (1990) identified the targeted parent as the “relatively healthy parent” who is minimally contributing to the alienation. Stahl (1999) and Sanders (1993) also found the targeted parent as the healthier parent. On the other hand, Lund (1995,) stated that the targeted parent is “excessively rigid, insensitive to the child’s needs, lacks warmth and is controlling or demanding.” Johnston identified the targeted parent’s passive or dependent behaviors (1997.) Some researchers have found that many of these parents had a tenuous or limited relationship with their child prior to the separation. Also noted is that many of these parents have limited awareness of how their behaviors may have contributed to the alienation.
It has been my clinical experience that the major differences in these characteristics may be determined by examining the primary reason behind why the alienating parent is attempting to do so. For alienating parents with personality disorders, the targeted parent is likely to be the healthier parent. For those alienating parents that are doing so to be hostile or malicious, other findings may be noted. Although the research may help identify a pattern, there are always exceptions.
Characteristics of the Marital Separation: The circumstances of the martial separation have been noted as contributing to the alienation. For example, if the targeted parent was seen as being responsible for the marital break-up, this was a factor in alienation. The likelihood increases further if the reason identified for the break-up was an issue of infidelity. Furthermore, if the targeted parent becomes involved with a new partner immediately after the separation, this had a very strong correlation to the risk of alienation. Lastly, if the targeted parent leaves the marriage abruptly, this too seems to increase the likelihood of alienation occurring. None of these factors excuse the emotional abuse of alienation. These factors do however, seem to negatively impact both the alienating parent and the child.
Catch 22: Sadly, if the targeted parent keeps trying to convince their child to spend time with them, the other parent will say, “See your father/mother is so selfish and does not care about what you want!” Likewise, if the targeted parent gives up and stops trying to force visitation, the alienating parent will say, “I told you he/she does not really care about you!” Truly it is “damned if you do and damned if you don’t!”
Targeted Parent Response: When all legal avenues have been tried, there is not much a targeted parent can do. Some targeted parents become so consumed by the pain of on-going rejection from their child, that they become significantly depressed. Some parents, in the depth of their pain, will even consider giving up their parental rights. Unfortunately, this will also be used by the alienating parent to prove to the child that the targeted parent does not care. Typically, this is just an angry reaction to the fact that the targeted parent is required by law to pay child support even though they have no visitation with their child. The insanity of this arrangement creates tremendous resentment and anger. When the dust settles, the targeted parent must determine how to proceed with their life. This “death” of a primary relationship includes a sense of betrayal, and may, for some, be worse than physical death.
According to Dr Richard Warshak in “Divorce Poison,” the targeted parent is often told to do nothing in reaction to their child’s rejection. “Common psychological wisdom, besides recommending that parents avoid fighting fire with fire, suggests doing nothing. But Warshak has witnessed the feelings of powerlessness and the increasing difficulties that come from doing nothing.” In his book, Dr Warshak provides a blueprint for an effective response grounded in a solid understanding of the techniques and dynamics of parents who poison their childrens relationships with loved ones. His text is full of ways to respond to the alienation when the relationship is not yet totally estranged.
Typical Responses to Total Rejection: I have seen three responses to successful alienation. In the first response, targeted parents allow the pain to keep them captive and stuck in despair. This reaction negatively impacts the targeted parent’s marriage, their ability to function at work, their ability to parent other children, their health and may consume their thoughts and actions for years to come. Other targeted parents are advised to put their child on hold and “wait” until their child reaches maturity, goes off to college and moves out of their home. Some of these alienated children may respond when out from under the observing eye of the alienating parent. Other parents are advised to “emotionally let go” of their child.
What Can Be Done for the Targeted Parent?: There are groups for grieving adults and children throughout the country, but typically not for parents who have had their emotional bonds severed by their own child through alienation. What can be done is a unique form of coaching designed specifically for the targeted parent. This form of treatment is typically done in a group setting where heartbroken or defeated parents are able to grieve and recieve support and validation from other alienated parents. Even if no solutions result from this type of group treatment, the impact of emotional support from others who have been in their shoes is invaluable in helping the targeted parent retain a small amount of hope while they continue to live their lives.
In Part II we will look at the impact of alienation on siblings and extended family and the legal response to alienation. Part III will examine the characteristics of children that increase the possibility of being alienated.