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Which Child is at Risk of Alienation?

If a parent attempts to alienate their child against the other parent, some children will be able to resist and remain connected to both.  In learning which children are more likely to be successfully alienated some patterns have been identified.  For example, children younger than seven years of age are less likely to become alienated from one parent because they are unable to “hold” onto the resistance involved in coaching and brainwashing.  However, as they age and if the alienation continue they will likely succumb to the pressure. Many professionals see alienation of a child peaking around age 11.   According to Johnston and Kelly (2001), “An alienated child is one who expresses freely and persistently, unreasonable negative feelings and beliefs toward a parent that are significantly disproportionate to the child’s actual experience with the parent.”

Researchers have noted that children with the following characteristics are more likely to be successfully alienated from a parent:

  • Vulnerable personality
  • Dependent/enmeshed
  • Anxious/fearful
  • Passive
  • Sensitive

In addition, these children tend to rescue and care for the alienating parent because they recognize their emotional vulnerability and because they fear losing their love. The alienating parent makes it clear to their child, both directly and indirectly, that if the child is not 100% for them then they will be betraying them.  The child’s highly sensitive nature allows them to pick up on the subtleties  of the alienating parent’s emotionally fragile state.  The child also picks up on the alienating parent’s threat to turn against them if the child does not totally comply. They fear the wrath of the alienating parent who is generally more dominating than the other parent.

Because their alienating parent will likely have poor boundaries, the child will not have a strong sense of self. The parent thinks of their child as a part of them and refers to the two of them as if they are the same person. They expect the child to think exactly like they do and to remain dependent on them. With younger children, the parents insist upon sleeping and/or bathing with the child. They may look to outsiders as very attentive parents when in reality they are physically and emotionally way too close. Over time the child’s sense of separate boundaries can become blurred. They will eventually take on the emotions and beliefs of the alienating parent without question. It is not uncommon for these children to become emotionally enmeshed and dependent upon the alienating parent. Although they may do well in school they will fall far behind their peers socially and emotionally. Sadly these alienated children will select the parent who creates conditional love while rejecting the parent who loves them unconditionally. In extreme cases, these children are never able to leave home, even to attend college, and will remain in the alienated parent’s home indefinitely.

These at-risk children, often experienced a history of separation anxiety, guilt over their parent’s divorce and were likely caught in the middle of their parent’s warfare. They often have poor coping skills and reality testing.

The last of this series, part IV, will examine the circumstances and characteristics within children that help them resist the efforts of an alienating parent to turn the child against the other parent.


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