If so, you’re probably experiencing the effects of parental alienation or hostile aggressive parenting. It’s normal to have hard feelings at the end of a significant relationship, however, you have a choice about how you handle it.
Most cases of parental alienation occur in dissolved marriages/relationships, break ups, and divorces in which there’s a high degree of conflict, emotional abuse and/or mental illness or personality disorders.
If you were emotionally abused by your ex while you were still together, then your kid(s) learned some powerful lessons about relationships, especially if you had a “no talk” policy about the rages, yelling, emotional withdrawal, cold silences and verbal attacks. Children are adversely affected by witnessing constant conflict and overt and covert relational abuse, no matter their age.
Emotionally and/or physically abusive women and men are scary when on the attack, which probably makes it all the more confusing to see your ex turn your child(ren) against you. Don’t your kids see how out of whack their mom or dad is being? Don’t they know that you love them and how much you want to be in their lives? Don’t they realize they need you now more than ever? Yes and no.
On some level, they do know this. Nonetheless, they’re lashing out at you like mini-versions of your ex. Why?
It’s not that confusing if you think about it from a child’s perspective. Children depend utterly upon their custodial parent. Seeing mom or dad lose it and out of control is anxiety provoking, if not downright terrifying. The following are possible reasons why your ex’s campaign of parental alienation may be successful.
1. You left them alone with the crazy person. You got out and they didn’t. They’re mad that you’re not there anymore to intervene, act as a buffer, protect them or take the brunt of it.
2. Self-preservation. They see how your ex is treating you because she or he is angry with you. Your kid(s) don’t want your ex’s wrath directed at them. It’s like making “friends” with the school bully so they don’t pick on you.
3. Fear of loss. They’re worried that if they anger or displease your ex that they’ll be emotionally and/or physically banished, too. This is especially true if your ex used to shut you out, give you the cold shoulder and/or ignore you when she or he was upset with you. Your kids probably fear your ex will do this to them if they don’t go along with her or him.
4. They’re mad at you. You’re no longer physically present at home, which they experience as a psychological loss. Many kids experience this as betrayal and/or abandonment. Even if they can recognize that you didn’t have a happy marriage, they still want mom and dad to be together.
Loss, whether it’s physical (death) or psychological (divorce), requires a mourning period. Children aren’t psychologically equipped to handle grief and mourning. Pending other developmental milestones, kids don’t have the psychological capacity to successfully navigate loss until mid-adolescence. If you’d died, they could idealize your memory. However, you’re alive and chose to leave (or your ex chose for you). How do you mourn the loss of someone who’s not dead? It takes a level of intellectual sophistication children don’t possess not to vilify the physically absent parent—especially when your ex isn’t capable of it as an adult.
5. Rewards and punishment. Your ex “rewards” the kids (material goods, praise, trips and fun activities—probably with your support money—oh the irony) for siding with her, being cruel to you or cutting you off. If your kid(s) stand up for you or challenge your ex’s smear campaign, they’re chastised, lose privileges or have affection withheld from them. Remember how your ex used to treat you when she or he was displeased? It’s way scarier when you’re a kid. You have options as an adult that your children don’t.
6. The good son or daughter. They see how upset and out of control your ex is and want to take care of and make her or him “better.” They try to do this by doing what your ex wants, which is being hostile toward you and/or excluding you from their lives. This creates what psychologists refer to as the parentified child. Parentification forces a child to shoulder emotions and responsibilities for which she or he isn’t developmentally prepared and is also a form of child abuse.
Emotional parentification is particularly destructive for children and frequently occurs in parental alienation cases. The custodial parent implicitly or explicitly dumps their emotional needs on the child. The child becomes the parent’s confidante, champion/hero and surrogate for an adult partner. This is extremely unhealthy as it robs children of their childhood and leads to difficulty in having normal adult relationships later in life.
7. Power and control. They see the power your ex wields by behaving in an abusive and hurtful way toward you. They can wield the same power by acting out and hurting you, too. A child or teenager’s first taste of power can be thrilling for them. Of course, what they’re learning from you ex is how to gain control by being an emotionally abusive bully.
8. It’s good to be the victim. The more your ex plays the professional victim to friends, family and the legal system, the more benefits she or he gains—deferential treatment, sympathy, power and money. The kids mirror your ex’s victim mentality and behaviors and use it to net their own gains.
A combination of the above reasons probably applies to child(ren) siding with your abusive and alienating ex, particularly when you’ve been a good and loving parent. It’s demoralizing to have your kid(s) slap or push you away each time you reach out to them. It’s maddening that family court in many cases is blind to the abuses of parental alienation. Try to keep in mind that most children aren’t consciously aware that the above phenomena are occurring. Of course, that doesn’t make it any easier to be the emotional and financial punching bag for your ex and children.
by Dr Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD
Originally published at A Shrink for Men on March 6, 2009