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A closer look at "alienated children"

Traumatized by abuse, not "alienated"
Traumatized by abuse, not "alienated"

Ever been in either of the following situations?

As a child, you wanted to “tell” on another kid who did something wrong but that kid had all the teachers wrapped around his/her finger so you knew telling would do nothing but backfire on you.

As the newest employee, a senior employee tells you not to perform a duty the management has asked you to; if you defy this senior employee you might as well not have the job because it’s been made clear that your work life WILL become a living hell if you don’t “go along to get along”.

Even if you’ve never been in either situation it’s clear to see that in each scenario, there’s an imbalance of power and control: a kid more popular/favored and a senior employee. From the get-go we already know there is no and will be no equality, fairness or justice in either context UNLESS something changes to bring the “haves” (popular kid/senior employee) down to the “have-nots” (average kid/newest employee) level OR raises the have-nots up to the haves level. In absence of an equalizing factor, both power structures for all involved will remain as-is and the only viable option for the have-nots is to adapt to survive.

Adapting and surviving are two mechanisms hard-wired into our DNA from the moment of conception and these mechanisms are so strong that they can override any of our conscious efforts to undo or release them. The best example of this would be botched suicides – not for lack of intervention – but for the body’s innate ability to adapt and survive from poisoning or severe physical trauma despite the individual’s will to pull the plug on himself/herself.

This is not complicated science but bottom-line fact whereas parental alienation is junk science based upon complicated “professional” (and money-making) mumbo jumbo. This is NOT to say that “something” isn’t going on but lets take a more in-depth look at what that something is from the child’s perspective.

First of all, remember that “parental alienation” (the money-making kind) only occurs within the context of divorce and not just any divorce but “high conflict” divorces (70-75% of which contain histories of domestic violence so we’re talking abuse situations here where “normal divorce dynamics” do not apply). See Peter Jaffe’s compilation of studies here:

Children look to their parents to take care of them; to nurture, comfort, support, protect, guide, provide for, love and discipline them. (And a note here about discipline: we’re talking about providing rules, boundaries, structure, routine, stability, teaching self-control and enforcing appropriate consequences for inappropriate behavior. Discipline is derived from the word “disciple” which means “to teach” NOT to beat, batter or punish.)

Children also look up to the other adults in their lives (not just literally) to behave much the same. A child (under the age of majority) is automatically in the have-not position; any and every adult will legally and socially have power and control over that child in any given situation until he/she turns 18. This essentially puts all children at the mercy of adults.

We warn children about “stranger danger” yet it’s still taboo to warn children about the danger potential of friends and relatives even though the majority of crimes against children are perpetrated by these very people! Sexual abuse and rape are so much easier to talk about (and better received) then incest but again if you look at the stats of child sex abuse perpetrators, family member perpetrators top the list!

Abusers are not ideal or even appropriate parents and if you take a look at an abuser’s personality traits you’d probably agree that an abuser is NOT a good role model – or even a good influence – for any child (particularly their own). As a general rule, it’s good parenting practice to keep vulnerable children AWAY from bad influences, right? Thing is, abusers can be excellent models of good behavior with other people’s children (showmanship counts!) just not their own. It’s the same act abusers play for all of us, just not his target victim, and that’s why we see him as "such a nice guy" and doubt her claims of abuse to begin with; in short yes, we’re easily played.

The thing about kids – especially the younger ones – is that they’re so refreshingly (and often embarrassingly) honest. There’s no masking the crinkled upturned nose, recovering nonchalantly from the declaration “YUCK!” or keeping a kid from pushing something or someone negative away. These behaviors are normal for young children and a normal parent would probably respond to these by verbal comment (“That’s not a very nice thing to say/do – you need to say ‘I’m sorry’ now”) or physical redirection (time-out). A normal parent wouldn’t pinch the child’s cheek leaving a bruise in response to a crinkled nose, put the yucky object into the child’s face or push the child hard enough to fall for pushing but an abusive parent would. WE might recognize this kind of treatment as abusive but to a child with an abuser for a parent, he/she will see these behaviors as “normal” because that’s the way it is and there is no other way – adapt to survive.

Kids are by no means stupid; when mom says, “The police will protect us because of this paper a judge signed” yet the kids are taken from mom or mom’s taken away from them, what message do you think that sends the kids?

Know what makes the abuser angry? The child knows; he/she has made it a priority to learn all the rules of the abuser’s game to avoid painful consequences. If your life depends upon the generosity of someone else and there’s no escape, what good does it do to tell on the person who could make your life a living hell for doing so? If you personally know what the abuser is capable of, do you REALLY want to test that limit or would you do your best to be the best to evade abusive episodes? What’s love got to do with any of this? Absolutely NOTHING! Adapt to survive.

Below are some true-life examples of what some parents have done to their child/ren – you decide if these are normal or abusive parenting practices:

  • A 9 year-old girl is told repeatedly, “Looks like your mom’s not coming to get you” at the end of every visitation. Although mom’s on-time, the father won’t let the little girl leave on-time and uses the extra minutes to tell his daughter how irresponsible, neglectful and abandoning her mom really is.
  • A 12 year-old boy gives his father letters to mail to his mom; likewise, mom is mailing letters to her son but neither of them receive anything because unknown to both, the father is throwing all the letters away leaving each to wonder and worry if the other is even alive anymore.
  • A 16 year-old girl is punched in the head by her mother, who gets in the girl’s face immediately after and says “I didn’t punch you; you fell and hit your head because you’re so clumsy. If you tell anyone about this, I’ll tell them how crazy you are and then you’ll be locked up for good”.

None of these events occurred just once for these kids; the specific tactic mentioned was just one small link in a chain of other abusive parenting practices. Now imagine yourself in the shoes of any of these kids – if you were treated this way year after year, how do you think you’d emerge? “Repeat after me” only works when there’s a coercive threat, spoken or unspoken, behind it and that’s not alienation, that’s abuse! Adapt to survive…

In the 9 year-old’s case, all it would take is ONE TIME for her mom to be late to suddenly turn the abusers lies into statements that MAY now bear some seed of truth for her – after all, mom’s not there and the abuser HAS warned her about this. If the daughter began crying, the abuser would be there to comfort her saying “I know Honey, she did the same thing to Daddy”. Now you’ve got a special bond forged around what the daughter believes is a shared experience. In this case, mom would be the one to cry “parental alienation” when all it really is is the consequence of abusive manipulation and where have we seen all this before…?

Think of the relationship between parent and child (of any age really); who has more influence and impact over whom? (I’ll give you a hint: the whole field of therapy was focused around parent-child relationships and it WASN’T the parents seeking help for the psychological injury imparted by their children!) Parents impact their children in profound, life-altering and life-changing ways. If that influence is a good one, we need to support that but if the influence is a bad one, make no mistake – it’s called abuse, not “alienation”. 


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