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The Zero Sum Game Of Parental Alienation

12/28/2016 11:35am ET | Updated December 29, 2017
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This is the time of year when families draw together, but some parents don't get to experience that, despite longing for it fiercely. I've written before about parental alienation, about the pain and suffering endured by parents whose children have been alienated from them through the other parent's tactics, usually in a high conflict divorce.

Since my initial posting, more media attention has shed light on this devastating phenomenon. Jennifer Harman, a researching social psychologist, associate professor of psychology at Colorado State University, and co-author of Parents Acting Badly (Harman, Jennifer Jill., and Zeynep Biringnen. Parents Acting Badly: How Institutions and Societies Promote the Alienation of Children from Their Loving Families. San Bernardino, CA: CreateSpace, 2016.), gave a terrific TEDx Talk about parental alienation, highlighting it as a domestic abuse and social justice issue.

"Parental alienation involves a set of behaviors that one parent does to damage, destroy, or sever the relationship between their children and the other parent," Harman explains. "Parental alienation is a form of indirect aggression. The true target of this aggression is the other parent, and children are their weapons. Therefore parental alienation is a form of domestic violence."

In her TEDx talk, Harman discusses how ingrained cultural stereotypes about parenting roles affect this phenomenon. "Fathers often get gold stars for doing anything fatherly, while this behavior is expected of mothers," she says. Yet people are often quick to believe that a father is abusive if a mother says so, because our cultural programming dovetails with her claims.

"It's very easy to alienate fathers from their children because we have very negative stereotypes about them. They're deadbeat dads, they're abusive, they're absentee parents. Many alienated fathers I have interviewed have told me that their once-close friends and neighbors suddenly believed horrible things about them without hearing their side of the story," Harman says.

At the same time, she points out, "It's very easy to alienate mothers when we can show that they are unmotherly. For example, if a mother leaves early to pick up her children, how would you rate her abilities as a parent compared to a father doing the same thing?... So fathers can alienate very effectively if they can show that they are exemplary, which is not hard to do because we do not expect much of them in the first place, and if they can show that the mother is not motherly enough. Our rigid parenting stereotypes are hurting children and families."

While a mother can accuse her former husband of abuse and her allegations receive the weight of cultural programming, a father can use claims of mental illness to the same devastating effect: to invalidate his former wife as a mother and to target her for alienation from their children. Our subterranean gender expectations lend undeserved credence to his accusations.

Therefore a man who goes around telling everyone that his former wife is crazy is a man who is committing an aggressive act of domestic violence against his former wife. And a woman who falsely accuses the father of her children of abuse is doing the same.

The general public can have a hard time understanding parental alienation. According to Harman's research, some 22,000,000 adults in the United States are experiencing it. Many people know someone who's been targeted, but they vaguely think that alienation just comes from a bitter divorce. On some level, they believe the target parent must have done something terrible for the children to be alienated; this assumption is false and devastating for the target parent. It is "blame the victim" mentality.

There's also the common misconception that "it takes two to tango" and therefore both parents caused the alienation, which is not true, any more than it is true that the victim of a bully caused the bullying. Parental alienation is unmitigated human aggression, and it is often one-sided.

This aggression is strategic. As Harman notes, alienators often use cultural gender role stereotypes to accomplish their aims. Those stereotypes, because they are intrinsic and shared, will engage everyone around them. Alienating parents know that. Friends, neighbors, teachers, professionals, and therapists get caught up in the accusations of abuse or of mental illness--of bad parenting by one parent. Target parents feel shocked and bewildered at the through-the-looking-glass false world that springs up around them. It is a world in which they are deemed to be monsters.

Cultural stereotypes aren't the only tools of alienating parents. Stanley Clawar and Brynne Rivlin's excellent book Children Held Hostage (Clawar, Stanley S., and Brynne V. Rivlin. Children Held Hostage: Identifying Brainwashed Children, Presenting a Case, and Crafting Solutions. Chicago: American Bar Association, 2013.) delineates some of the brain-washing strategies involved in alienating a child from a loving parent.

One strategy involves group dynamics, and highlighting the target parent's differences from a well-defined group. As in a cult, "...defining all nongroup members as unacceptable--requires that one must first define the limits of the (in) group." (Children Held Hostage, p. 6.) If the alienating parent comes from a defined ethnic or socioeconomic group with tribal interconnections, and the target parent comes from a smaller or more generic group, the alienating parent will use that to manipulate distance between a child and the other parent. The child is included, by definition, and the target parent is excluded: "not one of us."

In practical terms, as a hypothetical example (with no offense meant to the identities used purely as examples), a WASP from a small family who marries into a large, tightly connected Irish-Catholic family, or an American who travels to Italy and marries a woman from a closely-knit small village, may find themselves the shunned odd-parent-out in a divorce situation. The large group is seductive to children.

In particular, if the alienating parent's family is wealthy and successful and therefore enhanced with the trappings of narcissistic reinforcements, the less-wealthy target parent may find himself or herself quickly demoted to sub-human. Children are sensitive to status.

Indeed, the point of an alienating parent's tactics is to make the target parent less than human and thus a non-parent. That parent's feelings, values, and needs are eroded in the child's mind. That parent's very human-ness does not matter. A child who communicates with the target parent demands a Stepford parent with no personal needs or feelings at all, who will accept their third class status citizenship; this child is encouraged by the alienating parent, and sometimes by therapists, to believe that only his or her feelings matter. A target parent can be horrified at his or her previously loving child's complete lack of remorse for their cruelty.

An alienated child is not taught the open-hearted, wholesome reciprocity and mutuality that are the basis for a healthy loving relationship. He or she is taught, both by the modeling of the aggressive parent and by the messages received from that parent and various hoodwinked people, that a relationship is a zero sum game. To the extent that one person in a dyad is loved and appreciated, the other person will be devalued.

Everything must add to zero for the alienating parent. For this parent, there is a winner and a loser; the winner gets the child's affection and intimacy only to the extent that the target parent loses it.

The heart-breaking end result of this philosophy is that both the target parent and the child lose. They lose each other. A target parent loses a beloved child or children, and an alienated child loses a loving parent as well as that crucial internalized piece of himself or herself. This zero sum game is a game of devastation.