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Divorce and Family Law

Rage and revenge: Parental alienation in child custody disputes

Divorce is almost always a difficult experience for parents to get through. Disagreements over child custody can be complex mixes of emotion and law in which each parent believes they’re doing what’s best for the child.

Turning a child into a weapon

Unfortunately, there are sometimes high-conflict divorces in which a parent (often the custodial parent) tries to weaponize the child by relentlessly denigrating and blaming the other parent. The result of the alienating parent’s efforts is that the child learns to despise and reject the other parent and is eager to cut off all ties without justification.

Parental alienation is a wrenching phenomenon that can distort and even destroy the cherished relationship a parent has with their child.

Defining parental alienation

Author Mary S. Castelloe writes in Psychology Today that the alienating parent is often vindictive, seeking to punish the other parent for the divorce and other matters. Using a toxic blend of intimidation and coercion, the alienating parent indoctrinates the impressionable child.

Castelloe notes that parental alienation is a concept conceived of by the late psychologist and psychiatrist Richard Gardener.

Determined to degrade

He observed that alienating parents are full of rage, determined to “degrade, shame and humiliate the target parent.” The alienating parent and the child often level charges of abuse (physical and/or sexual) during divorce and custody proceedings in Oakland County courtrooms.

Their short-term goal is to prevail in the divorce, with a long-term aim of destroying the target parent’s bond of love and trust with the child.

The real victim

Throughout the process, the alienating parent might well believe that the target of their immense ire has been the other parent. They often don’t even notice that the real victim of their emotional machinations has been their own child, who can effectively lose a parent and later struggle with guilt and shame over their participation, though coerced, in the unjust scheme.

Castelloe urges parents caught in parental alienation to continue to reach out in lovingly to their child, encouraging direct communication rather than through the other parent. She also advises that targeted parents look for a support group that can help them to with the emotional challenges of parental alienation.