Most divorcing parents tend to alienate somewhat at a low level due to the high emotions involved in a divorce or custody dispute and because of the natural conflict that arises when two parents are separating. This is termed “naïve” alienation, which means they often are not aware they are engaging in harmful behavior and with a little coaching can understand the consequences and cease the alienating.
Higher up on the continuum is something termed “active” alienation, in which the parent is aware of his/her behavior, but thinks it is necessary to protect the child from a harmful parent. Finally, the most severe is “obsessive” alienation, in which the parent is determined to interfere with the child’s relationship with a parent in order to fulfill his/her own personal or emotional needs.
The more severe the level of alienation, the more time it takes to tease out all of the complicated emotions and behaviors involved. It is not uncommon, for example, for the alienating parent to accuse the victimized parent of alienation as well, so a therapist often has to set certain rules and test different scenarios in order to determine who the real alienator is.
Treatment responses for alienation, once determined, is not as simple as giving the alienated parent custody. That doesn’t address the children’s needs. Children of alienators are often unaware of what is happening and naturally side with the alienating parent because of what they have been told or led to believe. You cannot simply change custody and expect the children to be okay. Instead, it may take months or years to repair some of the alienating damage. A wise therapist will attempt to build good relationships with ALL parties involved in order to help the children readjust to new attitudes. Unless the alienating is extremely severe, punitive responses rarely work and only serve to create more conflict for the children.
Legal and court professionals would do well to understand that this is a complicated issue and they should refrain from writing simple responses to it in custody agreements or court orders. See the journal, Family Court Review, Volume 48, Number 1, for helpful research articles on this topic.
Copyright 2011 Diane C. Shearer