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  • Susan Fletcher, Ph.D.

What Behaviors Contribute to Alienation in a Family in Conflict? (Part Three of Five)

In the first part of this series, I described parental alienation and provided a few examples of behaviors professionals look for when asked to work with a family. In the second part of the series, I covered the effect alienation has on children. In this third part of the series, I’m going to provide even more information about behaviors that contribute to alienation in a family in conflict.

Alienation is a system problem, not a problem with one individual. A family is a system and when alienating behaviors are present, the whole system is negatively affected. Many people will just look to the child who may be resisting or rejecting a parent in the system and that would be inappropriate. Without attention to the whole family system, the problem is likely to continue.

In a family where alienating behaviors are occurring, the parent the child favors is often called the “favored parent”. The parent the child is resisting or rejecting is often referred to as the “rejected parent”. Many times the rejected parent wants to focus on the problems he or she believes the favored parent is causing. That too would be unproductive. It is more productive for the rejected parent to focus on his or her own effective parenting, including how to respond to the child who is resisting. I know it may make more sense and even feel better to a parent to blame the other but that delays improvement and fuels the conflict that is already a part of the family.

How the family members interact with each other and the behaviors that need to be redirected are the main focus for improvement in a family when alienating behaviors are suspected. Some of the behaviors that require redirection include:

  • A child being told adult content

  • A parent allowing a child to make adult decisions, including about contact

  • Few references about or a lack of acknowledgement of the other parent

  • Discounting good times a child had with the rejected parent

  • Telling a child fun things he or she missed when with the other parent

  • Giving a child the cold shoulder, silent treatment or retaliating after a child returns from a visit with the rejected parent

  • Removing photos and other reminders of the other parent

  • Refuses to speak to the other parent, be in close proximity, or let the other parent come to the door to get the children during exchanges

  • Making unfounded allegations of abuse by a parent

  • Poor parenting practices by a parent parent

  • Noncompliance with court orders by the favored parent

  • No concern for missed visits with other parent

  • Allowing the child to call the rejected parent by his or her first name

  • Encouraging and supporting the child to reject what is associated with the other parent

  • Sending the other parent adult messages through the children

  • Withholding the child during the other parent’s parenting time

  • Scheduling activities for the child during the other parent’s parenting time

  • Interfering with the other parent’s parenting time

  • Calling and/or texting excessively during the other parent’s parenting time

  • Making derogatory statements about rejected parent

  • Campaigning for affection and affinity at the expense of the other parent

  • Refusing to hear positives from children about the other parent

  • Undermining other parent’s effectiveness and involvement in parenting the children

Even though it is tempting to just focus on the misbehaviors of the favored parent, professionals will serve families better if they focus on the misbehavior of the rejected parent to improve the rejected parent’s parent functioning. In families where resistance and refusal are present, both parents need attention to parent functioning. In an article by Friedlander and Walters, the specific needs of the rejected parent are addressed including:

“Finally, it is important to note that rejected parents will often react to their children’s behavior in ways that reinforce the exaggerated or distorted negative image that the child holds of them, thereby giving credence to that negative image and strengthening the child’s tendency to avoid. This situation can be further complicated by the fact that the rejected parent’s ability and authority to parent have been compromised. The rejected parent is in a blind because of having no traction to parent; to say “no” to the child, to discipline the child or to otherwise frustrate the child, all of which are part of good and responsible parenting.”[1]

In Part Four of this series I will address ways to combat behaviors that contribute to the problem of alienation in the best interest of a child.

Until next time,

[1] Friedlander, S. and Walters, M. (2010) When a child rejects a parent: Tailoring the intervention to fit the problem. Family Court Review, Vol. 48, No. 1, January 2010 page 104.

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