Parent Survival Guide Parent Survival Guide Issue 02 (Spring) - Page 27

This severing of a child’s bonds with a parent by the other parent is called parental alienation, and Chris had become a target parent.

Dr. William Bernet, professor emeritus of the Department of Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, explains, “Parental alienation is a mental condition in which a child—usually one whose parents are engaged in a high conflict separation or divorce—allies himself strongly with one parent (the preferred parent or alienating parent) and rejects a relationship with the other parent (target parent) without legitimate justification.2

The ex-wife and her new husband had moved to a new town, where the ex-wife took Chris off all medical and school records. She replaced Chris’ name with her new husband’s. She seemed to want to hide her lesbian past from her new straight friends and her new husband’s family. Chris says that her former wife instructed the boys not to call Chris “Mama.”

“She wanted to wash me out and thought I’d eventually go away,” Chris told me. “But I dug in.”

Chris texted her older son every day, “I love you.”

Parental alienation doesn’t happen by accident. It is strategic. It is tactical. There are typical patterns and ploys used by alienating parents to sever the bond of love and connection between the child and the target parent.

Dr. Amy Baker, author of books on the topic and a nationally recognized expert in the phenomenon, identifies 17 strategies used by alienating parents, strategies that fall into 5 primary categories:

(1) poisonous messages to the child about the targeted parent in which he or she is portrayed as unloving, unsafe, and unavailable; (2) limiting contact and communication between the child and the targeted parent;

(3) erasing and replacing the targeted parent in the heart and mind of the child;

(4) encouraging the child to betray the targeted parent’s trust; and

(5) undermining the authority of the targeted parent.

Taken together these parental alienation strategies foster conflict and psychological distance between the child and the targeted parent. When one parent engages in these behaviors they can be considered a toxic ex3.

Stanley Clawar and Brynne Rivlin’s thorough book Children Held Hostage identifies the brainwashing strategies of those “poisonous messages,” which include group dynamics, highlighting the target parent’s differences from a well-defined group, and attacking the lifestyle of the target parent as part of a thematic focus4. The point of attacking a target parent’s lifestyle or differences is to instil within children the belief that they shouldn’t have a relationship with the target parent.

On the sociological front, Dr. Jennifer Harman, a research psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Colorado State University, presents parental alienation as a domestic abuse and social justice issue. Alienating parents use ingrained cultural stereotypes about parents to target the other parent for alienation. It hurts the children, she argues, but the primary end is to hurt the target parent, so it is a form of domestic violence5.

These resources paint a picture of the phenomenon that embroiled Chris. Her former wife physically prevented the children from seeing her, which falls squarely into Baker’s category “limiting contact and communication.” Telling the children not to call Chris “Mama” and removing Chris’ name from medical and school records is a way to “erase and replace the targeted parent.” The ex-wife certainly behaved like a toxic ex.

In this specific case, Chris was navigating the minefield of sexual identity and sexual (Cont. on p. 29)

The point of attacking a target parent’s lifestyle or differences is to instil within children the belief that they shouldn’t have a relationship. with the target parent.

spring 2017 PSG 27