Picture in your mind a therapist interviewing a family where two little children are snuggling up to their mother as she looks lovingly upon them. The mother with her little boy and girl is sitting as far away from the father as possible. The children point at their father with ugly scowls on their faces, saying things like:
“We don’t ever want to go to your house again! We hate you! You left us all alone and took all the money, and you make Mommy cry!”
The father, glaring furiously, retorts, “That’s not true! Your mother is lying,” all the while acting agitated and at his wit’s end.
It is a natural human response for most people to believe that such a reaction in children must be caused by some abhorrent behavior by the father, and to believe that the mother and the children have one loving, healthy relationship. It takes a highly skilled and experienced specialist in parental alienation to know it is necessary to dig deeper to be sure of the underlying truth in this scenario.
First, a specialist in parental alienation would recognize that it is highly unnatural for any child to show such vehement disrespect against a parent, even if abused by that parent. Abused children typically cling to and are protective of the abusive parent. They want to repair the relationship and forgive the abuser, so they are likely to deny or minimize past abuse. It is a red flag for alienation if the child shows extremely rude, angry behavior toward a rejected parent.
Second, a parental alienation expert will know that what looks like a loving, warm relationship between the mother and child could also be what is called “enmeshment.” This is when the alienating parent forces an unhealthy, codependent psychological bond with a child. The parent and child have such a fused relationship that the child is unable to determine his/her own feelings or experiences as different from those of the parent. A triangulation may have formed, where the parent and child align in a hostile coalition against the other parent. Specialized training is necessary to correctly identify enmeshment.
Third, when assessing the father described above who is caught up in his reaction to being treated so badly by his children, an expert in parental alienation will recognize that this father’s reaction may be situational, rather than immediately characterizing him as an angry person and one who therefore provides the children with ample reason to reject him. In other words, it is the situation, not his angry character, that is the reason for his reaction. When target parents are in a trauma reaction to parental alienation, it is not abnormal for them to show considerable emotional upset and anger.
The above examples show why it takes specialized training and a lot of experience with parental alienation for therapists to correctly identify these counterintuitive situations and to devise treatment plans to counter the alienation.
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