USA – The fragmented family: Parental Alienation

Parental Alienation occurs when one parent turns a child against the other parent, and it can devastate relationships, writes Lynda Renham-Cook.

Parental Alienation hit the headlines in a big way a few years ago thanks to the actor Alec Baldwin. During his acrimonious divorce from Kim Basinger, Baldwin phoned his daughter at an allotted time only to be met by her answering machine. His ‘thoughtless pig’ rant left on her machine made it onto the internet in a matter of days.

Baldwin blamed his estranged wife for the leak and accused her of Parental Alienation. His threats and insults directed at his 11-year-old daughter, Ireland, were splashed across the tabloids.

Baldwin firmly put Parental Alienation on the map. He was interviewed by the likes of David Letterman, Rosie O’Donnell, Barbara Walters and TIME magazine to explain himself and describe the circumstances that had driven him to such levels of rage and frustration.

Baldwin was a desperate father at his wits end as a result of Parental Alienation Syndrome. Baldwin has since written a book on the pain of divorced men. Titled A promise to ourselves the book attempts to show the pain and suffering that Parental Alienation can cause.

The alienated parent

Parental Alienation has touched me in a small way. Not having children of my own means I am safe from any kind of alienation but I have seen it happen to people close to me and it is horrifying in its subtlety. A close friend of ours was continually threatened with ‘the marital rape’.

“If you do not help with the cost of my car repairs I will have no alternative but to tell the children about the marital rape,” his estranged wife would email. Just seeing the words ‘marital rape’ was rather terrifying but the thought of your children being told that such a thing existed between you and their mother is horrifying, especially when the other parent considers marital rape to be when she wasn’t in the mood for sex but did it anyway.

For the majority of people that is not how rape is viewed. Lies are plentiful during Parental Alienation.

My friend’s children were constantly told that their father had issues but that he refused help. Although the marriage break-up was a mutual decision his estranged wife told the children their father had left her and them. In fact it was her who had an affair during the marriage.

It is hard to believe anyone can be so cruel to their children but for many parents the children are the best pawn to play. During the divorce my friend made his wife a very generous divorce offer; however, the story she presented to the children was that she and them would be left homeless and penniless. The alienation this produced saw my friend estranged from his eldest son for a year.

“The experience almost broke me. The tension with my other children was always there,” he says.

In this case my friend’s children were of teenage years and could understand more about what was going on. How much worse must it be when young children are the victims of Parental Alienation?

Parental Alienation explained

So what is Parental Alienation? In his book Divorce Casualties, Dr Douglas Darnell PhD gives definitions.

Parental Alienation (PA), he writes, is “any constellation of behaviours, whether conscious or unconscious, that could evoke a disturbance in the relationship between a child and the other parent”.

Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) symptoms describe the child’s behaviour and attitudes toward the targeted parent after the child has been effectively programmed and severely alienated from the targeted parent.

The distinction between the two is that Parental Alienation focuses on how the alienating parent behaves toward the children and the targeted parent.

Clare Winsor hosts the website ‘Alienated Parent’. She shared her story with me.

“Parental Alienation is not really recognised by the courts in the UK. The law often refers to the behaviour as Implacable Hostility, amongst other things,” says Clare.

I asked her what constitutes alienation.

“Blaming your ex-spouse because you do not have enough money, or because there have been changes in your lifestyle, or any other problems while in the presence of your child.

Making false allegations against the other parent of sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse or any other illegal activity is to alienate.

“Asking your children to choose you over the other parent is a common tactic,” says Clare. “Telling your children that they have good reason to feel angry toward the other parent.

“Asking your children to spy or covertly gather information to be used later against the other parent.

“Telling your children everything about why the marriage failed and giving them the details about the divorce settlement.

“These and many more will produce conflicting emotions within the child and tremendous anxiety.”

Clare’s story

Clare was the victim of Parental Alienation and I spoke to her about her own story.

Clare left her husband following a violent argument in 2001. The marriage had long entered a phase of violence and she could take it no longer.

That night, blinded by panic, she fled with her two older children (from a previous marriage) to a B&B not far away. Clare felt she would not get past her estranged husband with their son safely so left him there.

She did not want to think of the possibility of not seeing him again even though her ex-husband had threatened that. She did not imagine for one moment that her son would be psychologically manipulated.

After being re-housed Clare saw her son sporadically. Not being very happy with this she applied for shared care and join responsibility which she got. Within a short time her son’s behavior changed. He would attempt to kick and bite her. He seemed angry all the time and was very oppositional. Clare had difficulty controlling him.

By this time Clare’s husband was using manipulative techniques to turn their son against her. He would suggest more fun things for him to do when he was to visit her so he would feel resentment at having to see her.

He would arrange dates for her to see their son and then not turn up with him. At times he accused her new partner of abusing his son. This was denied and later proven to be untrue by the police. However, these kinds of accusations caused her son unnecessary stress.

Unbeknown to her he was also telling her son that she took drugs and did not really want to see him. In 2006 when her son was seven, Clare’s ex surprised her by saying he was ill and wanted to take his son on holiday to spend some quality time.

Clare presumed the illness to be serious. However, it was to be over two years before she saw her son again. Her ex-husband had taken him to Morocco. Clare later learnt that her son had lived in terrible conditions, had gone hungry and was often ill. Her only contact with him had been sporadic Skype chats. During that time his father met and married a Muslim woman.

When they finally returned to England, Clare was not informed. By the time she found out, they had left again. When Clare discovered he had taken her son back to Morocco without her consent she contacted the Foreign office who treated it as child abduction.

On their return Clare was shocked to hear that a Fatwa had been placed on her son’s father for lying about his conversion to Islam. The family was placed under police protection and her son interviewed.

At this point it was considered that Clare’s ex-husband had failed to meet their son’s emotional needs. A year later Clare had full residency of her son.

One thing Clare found very difficult was dealing with schools and the issue of which parent’s address is kept on record for officialdom.

“On good days I try to see what happened as a gift because I have grown so hugely as a result of suffering and today I see myself as a victor rather than a victim. I am blessed to have my son back in my life; it’s hard but I have learnt to love my son more than I hate my ex.”

Clare’s full story can be found at her website.

Of course, Parental Alienation happens every day in the happiest of families. I remember my mother criticising my father to me. But in a warm family environment the harsh words are quickly forgotten in the light of a loving relationship.


Amanda is a cognitive behavioural therapist who specialises in working with people who suffer from personality disorders. She became interested in working with personality disorders after attending training to help her understand her ex-husband who has a suspected Narcissistic Personality Disorder. After her marriage broke up she lost her relationship with her eldest daughter. She tells her story:

In common with borderline-type problems, I was an over-emotional person with rather severe abandonment issues at the time. My husband used me as a convenient prop, exploiting me in every way possible.

Fearing abandonment and emotionally dependent and compliant, I accepted the emotional crumbs that he threw my way. When I had my first daughter, Alexa, I had post-natal depression and could not care for her for the first six  weeks of her life.  My then husband’s attitude towards me changed, he increasingly became distant and rejecting, pouring his love and attention onto our daughter.

At first I thought this was sweet and indicated he was a good father. In normal psychological development the little girl loves her father in a special way. He is the ultimate protector, the hero. He will fight her battles and always win. She is his princess. She is fearless with daddy by her side. Little girls idealise their fathers. Daddy is often forgiven more quickly than mother.

Mother is female like her; father is male, a prince. This is part of the symbolic family tale that explains the special relationship that develops in healthy father/daughter relationships. As the daughter becomes more separate from her father as an individual, she is able to view him as a real person with his flaws and human frailties.

A good father loves his daughter deeply but securely guides her toward becoming a separate human being. My ex-husband was not this type of father. He was a narcissistic father always looking for ego gratification. He could think of nothing better than to be adored by a perfect beautiful daughter that belonged only to him, His daughter.

He favoured the one daughter over everyone else. Alexa had certain attributes that were important to him: physical beauty, outgoing personality, smoothly manipulative, highly confident. The narcissistic father chooses his special daddy’s girl over his wife as a psychological partner.

In her mind and psyche, my daughter began to feel like her dad’s partner not his child. I remember being confused at her screamingly angry reaction to my husband at the time kissing me in front of her. She was four years old and he was not allowed to show me any affection or she would react like a jealous girlfriend.

As my daughter has matured, she has false memories (implanted by her father after the divorce) that are not true. His consistent programming and brainwashing of my oldest child is both subtle and overt, even down to wiping out good memories I try to create with my daughters: if I take them to a four-star hotel in Majorca, immediately we get back he takes them to a five-star hotel in exactly the same place. Subsequently they cannot remember the time spent with me, only with him.

My daughter and I have become alienated because of her total rejection of everything to do with me. My daughter has developed a narcissistic personality, playing her role as daddy’s girl to the hilt. She is 19 and living with her father and his girlfriend.

She is not allowed to go to college or university unless she can travel home each night. She is not allowed to keep secrets from him. He has told me that if I did not do what he wanted, he would tell her to stay away from me and I would never see her again.

He admits that his control over my daughter is complete and absolute. He wields this information as a weapon. My daughter thinks that all of these thoughts and feelings are her own, not some manipulative mind-bending that her father is capable of.


If you think Parental Alienation is being directed at you but are not sure, you can check the Parental Alienation symptom checklist.

Help for Alienated Parents can be found on Clare’s web page under PAS resources.

Matchmothers support mothers who are apart from their children for various reasons.

Lynda Renham-Cook is associate editor at The Scavenger.

Image courtesy of of Kate Dacasto

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