Understanding parental alienation

by Carolyn on September 18, 2009

It’s always amazing to me the insight one gains when they actually experience something.  I truly believe and have said before that with no real point of reference, it’s impossible to really understand something.  You can be empathetic, understanding, critical or disparaging until the day grows long.  But without the actual experience you can’t truly know how someone feels, what motivates them or most importantly, what you would do in the same situation.

I’m reminded again of a song I’ve loved for years.  What It’s Like, by Everlast.

I think sometimes about parental alienation syndrome (PAS).  It’s quite the hot topic in divorce and exposes one of it’s ugliest sides when children are involved.  We’d all like to think that it’s rare and that only bad or selfish parents do it but there is a whole spectrum that makes it much more common that anyone might want to believe.

We are social creatures and although we often don’t think of our family as our social circle, it is in fact, the first social circle we become members of.  And it’s the most important social circle that we ever have.  So is it really all that strange for us to behave within our families as we would socially?

Yes, because we as adults know better.  But sometimes our reactions get the best of us.

I am happily married with two small children.  And nothing makes me happier than witnessing the truly amazing relationship my husband shares with both of them.  I’m his biggest fan to them and their biggest fans to him.  Seeing their excitement each time he walks in the room brings a real smile to my face.

Until I’m angry…at him.

Then suddenly it’s like I’m on a school yard facing off with him amid a circle of our peers.  I want to ostracize and punish him because I know I’m right and the best way to illustrate that point is to show him that everyone is on my side and nobody is on his.  Like a third grader I want to say, “Come on everyone.  We don’t want to play with him.”

In that moment seeing the pure joy in my children’s faces at his arrival can suddenly make them seem like the kids that didn’t follow.  The ones that wouldn’t join me in proving my point.  So now I’m not saying with excitement in my voice “Who’s home?!”  Instead I keep doing whatever I’m doing and say a dull “yeah” (while patting myself on the back for not saying something derogatory) when my son announces, “Hey mom, guess what?  Dad’s home!”

Is it alienation?  You might not think so, but does my son notice the difference?  Yes, he does.  Will he start to question why I’m suddenly not joining in the rally and wonder if maybe he’s not supposed to as well?  I’m sure he would.  Would he maybe think that he’s supposed to not show his excitement and maybe even show displeasure at dad’s arrival to either please me or because he thinks that’s now the expected behaviour?  If it goes on long enough, that’s exactly what will happen.

Children are highly mouldable creatures.  They are not our peers.  So many adults don’t remain mindful that children are not miniature adults.  They cannot reason or stand up for themselves like we can.  At their developmental stage, their main goal is self preservation.  They are going to do whatever they have to do to survive and better their lives.  Primarily that consists of pleasing their caregivers.  And it gives parents the ultimate advantage when it comes to manipulating their children.  This also contradicts the defence so many guilty parents use when justifying their actions – “They could have chosen differently” Because children who are victims of PAS don’t have a choice.  It’s either please their caregiver who provides them with everything they need or….what?  What alternative would you have a child choose.

And parents aren’t the only ones who can get in on the game.  Any authority figure can impact a child.  Step parents, grand parents, aunts, uncles, friends of the family.  Children will give up their own voices and their own inner feelings to that which they think is expected of them from an authority figure.  And that’s exactly how we raise our children to be:  Obedient.  To do what they are told.  To please their authority figures.  Leaving them completely vulnerable to adult manipulation.

I can write that PAS is disgusting.  That it’s wrong.  That it serves nobody but the perpetrator and in the end won’t serve them well either.  And that’s all true.  But being a parent and not in a perfect marriage, I have perspective as well.  And I understand the place it comes from.  The need for validation and empowerment.  I have felt the pull to act in accordance to how I feel instead of how know I should.

But I also have felt the sting of knowing my parents were not each other’s fans.  Of wondering whether it was a betrayal to show love.  And THAT’s the perspective I keep squarely in view when I’m angry within my marriage.  That’s why no matter how much I don’t want to promote my husband, I don’t just not say anything negative; I smile from ear to ear and say happily, “Yay!  Dad’s home!”

Coming soon: Part II, Alienation goes two ways & Part III, The spectrum of parental alienation syndrome


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Parental alienation l PAS l Two ways — The Grown Up Child
September 22, 2009 at 10:40 pm

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Eyes Wide Open September 18, 2009 at 3:07 pm

Can’t wait for part two!!! Having recently discovered that PAS was the root of many of our problems, it’s a newly favorite topic of mine.
Thanks Carolyn!
.-= Eyes Wide Open´s last blog ..Another Perspective On Marriage =-.


2 Carolyn September 18, 2009 at 10:04 pm

I’m glad you enjoyed reading it. And after reading about your experience with PAS, I can understand you wanting to read as much as possible about it. I really do think it’s much more common than most want to acknowledge. And I think it can start and be perpetuated quite subtlely as well. I think most people think of PAS as a parent simply telling terrible things about the other parent to their child, and that does happen sometimes. But more often it’s the little things that also send the message that alienation = loyalty which make it such a prevalent issue.

I’m looking forward to writing part 2 as well!


3 La Bell Mere September 19, 2009 at 2:38 pm

This was a fantastic post. Looking forward to Part II!

.-= La Bell Mere´s last blog ..September Live Chat =-.


4 Kelly September 20, 2009 at 6:56 pm

You are brilliant. It’s so true, children just want to please and be told they are doing the right thing. And they are so much more sensitive to verbal and non-verbal clues than many adults give them credit for.
.-= Kelly´s last blog ..Guess what… =-.


5 Carolyn September 21, 2009 at 10:20 pm

Thanks Kelly!


6 real style real people September 21, 2009 at 9:38 am

Bring part two on, girl- that was a great read!
.-= real style real people´s last blog ..Your Jeans Wardrobe- Revisited =-.


7 Carolyn September 21, 2009 at 10:21 pm

Thanks, it should be done soon. ;)


8 Theta Mom September 21, 2009 at 10:27 am

I always feel like I learn something or I think about something in a different light when I read your blog…looking forward to part II on PAS.
.-= Theta Mom´s last blog ..What’s the Deal Dr. Brown? =-.


9 Carolyn September 21, 2009 at 10:21 pm

Thanks Theta Mom!


10 Peggy September 21, 2009 at 11:48 am

And you know, PAS doesn’t stop when the kids get older and move away, either.

My exhusband is playing this very subtle game of sabotage and subterfuge that really blows my mind. But all I can do on my end is watch the game as it unfolds on his side and simply stand firm in my knowledge that no matter what game he’s cooked up this time, my girls (who are 25 and 22) love me to pieces.

More coming on this as I sort through and process my own feelings about his most recent attempts at a new game he’s trying out: Make our oldest daughter’s wedding all about him.

.-= Peggy´s last blog ..Your Moment of Bliss =-.


11 Carolyn September 21, 2009 at 10:24 pm

Oh I do know, Peggy. It can go on and on and on. Unfortunately. I think some divorced parents mistakenly think that once their children are grown the ‘gloves can come off’. But when you think about it, do you love your parents any less just because you are an adult? Of course you don’t and parents need to realize that too.

I’m glad you are assured of your daughter’s feelings towards you. Best wishes as you get through this speedbump.

Hey, I’ll be thinking about you Thursday!


12 One Sassy Girl September 21, 2009 at 3:36 pm

Wow, what a great post. I can’t relate – my parents were amazing at staying supportive of each other after the divorce – but I can imagine. What a difficult act to maintain as a parent, yet what an important one.
.-= One Sassy Girl´s last blog ..Mojo Missing No Mo’!! =-.


13 Carolyn September 21, 2009 at 10:24 pm

That’s awesome that your parents were able to be like that for you. Some parents do great, some do horribly. I think most fall somewhere in the middle.


14 samantha September 21, 2009 at 10:00 pm

your post made me think how i act when i’m mad at the hubby. i should remember our little ones are observing as well . thnx for the reminder.
.-= samantha´s last blog ..mini cupcakes =-.


15 Carolyn September 21, 2009 at 10:25 pm

No problem Samantha. Thanks for stopping by!


16 Elizabeth @ Type A Mommy September 22, 2009 at 6:05 am

Wow, that’s a very well-written post. Having not been a child of divorce, at first I wasn’t sure I could relate, but as I learned more through your post, I realized that I could – and that my parents often behaved this way. My mother would clearly wear her distaste for my father on her sleeve at times, and that definitely did taint my relationship with her for a long time. Bravo for such an amazing, compelling post. Stopping by from SITS this morning to learn a thing or two.


17 Carolyn September 22, 2009 at 10:47 pm

Thanks Elizabeth. I’m glad my post resonated with you like that.


18 hayley September 22, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Oh this is so good. My dad used to blast my mom and it was horribly confusing. Here’s the upside: children eventually make up their own minds. I stopped going to my father’s when I was 16, because, really, who wants to go to a place where they say mean things about your mother? He and I are close now, and he realizes what he’s done… but no matter how angry you are at the ex (and I’ve been experiencing my share of it lately), we have to exhibit self-control.
.-= hayley´s last blog ..Laments of a Jewish Mother’s Failure to Get Her Child To Eat =-.


19 Carolyn September 22, 2009 at 10:48 pm

Thanks again Hayley. I like that you use your past experiences to guide your co-parenting today. That’s invaluable.


20 Miranda from Impact of Divorce April 29, 2010 at 2:46 am

Parents often go through a divorce without understanding the effects on their children. Concerned with their own needs and feelings, parents find themselves a bit surprised to see that their children are suffering, and that they too must go through a healing process.


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