The impact of parental alienation on a child

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Parental alienation harms the child more than the parent
Parental alienation harms the child more than the parent

As tempting as it might be for an aggrieved parent suffering through an acrimonious divorce to want to portray the other parent in the worst possible light, the individual who suffers the most is the child. 

"Deliberate parental alienation harms the child more than the parent," says attorney Simon Dippenaar of Simon Dippenaar & Associates Inc.

If one parent feels isolated and betrayed, it's a natural response to want the child or children on their "side".

"However, whether the other parent deserves the label of villain or not, this behaviour is extremely harmful to the mental health of the child," he warns.

Parental alienation is a complex set of behaviours that can impact every transaction within the family and in the post-separation environment, when parents are at war, the child becomes collateral damage. 

Impact on the child

The alienated child generally feels insecure, anxious and overwhelmed, and experiences feelings of guilt and confusion. This child may be confused as to the adult-child role, particularly if they are older, such as pre-teen or teenage.

When the child emotionally manipulates the situation, to create an emotional partner, it is known as triangulation, and is a common feature of parental alienation.

"In this scenario the child feels responsible and obliged to step in and protect and care for the victim-parent. The child is robbed of the ability to form trust (the cornerstone of relationships) in intimate relationships and lacks confidence in forming and maintaining healthy relationships," Dippenaar explains. 

The child may also display clinging behaviour and separation anxiety, they may develop anxiety and have poor peer relationships and other mental health issues.

The alienated child suffers from a loss of a sense of self and is placed within a situation that is emotionally beyond their coping ability.

Dippenaar stresses that anyone working with the child or the family should be alert to these symptoms and be prepared to step in.

"Parental alienation is emotional child abuse and should be treated as seriously as any other form of abuse," Dippenaar says. 

Unfortunately, it is often not recognised or acknowledged in child custody disputes, he adds. 

What can be done?

According to the Children's Act, the interests of the alienated child must come first.

"Whether parent, grandparent, caregiver or professional mediator, anyone playing a role in the child's life must view every family interaction through the lens of the child," Dippenaar says.

These individuals must consider the factors that have contributed to the alienation and then take steps to rectify the situation.

"There is no evidence to show that waiting for alienation to resolve itself is effective, nor should children be allowed to decide which parent they should live with," Dippenaar says. 

Rebuilding trust

He explains that the child and alienated parent need to be assisted in the process of re-attachment, which must be sensitively phased and take account of the child’s developmental level, maturity and emotional resilience. 

"Here in South Africa and in other countries there are various psycho-educational and family therapy programmes that attempt to help severely alienated children of divorce rebuild the damaged relationship with the alienated parent," he says.

Read more in our series: #NoOneWins | Everything you need to know about Parental Alienation

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