The Sequelae Of Parental Alienation

The principle that family-of-origin relations influence future relationships and life adjustment is the foundation of many schools of developmental psychology. In 1996, Kenneth Waldron and David Joan describe the long-term adverse effects that PAS has on child development. They argued that in the PA context children learn that "hostile, obnoxious behavior is acceptable in relationships and that deceit and manipulation are a normal part of relationships." Writing from the perspective of the courts, Canadian Justice Martinson (2010) points out that children who are the victims of parental alienation have "difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships" in adulthood and are at risk for "depression, suicide, substance abuse, antisocial behavior, enmeshment, and low self-esteem."

These findings are supported by Amy Baker's 2005 qualitative retrospective study on the long term effects of parental alienation on adult children. In this study, she conducted semi-structured interviews of 38 adults who had been child victims of PA. She identified several problematic areas in these subjects:

  • high rates of low self-esteem to a point of self-hatred;
  • significant episodes of depression in 70 % of the subjects;
  • a lack of trust in themselves and in other people; and
  • alienation from their own children in 50% of the subjects, which suggests that parental alienation is multigenerational.

Approximately one-third of the sample reported having had serious problems with drugs or alcohol during adolescence, using such substances to cope with painful feelings arising from loss and parental conflict. Baker found that these adults victimized as children had difficulty trusting that anyone would ever love them; two-thirds had been divorced once and one-quarter more than once. Baker's respondents reported that they became angry and resentful about being emotionally manipulated and controlled. They reported that this negatively affected their relationship with the alienating parent. About half of Baker's sample reported that they had become alienated from their own children. Baker reported that while most of the adults distinctly recalled claiming during childhood that they hated or feared their rejected parent and on some level did have negative feelings, they did not want that parent to walk away from them and secretly hoped someone would realize that they did not mean what they said.

Clawar and Rivlin (1991) reported this same secret longing. They also pointed out in the 2013 edition of the same text that – not unlike the human immune system and disease – in the case of parental alienation "…we find similar outcomes in terms of degree; but no matter how resilient, no child is totally impervious to its harmful effects." (emphasis added). These harmful effects the authors listed as:

  • Loneliness
  • Conflict with parents
  • Depression
  • Sleep problems
  • Substance abuse
  • Speech problems
  • Sexual promiscuity
  • Poor body image
  • Poor eating habits
  • Eating disorders
  • Weight loss/weight gain
  • Disheveled living space
  • Poor executive function (disorganization)
  • Diminished activity
  • Psycho-somatic distortions
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Increased use of technology as an escape
  • Lack of friends
  • Sibling conflict (including violence)
  • Heightened fantasy life
  • Diminished attention span
  • Social identity problem
  • Regressive behaviors
  • Anxiety
  • Conflicts in peer relationships
  • School dysfunction
  • Memory loss

Make no mistake; the effects of parental alienation can be lethal. A number of years ago a senior and very well informed psychologist was treating an alienated young man for severe depression. In the process of the treatment, it became clear that this young man had been alienated from his father when his parents separated and divorced some 15 years earlier. In the process of his treatment for depression, he reconnected with his heretofore-alienated father. In so doing, he began to realize that the many negative things he had not only believed but also acted upon about his father were simply untrue. The effect of this insight was overwhelming and disorienting. His sense of his betrayal of his father was so profound that he simply could not tolerate it and integrate it with his old sense of self. As a result of these dizzying revelations, he committed suicide.

Philip Stahl confirmed this lethality in 2003 reporting that:

"When children are caught up in the midst of this conflict and become alienated, the emotional response can be devastating to the child's development. The degree of damage to the child's psyche will vary depending on the intensity of the alienation and the age and vulnerability of the child. However, the impact is never benign because of the fact of the child's distortions and confusions."

This malignant nature of parental alienation stems from what Wallerstein & Blakeslee (1989) call Medea-like anger they claim is responsible for severely injuring "children at every age." They go on to report:

"When one or both parents act the Medea role, children are affected for years to come. Some grow up with warped consciences, having learned how to manipulate people as the result of their parents' behavior. Some grow up with enormous rage, having understood that they were used as weapons. Some grow up guilty, with low self-esteem and recurrent depression. . . ."