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Intentional or Unintentional Parental Alientation

July 26, 2013

High conflict separated parents influence their children’s attitudes towards each other even when they have no awareness of doing so.

I explain to parents that emotions are like garlic. If we eat enough garlic for dinner, we still can exude the odor of garlic from our pours the next day. Given we are used to the garlic smell, we don’t even realize how inadvertently offensive we may be.

So too with emotions. We exude our emotions with a look, a grimace a snarl, a huff or a furrowed brow. Sometimes it is a dismissive gesture or even just failing/refusing to speak the name of the other parent. We certainly signal to our children our feelings and attitudes about others in our lives.

Children are exposed to our emotions even when we do not realize. They are infected and affected and influenced by them too. In so seeing the parents reactions to each other, children can learn to fear those very same reactions may be directed to themselves.

Thus children of high conflict separated parents learn strategies to mitigate the impact of their parents’ garlic directed to themselves. This is when they align with one parent or offer information attuned to the needs of the parent with whom they are with, even when actually contrary to their experience of the other parent.

These children are merely seeking to survive the emotional toxicity of their parents:

I have learned you hate each other. I hope you do not turn that hatred towards me. I am but a child, defenseless and dependent upon you for survival – physically and emotionally.

Sadly though, the dynamic of a child learning to survive by aligning with one parent in turn reinforces each parent’s negative view of the other and again inadvertently perpetuates if not escalates the family turmoil. The parent does not understand that the child’s alignment and/or comments are not really meant as a reflection upon the other parent, but actually a strategy to survive living with and being loved by the aligned parent. These are children who actually are in fear of the aligned parent where the fear is the loss of that parent’s love – as they experienced that parent towards the other parent.

These children are unable to reflect upon these unconscious motivations. They are, after all, children. They just live their experiences and seek to cope therein. Insight is the gift of the enlightened self-aware adult – a gift actually rare among the best of adults – despite a persons self-beliefs. Thus ask a child what motivates them and they either do not know or offer replies that are either simplisitc or simply do not make sense in the light of objective information. These children do not even see or realize the oft contradiction of statements versus actual experience. Yet some high conflict separated parents rest their case upon these children’ odd stated comments and inadvertently influenced desires.

This is the heart of psychological abuse whether intentional or unintentional: Taking a child’s life, teasing their emotions and playing with their sense of emotional safety, security and love – all beyond the child’s awareness, to the detriment of that child’s relationships and to the validation of one’s own anger towards the other parent.

Parents can be loathe to explore these dynamics, but this is what we bring to their attention as therapists and social workers, such that they can become aware of their own contributions to distress through the garlic (emotions) they exude upon their kids. As parents become aware and manage themselves and their emotions more constructively, then the kids follow suit, relax and are more disinclined to offer negative statements to align with one parent for emotional safety.

Parents certainly do not have to like each other, but for the emotional and mental health of their children, they must learn to control their garlic – their emotions, so as not to bring harm to their children through contamination and their children’s entitlement to have intact relationships with both parents.

This is not to be dismissive of a parent’s feelings, but to say that despite one’s feelings, one must act in the greater interest of the child, separating one’s issues from the needs of one’s child.

It remains that notwithstanding a truly abusive parent (by objective measure), children are best served by having a significant and meaningful relationship with both parents. Children with both parents meaningfully involved in their lives have a lower incidence of mental health problems, experience later onset of sexual behavior, greater academic performance and more pro-social behavior.  This in turn promotes better adult adjustment and even better vocational outcomes and lowers the risk of fractured relationships in their adult lives as well as lowering the risk of alcohol or drug related disorders.

Children are best served by their parent learning to NOT use their feelings towards each other as an excuse to reign and wreak havoc upon their children’s relationships.

Feel what you feel, but act beyond reproach.  Your child needs to learn that feelings do not give rise to entitlements and at times we must lead with our heads when our hearts may have been broken.

Mind the garlic. Be careful that your smell doesn’t infect your children.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

(905) 628-4847

Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships.

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  1. I shared your post with my followers… so good and so true.

    “These children are merely seeking to survive the emotional toxicity of their parents:

    I have learned you hate each other. I hope you do not turn that hatred towards me. I am but a child, defenseless and dependent upon you for survival – physically and emotionally. ”


  2. I don’t usually read blogs longer than 300-400 words, but yours I always make an exception for. Great stuff. Keep shovelling them out, please.

  3. Been there done that! I’m a late bloomer and have caused some of the type of destruction you speak of and therefore am working on trying to forgive myself. As a grandmother to 14, who has watched history repeat itself I’m trying to be a better grandparent than I was a parent. I only wish I knew then, what I know now. Very good stuff, Gary!

    • It’s never too late to apologize and make amends. You can gift your apology as a gift. In so doing you can set the tone for next generations to learn to set things right…

    • Oh believe me, I’ve done that! Many amends have been made with a true heart of sincerity and many tears. I have lived the 12 steps of recovery and have been sober for over 21 years. Many of my poor choices and decisions were made while under the influence. Unfortunately, you can’t make anyone forgive you – you can only ask for forgiveness. After apologizing and asking more than once I’ve come to realize that I’m forgiven by the one that matters the most – God. I continue to walk recognizing that sometimes the victim becomes the perpetrator. Long story. Too long to discuss here – but I appreciate your blog and will continue to read.

      • Pleased you have made the effort.

        I typicality suggest that one doesn’t ask or seek forgiveness, but only seeks to apologize.

        When seeking forgiveness it runs the risk of making the apology appear self-serving. Apologies are meant to be selfless acts in the interests of those of whom we have transgressed against.

  4. Leslie A Burgess-Kuzmyk permalink

    How much do you charge per session for parent, child relations?

  5. Chandra Shekar Raju permalink

    Really good work 🙂

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