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Families have been under increased stress during the pandemic. It’s been a long 15 or so months since lockdowns and other traumas began, and some families simply did not survive the anxiety. Existing problems may have been aggravated by the pandemic or new problems may have arisen during that time, with the result being separation or divorce.

Many divorces are amicable, but some can be quite toxic. Those who normally suffer most are the children, but divorce can also be particularly hard on one parent or another when so-called “parental alienation” occurs.

What is parental alienation?

Quite simply, parental alienation occurs when a child becomes distant or estranged from one parent in the relationship as the result of psychological manipulation of the part of the other parent. In layman’s language, one parent turns the child against the other parent, even though the child may love that parent from whom he/she is distancing themself.

Why would a parent do something so destruction? Well, usually, it’s because they’re trying to exclude the other parent from the life/lives of their child or children. The alienated parent has quite often done nothing to warrant the estrangement, so the situation becomes not only heartbreaking but often very confusing for the child who originally loved and respected that parent.

Very often, this kind of behavior pops up when legal proceedings are involved, such as fights over custody or alimony.

Lawyers often describe this as the most toxic situation in family law. It’s heartbreaking, they note, to see parents literally weaponizing their children, and legal action can actually aggravate the situation rather than help it.

Is this common behavior amongst divorced or separated parents?

Sadly, both attorneys and psychologists view parental alienation on a regular basis and note that it’s a pervasive situation, happening all across the country and, indeed, the world. As such, both the children and the alienated parent are suffering, though children can be convinced by the narcissistic parent that they are doing the right thing.

How are children impacted?

Many psychologists believe that kids are twice impacted by this behavior: once when the initial breakup occurs and again when alienating behavior happens. Indeed, parental alienation has a significant impact on children, note psychologists like Dr. Ellie Bolgar, who works regularly with family law matters.

Parental alienation can also be referred to as “pathogenic parenting”, she explains. This term refers to the premise that the parent is trying to create a pathology in the child. Often, parental alienation is rooted in an attachment trauma in the alienating parent, who is exhibiting borderline, narcissistic personality disorder. This alienating parent is reenacting early attachment traumas, Dr. Bolgar adds.

As such, the child whose been put in the center of all this trauma develops a lack of empathy towards the alienated parent. They also develop a sense of entitlement and present an arrogant, aggressive attitude towards the rejected parent. In addition, the alienating parent hides behind the child and the child comes to believe what that parent is saying is the truth. The child becomes sensitive to the alienating parent’s emotions and feels guilty acknowledging any positive things about the other parent. It becomes a sad and tragic situation that can have horrific consequences.

One might wonder if these children take those developed personality disorders into their relationships with others they meet as well, including friends, other family members, and future partners. Most psychologists believe they do and view this as one of the most serious longtime consequences of such behavior.

What can be done to remedy the situation?

The short- and long-term impact of parental alienation on children is the most important thing to address as soon as such a scenario is visible. One antidote includes employing professionals like Dr. Bolgar to intervene on a short-term basis, providing counseling support for the children as they navigate the demands of one parent against the other, once-loved parent.

What’s the antidote from a legal perspective, one might wonder? Attorneys believe there should be legislation that says there must be equivalent, shared parenting (except in cases of abuse or similar situations that make equal parenting dangerous or unlikely). This would eliminate the incentive to undermine a child’s relationship with the other parent.

Mostly, Dr. Bolgar and other experts note, it’s important for the alienated parent to recognize this behavior when it’s happening and to take steps immediately to address it. That parent should try to maintain contact so that their children don’t think they’ve abandoned them. Don’t let it continue, she notes. Children are vulnerable and it takes little time to do major damage.


For more help with issues that include the impact of divorce or separation on your family or child, call Dr. Bolgar’s office at 604-371-0198 to schedule an appointment.