The Problem of Parental Hostility and Alienation

When parents separate, divorce or are in a custody dispute, it is not unusual for one or both to hold some hard feelings about the other. Ideally, parents will work through those feelings while insulating their children from the conflict.

Even with the best of intentions, on occasions a parent may make inappropriate statements or take inappropriate actions. The more parents involve their children in their hostility, the more likely it is that they children will feel pressured to agree with negative statements, to adopt a negative view of the targeted parent, or to become alienated from the targeted parent. Parents need to watch for the following behaviors, not only from the other parent but from themselves:

  • Negative Comments: Saying bad or demeaning things about the other parent in the presence of the children.

  • Discussing Relationship Issues With the Child: A parent may try to explain to the child why their relationship with the other parent broke down.

  • Discussing Litigation: A parent may discuss custody litigation with the child, or give the child access to court documents.

  • Villainizing the Other Parent: Telling the child that lifestyle changes, hardships and financial difficulties are the fault of the other parent.

  • Shifting Responsibility for Emotions: Telling the child that the parent's emotional state, be it anger, depression, or some other negative emotional state, is the other parent's fault.

  • Rewarding the Child's Alienation: Whether intentionally or unintentionally, rewarding the child for statements or behaviors that suggest a negative attitude toward the other parent.

  • Alleging Abuse in the Absence of Evidence: Accusing the other parent of abuse without evidence that abuse has actually occurred, or in defiance of evidence suggesting that it has not.

When conflict arises between parents, both parents will do their children a favor by taking a look at their interactions with the other parent, and how they might both reduce the conflict and protect the children from any fallout. Difficult though it may be, the children are best served when parents find a way to rise above the situation.

When parents are having difficulty containing their feelings or protecting their children, it may become necessary for the parent to seek individual or family counseling. Unless the other parent agrees, it may be necessary to obtain a court order before starting family counseling that involves the children.

Copyright © 2014 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Apr 4, 2018.