NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Friday, March 29, 2013

Overcoming the Trauma of Parental Alienation

Parental alienation is when a parent deliberately says or does things to alienate a child from the other parent.  This often happens when the parents are having problems with each other or they're going through a divorce.  It's a form of triangulation and has a negative emotional impact on a child.

Overcoming the Trauma of Parental Alienation

Why Do Parents Engage in Parental Alienation With Children?
Often, parental alienation can take the form of one parent saying negative things about the other parent. So, for instance, a mother might tell a child, "Your father doesn't love you" or a father could tell a child divulge personal things that have gone on between the parents, like the mother having an extramarital affair, that the child is not developmentally ready to hear.

Whether parents are together or they are in the process of getting a divorce, the emotional and physical well-being of their children should be their primary concern.  But many parents, who are consumed with anger and resentment towards each other, often forget this and, intentionally or not, use the child as a pawn to get back at each other.

The Traumatic Impact of Parental Alienation on Children
Young children are particular vulnerable to the trauma involved with parental alienation and suffer the most.  They don't have the emotional defenses that older children often have to ward off the negative impact of parental alienation.

Hearing negative things about one or both parents can be frightened and confusing for them, especially if one of the parents tells them that the other doesn't care about the child.

The Trauma Doesn't End When the Children Become Adults
Children, who grow up in a home where there is parental alienation, usually continue to be affected by this dynamic when they grow up.  It often affects their adult romantic relationships, making if difficult to develop trust or to even enter into a romantic relationship.

As adults, they might continue to feel ambivalent about the parent that was maligned to them, especially if that parent doesn't make an effort to try to repair the relationship.

The following fictionalized vignette, which is a composite of many cases with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality, illustrates how damaging parental alienation can be as well as how this trauma can be worked through in therapy:

When John was a young child, his mother was in and out of drug rehabilitation programs because of her addiction to prescription pills.  John's father and his paternal grandparents took care of John during the times when his mother was away.

Overcoming the Trauma of Parental Alienation

John was never told where his mother was or why she was away.  His mother's drug addiction was the family secret, and he only found out as an adult why she was often gone for long periods of time.  John's father, who felt angry and bitter towards the mother, would often tell John that his mother didn't care about him--that she only cared about herself.

Whenever John's father told him things like this, John would go into his room and cry silently to himself.  His father made sure that John's basic physical needs were taken care of, but he wasn't a warm or nurturing person and neither were his paternal grandparents.  So, he was often left by himself in his room.

When his mother was home, she was the more loving and nurturing one, so this was very confusing for John.  He felt like his mother loved him, but his father always told him that she didn't, so he wasn't sure what to believe.

During those times, when his mother was home, John would cling to her, often falling asleep on her lap.  He feared that if he let her go, she would go away again.

Whenever his parents fought, John would put the pillow over his ears so he wouldn't hear them.  When the shouting died down, John's father would often come into John's room to complain to him about the mother--she was selfish, manipulative, dishonest, a bad wife and a bad mother.  Hearing these things hurt John, but he didn't feel he could say anything because even though his father was speaking to him, John felt that his father was hardly aware that he was there.

Throughout school, John tended to have only one or two friends, usually more outgoing boys that John sought out.  In college, he was lonely most of the time.  Occasionally, he went out with his roommates, but he mostly kept to himself.

By the time John graduated and came to NYC for a career opportunity, he was very lonely, and he didn't know anyone in NY.

His parents lived in the same household, but they barely spoke.  The father lived in the basement and the mother continued to live on the first floor, but they were living separate lives.  When John went home to visit them, his father still complained about the mother being a bad wife and mother.  John was now old enough to see that his mother was high, even though she denied it.  So, he hated going home and tried to avoid it as much as possible.

John started therapy because, even though he was lonely, he had a lot of problems meeting women.  He was painfully shy and afraid of getting hurt, but he didn't want to feel this way for his entire life.

After hearing John's family history, I discussed parental alienation and it resonated with him.  Just knowing that there was a term for what he experienced and that other people had experienced it too helped him to feel a little better.

After we developed a therapeutic rapport, we began using clinical hypnosis and Somatic Experiencing to help John to work through the trauma he experienced as a child and the effect it was having on him as an adult.

John had never thought of himself as being a traumatized child.  He was surprised, but it made sense to him.  Before coming to therapy, he just thought that his experience was how it was. For him, it was "normal."  He didn't realize that not all children experience parental alienation.  He had never thought about it before.

Over time, John gradually began the healing process so he could visit his parents at home without getting pulled into their hostile dynamic. He also began to date.

If you're interested in finding out about clinical hypnosis and Somatic Experiencing, I've included websites under the Resource section below.  Both websites have directories for therapists in the both in the US and internationally.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you grew up in a environment where you experienced parental alienation, you might not realize the traumatic effect it had on you and that you might still be experiencing the impact as an adult.  If the vignette above feels familiar, you could benefit from getting help from a licensed mental health professional who has an expertise in working with parental alienation.

If you can work through the trauma of parental alienation, you could live a more fulfilling life.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.  

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.