Can Parental Alienation Occur Beyond Parents and Kids?

Alienating individuals and groups can wreak havoc on friends, nations, and more.

Posted Jun 07, 2019

(c) AntonioGuillem/fotosearch
When three becomes two against one, beware of alienation.
Source: (c) AntonioGuillem/fotosearch

Usually I focus in my blog posts, books, and clinical work on how couples can build healthy relationships. However, since I have been focusing of late on the sad and too-seldom-recognized phenomenon of parental alienation, I have begun seeing alienation, which is the opposite of a heathy relationship, in both small and large manifestations all around me. 

Alienation refers to a relationship in which one person enacts hostility toward a second person by manipulating others to act hurtfully against them, that is, by "alienating" others' prior or potential affection for the second preson.  For instance Dad may aim to hurt Mom by telling the children negative things about her so that the children will no longer want her in their lives. 

Wikipedia has a good definition of the phenomenon: "Parental alienation is the process, and the result, of psychological manipulation of a child into showing unwarranted fear, disrespect or hostility towards a parent and/or other family members."  Note the key word unwarranted;.  Alienation does not come from bad actions on the part of the targeted parent but rather from deprecation and false accusations from the alienator.

Here's an example of small-scale, non-parental alienation.

Tricia, now aged 13, for some time had seen a child therapist in our offices on a weekly basis. Her father brought her, then sat in the waiting room while Tricia worked with her therapist. When Betty, one of our two office staff, greeted her, Tricia always responded with friendly warmth. By contrast, when the other receptionist, Sharon, was manning the front desk, Tricia looked at her coldly, appeared annoyed, and proffered no greetings. What was going on? 

One day Tricia's dad dropped her off at the therapy clinic so he could do errands instead of sitting in the waiting room. Sharon was at the front desk. This time, though, Tricia stunned Sharon, who had steeled herself for the usual silently hostile non-greeting.

"What a pretty necklace you are wearing, Sharon!" Tricia said with a warm smile. "And how are you?"

What had changed? You may have guessed it. Tricia's dad was not in the room. 

Tricia was a victim of parental alienation. Tricia's dad blocked her from contact with her mother. He denigrated Tricia's mother, talking about her with pejorative terms and turning innocent actions on her part into signs of how bad a person she is. He expected Tricia to treat her mother with similar coldness and hostility. 

The dad must also have spoken alienating words to Tricia about Sharon. With her dad not in the room, however, Tricia did not need to be her dad's foot soldier. She instead could allow herself to act toward Sharon in accord with her own in fact quite positive feelings toward this kindly and likable front desk receptionist.

Many kinds of relationships can be manipulated by alienators. 

Here’s an example: A junior-high-school girl, Donna, convinces her friends, “Don’t talk with Cathy. I don’t like her.” 

Poor alienated Cathy may never know why her former friends have become so unfriendly. Why have they been being mean to her, and may even begin bullying her? 

Cathy is the targeted victim of an alienating friend who has convinced her peers, the followers, to treat her as an untouchable.

What about large-scale alienation?

Fasten your seat belt. We're about to fly to a higher-level view, a view that lets us see large-scale, macrocosm versions of alienation. Here we go, shifting from personal to national, and then international perspectives.

Does "population alienation" ever occur in the USA?

I turned on the television last night to watch the news on cable TV.  Suddenly I realized that I was watching population alienation. Every news story had been turned by the cable TV news analysts  into instance after instance of 'what's wrong with our President.' It was as if they were searching for any and everything wrong about him, making, as my mother used to say "mountains out of molehills,' and ignoring anything he was doing that had been effective—just like alienating parents do.  The realization sickened me. 

Now I understand why our country is so divided.  Understanding that some of the leaders in one party, amplified by media enablers, have been enacting population alienation gives me some relief.  Information is the best antidote to anxiety, so it's somewhat of a relief to understand that America's citizens have been being manipulated, like alienated children.  We, the citizens, are being used as weapons by political and media leaders who are determined to destroy their targeted individual.

Parental alienation can be very serious, a form of child abuse that has lifelong repercussions.  As an American citizen, I feel similarly abused.  Will this large-scale version of alienation pathology that has been splitting our nation, turning friends against friends as well as political party against political party, be something we can ever recover from?

What about other countries? Does alienation occur elsewhere?

In the Middle East, for instance, the Palestinian Authority's governing political party, Fatah, has recently intensified its practice of teaching hatred against the United States. In 625 summer camps in the West Bank and Gaza, sponsored by the government and attended by 40,000 youths, campers were encouraged to tear up and burn American flags and pictures of the U.S. President. This video demostrates how they teach hatred inserting it into otherwise benign summer camp activities.

Ironically, this upsurge in government-sponsored incitement of hatred toward America was triggered by a gnerous offer from the US.  America offered to the Palestinian Authority a Marshall Plan-type program that would invest 50 billion dollars in Palestinian economic development. Why would America's generous offer to enhance the area's economy spurn hatred of the USA? On the surface, it makes no sense. 

The answer: Prosperity for Palestinian citizens, which would include development of shared Israeli/Palestinian business ventures, would "normalize" the relationship between Palestinians and Israel.  Normal interactions would allow citizens to realize that they have been told lies about their neighbors, and that in fact a peaceful relationship between Palestinians and their Israeli neighbors is totally possible.

Alienating parents feel threatened by and try to prevent normalization.  Normalization of the children's relationship with the targeted parent, such as by allowing children to interact face-to-face with the parent the alienator wants them to hate, can diminish the alienating parent's control. When children enjoy normal time at their targeted parent's house, an alienating parent loses the ability to convince the children to hate the targeted parent.

Normalization raises similar issues for the corrupt Palestinian Authority leadership. Normalization could cause them to lose their pathological control over the child/citizenry, who might then no longer be willing footsoldiers who get themselvs injured and even killed in the leadership's battles against Israel.

Normalization also could cause the Palestinian Authority to lose their main way of making money. The corrupt Palestinian leadership reaps huge profits from donations sent from around the world to "the poor Palestinian victims."  Normalization could lead to peace would spell the end to this lucrative business.

Alienation thus can occur in any situation in which leaders in a family, a group, or a nation  dedicate themselves to destroying a targeted individual or group, and convince followers to implement their hate-driven agenda.

  • Skinheads from the extreme right who convince others to hate anyone from the group they have identified as the targeted other (Blacks, Jews, gays etc)
  • Bin Laden who poisoned his Jihadist followers against the U.S.
  • Hitler who convinced so many of the German people to hate and destroy Jews, gays, and Gypsies.
  • Palestinian leaders who poison their population against their Israeli neighbors with daily incitement via speeches, their media, and their education system.
  • Iran's leaders who turn their citizenry against the West and Saudi Arabia.
  • The leaders of the Hutu in Rwanda who convinced their tribesmen to perpetrate a genocidal slaughter of the Tutsi.
  • North Korea's Kim Jong-un who convinces his people that the U.S. is evil.

What is the clinical term for the  relationship alienators create with their followers?

Dr. Steve Miller, a specialist in parental alienation, refers to this hyper-controlling form of attachment as pathological enmeshment. The "children" in this kind of triangle get manipulated into adopting wholly the beliefs of the alienating parent who has convinced them to fear and hate the other. 

To create an attachment of psychological enmeshment, the alienator repeats again and again false narratives about the badness of the targeted other.  This manipulation results in children learning to ignore their own feelings, their, readings of what they see and feel in favor of the alienator's views. 

The alienator's views generally come from the phenomenon of projection. Alienating individuals or groups convince their followers that the targeted individual or group has a host of negative qualities. Where does this list of negative qualities come from? Virtually all are likely to be qualities of the alienators themselves. If alienators call the targeted other "selfish," you can bet your bottom dollar that it is the alienators who are selfish. They "project" their qualities onto the hated targeted other.

What can enable alienation situations to return to normal?

Defeat. 

In general, when there is serious alienation, removing all power from the alienator, as the Allied armies did to Hitler's armies in World War II, may be the best way to enable severely alienating situations to reconnect with the targeted other.  In severe parental alienation, for the children to cease believing the alienator's false narratives, it is most helpful if the courts remove the child(ren) from the alienator's home and block all contact with that parent until re-unification with the targeted parent has been re-consolidated.

In less extreme circumstances, new leadership can stop the alienation.  A therapist can help to end a child's rejection of the targeted parent.   For our national dilemma,  Mark Penn speaks in a way that I found clarifying.  New information from trusted sources can help. 

Still, in the U.S. today, some political party leaders and some in the press and the media appear to have been so effective that many followers of this perspective are likely to refuse to hear any contradictory perspective.  Like severely alienated children, many Americans are likely to become angry and even panicked when they hear an alternative perspective.

Is there a way to prevent alienation, parental and otherwise?

Ultimately, there is a vitally important strategy for ending the evil perpetrated by alienation. As Mother Teresa said, "If you want to change the world, go home and change your family." 

In the long term, if all of us can learn to interact with our loved ones with cooperation, respect, open listening to others' perspectives, and true affection, then what our children learn in our homes will make the world a safer and kinder place for their generation, and for generations after.  In the meanwhile, however, we have a long ways to go.