Parental alienation is a family dynamic in which one parent engages in many of the 17 primary parental alienation strategies, behaviors likely to foster a child’s unjustified rejection of the other parent. Not all children are susceptible to this form of emotional manipulation, but some are.
When successful, the PA strategies can result in a child claiming to hate and fear a parent who has done nothing to warrant the child’s vitriol, fear, and hostile rejection. Over the past ten years I have conducted a number of research studies on adults who were exposed to PA strategies when they were children. In each study I and my colleagues have found a statistically significant association between exposure to parental alienation in childhood and depression in adulthood.
These findings have been replicated in studies in New York, Texas, US national samples, and in Italy. The findings have been replicated with various depression inventories, and in different age groups. Even high school students will report higher depression when exposed to PA strategies. This association can be understood in light of attachment theory in that the child exposed to PA is being forced to forgo a relationship with an attachment figure and to deny that the loss the relationship has any meaning. The child is denied the opportunity to make meaning of the loss, which is a known risk factor for depression. In one of my studies, a respondent reported that when he was a young boy he came home from school one day and found an unknown man in his living room. His mother announced that this was his new daddy since the old daddy was a bad man.
For the next forty years the boy was not allowed to talk about his father, ask what happened to him, or even refer to him as “Daddy.” Unable to make sense of what happened and forbidden to process the loss, this young boy grew up to experience a multitude of problems as an adult, including depression. Another respondent in that same study told how her father would come to visit every Sunday but she was not allowed to open the door to greet him. In fact, she was forced to stand inside the house yelling at her father through the door to go away and never come back. When the father stopped trying to spend time with her, she was devastated and shared with me that many days – even years later – she felt so sad she couldn’t get out of bed.
What I have learned from stories like these as well as from my statistical studies is that parental alienation is a form of emotional abuse of children and it is, therefore, associated with may negative outcomes for children, including but certainly not limited to depression. Adults who had his experience as children should become educated about parental alienation in order to have a framework for understanding what happened to them.
Likewise, mental health professionals working with such adults should be informed about the phenomenon of parental alienation so that they can be as helpful as possible to this vulnerable population.