Originally published in Stepparent Magazine 4/11/2019
Recently, I was reminded why I hate talking about parental alienation. A thirty-minute session with the benefits rep at work left me feeling victimized and helpless all over again. Questions that ensued from such a simple interaction like left me feeling deflated and left her convinced that I’m not only crazy, but also most likely a child abuser. So, here I am, trying to explain to you something that you cannot see, cannot quantify and for most of you, cannot believe unless you’ve experienced it.
Before I start, let’s talk about something much more exciting. Let’s go back to the day your precious child was born. As an operating room nurse, I’ve watched countless births take place. Although I’ve never personally experienced giving birth, I have experienced it through your eyes. The first cry, the joyful tears, the innocence coming into this world. I’ve watched celebrations ensue from the sidelines and cheered with you, cried with you and held your hand. I’ve shouted out your new baby’s birth time and helped clean off your brand-new bundle that you waited nine months to meet. I’ve taken your first family pictures together and helped you dry your tears of euphoria.
There are things I haven’t actually seen take place during the birthing process, though. I’ve never seen a mother use fear and lies to control her newborn’s perception of her father. Nor have I seen a mother try to manipulate the truth and convince the newborn that the guy in the family picture I just took was the enemy. I’ve also never seen a mother humiliate, threaten or shun her newborn when she went with her father to the nursery. I’m sure if I told you I’d seen those things happen, you’d question my sanity and then wonder why I hadn’t called social services.
Sadly, all of the things I mentioned actually happen in parental alienation. One party, usually either mom or dad, uses tactics like fear, manipulation, sabotage, lies, humiliation, isolation and name calling to change the baby’s- now child’s- perception of the other parent. That new, innocent newborn with a new baby smell that everyone was once so excited to meet will soon be filled with lies, distorted truths and used as a weapon against the other parent. Hard to believe, isn’t it?
Now, what makes parental alienation even more difficult is the fact that the actual poisoning of the child doesn’t happen within a 10-minute window inside an operating room with a handful of astute witnesses. Instead, it happens over a period of years with hundreds of unsuspecting spectators. Surprisingly, most alienating behavior happens in plain sight at school or even at church functions. You may have even witnessed it yourself several times and not even known it.
Think about this. You have a friend “Sally” who has a daughter “Abby” that is your daughter’s age. One Friday night at a football game, you see Abby’s dad talking to her. You know that Abby’s mom and dad are separated, but you think nothing of it. You go back to watching the game.
A few minutes later, you see Sally ‘s hand on Abby’s shoulder. You assume what you’re seeing is just normal mother-daughter affection and again go back to watching the game. When you glance over a few minutes later, you see Sally appearing to whisper into Abby’s ear and then watch as Sally and Abby walk away together. Again, you think nothing of it.
What you didn’t realize at the time is that you were just a witness to Sally using alienating behaviors to make Abby stop talking to her father. The first gesture of Sally’s hand on Abby’s shoulder was a “warning” by Sally. That seemingly innocent shoulder squeeze by Sally was a gesture to let Abby know that she was not allowed to interact with her father. When Abby continued talking with her father, Sally took it to the next level by telling Abby directly that she was not allowed to speak to her father. See how easily it can be missed?
To the untrained eye, the interaction looked innocent and benign. But in reality, Sally was working overtime to keep Abby from talking to her father. Sally is alienating, or brainwashing, Abby against her dad. The alienation in this scenario won’t end until Abby has completely cut off all communication with her father and is ready to testify against him for abuse she never suffered. I know this scenario well because Abby is my alienated stepdaughter.
Although the end result in parental alienation is devastating to Abby and her father, it didn’t begin here. As in most cases, the indoctrination takes years and enlists the help of well-meaning social workers, police officers and other professionals. And just like you, they don’t see the alienation that’s happening right in front of them either.
As with most forms of abuse, alienating behaviors typically start small and become more aggressive as time passes. When Abby was younger, Sally used fear to begin the alienation process. Every week on the way to meet Abby’s dad for his visitation time, Sally would call the police in front of Abby and tell them she was afraid he was going to become violent at their meet up spot. It didn’t matter if that was actually the truth. What mattered was the perception of the truth that Sally imprinted onto Abby.
Additionally, Sally used professional counselors to help distort Abby’s reality and enable the alienating agenda. Sounds unbelievable, right? Countless times, Sally sat and talked with counselors in front of Abby and repeatedly referred to her father as an “abusive, alcoholic.” Sally also fabricated stories about how she was scared of him when Abby was just a baby. Before long, Sally, along with those professionals, was helping Abby recollect the times she was scared of her father too. Sound plausible?
To cement the alienation process, every time Abby was at her father’s house, Sally summoned the police to his door for a “well-child” check. This seemingly innocent act by the police was a tactic used by Sally to reinforce Abby’s indoctrination that her father is someone to be feared. Again, it didn’t matter if that was actually the case. What mattered was the perception of truth.
Additionally, when Abby was at her dad’s, Sally would call and demand to speak to her “per the court order.” During those calls, Sally would first speak to Abby in a soft, gentle tone and say things like, ”Honey, are you safe?” and “Sweetheart, are you ok?” When Abby laughed at her, Sally would change her tone to something more serious to get Abby’s attention and then ask again. She would continue asking the same questions until Abby answered in a way that satisfied Sally.
By asking repeatedly and changing tones, Sally was reinforcing the idea that Abby’s dad was, again, someone to be feared. Once Sally got the answer she wanted from Abby, she would say something like,” Honey, I know you’re scared and don’t want to tell me everything going on right now, but we can talk about it when we’re together and you’re safe.” Sally would then abruptly end the phone call.
When Abby arrived back to Sally’s from her visit, Sally demanded a “debriefing” with Abby to help her process the “trauma” she’d endured while at her father’s house. This would go on for hours. Sally would withhold food, water and bathroom breaks until she was satisfied with her answers. Sally would repeatedly ask the details about her weekend and would rewrite those harmless intricacies of fun until Abby no longer associated time with her dad as a positive experience.
The innocent fun at the creek was now a terrifying near drowning experience. The scrape she acquired during innocent play with the dog was now a wound she suffered at the hands of a rabid dog attack. The new shirt Abby was proudly wearing was now an example of how her father was trying to buy her silence for his continual abuse. Abby would never think to betray her mother’s trust by telling anyone this took place because after all, Sally was so devastated by the break-up of her marriage she needed Abby now more than ever.
Sally now has Abby right where she wants her. She then calls DFS to solidify the indoctrination. With Sally sitting right beside her and encouraging her, Abby now feels empowered to tell them the terrifying details about the dog attack and near drowning experience. And thanks to her mother’s support, Abby is now strong enough to share details about the abuse she suffers every weekend while visiting her dad.
Abby is now terrified of her father and cuts off all communication with him. She also refuses to see him during his court ordered visitation time. Sally’s plan is almost complete.
While Abby is still pliable, Sally takes her to the police station and has Abby, in her own words, file charges against her dad. Sally makes sure words like “feels violated by her father” appear in Abby’s own handwriting. Sally then goes over the police report in detail with Abby to make sure none of those fine details Sally has imprinted have been forgotten. If needed, Sally makes suggestions as to what else may have taken place and makes sure those details are included.
By this time, Abby’s dad has found out about the devastating charges that have been filed against him. He’s scratching his head in disbelief and cannot even fathom how Abby could be accusing him of child abuse. He goes to the Friday night football game to hopefully talk to Abby. This is when you see that seemingly innocent interaction between Abby and her father take place. Abby was having remorse about what she’d said and didn’t understand the consequences her dad faced. Right about now is when you witnessed Sally tapping Abby on the shoulder and whispering in her ear.
Just as Sally planned, DFS then steps in and deems Abby’s father’s house “unsafe” due to the charges against him. Because of this, Abby is forbidden to return to his house until court which is four weeks away. Sally uses that time to continue the indoctrination process and to take it to the next level. The next time Abby sees her father is in court when she’s ready to take the stand to testify against him.
Unbelievable, isn’t it? Yet sadly there’s approximately 22 million of us in the U.S. who have endured exactly this scenario.
For almost 10 years, I was the stepmother to three amazing children. During those years, my husband and I watched helplessly as our alienator rewrote childhood memories; included the kids in rituals to sever emotional bonds; used fear and manipulation to sabotage visitation time; and enlisted the use of the police, DFS and other community professionals to parentally alienate them from my husband. On June 28, 2018 at 9am, we climbed the Taney County Courthouse steps and faced three kids ready to testify against us for abuse they’d never suffered.
Do I seem crazy now?