Modern Family Matters

The Damage of Parental Alienation After a Divorce

August 21, 2023 with Sue Horton Season 1 Episode 106
Modern Family Matters
The Damage of Parental Alienation After a Divorce
Show Notes Transcript

Join us for podcast episode as we sit down with Licensed Family and Marriage Therapist, Sue Horton, to discuss the irreparable damage that parental alienation can have on a family after divorce, and what to do when you see it happening. In this interview, Sue addresses the following:

·        What is parental alienation and how does it impact children?

·        Parental alienation is one of the more underrated forms of abuse parents engage. 

·        What are the telltale signs of this kind of abuse? 

·        What kinds of behaviors in the children can follow parental alienation after a divorce? 

·        What are it's long-term effects on children?

·        Why parental alienation can create low self-esteem and self-hatred, depression and substance abuse in the child. 

·        Parent alienation can create irreparable damage to every relationship in the family.

·        How parents who do this justify it.

·        What do you tell a parent who is engaging in this behavior?

If you would like to speak with one of our attorneys, please call our office at (503) 227-0200, or visit our website at https://www.pacificcascadelegal.com.

To learn more about how Sue can help you, you can visit her website at http://www.raisingaresilientfamily.com or email her directly at sphorton915@gmail.com

Disclaimer: Nothing in this communication is intended to provide legal advice nor does it constitute a client-attorney relationship, therefore you should not interpret the contents as such.

Intro:
Welcome to Modern Family Matters, a podcast devoted to exploring family law topics that matter most to you. Covering a wide range of legal, personal, and family law matters, with expert analysis from skilled attorneys and professional guests, we hope that our podcast provides answers, clarity, and guidance towards a better tomorrow for you and your family. Here's your host, Steve Altishin.

Steve Altishin  
Welcome, everyone. I'm Steve Altishin, Director of Client partnerships at Pacific Cascade Legal. I'm here with licensed family and marriage therapist, Sue Horton, to discuss the irreparable damage that parental alienation can have on a family after divorce, and what to do when you see it happening. So Sue, before we started, can you just tell us a little bit about yourself and how you kind of got to be what you're doing now?

Sue Horton  
Yeah, um, well, as you mentioned, I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist, I also happen to be the former director of a therapeutic boarding school for troubled teens. So I have extensive experience, working with families in crisis for many, many years, hundreds of families. And of course, what I see over time are patterns, familiar patterns of dysfunction, and this is one of them. So I wanted to talk to you about it is probably the most underrated form of abuse that goes on in a family when a couple is going through a divorce.

Steve Altishin  
Yeah, it was kind of fascinating, because, you know, we kind of touched on it on some things well, and you know, the judge always says, Don't say bad things, you know, about the other parent and that kind of stuff. But this goes, it feels like it goes a little bit beyond that. So I'm gonna start with the, you know, obvious question, which I always do is, you know, what, really is parental alienation?

Sue Horton  
Yeah. So it's when one parent starts bad mouthing, the alienating parent, by sharing what I term 'intimate aspects' of why the relationship fails, and what's wrong with that other parent, on a level that that child really doesn't need to know about, and shouldn't know about, quite frankly, they shouldn't be really involved with that. And parents tend to do it inadvertently, I think to begin with, and then that child changes sort of their role and becomes more of a friend and a person you vent to and, and you lose sight of the fact that that child is is that alienated parents child too. And you're really putting that relationship at risk for a lifetime of difficulty.

Steve Altishin  
And it's exactly like that, like you're talking about, you just sort of get into this becomes your little individual therapist. So it's not, I'm assuming that there's no age, where the child is suddenly okay, it's okay to do this. I mean, it feels like this is not good, whether if they're two or if they're 18.

Sue Horton  
Yeah, I even believe as a young adult, it just, I mean, they're already experiencing, you know, that lack of foundation that comes with two parents divorcing, they're already feeling unstable, you'll see no matter what you'll see some sense of responsibility that the child takes on for that disconnect, that relationship coming to an end. So this just adds insult to injury in terms of the child's positioning. And that disconnect, they feel even more responsible for taking care of the parent that that's bad mouthing the other parent, because they're bringing up all the reasons why they no longer love that parent or care about and want to be with that parent. And you start to see all forms of behaviors that come out in that child where they don't want to be around that parent. And that's really the telltale sign that something like this is going on. And by the way, it's not something that is necessarily publicized, it can be a family, you know, an intimate secret. Right? So it wouldn't necessarily come up at a judgement, for example, that that's going on. It's sort of a private, kind of understanding sometimes with the parent, you know, that's doing it. And the child, you know, let's keep this between us. We're buddies here. And you're really removing that child from being you're really crossing boundaries that you shouldn't cross as a parent.

Steve Altishin  
You say, and we'll talk a little bit about it because it was really kind of cool, but you talk about how this toxic environment is created. And so it's not, it sounds like it's not just affecting the kid. It's affecting everybody. It's like it just sort of spreads.

Sue Horton  
Well, that child is confused by it. You know, think about it from that viewpoint. How How confusing that would be to suddenly see a part of your parent that you never knew about. And a negative part that you sort of, it's sort of been kept from you, because it's, you know, it was part of the relationship, and it was private to the relationship. And now you're giving them a view of that parent that really, is really destructive. And so many levels, especially if it's, it's the same gender parent, for example, because that's their role model. That's their original role model. And it will impact all their relationships, moving forward, their friendships, as well as their intimate potential marriages and relation primary partners in life, they'll lack trust, they'll lack that sense of security that comes with, you know, knowing that that parents hole and reliable, you're undermining all those pieces and parts of that foundation that's so essential in a developing child, even at a young adult, by the way, that's when they're vulnerable, in my opinion, and I see over and over again, you know? 

Steve Altishin  
Oh I imagine, you know, and it's funny, because you say, you say this is abuse, this rises to that level, and, you know, in family law cases, and sort of the general concept that people have of child abuse is just, you know, someone hitting a kid, but it doesn't have to be that to be abuse, right?

Speaker 3  
Yeah, it's an emotional form of the abuse. And it's, it's really again, and I put it in the chapter called ambiguous abuse, because there are abuses that we aren't even aware that we're, you know, perpetuating in a, in a system, a family system. And this is one of the ones that really stood out for me, because I saw it so many times, especially kids coming into the school, that therapeutic school where the parents were either going through a divorce or about to go through, and typically there was that going on, as well as the child's issues. And again, that's another important point that we see issues emerging from this sort of behavior, around depression, anxiety, self loathing, you know, the child's sense of self diminishes their sense of stability, all the things that we could avoid, if we just asked that parent went to professional and got professional help vented these emotions with adults, and, you know, say friends, for example, rather than your children.

Steve Altishin  
We talked about the effect of this child's, kind of, behavior. What are some of the behavioral changes that you see in the children? I mean, what kinds of things do they start doing that, you know, you go, No, this is right?

Sue Horton  
Now, they have an emotional cut off with that alienated parents. So they, you know, again, the bond, that original parent child bond is severed, typically, you'll see an inverted hierarchy where the child will start parenting that alienated parent and telling that alienating parent what to do and how they should treat maybe the other parents. So it's really distorted thinking going into place around relationships in general, sometimes we see some trauma with the ally parent, you know, where they've, they're playing out some version of their unresolved trauma in the relationship with the child, which is, again, so distracting and distorting for that child, and confusing. You also see the absence of empathy toward that alienated parent. So they stopped caring that I mean that parents going through a lot to both parents are experiencing grief to some capacity. So there's, there's just, it's, again, it's very toxic and destructive. And I just highly recommend, when you're going through a divorce, please don't badmouth or complain to one of your children, it doesn't matter how old.

Steve Altishin  
Can this affect the physical connection as well? I mean because we hear a lot, you know, well, my son doesn't want to come visit me because, you know, my spouse is saying things about me. I mean, it seems like it could even be like this physical break.

Sue Horton  
Absolutely. The bond, the bond is physical as well as emotional. So yes, you you'll, and you'll see that a lot with younger kids where they don't want to be hugged, or they don't want to be touched anymore by the the alienated parent is terrible. And then there's trying to repair it, you know, which is a lot of the work I do. Unfortunately, you know, people are coming to me after this impact and saying, you know, can we fix this relationship? It's very difficult to reestablish trust, in love, even you know, that this can just do real damage to the foundational elements of that relationship with that parent.

Steve Altishin  
Can it go like, I want to say, generational? I know you use the term multi-generational, but it seems to me that when this happens, it can be toxic for the grandparents, it can be toxic for the parents, the kids. The kid may go to school and start to be mean. This is a toxicity that can spread.

Sue Horton  
It goes everywhere. You're right. And that's exactly correct. It destroys the family, the sense of family, the sense of unity, stability Foundation, in the family, overall, you're right, it is generational. And even honestly, it can affect that child's children, you know, it can be brought down that way. You know, because they're, they're learning in a kind of a distorted attachment bond with an ally parent that is, you know, becoming friends with them when they still need parenting themselves. But that takes years to, you know, they're going to be in therapy, I can tell you that that child's going to be in therapy, or not be able to have a relationship with, you know, an intimate or even friendships are telling, by the way, you know?

Steve Altishin  
Yeah even probably their friends. I mean, yes, I can see that. Because all those things you talk about, you know, low esteem, lack of trust, depression, I mean, that affects your work relation with everything. So what do you, let's say, you are the parent being disaffected? You are the one sort of being cut off?

Sue Horton  
It's an impossible place, let me tell you.

Steve Altishin  
Yeah. Where do you start? I mean, you know, I'm assuming we can come to someone like you. I mean, but if I walk in, and I go this, I don't know, I think this may, you know, kid doesn't wanna talk to me anymore, you know, says these things about me that, that I don't know, how they found out, I mean, all that kind of stuff. Where, you know, where do you go? So what do I do?

Sue Horton  
Yeah, I do like to meet with the child first to find out their distorted view, I'll call it of that person that parent in. And then I just start dismantling those, those ideas and help that child to see that that other parent is a whole person. No, they're not just the pieces that were introduced, and again, in a distorted, destructive way. And maybe I even help that child to see that parent is more of separate from them. Because that the other thing that goes on is that child becomes codependent. They're trying to fix and make things better with the ally parent, they're trying to save the ally parent, they're trying to protect the ally parent from hurting and crying and feeling sadness, it's a terrible place to put a put a child in no matter what, by the way, even if they're in the 30s, you know. So I try to get, you know, my work is with that child, first and foremost, because they're the ones that have been told, lies basically, maybe not lies, but they're certainly not the places in parts of that other parents character that they'd want to look at senior Lily. So I try to create a whole person and then I get them back together with that alienated parent, and we start talking about repair and forgiveness. It's a lot of work, but also realizing that the Allied parent was perhaps more broken at that time. And it's usually a few years later, by the way that this can even occur, usually, that child's Gosh, been disconnected for years, before there's even any hope of repair work. Usually, though, I will tell you that there is always there's something in the child, in most cases, not every case, but in most cases, that misses that parent, because there wasn't original bond. And they do see that parent, you know, as a significant person in their lives. So I always hold out hope for forgiveness, as my, my go to. And I work I work really hard on those relationships, because I know how important they are. And when they do repair, and there's, you know, all kinds of changes in that there's all kinds of good that can come from that. That's the other side of it.

Steve Altishin  
So I think the takeaway, one of the takeaways I got from this, is that this is not something that is necessarily fixed, you know, while the kids nine or 10, or or can be, but, but it's it's kind of never too late, kind of a thing.

Sue Horton  
I mean, I don't think so. And that's, that's a really good point to make. And important for is I know the parents out there that have been the alienated parent and have given up essentially on connecting with their children. I can tell you from experience that many, many, many people have come to me and we've done that repair work. You know, if you're willing to, you know, it's hard when they're really hard knew the kids are really hard on you to begin with. But if I again, if I can dismantle that delusion or illusion that that parent is only that negative picture that that child has. And then it's easy to do, by the way, because it wasn't true if it wasn't the whole truth. And you can absolutely go to the fact that that other spouse was broken, and in pain, and, and sometimes, by the way, you can get that spouse that did that damage to come in and say they're sore. Sorry, as part of your work.

Steve Altishin  
I was just gonna ask that. I was gonna say, can that parent who's doing it has issues, obviously, and needs some help, is that something that, I mean, they all can be part-- I don't know if they do it together or not--but are they are they generally separate therapists, or could be the same therapist?

Sue Horton  
Well, my, in my work, I mean, different therapists do different things, I'm a great believer in the whole system being in the same place, at the same time for things like this, because that's where you can get the whole truth, by the way, you know, because everybody, you separate them out, you know, everyone's going to have their version, in somewhat distorted version, in most cases. So this is something I would, I would meet with them separately to begin with, to get their version. Because that's important to understand and know, going into this kind of work, but then I would also, I'd have to see hope of, by the way, forgiveness on everybody's part. And for there to be a real intention around wanting to heal and wanting to forgive and wanting to move forward from that original, you know, damage for everybody.

Steve Altishin  
Are there triggers, you find, that make someone do this, I mean, is it like, at a shame, they're covering up, or maybe they feel they are, though, they got the short end of the stick, or, I mean, what, what kind of drives people to do this,

Sue Horton  
I do think it's the victim, typically, and their relationships. So the, the person left, I'll call it, you know, the decision maker is usually the stronger person in this scenario. And so the victim stays in that loop, you know, denial, that they had really anything to do with it. And then they start blaming and shaming, which is where this comes from. And they hide, you know, behind something that, you know, makes them look better. And this is also contributes toward that. So there's a real disconnect with them taking responsibility for their part in the divorce, in the separation and why it came to that. And I think the shame is around the fact that they failed with their kids, you know, that there's, they've done something to fail their children. And so they want to come out looking good as being the, you know, it wasn't my fault. It was all here, you know, your other parents fault. And so some of it comes from just staying in that victim loop. And it really isn't until that spouse realizes, you know, that's why I'm so so emphasize self awareness in my book, I think when you become aware that you're doing this, and I have found this with some of the parents that are doing it, like they didn't realize that they were causing so much damage. So sometimes even that piece, you know, creating that awareness can, you know, set off a light bulb and get some movement around change, and that, that hopefully, that allied spouse will start to realize and get up to that accountability loop where you, you know, you own your part. And then we can go toward forgiveness, and learn from it all and hopefully, move forward in positive directions for everybody.

Steve Altishin  
Yeah, it'd be critical. Is this something that can smolder? I mean, you know, sometimes you see where what seems to be a pretty good relationship just breaks down maybe 10 years later, five years later, or after a new person comes into the into the family mix. And suddenly the one of the spouses starts to do this kind of stuff. They start to you know, bad mouth when they really didn't before.

Sue Horton  
I think it happens early, quite frankly, I I see it like in the rawness of a divorce, you know, when the shock, you know, kind of the grief period, the angry, you know that I see it more there. If anything, I see the shift toward wanting to heal or seek forgiveness, I'll call it. I see that when the you know, the Allied spouse is maybe remarried, maybe gotten some help and gotten more stable themselves. They can also see the impact that it's had on their children, not having the other spouse not being connected to the other spouse, or the ex spouse I should say. The other parent And I think it's where it might be a wake up call of sorts, especially if that child's experiencing some significant mental health issues. For example, they could see that maybe that's part of the reason why for the first time, and they will seek some kind of way to heal that relationship as a result, but you never, I don't see it as a later on, unless something emerges after the separation. Like, you know, somebody maybe gets together with a, an old friend, for example, and there's a reason to ignite anger toward this, the ex spouse, I maybe see it there. But I, I have seen it pretty consistently in in, you know, early on in an in a divorce process, even when the, by the way, the parents are both still in the same home, getting ready to separate, you can see it there. Anyway,

Steve Altishin  
so this is something to be aware of, like, right off the bat, I mean, it's something that everyone should, or at least, if they can start to see, this is what it might be. What do you end up telling a parent, though? Who is engaging in these behaviors? I mean, what can you say to me that getting out of it? How do you start them? To stop doing this? If you can,

Sue Horton  
I think it's awareness, first and foremost, making them aware. And I, I can do it through the child, if there's a you know, because usually I'm seeing the identified child and their their behaviors are a result of something like this, for example. So I'll be able to go back to the parent, when I bring the parent and to say, like, Well, do you realize that you were bad mouthing, the dad or the mom or whatever, and just, you know, really bring it to light that way. And I would absolutely look to find a way toward healing in repair work, because there's, there's a ton of repair work that has to go on. And, you know, after this has gone on for a few years, I would also, you know, highly recommend that that parents see a therapist where they can vent those harder emotions with the therapist or professional rather than their child, I'd certainly ask them to stop doing it right away, if I saw it happening. And I'd be really clear and concise about that's what's happening. You know, you need to stop this. It's you don't cross those boundaries. It's toxic, it's destructive.

Steve Altishin  
Wow, we just blew through almost 30 minutes. This was really, really interesting. Yeah. But before we go, I do want to give you obviously, the opportunity to maybe talk a little bit about the book, you've written about this. And if someone is maybe wanting to get a hold, you let them know how they can do that.

Sue Horton  
Yeah. So I have written a book called Raising a Resilient Family: How to Create Strong Communication and Connection In a Deeply Distracted World. You can find it on Amazon, and Audible. My website is www.raisingaresilientfamily.com. And my direct email is sphsphorton915@gmail.com. And you're welcome to send me questions or ask me about the book. But the book really contains very, it's very much solution oriented, it gives parents ideas and strategies on how to create conversation, deeper dives into, you know, what's going on with a child how to emotionally connect with a child when they're, you know, hiding out in their rooms on video games, for example. I've worked with hundreds of families in crisis, as I said, but I've also worked with families in my private practice, where we're just they were just looking for ways to prevent the disconnection from emerging as they saw their, their young, middle aged kids going into high school. That's where you start to see it. I'm sure you parents can know exactly what I'm talking about there. Yeah, there's all kinds of ways and I talk about listening. I talk about accountability and self awareness a lot. It's really a foundational piece in the book.

Steve Altishin  
I love that. I love that. And I love the idea. You said help prevent it. I mean, just kind of learn about what it does before you start doing it. Because like you said, some people may not want to do it. They just they're natural. Men, they just kind of a man they do. But I we have to go. Okay, before we go. Thank you again for being here, Susan to sit down and talk with us today about I mean, parental alienation, something a lot of people don't understand the damage it can create. And you said in such a clear manner. And this is kind of high level stuff, you know, kind of brain wise but you you really bring it to a point where we understand it even me so that's Always good. So thank you again for being here.

Sue Horton  
Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it. It was great. 

Steve Altishin  
And thank you everyone for joining us. Anyone with further questions on the topic posted here, and we can get you connected with Sue. Until then, stay safe, stay happy and be well, thank you.

Outro:
This has been Modern Family Matters, a legal podcast focusing on providing real answers and direction for individuals and families. Our podcast is sponsored by Pacific Cascade Legal, serving families in Oregon and Washington. If you are in need of legal counsel or have additional questions about a family law matter important to you, please visit our websites at pacificcascadelegal.com or pacificcascadefamilylaw.com. You can also call our headquarters at (503) 227-0200 to schedule a case evaluation with one of our seasoned attorneys. Modern Family Matters, advocating for your better tomorrow and offering legal solutions important to the modern family.