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Educating An Alienating Parent

Why does a parent become an *alienating parent, or amputative parent as Toronto-based therapist Victoria Lorient-Faibish calls them? After all, it is reasonable (and common) to have hurt feelings, anger, and sadness during and after a divorce — at least for a while.

But why are some parents able to step back from the hurt and say to themselves, it’s time to move on and put my child first, while others seem to be blinded by rage? It’s hard for most parents to grasp that in their quest for revenge, alienating parents are willing to sacrifice their child’s well being in order to exact revenge on the target parent (the former spouse).

Are alienating parents less able than others to reflect objectively on what they are doing to their child — and themselves? Or can they tell the difference between right and wrong but just don’t care?

It depends, though sometimes the answer seems to be a bit of both. Sometimes the alienating parent begins the process of destroying their child’s relationship with the target parent even though they know it is wrong, but get so caught up in a web of hatred and deceit it seems impossible to change course. Even if they have the self awareness to know they are not acting with good intentions, they may genuinely not understand the damage they are doing to their child.

This is why it is so important for alienating parents to get therapy with therapists trained in this area. Dr. Richard Warshak points out in his book, Divorce Poison, that this may require a new set of skills on the part of the therapist. And one of the most important roles the therapist needs to take is that of educator. By explaining and elaborating on what alienation can do to a child, the therapist helps the parent understand the effects of his or her actions. With therapy, they begin to be able to prioritize and step back from committing acts of revenge so as to protect the child.

What do alienating parents need to learn?

The data seems to support the idea that after they get a bit older or become adults,  children who grow up as the victims of alienating parents have a host of problems specifically due to the alienation. If they realize what has been done to them, they resent the way they’ve been manipulated. Their trust has been shattered. Some feel they have no “real” parents. They mourn for the parent-child relationships that could have been. They’ve lost out on the relationship with the target parent but they’ve also been cheated out of a nurturing, healthy relationship with the amputative parent.

These children are taught to see one parent as “all good” and the other as “all bad”. They may develop a pattern of black and white thinking, where something or someone is either all good or all bad. It is challenging to get rid of this type of thinking since it has been ingrained since childhood.

Also, these children usually have trust and boundary issues which have an impact on the relationships they have when they grow up and begin to form intimate relationships.  Not only have they not seen a healthy adult relationship modeled, they’ve absorbed the message, no matter how subconsciously,  that their needs are irrelevant, that they are here only to make the alienating parent comfortable. They may enter into co-dependent relationships where their emotional needs are never met. They may end up in abusive relationships, too.

Like other abused children, children who have been alienated from a parent, may be fearful of or have difficulties building healthy, lasting intimate relationships. They may also act out their pain and confusion by engaging in high-risk behaviors. They may be prone to sadness and depression.

When therapists are able to convey the serious harm an alienating parent does to his or her child, the chance for change is real. Most parents do not want to hurt their child and when they are able to understand that their actions can seriously injure their child, to the point of creating life-long emotional problems, they are willing to work on bridging gaps in the child’s relationship with the other parent rather than blasting chasms.

Still, not all parents are willing to listen. Some are simply bent on revenge and convince themselves that it is in their child’s best interest to be cut off from the other parent. In these cases, therapy is a tough process and might require repeated attempts with many therapists. If a therapist offers information that an amputative parent isn’t yet ready to hear, he or she may simply fire the therapist, or, if the therapist has been court ordered, the alienating parent might request a new therapist, citing differences that cannot be resolved. Attorneys and judges need to be aware of the possible resistance that can occur in these cases.

Meanwhile, I believe that education is essential if therapy is to work. Therapists, read Dr. Warshak’s book!

*For more on Parental Alienation see Broken Hearts All Around: Divorce and Revenge

*Dr. Warshak’s book touches on seemingly ever possible occurrence and outcome of parental alienation situations in the courts, in therapy, in families, and individuals. He cites the problems and outlines solutions. I highly recommend this book to anyone involved in a contentious divorce, including extended family members. Therapists, divorce attorneys, family court judges, and anyone involved professionally in custody, child care, and so on, should view this book as required reading.





Educating An Alienating Parent

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2012). Educating An Alienating Parent. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 14, 2019, from


Last updated: 16 Feb 2012
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