Parental Alienation v. Parental Estrangement, Part 1: What Is the Difference?

Causes of Alienation and Estrangement Among Co-Parents

Our firm handles many cases in which minor and adult children remain estranged from their parents. We recently hosted a popular webinar by the esteemed parental alienation expert, William Bernet, M.D. According to Dr. Bernet, although the resulting consequence of estrangement is the same for both parental alienation and parental estrangement, the causes are very different.

Parental estrangement typically occurs when a normally close parent-child relationship abruptly ceases due to reason(s) for which the now estranged parent is personally responsible. On the other hand, with parental alienation, another parent is responsible for the estrangement between a parent and child. In this case scenario, the alienating parent, typically through psychological manipulation, causes a child to become disrespectful and fearful of the other parent.

Abuse v. Protection: Where to Draw the Line

Parental alienation is a form of child abuse. On the other hand, parental estrangement by a child is a form of child protection. Parental alienation occurs when the alienated parent (target parent) offered consistent parenting, never abused the rejecting child, and the child, for no apparent reason, cuts off communications, either slowly or abruptly, with the alienated parent. Once it takes hold, parental alienation is very difficult to resolve without serious professional intervention. On the other hand, parental estrangement can often resolve simply with the passage of time and distance from the estranged parent.

Parental alienation very often interferes with a child’s future relationships with others, including their adult spouses and, according to experts like Dr. Bernet, may lead to serious depressive episodes and substance abuse issues. Parental estrangement, on the other hand, is typically remedial for the alienated child and provides a necessary reprieve to help parent and child learn healthier coping skills and actively repair their relationship during an absence. If the estrangement period is used appropriately, an estranged parent can learn to grow from the absence and fix what occurred to sever that bond.

How to Move Forward

I think all child psychologists would agree that the bond between parent and child is one of the hardest to sever and most unnatural bonds to be broken; however, there is no shame at all in what you’re going through – regardless of whether or not the broken relationship is the result of parental alienation or parental estrangement.

We live in a judgmental society, and people too often believe that you must have done something intentionally harmful to cause the rift with your child. That is usually NEVER the case. Although the resulting consequence of distance or no contact is the same, the path for reconciliation is different. I am a firm believer that one party can actively repair the broken relationship, but the pathway is different for each. The commonality to both: reading the “tea leaves” and “patience.”

Typically, parental alienation and parental estrangement both occur slowly over time, but you have to be willing to actively listen and view what’s occurring through an objective lens. Although studies indicate that the overwhelming majority of adult children estranged from their parents reported repeatedly communicating to their parents why they were choosing to distance themselves, the overwhelming number of parents in these studies indicated they didn’t know why their children chose to cutoff contact.

Similarly, parental alienation occurs over time, slowly, but when alienated parents finally realize what’s going on, children are often completely alienated from them. In both scenarios, sometimes, all you can do is hope and wait; other times, there are no other viable alternatives. With parental estrangement, respecting distance is the better course of conduct. With parental alienation, I believe that the cliché of “distance makes the heart grow fonder” takes a completely different meaning.

Both require deliberate, reparative actions. Both require you to be kind to yourself and spend time looking at the steps you can take to show your child that you were not that monster the other parent painted you to be or that you are not as scary as you may have appeared to have been. Both, in my view, require you to engage in some trauma work because, at the root of both is trauma, usually inter-generational trauma. Both require learning how to actively apologize to yourself and, one day, to your child, even from a distance, for letting precious time pass without building additional shared memories. And trust me, time will heal many of your wounds as the natural process of grief runs through her cycles to finally help you get to a place of some acceptance.

The death of your parent-child relationship is like grieving any other loss, except that it’s harder because there is little closure. There is no funeral, and you’re constantly holding out some hope, which itself is very painful, but time is the natural analgesic. Shock and despair do not typically last forever. I give my clients the same remedy for both: time and hope, since without that, what else is there? What else would you be doing? You have to continue living, finding ways to enjoy moments, even without that child, learning to rise from the ashes of such deep depression of life without the child whose paintings were proudly displayed around your office and home, their little hands eagerly grabbing your face to hold you in their palms, the smell of milk and cookies on their breath. Those memories are still there, and with some hard work, you can learn to make time your friend. Trust in a higher Power, the Lord, to walk with you during these dark times.

In the next post, I will cover two cases to further distinguish parental alienation from parental estrangement.

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