Post-Breakup Conflict Between Parents Harms Children
It can be messy when relationships end, particularly when children are involved. Many parents are able to protect their children from conflicts when they arise. Unfortunately, there are other parents who are unable to put their differences aside—and they use their children against the other parent. When children are dragged into the fight, they often suffer serious consequences such as found with other forms of child abuse, like anxiety and depression. It may seem unsurprising that being used as a weapon in their parents’ conflicts has multiple negative consequences for children. However, parents caught up in their fight with their ex seem to fail to recognize this. In my research, we examine the toxic nature of this family dynamic for all involved.
Impact of Parental Conflict on Children
There are two primary ways children respond to this conflict. Some children feel “stuck in the middle” of their parents’ conflict, which triggers what we call a “loyalty conflict.” Children in loyalty conflicts want to love both parents, but they are pressured to pick a side. In these cases, the parents have similar amounts of power and the child often distances from both parents to avoid their conflict.
In contrast, there are other children who experience “parental alienation.” This is when the child picks a side: they align with one parent and reject their other parent for reasons that are objectively not legitimate. In this case, the child has usually been influenced by their preferred parent to adopt a story in which the preferred parent is an innocent victim and the other parent is a villain who never loved them, abandoned them, and is unsafe to be around. A growing number of scholars have considered the behaviors that cause parental alienation a form of child abuse.
Recognizing Parental Alienation as Abuse
My research shows that parental alienation may not be just child abuse, but rather an extension of “coercively controlling” intimate partner abuse whereby one partner seeks to dominate and control the other. This view runs contrary to the views of legal and mental health professionals who have called these types of cases “high conflict families,” which insinuates that both parents are to blame for their ongoing disputes. My research has shown that this “high conflict” label is too general to apply to all families because not all conflict is the same. Further, assuming there is “wrong on both sides” can, in fact, be blaming a parent who is the target of abusive behaviors.
In my most recent study, we analyzed the stories shared with us in interviews with 79 parents who had been alienated from their children. Consistent with current understanding of coercively controlling abuse, the majority of situations described by alienated parents were ones where they had almost no power. In most instances, the alienating parent controlled their outcomes, provoked public arguments, limited access to their children, and manipulated the children to align against the alienated parent. Provoking public arguments was a particularly effective way of setting up a lose-lose situation for the alienated parent. If they walk away? Then they are accused of not engaging in a dialogue. If they dive into the conflict? Now they are being combative. It is a no win situation.
Also common in these stories were descriptions of many incidents of victimization both before and after leaving the relationship. This finding suggests that the intentional alienation of their child from the alienated parent was just another way for the alienating parent to continue to victimize their ex. While this research relied on the perceptions of alienated parents, some of whom may have been motivated to cast themselves as a victim, it is unlikely that all would independently portray themselves in this way. Indeed, many of the alienated parents rejected the label of “innocent victim” and even blamed themselves for situations where they had little to no power or control.
What became clear in these discussions was that many parents, regardless of gender, still engage in coercively controlling abuse post-breakup and will use their children to do so. We need wider recognition that the behaviors used by alienating parents to turn their children against their other parent are the same as those used by coercively controlling abusers. When we recognize that not all “high conflict families” are the same, and look closer at the power dynamics at work, we can find more effective strategies to intervene and protect children from rejecting a loving parent. Telling everyone to “just get along” just isn’t cutting it. We need to do better.
For Further Reading
Harman, J. J., Leder-Elder, S., & Biringen, Z. (2019). Prevalence of adults who are the targets of parental alienating behaviors and their impact: Results from three national polls. Child & Youth Services Review, 106, 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2019.104471
Harman, J. J., Matthewson, M. L., & Baker, A. J. L. (2022). Losses experienced by children alienated from a parent. Current Opinion in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.05.002
Harman, J. J., Kruk, E., & Hines, D. (2018). Parental alienating behaviors: An unacknowledged form of family violence. Psychological Bulletin, 14 (12), 1275-1299. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/bul0000175
Jennifer J. Harman is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Colorado State University whose primary area of research is on the study of parental alienation and other forms of family violence.