Home > Abusive relationships, Borderline Personality Disorder, divorce, Marriage, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Psychology, relationships > Parental Alienation: Why Kids Usually Side with the Custodial Parent Especially If They’re Emotionally Abusive

Parental Alienation: Why Kids Usually Side with the Custodial Parent Especially If They’re Emotionally Abusive


brainwashed childDo your children refuse to see you since you and your ex separated? When you actually get to see your kid(s), do they lash out at you? Do they know things about your break-up or divorce that they shouldn’t know? Do they “diagnose” or berate you by using adult terms and expressions that are beyond their years?

If so, you’re probably experiencing the effects of parental alienation and hostile aggressive parenting. It’s normal to have hard feelings at the end of a significant relationship, however, you have a choice about how you handle it.

Most cases of parental alienation occur in dissolved marriages/relationships, break-ups, and divorces in which there’s a high degree of conflict, emotional abuse and/or mental illness or personality disorders.

If you were emotionally abused by your ex while you were still together, then your kid(s) learned some powerful lessons about relationships, especially if you had a “no talk” policy about the rages, yelling, emotional withdrawal, cold silences and verbal attacks. Children are adversely affected by witnessing constant conflict and overt and covert relational abuse, no matter their age.

Emotionally and/or physically abusive women and men are scary when on the attack, which probably makes it all the more confusing to see your ex turn your child(ren) against you. Don’t your kids see how out of whack their mom or dad is being? Don’t they know that you love them and how much you want to be in their lives? Don’t they realize they need you now more than ever? Yes and no.

On some level, they do know this. Nonetheless, they’re lashing out at you like mini-versions of your ex. Why?

It’s not that confusing if you think about it from a child’s perspective. Children depend utterly upon their custodial parent. Seeing mom or dad lose it and out of control is anxiety provoking, if not downright terrifying. The following are possible reasons why your ex’s campaign of parental alienation may be successful.

1. You left them alone with the crazy person. You got out and they didn’t. They’re mad that you’re not there anymore to intervene, act as a buffer, protect them or take the brunt of it.

2. Self-preservation. They see how your ex is treating you because she or he is angry with you. Your kid(s) don’t want your ex’s wrath directed at them. It’s like making “friends” with the school bully so they don’t pick on you.

3. Fear of loss. They’re worried that if they anger or displease your ex that they’ll be emotionally and/or physically banished, too. This is especially true if your ex used to shut you out, give you the cold shoulder and/or ignore you when she or he was upset with you. Your kids probably fear your ex will do this to them if they don’t go along with her or him.

4. They’re mad at you. You’re no longer physically present at home, which they experience as a psychological loss. Many kids experience this as betrayal and/or abandonment. Even if they can recognize that you didn’t have a happy marriage, they still want mom and dad to be together.

Loss, whether it’s physical (death) or psychological (divorce), requires a mourning period. Children aren’t psychologically equipped to handle grief and mourning. Pending other developmental milestones, kids don’t have the psychological capacity to successfully navigate loss until mid-adolescence. If you’d died, they could idealize your memory. However, you’re alive and chose to leave (or your ex chose for you). How do you mourn the loss of someone who’s not dead? It takes a level of intellectual sophistication children don’t possess not to vilify the physically absent parent—especially when your ex isn’t capable of it as an adult.

5. Rewards and punishment. Your ex “rewards” the kids (material goods, praise, trips and fun activities—probably with your support money—oh the irony) for siding with her, being cruel to you or cutting you off. If your kid(s) stand up for you or challenge your ex’s smear campaign, they’re chastised, lose privileges or have affection withheld from them. Remember how your ex used to treat you when she or he was displeased? It’s way scarier when you’re a kid. You have options as an adult that your children don’t.

6. The good son or daughter. They see how upset and out of control your ex is and want to take care of and make her or him “better.” They try to do this by doing what your ex wants, which is being hostile toward you and/or excluding you from their lives. This creates what psychologists refer to as the parentified child. Parentification forces a child to shoulder emotions and responsibilities for which she or he isn’t developmentally prepared and is also a form of child abuse.

Emotional parentification is particularly destructive for children and frequently occurs in parental alienation cases. The custodial parent implicitly or explicitly dumps their emotional needs on the child. The child becomes the parent’s confidante, champion/hero and surrogate for an adult partner. This is extremely unhealthy as it robs children of their childhood and leads to difficulty in having normal adult relationships later in life.

7. Power and control. They see the power your ex wields by behaving in an abusive and hurtful way toward you. They can wield the same power by acting out and hurting you, too. A child or teenager’s first taste of power can be thrilling for them. Of course, what they’re learning from you ex is how to gain control by being an emotionally abusive bully.

8. It’s good to be the victim. The more your ex plays the professional victim to friends, family and the legal system, the more benefits she or he may gain—deferential treatment, sympathy, power, money and other assets. The kids mirror your ex’s victim mentality and behaviors and use it to net their own gains.

A combination of the above reasons probably applies to child(ren) siding with your abusive  ex, particularly when you’ve been a good and loving parent. It’s demoralizing to have your kid(s) slap or push you away each time you reach out to them. It’s maddening that family court, in many cases, is blind to the abuses of parental alienation. Try to keep in mind that most children aren’t consciously aware that the above phenomena are occurring. Of course, that doesn’t make it any easier to be the emotional and financial punching bag for your ex and children.

by Dr Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD

Private Consultation and Coaching

I provide confidential, fee-for-service, consultation/coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. My practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit Services and Products for professional inquiries.

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Related material:

Why Parental Alienation is the Act of an Emotionally Abusive Bully

Also available on WashingtonSharedParenting.com

Photo credit:

How do you reach a child who has been brainwashed? by halgil on flickr.

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  1. Brenda
    March 21, 2016 at 1:07 pm

    Thank you for providing the child’s point of view. My stepson has not stayed over for almost 7 months and spoken to his father less than three times during these long months. He has heard and seen his father cry over the “abandonment ” he feels when his son does not spend one minute with dad. It is tough to see a man beg his teenager to share his love equally. My husband blamed the mother over the phone and his son (for the first time in months) suddenly texted his father in defense of his mother. She went straight to her son after their conversation and told him my husband was yelling at her. He was not. Now we sit and wait. But for how long? He has missed Christmas, son’s birthday, and Thanksgiving. We miss him. Again, how long can we wait? She replies with the same “don’t take it personal. He is just being a teenager”. If she wanted to, she could get the son to speak with dad. In my opinion, they’re both acting like teenagers.

  2. Allen
    August 13, 2014 at 3:30 am

    What? A woman who admits other women can be abusive? One who dares attack the modern “hallowed” woman? I love this woman! Societies used to burn women at the stakes, now it appears its the men’s turn? Well neither one should have happened. Come on guys, lets support this Dr.Tara lady!

  3. March 2, 2014 at 5:00 am

    This is an amazing article and spot on I might add

  4. ruth
    August 14, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    My son is experiencing this now….the mom is schizophrenia but she will not take her medication therefore she lashes out at my son, and is trying to turn his son against him….she thinks she is high and mighty turning her nose up at the law, but hopefully one day she will pay for what she is doing…..

  5. Tom
    October 30, 2010 at 3:17 am

    I was wondering if you could tell me something. My ex was diagnosed in the past with BPD and Dysthemia (nothing in writing, but many therapists were involved). We had a parenting eval and both took MMPI and MMCI tests. I didn’t have any high scores. She scored high in alot of areas… schizophrenia, hypochondria, hysteria… but what I was really wondering about was a score of 104 (out of 115) in Scale 4 Histrionic Personality. Is that enough to diagnose someone with Histrionic Personality Disorder? Is that the type of personality disorder that is associated with Parental Alienation and Hostile Aggressive Parenting? There was no great summary from the evaluator. I was disappointed with how wishy-washy the report was. Thanks.

  6. Tom
    October 30, 2010 at 3:02 am

    Your website is so attuned to what I have experienced.

  7. Tom
    October 30, 2010 at 2:54 am

    Thank you so much for your website. Understanding helps to a degree.

  8. Collin
    December 8, 2009 at 6:18 am

    I know this post is from long ago, but it strikes a nerve in my experience, so here I comment anyway. I was one of those children, and still to this day find myself caught up in the nonsense (I’m 18, and I have a sister who’s 17.). I’ve maintained contact with our father, at a steep price in terms of getting screamed at, but my sister has not, and wound up cutting off all contact with our father a little over a year ago (Unfortunately, this “success” on our mother’s part has emboldened her to “double down” and seek the same thing from me.). The reasons you stated for participating in such “games” as children were spot on. In our case, we “cooperated” with our mother because there was hell to pay if we didn’t. We got to see our dad on the standard-issue “every other weekend and some holidays” schedule, and even this small amount of visitation was unacceptable for our mother. She would frequently (at least a third of any given weekends, and every holiday, not to mention the standard-issue fights that seemed to occur spontaneously) start fights with our father while we were with him, over anything and everything, just creating chaos for the sake of creating chaos. Then, coming home was like getting dropped off into a hornet’s nest. If they had been “fighting”, near certain retribution awaited us, in the form of a screaming interrogation that often lasted for hours. Sometimes, things would be okay, like nothing ever happened, but, often, it was time to stand at the foot of the stairs and get screamed at (Sometimes, for good measure, our stepfather would join in.). These “interrogation” sessions were awful, there was no right answer, nothing to make the screaming stop. “Reality” was fluid, you couldn’t count on facts to remain consistent from one week to the next, and anything you said short of utter capitulation (which was taken to be lying, and silence was forbidden as well) would be taken out of context to mean that you were plotting against her to leave her, which then unleashed a torrent of screaming about how we were terrible children, didn’t love our mother, were selfish and ungrateful, etc. One of her favorites reserved for me was that me not agreeing with her meant that I was abusing her “just like your father did” (The fact that, at most, the violence between them was equal was no deterrent to her stores of being “abused to the point of nearly being killed”, nor was the fact that she would simultaneously tell stories of how proud she was of herself the first time she beat him up and broke his hand.) so I was a no-good woman-hating abuser. It was terrifying; she wasn’t especially violent towards us, but a bloody lip here, a couple of punches there, a few objects thrown, threats to beat us “within an inch of your life”, etc. went a long way towards keeping us terrified of her. To this day, I still catch myself flinching when she screams in that certain tone of voice, even if it’s not at me. If that wasn’t enough, she could always threaten to kick us out of the house and make us go live with our father, ironic, given that we were “in trouble” for “wanting” to do precisely that. (She made good on that threat once when I was 7, and kicked me out of the house; of course, by the time I was packed up and leaving to go live with my dad, she had “changed her mind” and was in the tear-shedding “don’t leave me” mode. So, we basically “played the game”, and parroted her talking points, fought with our father over the phone (Being older, I was usually stuck with being the messenger.), magically had events come up so we couldn’t see our father, etc. because the consequences of not doing so were severe. When we were at our father’s, we had to keep our mouths shut about it, because he would repeat what he was told to our mother in their next argument, which would set her off on us when we got back home. I apologize for the probably incoherent rambling, and probably missed most of what I was going to say, but there you have it, a small glimpse into the life of the “alienated” child.

    • Sarah
      February 16, 2013 at 9:38 pm

      collin, thank you so much for sharing your story. it helps my husband and i understand what his daughter is going through in living with her narcissistic mother. my question for you is … what in your opinion is the best way for my husband to handle the fact that his daughter (15 years old now) has completely cut off all communication with him as your sister did with your father. he has tried over and over again to let her know the door is always open and that he is here for her (through unanswered emails, facebook messages, phone calls that are not answered) but it results in nothing. it is so incredibly painful for him because there is just nothing … no explanation as to why or anything. if he tries to talk with her mother about it she just demands money from him. what do you think is the best thing he can do to try and help his daughter become a healthy individual and to try and restore communication with her?

  9. db
    November 5, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    I have just discovered your wonderful website and I am amazed by and very thankful for your advice and the shared experiences of other men facing such abuse. It is reassuring to know that I am not alone but it is also frightening to learn that my wife cannot be “fixed”. I thought that she just had an anger management problem but I now know better and the blinkers have come off. Having looked at all the articles and posts there seems to be little doubt that I am married to a BPD/NPD and the advice seems to be to get out and cease all contact. In my case that would be difficult as I have three small children (that I love more than anything else in the world) and I would need to communicate with her to get access to them etc. I have stayed so long in my marriage in a partially successful attempt to act as a “protector” for my children but who have nonetheless witnessed some of my wife’s abuse towards me and members of my wider family. My children also suffer bullying, shouting and demeaning behaviour from her, especially when I am work. My protection doesn’t seem to be very effective therefore despite my best efforts to stop her from doing it and in trying to be there for my children as an example of a “normal” parent. My fear is that the abuse towards them will get worse if I leave. Whilst my wife will make it very difficult for me to see them (whatever a court might order)and will no doubt try to turn them against me,is it better for the children for me to leave? If so, is it better to leave when they are young (the oldest is 7) or when they are adolescents?

    • Philip
      November 13, 2009 at 4:41 pm

      Hi I have just discovered this site and I am very greatful for all the advice.It feels a real ” ephiany” moment realising my wifes NPD behavoir having endured emotional abuse and verbal abuse for so long.I have six children that I absolutely adore and have agonised about leaving or staying.Sadly four of my oldest children have been alienated from me.My wife uses this as a control technique saying my relationship with them could be restrored if I did what she wants.I have come to the conclusion that I have to leave or I will be dead or go insane.At least if you leave you can try and stay healthy for them.Right now I am grieving for my children and the relationship i thought i had with my wife.I hope all goes well with you and your situation.

  1. December 2, 2010 at 2:02 am
  2. November 2, 2010 at 6:39 pm

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