Signs of Parent Alienation


T.H.: Welcome everybody to Divorce etc… I’m T.H. and Jessica. Today we are thrilled to have Cherie Morris here. You’re going to hear how amazing she is through this interview, but just so you know what she does as an exEXPERT, she is an attorney now practicing full time as a coach for individuals and couples. She has a lot of different perspectives as well as her personal experience. So she is a real-life expert like we are. Today, we’re really going to focus on parent alienation. It is a topic that keeps coming up from our audience. We decided to do a podcast about it. We know that it’s different when the kids are younger versus the kids being older and different stages through your divorce. Let’s start by just welcoming Cherie to the show.

Jessica: Thank you for being here.

Cherie: Thank you, T.H. and Jessica. It’s my privilege to support the amazing work you are both doing out there with exEXPERTS. Thank you for that.

Jessica: Thank you so much. I just want to say, I feel we talk a lot about and often in a joking way, one of my rules of divorce is don’t talk shit about your ex. I feel a lot of times people say things like that in a little bit of a lighter way. But that’s really a huge issue and problem and legal issue if people are really going down that road.

Cherie: It sure is, and it’s a complex issue. I say that because if you read anything about parent alienation, you’ll see that it’s a very controversial topic. It’s an interesting piece of it, because if it exists–and first let’s name what it is. Let me share–

Jessica: Yeah, let’s define it.

Cherie: –if that’s okay. It is really when one parent works to damage and even eliminate their child’s relationship with the other parent, and it occurs without legitimate justification. I think that’s an important definition. There’s a lot packed in there. We will unpack that as we talk about this topic. But I think the really important piece is, yes, parents do talk shit about each other, right, Jessica? Although, we never, never would.

Jessica: Never.

Cherie: Never. And when they do, it can hurt a kid, because they’re part of the other parent, and that’s not a good thing to do. But there’s a difference between making an offhand comment about what an asshole they are, and systematically attempting to sever the relationship of your child with your co-parent. That is a big problem and happens to people for a lot of different reasons, including that your former spouse has a personality disorder, is extremely toxic, they have a belief that you have a real problem – unjustified, most likely. It can happen for complicated reasons, and how we deal with it makes a difference, and how they are dealing with it makes a difference. It’s really specific to the situation. It wasn’t until recently that the American Psychological Association actually recognized it. We haven’t had a lot of data about it, and that’s been a problem. It’s a hard thing to capture data about, but I think that’s starting to change. I think we can now talk a little more legitimately about the space this inhabits and what to do about it.

T.H.: I think another problem is that if this is happening, the courts aren’t going to do anything about it. I mean, I know we have stuff in our agreement that you’re not supposed to say anything about me, or I’m not supposed to say anything bad about him, but is a court even going to enforce that? Or are they going to be like, listen you two grow up, stop acting like children, and be good parents? There are just people who said this is happening – “My kids aren’t talking to me. He or she is gaslighting our children, and I’m the bad guy. What do I do?” Is there any recourse with the courts, especially because we’re talking about divorce right now?

Cherie: So it’s an interesting piece. First of all, we all know you’d rather not be in court if you can avoid it. And sometimes you can avoid it. A judge is not prepared to make the best decisions for your family simply because they don’t know your family or your children like you do. Having said that, there are extreme cases where it’s required. Occasionally now, in various jurisdictions, they will allow expert testimony about parent alienation. But you’re right that a lot of agreements say don’t talk badly about the other parent, and there’s no real enforcement mechanism. What are you supposed to do, run to court every time dad or mom has said something negative? No of course not. Really what we’re looking for are patterns, bigger problems, and we ask parents to document that stuff. With my clients, because I’m no longer giving legal advice, I coach them to keep journals, capture text, screenshots, emails, and be very clear about the evidence they have. Because if you need a legal consult, you need evidence, because so many lawyers now hear, “My co-parent’s alienating me,” and it’s a broad brush. It’s like narcissists, we know there are narcissists and they’re very real, but everybody uses these words. I think it’s really important that if you have a real problem that you do what you can to document it.

Jessica: What if you are having a problem, which I think is common, that you are feeling for whatever reason, the kids are either pulling away or you’re feeling a different vibe and things feel off, but you don’t have either access to the kids’ phones, you’re not seeing texts from the other parent to the kids? If you don’t have proof, how do you get proof? It’s easy, of course, to say journal and write this down. But that’s assuming the kids are actually telling you things that that ex-spouse is saying about you, and or that you’re overhearing. This is stuff that’s happening behind your back. So how do you put that together?

Cherie: So, a great question. I think one of the most important things we have to do, and this is what I coach my clients to do, is deescalate ourselves. It’s really important we separate the threads of what’s going on with kids developmentally, and what’s happening because of a co-parent, right? Developmentally, as we know, kids go through different stages. They may be pulling away for reasons having nothing to do with our co-parent. But if we are used to aligning in a negative way with that co-parent, we may blame them. Look, I’m not suggesting that’s not real. I’m saying there are steps to be taken. The first thing to do is recognize what’s going on and understand to the extent you can what’s going on with your child that may be separate from your co-parent. If you recognize, look, I understand this is happening, and in some way, you have to have some empirical evidence, because if you don’t, you won’t be able to do anything about it. I think another important point here, Jessica, is that what you do may be to take care of yourself, continue to attend to your children, and love them, because you are their parent, and they love you. If there is no enforcement mechanism, no real help, then it may be a waiting game. And that’s a terrible answer, I recognize that, but we can’t solve all problems with a legal solution that exist in this space.

T.H.: If you just felt a disconnect with your child, before you make any conclusions, wouldn’t the first step really be – “You know, I’m feeling a little different here between us. Tell me what’s going on. I can only help you if you kind of give me some indication. Is it something at school? Something at home? Something I did? Something with your friends?” Really talk to your child about it. Because if something’s up with your relationship with your child, you don’t automatically think, oh, well, it’s her fault, or it’s his fault. You would be like, why are you kind of being a jerk? Why are you blowing me off? Or whatever.

Jessica: I think the tricky part is that when we are divorced, there is that really thin ice and that fine line of where it seems like we’re putting the kid in a position to now start talking about the other one by–

T.H.: No, no, I didn’t even mention the other one’s name.

Jessica: No, I know, but–

T.H.: I’m just being like, “I’m just checking in with you. Are you good?”

Jessica: Sure, but the question is, will the kid actually say, “Well, Dad’s been saying all this bad stuff about you?” I feel like the kids, a lot of times, I wonder if they would really tell you what’s going on if it has to do with the other parent, because now they’re in the position of picking sides, in a sense.

T.H.: It’s maybe worth a shot. Is there a downside to it?

Jessica: Yeah.

Cherie: I think a conversation with your child is always a good place to start. Show curiosity. What I loved about what T.H. named was she didn’t mention her co-parent at all or anyone’s co-parent. That is a great place for a launching point. Then if you notice that there’s still not a shift, get your child some support, a third-party neutral. Now, the problem in parent alienation is often your co-parent will refuse to consent to something like therapy for the child, right? But that’s the red flag. That’s a warning signal, obviously. That may be a step at which you continue to persist and insist, and you can get legal support, because most courts will err on the side of if a child is in distress, get them to therapy. Then there’s somebody that child can talk to that’s not you, not your co-parent who may be disparaging you, and say, “My God, it’s such a relief to tell you what Mom’s been saying about Dad,” or vice versa. I think Jessica is so right, it’s tricky to navigate. We never obviously want to go in with that agenda because we’re always having to be so careful about not disparaging our co-parent. But in this situation, having a conversation is good, and then continuing to attend, pay attention, and taking that next step of therapeutic support if needed.

T.H.: You said one red flag, so what are some other red flags that people can then listen to this podcast and be like, wait a second, I check three of those red flags. This could be me?

Cherie: I think another big red flag is if your child starts talking about you to you in a disparaging way. They are highly critical of you, your habits, your personhood, and you don’t know where it’s coming from. It’s a shift, and you’re wondering where it’s coming from. Now, again, teenagers start to do this kind of thing. So we have to be careful about where we’re thinking this is occurring and why it’s occurring. But that’s another red flag, or as we say, it puts your antenna up to pay attention.

T.H.: There were times that that was happening with my son in particular. I literally could hear his father’s voice behind the words. Because the way that he was speaking to me is exactly the way I had been spoken to in my marriage. I did confront him a few times, and I was like, “Listen, I don’t talk to you like that. Why are you talking to me like that?” I didn’t bring up his dad. But I didn’t stand up for myself with his dad, and I’m not going to let my kids start bullying me. So I was like, “This is not okay, just so you know.” Because if no one tells him it’s not okay, then he’s going to keep doing it. I am not enabling another bad relationship within my family. I mean, I definitely did it, it didn’t always work, but you also have to create your own boundaries for bad behavior, even if parent alienation is the cause or not. I didn’t have parent alienation, I just had him copying his father, and that was pretty bad. Again, it could be something, but it may not be parent alienation.

Cherie: That’s right. In any case, teaching your child how you will be treated by them is an important skill, right? So I think that’s important. Another favorite that I hear and that I personally experienced, pulling back the curtain a little, is “You’re crazy.” That’s a favorite, right?

T.H.: Did everybody feel all of our eyes roll when she said that? I know all of your eyes rolled too.

Jessica: Right.

Cherie: And so noticing that, and also T.H., what you said about it triggering you because you heard your former spouse, that’s true for all of us. Sitting in that space is really hard and really triggering, and it may or may not be parent alienation. That’s a critical step. I want to make sure we address the idea that we may play a role in this. By that, I don’t mean you are creating a situation ever that results in parent alienation. That’s not okay. But understand your own triggers. Understand what you may be projecting onto your former spouse that may be interfering with your relationship with your child. I’m not suggesting that you don’t do all those other things and document and flag and pay attention, but I’m saying we all have personal responsibility in these relationships with our kids. Sometimes we show up in a way that’s less than 100% too. With my clients, I’m always looking for ways to have them feel seen and heard and also take personal responsibility.

Jessica: What would you say when it extends beyond just the ex-spouse? I mean, listen, they say, “from the mouths of babes”. When your kids are little, they open their mouths and shit falls out that you end up hearing about stuff that your ex said about you, because the kids are so unaware, right? They don’t even realize what they’re saying. Maybe they become a little bit more careful as they get older. But I remember when my kids were little, stuff falling out of their mouths, that the in-laws, or as I like to call them, the outlaws, were saying about me. My kids spent a lot of time with them, and there were definitely some rude and offensive things being said. Where does that play into parental alienation or the idea of it, particularly because nowadays, people do have family as caregivers helping out so much?

Cherie: I certainly think it can play a role. I think it’s up to us as individuals to understand that when that’s occurring, we may have limited recourse, unless we’re able to create a boundary so they never see their grandparents, for example, if we’re using them. And who wants to do that? But what we can do is name in the moment that these things – I love that term, “falling out of the mouths of babes”, “falling out of the mouths of our children” – that we repair or correct whatever is said. I have a current client who’s a former Olympic athlete whose former in-laws suggested her kids were very lucky not to have gotten her hair because it’s so coarse. It just so happens, of course, she has brown skin and her former husband has light skin.

Jessica: That sounds like a very racist comment.

Cherie: Well, exactly. The way she handled it was to name not that her in-laws were deeply racist in that moment – her children are very young – but to suggest there are all kinds of hair people can have, and that her hair is really fun because sometimes it’s wild, and their hair might be like that too. It can be deeply offensive and let me name it, that’s just racism and it’s not okay and should not ever be endorsed. But how you deal with your kids in that moment is different than correcting a societal problem.

T.H.: Let’s get back to alienation. Let’s say you got a divorce and you initiated it, and now your kids are not talking to you because the other spouse is saying that you ruined the marriage. You broke up the family. This is your mother’s fault. Or your father’s fault – we can use father if you want, but your mother’s fault. And now the kids are not speaking to her. She’s been a stay-at-home mom. I’m sure that this happens a lot, and it’s heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking when you’ve spent your whole life raising your children, and now they’re not talking to you.

Cherie: It is heartbreaking, T.H., and I have curiosity in these situations always to first hear the story and understand their perspective. Then as we start digging a little deeper, I want to know how she is trying, for example, to reach out to her kids. What interactions work and which ones don’t? How are they naming what’s happening in the relationship? And is she attending to boundaries perhaps that they have set for her? It’s not that it is her fault, and I want to make that clear, or his fault, but it is important once they’re adults to recognize that they get to set boundaries. Even if they were influenced by a toxic co-parent, even if there was parent alienation, they are now adults and get to decide. It probably is one of the most painful situations I see. But I always work to have parents try to repair because there is now no legal remedy is there because they’re adults.

T.H.: How do you repair that? What should you do to reach out to a child who’s pulled away from you?

Jessica: And who doesn’t like responding and who doesn’t want to hear from you and is telling you that they don’t want to hear from you and ignoring you?

Cherie: So that is a delicate situation because I do want to consider having parents continue to reach out episodically, periodically on a schedule, and see if something has softened and changed, see if there’s a way that you can meet them where they are. The answer may be no. And it may take a long time. I’ve seen cases in which has taken years to even have a dialogue. But if there are ways they are willing to speak to you, even if it’s only via text, take those opportunities. Have that phone call once a year. It’s not enough, but it’s better than, for example, what I see people in pain doing is saying, “If your Dad hadn’t, then it wouldn’t be this way.” It forces the child further into that polarization. That does the family system no good at all. And it’s a tragic situation.

Jessica: We know of some tragic situations like that. I’m thinking of one in particular, and I mean, it’s painful to watch because this parent and the daughter have not been in touch in several years, and the daughter is finishing high school. To your point, she’s mature enough to be able to have her own opinion and decide whether or not she wants to have this relationship. On the one hand, I can’t help think to myself what kind of issues are going to be exposed later when you don’t have a relationship with one of your parents, because there has to be baggage that comes along with that later. Then also on the side of the parent who’s trying to reach out and is being rejected, how long can you keep trying and keep bringing the pain on yourself before you, I don’t want to say give up because I mean, it’s your child and you’re the parent, and so of course, you never want to give up. But at the same time, parents do successfully alienate their children to a degree where it’s irreparable.

Cherie: Yes, and I think for all of us, as mothers, we probably would always persist and create some good–I like to think of it as a bubble around us that that pain doesn’t penetrate. It becomes more reflexive. We’re going to keep trying. We’re going to hold that space of love for our child, but we’ve now created a boundary where it doesn’t always feel like a sword piercing us. And over time, that takes work. It takes it takes authentic understanding of oneself to know what role we may or may not have played in the situation, that this is part of our life journey. As we know, being an adult is a hard thing, and bad things happen to good people. From my perspective, what I’ve seen clients do is continue to persist, but create a boundary and look in their life in another direction for fulfillment and joy, and not just seek it in this parent-child relationship. I’m not suggesting that’s easy, by the way. I’m simply saying that it may be a necessary reality.

T.H.: That’s really interesting. Just stay focused on the things that bring you happiness and joy. Expand those while you continue to reach out to your child, but don’t put all your eggs in one basket, because it’ll eat you alive.

Cherie: And by the way, kids are pretty smart, right? Over time, I’ve seen situations in which they start to figure out what’s happened. And it may take a long time.

Jessica: That’s the hope, right? Like, that later, somehow there will be an epiphany and the kid actually will turn around one day and be like, “Wow, look at what they did and all the effort they put into it.” You hope.

T.H.: Right, but if you give up a relationship with them and they come to that realization, you want them to know the door is always open.

Jessica: Of course.

Cherie: Yes.

T.H.: Like, “Don’t be afraid to call me even though we haven’t spoken for such a long time.” Even if what Cherie was saying, if that child’s only giving you once a year, then take the once a year. Because if they’re like, holy crap, this is important, I’m a mother now, or I’m a father now, and I want X, Y, and Z, they have to know that they can still have that relationship with you.

Cherie: And know this, it would be really easy, because we’re just humans too, to get resentful of the kid.

Jessica: Sure.

Cherie: And so when they call and you’re like, “Oh, now you call?”

T.H.: Right, “What the hell do you want?”

Cherie: Yeah, exactly. You can see it happening.

T.H.: I mean, let’s be realistic, “Do you know how much hurt you’ve caused me over 12 years?” You’d probably want to spew it all. And then that’s going to backfire.

Cherie: And so your work in this journey, in this long game of perhaps years, is to always be prepared for that call, right? No matter what else triggers you in your life, if that’s important to you, then know that, name it, be ready to take that call, and say, “Oh, honey, I’m so happy to hear from you. What’s going on with you?” Don’t lead with, “And here’s how hard it’s been for me.” 

T.H.: I mean I do feel like this conversation could go on forever, but I just have one last question before I think we’re going to have to wrap things up, which is, how do you propose people have the conversation with their ex-spouse if they feel that they do have the proof, they’ve seen the pattern of constant alienation – the messages, things being passed on to the kids? We have heard, and I don’t know if it’s a state-specific thing, that parental alienation is illegal, and that in theory, there are legal ramifications that can come of it if you can prove it to that extent. But I guess my question is do you have a conversation with the other parent? Now, if they are doing that, you know that conversation’s not going to go well. Or is that not something to go down that road?

Cherie: I think if it’s that extreme, your best next move is to get legal advice. I want to be clear about that. I am not one that advocates court. In most situations, I want to not be in court. But if it is that extreme, get legal support. Your lawyer in your jurisdiction can tell you what steps you should take, and maybe you should communicate with your former spouse and say, “I think this is happening,” or maybe you shouldn’t. But let’s find out what the best practices in your jurisdiction are, what support really exists for parent alienation where you are, especially if the children are young enough that this could go on for a period of time while they’re minors. If you’re dealing with someone who alienates you, you’re dealing with a really toxic person. Also, to keep throwing yourself in harm’s way is not a very successful place to be.

Jessica: Right, okay. Well, I mean, this conversation, it’s so deep, and it happens so frequently, and we have to continue it. And particularly, even continuing it on the level of when it hasn’t crossed the line of parental alienation, but just the negativity and a lot of the stuff that most of us deal with on a regular basis once we are divorced. There’s always a lot of that happening. It’s an issue that a lot of people have to learn how to deal with.

T.H.: And the whole journey, especially when they’re young. Our kids, between me and Jessica, they were all under the age of eight. They didn’t know anything. So watching them grow up and figure out oh, that’s puberty, oh, that’s being just a jerk, or that’s girl drama, or kind of going through with them, as Jessica and I have with our kids so far, and we did not experience parent alienation, fortunately, and we empathize with all of you who are, but we went through plenty of stuff. There are so many times where I’m like, it’s this. I mean, it has nothing to do with that. He’s just 16, and he’s being a jerk. I’m sorry I’m like trash-talking my son. She’s being 15, and she’s being like a bitch. I’m not just saying all the boys. But just go on the journey and really figure out, where am I at right now in my life? How am I dealing with my own stuff? Where are my kids in their life? Like Cherie said, meet them where they are. That’s so much of what I do with my son with anxiety, in particular. And that’s training, everybody. And so back to it, Jessica and I always say get a really good therapist. It’s the best money ever spent because that’s someone who can challenge you and help you see new perspectives and help you strengthen skills that you need to strengthen. I think all of what Cherie said was really important. Then when you can name it, whether they’re being a jerk, a bitch, or it is parent alienation, then you can focus on that instead of being confused and having tons of messages running around your head.

Jessica: Yeah.

T.H.: Thank you so much.

Jessica: Well, thank you very much for taking the time to join us and to talk about this. Like we said, it’s an ongoing conversation. We will definitely revisit it. Anyone listening, let us know what your questions are, your concerns. These are things we can pass along to Cherie, and we can have more conversations about it and answer your questions moving forward. Let us know how we can help. We’ll see you next time.

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