When divorce occurs there is typically some sense of alienation, even in fairly healthy families. Perhaps one parent doesn’t feel safe initially or they are upset that they didn’t quite get enough child support (“I just cant afford that right now-your dad has money”!). Most of the time it is intermittent and the parent or parents are able to see their behavior and the effects of their behavior on the family. Also, sometimes the other parent can help balance out and correct the alienation (“those weren’t nice words from your mom but we are all under stress now; things will be ok soon”). These are in cases of healthier functioning family systems.
When the full-blown parental alienation dynamic exists the pathology is more intractable: It is a campaign of denigration against the former spouse who abandoned him/her. It is the complete obsession of the alienating parent to manipulate the child to turn away from the often typically healthy parent. The power/control dynamic is extremely intense. It is the goal of the parent for the child to see them as “good” and “perfect” and the targeted parent as “bad” or “evil.”
If we were to get into the mind of the alienator we would find some very sick and disorganized psychopathology. (typically a narcissistic/borderline and for men accompanied by psychopathy and a persecutory delusional system, for women a narcissistic/borderline and/or histrionic features). These people, both men and women, were arrested at a very early stage of development. There are no/weak boundaries, impoverished ego strength, weak impulse control and reduced and sometimes delusional reality testing. Their path through life often carries that of a persecutory delusion-that is, they are the victim of a punishing parent and then an evil spouse and world. To them, everything is everyone else’s fault; they take no ownership for their behavior unless it glorifies them. In fact, the rules that exist apply to everyone but them and following an illegal path is not unusual, especially in cases where psychopathy occurs (typically more in men). The typical dynamic is that of the narcissist/borderline where their sense of entitlement governs their behavior- a sense that is really to counteract the deep feelings of low self esteem, unworthiness and powerlessness.
Narcissists, being remarkably resistant in treatment, are often unable to “get it” and cannot see what helping professional, judges and authority figures during the divorce are telling them: they are right and everyone else is wrong. Their need to vindicate themselves and see themselves as the perfect parent is a strong survival issue and they will go to any lengths to do that, even it means hurting the child in the process.
That said, these parents who pretend to be perfect show themselves in the legal system. They ask for more visitation, sometimes 100% visitation (finding any reason for the child not to visit), ask the child to testify (“hear my child, hear me”), cut off communication and show no co-parenting, cooperation and accountability with the targeted parent yet firmly adhere to the notion that they strongly encouraged visitation and the child refused. One parent even sent the judge texts where he attempted to turn the child away (who was not yet turned away) that had harsh denigrating language about the other parent; in this case the delusional system was so strong that he was even unable to see that this would work against him. There is no end to their mission. Unfortunately this is not a custody issue but a child protective issue; it is an issue of child abuse.
Be mindful that law enforcement and child protection people are often ill-equipped to see through the pathology. They may see on the surface that things appear OK as they tend to look more at physical than emotional abuse, even in the face of severe emotional manipulation. It takes a qualified GAL evaluation and ancillary interviews with psychological testing to confirm the pathology. Even with a complete evaluation the legal process can be lengthy and very costly both emotionally and financially.