Can You Recognize Alienation Beyond Family Situations?

(c) AntonioGuillem/fotosearch

When three becomes two against one, beware of alienation.

Source: (c) AntonioGuillem/fotosearch

Usually I focus in my blogposts, books and clinical work on how couples can build healthy relationships. However since I have been focusing of late on the sad and too-seldom-recognized phenomenon of parental alienation, I have begun seeing alienation in both small and large manifestations all around me.

Here's an example of small-scale non-parental alienation.

Tricia, now aged 13, for some time had seen a child therapist in our offices on a weekly basis. Her father brought her, then sat in the waiting room while Tricia worked with her therapist. When Betty, one of our two office staff, greeted her, Tricia always responded with friendly warmth. By contrast when the other receptionist, Sharon, was manning the front desk, Tricia looked at her coldly, appeared annoyed, and proffered no greetings. What was going on? One day Tricia's dad dropped her off at the therapy clinic so he could do errands instead of sitting in the waiting room. Sharon was at the front desk. This time though Tricia stunned Sharon who had steeled herself for the usual silently hostile non-greeting.

"What a pretty necklace you are wearing Sharon!" Tricia said with a warm smile. "And how are you?"

What had changed? You may have guessed it. Tricia's dad was not in the room.

Tricia was a victim of parental alienation. Tricia's dad blocked her from contact with her mother. He also denigrated Tricia's mother, talking about her with perjorative terms and turning innocent actions on her part into signs of how bad a person she is. He expected Tricia to treat her mother with similar coldness and hostility.

The dad must have spoken similarly alienating words to Tricia about Sharon. With dad not in the room however, Tricia did not need to be her dad's foot soldier. She instead could allow herself to act toward Sharon in accord with her own in fact quite positive feelings toward this kindly and likable front desk receptionist.

All kinds of relationships can be controlled via an alienator.

Here’s an example.

A junior high girl, Donna, convinces her friends, “Don’t talk with Cathy. I don’t like her.”

Poor alienated Cathy may never know why her former friends have become so unfriendly. Why have they become mean to her, and may even begin bullying her?

Give appropriate praise. Instead of simply saying, "You're great," try to be specific about what your child did to deserve the positive feedback. You might say, "Waiting until I was off the phone to ask for cookies was hard, and I really liked your patience."

Cathy is the targeted victimof an alienating friend who has convinced her peers, the followers, to treat her as an untouchable.

What about large-scale alienation?

Fasten your seat belt. We're about to fly to a higher level view, a view that let's us see large-scale, macrocosm versions of alienation. Here we go, shifting from personal to group to national and even to inernational perspectives.

I turned on the television last night to watch the news on cable TV. Suddenly I realized that I was watching population alienation. Every news story had been turned into instance after instance of what's wrong with the political leadership on the opposite side of the political isle. The realization sickened me.

Now I understand why our country is so divided. Leaders in one party, with the aid of the media, were enacting population alienation from leadership on the other side. America's citizens are being used, like alienated children, as weapons in one political party's attempts to destroy the other.

I see now that alienation can occur in the relationship between any three entities. It occurs whenever one entity (the alienator) turns a second entity (the follower), against a third (the target) whom they designate as an enemy.

Whatever happened to cooperation?

In a healthy family, whether the parents are married or post-divorce , parents cooperate. Neither virtually ever says a harsh word to the children about their spouse or ex-spouse, their co-parent. When decisions need to be made, the parents attempt to find solutions responsive to the concerns of the child, and also to the concerns of both parents. In post-divorce situations, while the relationship may be somewhat distance between the post-divorce parents and much closer between each parent and the child(ren), all three sides of the parent-parent-child(ren) triangle interact with pleasant mutual respect.

By contrast, in alienating triangles, an alienator denigrates a targeted victim and draws the followers close and under their control in order to:

a) hurt the targeted entity

b) draw the following child/citizenry close to them and away from the targeted other, brain-washing the followers into seeing situations only their way. They accomplish this by insisting that the followers belive false narratives about the past, side with them in every situation, and serve as their foot-soldiers in destroying their targeted enemy.

Alienation thus can occur in any situation in which one leader, in a family, a group, or a nation, becomes dedicated to destroying the other.

Think cult leaders who prevent their group members from listening to other potential leaders in their organization, threatening their group members with punishment or exile if they should see anything in a way that differs from how they see it.

  • Skinheads from the extreme right who convince each other to hate anyone who differs from them
  • Bin Laden who poisons his followers against the U.S
  • Hitler who convinced so many of the German people to destroy Jews, gays, and Gypsies
  • Palestinian leaders who poison their popuation against their Israeli neighbors
  • Iran's leaders who turn their citizenry against the West and Saudi Arabia
  • The leaders of the Hutu in Rawanda who convinced their tribesmen to perpetrate a genocidal slaughter of the Tutsi
  • North Korea's Kim Jong-un who convinces his people that the U.S. is evil.
  • Leaders in any totalitarian system, as dictators almost always scapegoat a targeted other in order to keep their population under their control.
  • Leaders who encourage racism , anti-semitism, anti-gay, or hostile attitudes toward any similarly too-often-targeted groups.
  • Leaders of American political parties who aim to convince other Americans of their false narrative about the dangerousness etc of other policial parties.

It's OK for your teen to be online. Online relationships are part of typical adolescent development. Social media can support teens as they explore and discover more about themselves and their place in the grown-up world. Just be sure your teen is behaving appropriately in both the real and online worlds. Many teens need to be reminded that a platform's privacy settings do not make things actually "private" and that images, thoughts, and behaviors teens share online will instantly become a part of their digital footprint indefinitely. Keep lines of communication open and let them know you're there if they have questions or concerns.

What is the clinical term for the kind of relationship these leaders create wtih their followers?

Dr. Steve Miller refers to this very controlling form of attachment as pathological enmeshment. The "children" in this kind of triangle are manipulated into becoming totally loyal to the leader in order to denigrate and even destroy the third party, the "other" whom their leader scapegoats.

To create an attachment of psychological enmeshment, the alieator manipulates the follower into believing false narratives about the badness of the targeted other. Alienators at the same time convinces their followers that they themselves are indispensable. The followers then believe that they desparately need their attachment to the alienator. This abusive double manipulation results in children learning to ignore their own feelings and readings of what they see and feel in favor of the alienator's views.

To understand alienation also takes an understanding of the pheomenon of projection. Alienating individuals or groups convince their followers that the targeted individual or groups has a host of negative qualities. Where does this list of negative qualities come from? Virtually all are likely to be qualities of the alienators. If alienators call the targeted other "selfish," you can bet your bottom dollar that it is the alienators who are selfish. They "project" their qualities onto the hated targeted other.

What enables alienation situations to return to normal?


In general, when there is serious alienation, removing all power from the alienator, as the Allied armies did to Hitler's armies in World War II, is pretty much the only way that severely alienating situations change.

Sound easy? it's not. First, do be careful who you designate as the alienating ones. For tareted parents in parental alienation situations, the courts more often than not do not correctly identify which parent is an alienator and which has been targeted unjustifiably.

Similarly, in the US today, each political party may appear to you to be attempting to alienate the population against the other.

Does that make bothpolitical parties alienators? No. As in parental alienation court proceedings however, it takes a judge with a sophisticated understanding of alienation behaviors to sift out which parent is creating false narratives, pumpoing up the targeted other's small mistakes into much larger deals than they are, and issuing false accusations about the other—and which by contrast is defending themselves from unwarranted accusations.

Is there a way to prevent alienation, parental and otherwise?

Ultimately, there is a vitally important strategy for ending the evil perpetrated by alienation. As Mother Teresa said, "If you want to change the world, go home and change your family."

In the longterm, if all of us can learn to interact with our loved ones with consistent cooperation, respectandaffection, what our children learn in our homes will make the world a safer and kinder place for their generation, and for generations after.

In the meantime, however, be aware. A parent's alienation tactics can ruin a child's life. Let us not allow alienation tactics to ruin our families, our friendships, or our country.

Eat at least one meal as a family each day. Sitting down at the table together is a relaxed way for everyone to connect - a time to share happy news, talk about the day, or tell a silly joke. It also helps your kids develop healthy eating habits.