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Episode summary:

Parental alienation occurs when one parent emotionally manipulates a child to unjustly reject the other, targeted parent. In this conversation, Susan discusses some of the strategies and behaviors associated with this heartbreaking dynamic, and what targeted parents can do. 

Dr. Baker is a nationally recognized expert in parent-child relationships, especially children of divorce, parental alienation syndrome, and emotional abuse of children. Dr. Baker has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Teachers College of Columbia University. She is the director of research at the Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection at the New York Foundling. Dr. Baker also serves as an expert witness and as an expert source for print, radio, and television interviews. www.amyjlbaker.com



                          Things you'll learn from this episode:

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                          What parental alienation is…and isn’t
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                          How “favored” parents manipulate children with germs of truth

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                          The importance of “The Knock"

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                          Episode Transcript


                          Speaker 1:

                          Hello, and welcome to the Parenting Without Power Struggles podcast. I'm your host, Susan Stiffelman. I'm the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles and Parenting with Presence. And I'm a marriage, family, child, counselor, a teacher, a parenting coach, and a mom. And I'm very glad that you're here. This podcast is a way for me to share some of the things I've learned in my 40 plus years, doing the work that I've done with families. And that aim is really simple. I just want to help you have more fun and fewer power circles with your kids. We cover all kinds of topics here, including today's very interesting discussion on parental alienation. Before we get started, please make sure you're getting all of our updates by visiting susanstiffelman.com. You can get a free newsletter with lots of support and inspiration, and we've always got great things going on that you'll hear about today. I'm going to be talking with Dr. Amy Baker. I first met Dr. Baker when I was doing a summit on co-parenting without power struggle. I had a series of speakers and wanted to include something on the less, easy, more challenging aspects of co-parenting. And I recently listened to that conversation from the series and was so impressed and learned so much again, that I wanted to invite her to join me so that you could all hear from her as well. Welcome Amy.


                          Speaker 2:

                          Hi, happy to be here.


                          Speaker 1:

                          So Amy is the director of research at the Vincent Fontana center for child protection and the author, or the co author of eight books, including co-parenting with a toxic ex surviving parental alienation and getting through my parents' divorce. So I'm, I'm so glad that you're here. You do such important work, but no doubt. It's really challenging. How did you land in the place that you're in now?


                          Speaker 2:

                          Well, I do want to start by just saying that my work at the Fontana center really has nothing to do with my life as a parental alienation expert. I really have two completely different hats at the Fontana center. I'm the director of research and I do research on mental health needs of kids in foster care and psychological maltreatment and all sorts of really fascinating child welfare related work. And then separately, I do my parental alienation coaching expert witness work and writing of books. So I just want to be clear that I two separate worlds that I, that I live in.


                          Speaker 1:

                          You say, you know, talking about that particular arm of what you do, parental alienation, you, you talk about it as a term. That's used to describe the overall problem of children being encouraged by one parent, the favored parent to unjustly reject the other parent. And, and again, you know, circling back to the question I just asked, like, how did you end up in that realm of all the places that you might've gone? What has pulled you in that direction?


                          Speaker 2:

                          Well, it's part of a larger set of interests that I have on parents hurting their children in one way or another. And that has been the thread that has guided my career since I got my PhD all the way back in 1989, I really have done a set of studies that either looked at parents, doing well by their kids and supporting their kids and giving them what they need or research and work in the field of parents not doing right by their kids. When I landed on this topic parental alienation, and I did my first research study back in, I think 2004 or five, I really had no idea that this would just take over my life. It became a really a calling for me, and that is because of the parents. So I remember when I gave my first talk after my first book came out, adult children of parental alienation, breaking the ties that bind.


                          Speaker 2:

                          And it was about 40 adults who lived through this and survived it and came out the other side and realized they'd been manipulated. And I interviewed them about what that experience was like. And I gave a book talk and people came to that book talk, clutching my book and, you know, saying things like page 153 saved my life. And it really was such a powerful experience for me up until then, I had done research and pretty much writing academic papers. You know, you don't really have a sense of how your work is being translated and received. And here was this whole world of consumers of this knowledge that I had generated from the research hungry for more. And I would say that everything I've done since then has been, you know, and possibly an idea from a targeted parent, Hey, you did this. What about that?


                          Speaker 2:

                          You study this, here's another question I have. Why don't you look at this? What happened to this? People are those people are, what are you going to do about this element of it or that aspect of it? And so it really has they've pulled me along. I didn't think I wanted to be an expert witness. I'm not actually taking any new cases, but I did it for about 10 years because there were parents who felt that they needed me to do that. I didn't think I was gonna end up doing coaching, but there's so many people who said like, I want you to help me figure out how to take what you wrote in that book and apply it to my situation. So I sort of fell into it, but then it has become a true passion for me to stay in this field this long and hopefully continue to be productive.

                          Speaker 1:

                          Yeah. Well, let's help people understand what we're even talking, because I know that there are some who think there that the terminology misrepresents the situation there. We did a free webinar, Wendy Behary  and I just recently on co-parenting with a narcissist and people loved it. We had over 2000 registrants and that's still available on my website, but someone had made the comment about the terminology, parental alienation, what is it? What is it referring to? And, and help people understand the dynamic at play when one parent essentially manipulates a child to pull away from that parent.


                          Speaker 2:

                          Right? So it's a, the term is used to describe a family dynamic in which one parent is engaging in behaviors that we call parental alienation behaviors. And there's 17 that we consider the primary parental alienation behaviors. These behaviors can foster a child unjustified rejection of the other parent. And there is some confusion out there. And I guess I would like to be clear about a couple of points. The first is when a child rejects a parent and the rejected parent says, Hey, it's I didn't do anything wrong. The other parent is alienating my kids from me. I want to be clear. That might be true, but it's not absolutely necessarily true. There are kids who reject a parent for a legitimate reason because their parent engaged in you know, agregious parenting, abused them, molested them, whatever. And if a child rejected a parent, because that parent was agregious lead maltreating or deficient as a parent, we would not say that that child is out alienating. And so I do want to be clear. One of the complaints about alienation theory is the false idea that we experts think anytime a child rejects a parent they've been alienated and that's not true. There's a model. We refer to the five factor model. All five factors have to be present for us to say that each child who's rejecting a parent is alienated. So I think I'll, I'll stop there with that.


                          Speaker 1:

                          And what are those criteria?


                          Speaker 2:

                          Well, the first is really a prerequisite it's that there is some disruption in the relationship and that's really the trigger. And then there's four other things that have to be present. So the first is that there was a prior positive relationship between the child and the parent who the child is now rejecting. The second is absence of abuse or neglect on the part of the now rejected parent. So if that parent molested or beat or abandoned the child, it's not alienation because that factor isn't met the next is that the favored parent is engaging in the 17 primary parental alienation strategies. So we don't just assume, Oh, a child is rejecting a parent. The favorite parent must have been the cause of it. Nope. We need to independently established that. The favorite parent engaged in behaviors that research shows corrupts the child's experience of the other parent. And then the final factor is that the child is exhibiting eight behaviors that are unique and specific to an alienated kids. So even kids who have been severely, physically abused, don't exhibit these behaviors with their abuser parent, but alienated kids who haven't been abused and that's been ruled out. They do exhibit these behaviors towards the parent. They're rejected. All five factors have to be present in order to say that a rejecting child is an alienated child.


                          Speaker 1:

                          That's so clear. Can you name a few of those behavioral manifestations? What would be some of the behaviors being expressed in the child, who again, outside of any possibility of abuse?


                          Speaker 2:

                          So the first one is called the campaign of denigration. And what that means is that the child is intensely negative towards the parent, extremely rejecting, arrogant, even contemptuous of that parent. And this is all part of the campaign of denigration races the past. So if you take a child has been beaten by a parent and you say, can you think of a positive memory of mom? If mom was the abuser typically and abused child will be able to remember positive memories. If you show them a photograph, they'll say, yeah, that was me and mom at the beach. We had fun that day and alienated child who wasn't actually abused by a parent will actually deny any positive past experiences with that parent. And if you show them a photograph, they will say, that's not me. That was Photoshop. Or I was only pretending to be happy.


                          Speaker 2:

                          I wasn't really happy in that, in that, at that time. And this is all part of the campaign of denigration. If you ask an abused child, how could mom, again, I'm just using mom as a stand-in. How could mom who abused you make things right? And abused child is invested in an improved relationship and was say, Oh, just tell mom to stop hitting me or tell her to stop doing drugs or blah, blah, blah, right. Fix the, fix the problem. And then I'll happily have a relationship. Alienated kids say they have no investment in a future relationship. I don't care. I can't imagine that parent ever making right by me. And if they come up with a complaint and the parent addresses that, Oh, I wasn't really upset about that. What I really am upset about is X, Y, and Z. And then the parent addresses that, Oh, I wasn't really upset about that. If you ask an alienated kid, what could this parent do to make things right? They will say nothing. I've already given them too many chances. So that's just a little flavor. That's the first of the eight behaviors of an alienated child.


                          Speaker 1:

                          Can you name a few of the 17 behaviors in the parent that create or perpetuate this alienation?


                          Speaker 2:

                          Absolutely. I mean, there's the ones that everybody can think of, like denigrating that parent, you know, making up negative stories about that parent or conveying that that parent is unsafe on love, not available. It could be limiting contact, you know, preventing them from having parenting time together, throwing a photographs of that. Other parent, referring to that parent by his or her first name, asking the child to spy or keep secrets from that parent, we're installing some kind of replacements or referring to somebody else's mom or dad I could go on, but that's probably half a dozen right there.


                          Speaker 1:

                          In the summit I did on co-parenting where you joined me for a conversation. One of the things that really captured my interest was a comment you made about how the parent, who is the favored parent, the parent who is perpetuating or fueling the alienation will often take a behavior or an incident of the targeted parent and magnify that in such a way to the child, that it colors or taints the child's perception of that parent. But there may be a germ of truth. Can you say more about that?


                          Speaker 2:

                          Yeah, so we, we used to think that it worked alienation work when one parent made up something out of whole cloth, you know, your father's a you know, an alien who came down for more, you know, whatever, some ridiculous thing. But what we learned is it's, it's really not that, I mean, sometimes there's a false memory implanted, but more often than not the way that it works is the favorite parent takes things that the other parent is really doing and interpreting that actual choice or behavior as proof that the parent doesn't love the child. So I'll give you an example if the child says, and I'm just going to use mom as the alienator and dad is the targeted parent, but it works both ways. I just want to be clear if the kid says dad don't come to my soccer practice. Now the dad's in a bind, right?


                          Speaker 2:

                          It's like, well, if he doesn't come, mom will say, Oh, nothing could keep me away. Look at how we gave up. If he really wanted to be there, he would have come. And if dad, you know, does go, then it's, Oh, he doesn't listen to you. He doesn't respect you. You have a voice, you have a right to have a say in things. So almost everything can be turned into either a positive or a negative. Imagine a parent who comes 10 minutes early, he's harassing you to a parent who comes 10 minutes late. He doesn't care. So it's impossible to be perfect. You're either a little too neat or a little too sloppy. You're a little too health conscious, or, you know, a vegan could be, you know, cast as like a wacky, you know, fringe extremist, as opposed to like somebody who really cares about the planet and animals and health.


                          Speaker 2:

                          So everything pretty much even given a gift, Oh, your father only gave you that gift to look good to the judge. Everything can be turned into a negative and cancer are, you know, highly susceptible to this kind of manipulation because they don't really know how the world works. And they're inclined to believe a parent. It doesn't really occur to them to think is mom lying to me about dad? And, and they're, you know, they, they don't have any reason to be suspicious. And this is especially true when the targeted parent does something that hurts or disappoints or frustrates the child, like no son, I'm sorry, I'm not going to buy you a new bicycle or gee, you know, you're being punished. You, you know, we're not going to the movies tonight or whatever, you know, or your allowance is going to be this much, not as much, not 10 times as much what you want. Anytime the targeted parents frustrates or disappoints, the child, the child has his or her own truly organic coming from inside the child, negative experience of that parent. And all the favorite parent has to do is sort of fan the flames of that discontent rather than as a good co-parent would say, well, those are the rules in your dad's house. You know, that's the way it is. I might even do the same thing.


                          Speaker 1:

                          Right, right. Which is so much in the best interest of a child when the parent can travel a different path. But we know that this happens, this work that you do is so important. I I'm already thinking, well, I have about 17 more questions for you, but I, I wanna make sure that people, first of all, get something, some introduction to some of these ideas. And then of course at the end, we'll, we'll forward people to your books and your website, but let's talk about the NOC, the in one of the many things that you share as possible behaviors or decisions that the targeted parent can do, even when they feel completely powerless in almost every respect.


                          Speaker 2:

                          So a lot of targeted parents give up pursuing their kids, whether it's calling or showing up for visits, it's incredibly painful and humiliating to be continually rejected. And the story of the knock is a true story that I'll tell in a, but the purpose is to help keep targeted parents focused on what they can do and how powerful it is for the targeted parent. Sometimes they feel like they just have like a little crumb, you know, that that's all they're allowed to give their kid, but for the kid, that crumb is like a loaf, it's everything. And so the story of the knock is that one of the people I interviewed for my first book was a young woman who was alienated from her dad by her mom. And the story she told me is that her dad used to come every Sunday. I think they lived in England and that's how they did it.


                          Speaker 2:

                          It wasn't every other weekend. The dad got every Sunday visits and he would drive over and park his car in front of the house and walk up the driveway and knock on the door. And they never got to go out and actually see the dad, the woman I was interviewing and her brother and sister, they were always behind the closed door. Sometimes they left nasty notes for the dad on the front door. They said, mailman, go away. As if, you know, they didn't know it was their bed knocking. Sometimes they would laugh. The mom and stepdad made sure that the door was never open. They never got to go out and see their dad. And they would laugh at him and make fun of him. And of course we can imagine what the dad went through, getting up on Sunday morning thinking is this the day I'm going to see my kids and getting ready and sort of thinking about what he would do if he got them in the car and where they would go and what it would be like.


                          Speaker 2:

                          And he drives over and he walks up the walkway and knocks on the door and he's laughed at and scoffed and told you're silly, you're stupid. Go away. We don't like you all the invalidating messages, the targeted parents get. So eventually according to the woman I interviewed her dad stopped coming and I asked her, so what was it like, you know, on that first Sunday when he didn't come and you, you know, he, you didn't hear that knock on the door. Like, what was that like for you? And she said, and this was shocking to me. She said, I was shocked. I never expected him to actually stop coming. And then she explained to me, I knew I wasn't going to be allowed out. I knew my mom and stepdad, weren't going to let me actually go visit with him. The only communication I could actually have was the knock. The knock was his way of telling me that he still loved me. And every Sunday, I, I was so happy to hear that knock. And so from the dad's point of view, the, the visit was a failure because he drove over there and he drove away empty handed. He didn't get to see his kids, but from the kid's point of view, the knock is everything.


                          Speaker 1:

                          Oh my gosh, that's so powerful. Every time I hear it, I think it's the third or fourth time. And it just drops into both the despair and the sorrow of the father and the longing and the confusion of the child and really powerful Emmy. There's so many things that you do on offer. Can you tell people some of your books and some of the other ways that they can avail themselves with your wisdom and guidance if they need it?


                          Speaker 2:

                          Well, I'm happy to. So my website is www.amyjlbaker.com. There is information on there about, I think I have nine books. One is adult children of parental alienation breaking the ties that bind. That's the stories of the adults who lived through it. Co-Parenting with the toxic acts is really misnamed. I'm sad to say, it's really about how to parent your child. When the other parent is trying to turn your child against you. I have the high conflict custody battle, which is really how to navigate the legal and mental health systems, which targeted parents need a lot of help with. And I, and the main service that I offer at this point is telephone coaching for targeted parents. You call me up, you tell me your story in a very condensed form. And then I'll tell you what I think if the kids are over 18, I'll help you write a letter to your adult alienated child.


                          Speaker 2:

                          I've had some success helping people reconnect. The kids are under 18. We can talk a little legal strategy, but mostly it's the, what do I do when, what do I do when my kids say you're mean to dad or mom, whatever, you know, again, whichever parent it is, what do I do when my kids say, I, I beat them when they were a baby and that's not true. What do I do when whatever, you know, whatever the triggers are, I try to help parents stay connected to their kids. Even while their kids are invalidating them or trying to invalidate them. The other parent is trying to invalidate them. The system is trying to invalidate them and I'm trying to help them stay connected through all of that.


                          Speaker 1:

                          And is there hope that someone listening to this might feel so despondent, w are there stories where, you know, there's been a successful outcome where there's been a resolution where the alienating parent perhaps sees the damage that they're inflicting upon their kids. Can you talk a little bit about some of the ways that this could heal?


                          Speaker 2:

                          Sure. I, I wish I could say, I know a lot of stories about the alienator, you know, having an epiphany moment where they're like, wow, I'm not really doing right by my kids, but I definitely know lots and lots of success stories. Some of them are in one of my books, which I forgot to mention called surviving parental alienation. And that does tell in-depth stories about some families where the kids came back. And in my coaching practice, when the kids were over 18, and I helped that parent write a letter to their child, I've had, I've had a fair amount of success and it's not magic. I wish I had a magic wand. I would definitely, you know, wave it over everybody. But a lot of these kids are out there wanting to be 

                          pursued, wanting the parents to continue to try to reach out to them.


                          Speaker 2:

                          The problem is that many targeted parents basically take the position. My kid believes X, whatever it is, X is a lie. If I can just convince my kid that X isn't, you know, isn't true. I didn't beat them or steal their money or whatever, then they won't be mad at me anymore. And it doesn't really work that way. It's a little bit more complex nuanced about how to reach out to an adult alienated child. That's neither arguing with them. You're wrong for believing, whatever, nor is it validating a lie. There is another way it's, it's it's not, it's a path that is hard to see. So I like to say that part of what I'm doing is shining a light down that path and helping target parents find their way back to their kids.


                          Speaker 1:

                          Fantastic. Well, thank you. And again, the website is www.amyjlbaker.com. Is that right? That's it. That's it. Okay, good. Thank you so much, Amy, Dr. Baker, for those of you listening, if you want to dive deeper into this topic, I did a free webinar. That's still on the website. As I mentioned on co-parenting with a narcissist with one new Harry who is the author of disarming, the narcissist surviving and thriving with a self-absorbed and Wendy and I actually host a monthly support group online, which is also described on my website under help for parents@susanstifelman.com. You can find out more about that every month. We work with parents who are struggling in one way or another with in our case, narcissistic co-parents, those who are highly entitled, self-absorbed lacking in empathy and so forth. It's a, it's a tough path, but it's heartening to know that there's help and support, please, as always, if you're enjoying these podcasts, if you're finding them helpful, it'd be great.


                          Speaker 1:

                          If you would leave a rating or you can write a little review or tell a friend, or you can do all of those things. We've had, I think about 400,000 plus downloads of this series. And it's really because parents like you are listening and you're sharing it with your friends. So thank you for that. Remember that you can hit the subscribe button if you want to be notified as soon as we release a new episode. So that's it for today. Thank you again, Amy so much for doing this work and for sharing yourself with us.


                          Speaker 2:

                          My pleasure. Thanks for having me on the show.


                          Speaker 1:

                          Everyone take good care of yourselves. Remember one day at a time, one day at a time. And remember also that no matter how busy life gets look for those moments of sweetness and joy, stay safe, stay well. And I'll see you next time.



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