Considering abuse of the targeted parent


“Rob” & the photo are not the real client & family.

My work with “Rob” continues (see A 1000 tiny poisonous needles with Warshak et al comments). It remains a painful challenge of sustained alienation during contact with his children.  On his website Joseph Goldberg talks about the essential place of a parental alienation consultant and the right assembly of professionals in order that the alienated parent can assert control.

Rob (my client) continues to see his children in accordance with the agreed contact rota. The children persist with their group style alienating behaviours towards him with the eldest son determining what they can and cannot do. He considers his father to be unsafe and manages his siblings down to deciding on bed-times and where they are each permitted to sleep…usually in his bed-room rather than in their own. The alienating behaviours of the elder boys (the eldest in particular) have escalated and Rob is showing significant and worrying psychological withdrawal and despair. The behaviours he has to tolerate are humiliating and oftentimes observably intentionally abusive e.g. being pushed aside; having his way blocked; mocking; aggressive demands and instructions and so on.

Our work together has enabled his resourcefulness and in his words has acted as ‘a pillar’ and an important learning curve on which to lean. He is confident that he has rescued himself many a time on this account but the relentless battle continues. He pains at the obvious unhappiness of the children having to behave in these irrational ways and often challenges the point of what he is doing for them. Five years on he says that he is exhausted and no one seems to realise that he cannot go on fielding this level of behaviour.

So where to from here?

Rob fears that to reduce contact in any way will be ‘the beginning of the end’ in that if the eldest does not visit then he will have refusal from all the children to visit or to see him. This is part of his struggle when considering how to see the children separately. Even if their mother might verbally agree to the children visiting on different occasions he is confident (as he believes is she) that they would refuse the visits on those terms.

I consider the alienating behaviours to be extreme and Rob’s mental health is observably at risk. In any other family interaction, I would not doubt these behaviours to be abusive and the targeted family member to be in need of protection and even being prepared to take extreme measures to ensure the well-being of that person.

Now comes the conundrum. I believe that to reduce contact (to offer Rob some respite from the relentless battering) is essential if not inevitable for Rob’s self-preservation and capacity to contribute to his children. This seems counter to the thinking; theory and sheer hard work to preserve that regular and frequent contact.

Myrna Gower


  1. alisonom

    The struggle this Father has is palpable. I can feel he is so stuck, not wanting to change arrangements and not knowing how long he can struggle on as it is.
    A couple of thoughts come to mind.
    How does this father look after himself while the children are not with him? I read somewhere about Parent Alienation that the best a targeted parent can do is look after themselves and so be fit and ready for when the children come back. This father hasn’t lost his children completely, but what does he do to keep himself ‘fit’ and so be able to cope when the strain of the visits impact?
    Second thought. Seeing the children individually has been proven to help, as it separates out the most alienated eldest child and allows the younger ones to reform their bonds with the targeted parent. Does this father have people who could help him? e.g. grand-parents who could come to the house, and then he could spend some time alone or take one out at a time, (even for short bursts) with each while they were there.
    Third thought. What ages are the children? They will be getting older all the time. Working on the children’s skills of critical thinking while with him could be valuable. Set about educating them. After parent alienation has been going on a while, and the children get a bit older, they are less fooled by alienating tactics, and more receptive to them being pointed out. As one alienated child said, “I knew she lied, she asked me to lie for her, so I know she could lie to me too”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sheena Allan Paterson

      Hello Myrna. I am wondering if you get the opportunity to work with the whole family i.e. Rob and his children, and if you work on your own or with other(s). I regularly do family work with a co-therapist and we make time in our sessions to pull our chairs aside and have a conversation together while the family listen. It is not quite a reflecting team in the purest sense, but the best we can do with only two of us. This provides a valuable opportunity to wonder about interactions and their impact, without needing to be quite as tentative as we might be while talking directly to the family, especially where it is the interactions of a child that we are wondering about. There is something very powerful about hearing oneself being talked about but not being required to answer, in fact being specifically requested not to answer. In this scenario we would be wondering in front of the children about the impact of their behaviour on all of the relationships – the children with their father, younger siblings with the elder two etc. We also talk a lot about love and loyalty. Often the children can be very insightful when freed up to take a new position.
      Having said that we have worked with a number of similarly stuck situations where, in spite of our best efforts, nothing has changed. I agree with Alison’s comments above about children’s thinking becoming more sophisticated as they grow older and console myself with the thought that all children grow up eventually. Rob may well end up with a relationship with some of his children, but not all.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Myrna Gower

    Alisonom you raise the heart of important work with this father. Alienating behaviours we know so often become the overarching discourse and seem to organise the family relationships and the clinician no less. This father has lost his marriage; his loving children and much else through the divorce yet the severity of the alienating behaviours has meant that he remains continuously preoccupied with the high conflict relationship with his x-wife (and this includes her extended family) and the full-time ongoing struggles to manage the contact with his children. On his own admission he is able to articulate not being able to re-partner or remake his life until he resolves this all.

    There is much muted about the pointless position of a therapist when working with these families. As you will have seen in my exchanges with Rob he too wonders the point of the working with ‘professionals’ when nothing seems to change. It does require dogged perseverance in clinical conversations in that each time we approach work on his well being, the tellings of new ghastly behaviours from the children take precedence. This man has much grief to share let alone exploring his early experience of loss. I can hear the ‘aha’ moment from you of his avoidance of his grieving but how to resist the tellings of the children’s antics would defy most. I guess this is part of the clinician having to be in it for the long haul.

    The further ideas you share are more than legitimate and indeed would be helpful. In practice the gang-like behaviour persists. The mother’s family remains loyal to her and they refuse to challenge the children. The father has no extended family although some friends but of course the children will have nothing to do with them.
    The idea I was intrigued by is the idea of working with the children’s critical thinking. Perhaps you might say more on this.



  3. Myrna Gower

    Sheena, Rob explained that he had previously urged his x-wife to consult a psychologist together with him and the children as a way to attempt to resolve the situation. Several interviews ensued with the parents separately and together and the children were seen separately. Rob recounted his devastation at being told that he needs to heed the wishes of the children and he refused to continue. He was of the view that the mother had been plausible and his position (and the needs of the children) went unrecognised. Both he and his x-wife are wary of any family gathering although of course from different standpoints.

    I have been able to meet with the mother on one occasion so far but this has paused on account of illness in her family. She agreed to bring the eldest son to see me with her but I wonder if this opportunity has been lost. I continue to hope. I cannot yet believe we have to wait until they are grown up although agree that Rob may well ultimately only have a viable relationship with one or other of the children but not all.



  4. Pingback: The quick and the slow | the alienation experience

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