Chris Strickland is a lesbian mom in Mississippi who was a target parent for parental alienation. Her story was complicated by the fact that she wasn’t listed on the adoption papers for her older son nor on the birth certificate for her younger son. She and her partner married in Massachusetts, and their marriage wasn’t legal in Mississippi.
Chris got caught in the lag between marriage in one state and her marriage’s recognition in her home state, where she and her wife were raising their kids. Then her wife left her for a man.
In a few months, her wife moved with the kids and the new man, and Chris didn’t see her sons for almost fourteen months. The former wife told the kids to stop calling Chris “mom.”
Parental alienation is the severing of a child’s bonds with a parent by the other parent, and it is unutterably cruel. Dr. Amy Baker has done a lot of work in the subject and she says, “It’s when one parent gives the child permission to break the other parent’s heart.”
What results is a child who refuses, without good reason, to see a parent, called the target parent. If the child grudgingly sees the target parent, the target parent is, in the child’s mind, the lesser parent. The target parent’s feelings do not matter: the child has been trained to believe that. The child often is coldly cruel to the target parent.
Often the alienating parent is personality disordered: a narcissist, a borderline. Anyone who has worked with or studied these disorders knows how difficult they are to deal with.
Parental alienation isn’t an accident. The alienating parent uses a number of strategies to accomplish the divide between a parent and her beloved child. Amy Baker identifies 17 of them. It’s not just about badmouthing the target parent, and often an alienating parent can claim that they don’t do so. There are other, subtler forces at work, such as when the target parent is from a different ethnic, educational, or socio-economic group. To whit: “You dad isn’t Catholic like us,” or “Your mother didn’t go to college and isn’t French like us.” Alienating parents use identity against the target parents.
Alienating parents do whatever they can to destroy the target parent’s moral authority with their children. “Your mother’s rules don’t apply at my house,” is a classic line that an alienating father uses.
Parental alienation devastates the target parent. It does the same to the child, though the child probably won’t recognize it until he or she is much older–maybe not until his or her 30’s. Children who have been alienated this way often suffer from self esteem issues and terrible anxiety. The parentectomy she pursues to please the alienating parent leaves her scourged with anxiety, and the child doesn’t know that coming back into rightful relationship with the target parent is a crucial step in healing the anxiety.
I also wonder about a child’s relationships when they have been taught by the alienating parent that the target parent’s feelings don’t matter. This is a setup to create broader heartlessness and even narcissism in the child: other people exist only to serve the child, and other people’s needs don’t matter; when someone asks for their needs to be honored, the child sees them as a bad person.
I wrote about Chris Strickland because she was a target parent, and her complicated case took her all the way to the Mississippi Supreme Court.