In this episode we are joined by Dr. Joshua Coleman, an esteemed therapist and family relationships expert, to shed light on the critical issue of parental alienation that can impact both step and blended families.
During our chat, Dr. Coleman will guide us through recognising the signs and symptoms of parental alienation and equip parents and step-parents with essential insights to identify and address this distressing behaviour.
This one is an insightful discussion on a particularly tricky topic.
Joshua Coleman (00:00): The more parents can sort of show that they don’t need the child to ally with them, they’re not doing them any service by throwing the other parent under the bus, it’s not like it’s not pleasurable to hear your child complain about the other parent. I mean, we, we all wanna feel like we’re the preferred ideal parent.
Laura Jenkins (00:15): In The Blend is a podcast series that helps parents navigate life within a blended family. Join me as I speak with experts and guests to get practical advice on how to have a harmonious, blended family life. This series dives deep into the unique dynamics, logistics, and challenges of raising a blended family. From new partners to juggling mixed finances, we will help guide you through it.
(00:44): Welcome back to In The Blend. I’m your host, Laura Jenkins. Before we start today’s show, just a quick call out to let you know that we have a monthly email newsletter that goes out so you can keep across all things in the blend. We cover episode highlights, interesting articles and other bits and pieces relevant to the world of blended families. To sign up, simply visit in the blend com au or you can find a link in the show notes. Now on to today’s episode. Today we’re joined by Dr. Joshua Coleman, an esteemed therapist and family relationships expert to shed light on the critical issue of alienation that can impact both step and blended families. We aim to unravel the intricate web of parental alienation during our chat, a phenomenon that goes beyond a child’s simple preference for one parent. Dr. Coleman guides us through recognizing the signs and symptoms of parental alienation and equips parents and stepparents with essential insights to identify and address this distressing behavior. This one is an insightful discussion on a particularly tricky topic. Let’s dive in. Well, welcome, Joshua. Great to have you on the show today. I’m delighted to be speaking with you, and I must say you have got quite an impressive background.
Joshua Coleman (02:08): Oh. Thank you.
Laura Jenkins (02:09): So you’re a psychologist. You’re an author of four books, correct. Uh, a speaker. And from what I can see, you’ve put an absolute wealth of information out into the public arena relating to the very delicate subjects of parental alienation, estrangement, and couples conflict. I have many, many questions for you today, but to start us off, can you define parental alienation and explain its impact on blended families?
Joshua Coleman (02:41): Sure. Well, parental alienation, um, is where one parent overtly a covertly poisons their relationship, um of the other parent with the children. So that can either be done by misrepresenting the past or the present, or telling the children that that parent doesn’t love them or blocking contact or, um, in other ways interfering with that, that relationship. So that’s generally what we mean by parental alienation. Um, and some people distinguish between alienation and estrangement. I like to think of estrangement as being the overall all category because there’s many ways that parents and particularly adult children be, can become cut off from each other. I mean, one is where certainly after divorce, but, uh, others is where if the child, adult child marries somebody that the parents don’t like or the parents, um, or they, they don’t like the parents. That can be a common cause mental illness, certainly in the parent, but also the adult child. A therapist wrongly blaming the parent for the, how the child’s adult child’s life has turned out. And for some adult children, uh, they just don’t know any other way to feel separate from the parent than to cut off contact because there’s, there’s many pathways to estrangement and the alienation is just one of those.
Laura Jenkins (03:57): So alienation is not necessarily when a child has a preference to spend more time with a parent or all of that time, all of their time with a parent for that matter. It’s really about the parents’, uh, control in terms of, um, coercing their child to believe that they shouldn’t be in contact with the other parent.
Joshua Coleman (04:18): Right. And that can maybe be done subtly or not subtly. Like a child might say, oh, I have this memory of mom or dad, and that parent, knowing that that’s false, but not, not correcting it or making suggestions that things happen that didn’t happen. And any, anything that basically erodes the feelings of trust or love of security with the other parent, I think can be properly considered alienation.
Laura Jenkins (04:42): Got it. So what would be some of the common signs and symptoms of parental alienation that parents and stepparents should be aware of?
Joshua Coleman (04:53): Yeah, well, it’s refusal to come to the house. It’s kind of black and white thinking, saying that the parent is all bad. It’s rewriting history. Um, it’s characterizing the parent as being untrustworthy or unloving. It’s making a huge deal out of relatively small problems or mistakes that the parent has made. Uh, if the child is in therapy that like reconciliation therapy where the goal is to heal the relationship between the parent and the child where the alienating parent doesn’t bring the child to the therapist’s office. Those are all examples of parental alienation.
Laura Jenkins (05:32): Got it. So if it’s happening and you either think it’s happening or you know, it’s happening as a therapist and an expert in family relationships, what strategies or interventions would you recommend to, uh, address it happening or even to prevent it happening, if you think it could?
Joshua Coleman (05:54): Yeah. Well, one of the things is to make sure that you have a good lawyer, because if you get divorced and you’ve got, uh, your ex is really motivated to poison your relationships with your children, often there’s not a lot you can do about it, particularly if you’re not the custodial parent. I don’t know how it works in the, in Australia, but, but here, you know, it’s easy for one parent to get most of the custody and that parent just generally has less, less power and less authority, um, and less ability to kind of
influence the child’s mind and thoughts and feelings. So you, one of the first steps is to make sure you have a good attorney, because if things do start to go south and that parent says, well, you know, little Jimmy or Janet doesn’t really wanna come to your house anymore, or they don’t wanna, they don’t feel safe there, or, you know, they don’t, they, they don’t wanna have a relationship with you.
(06:45): If the parent doesn’t have some kind of legal, um, authority to make those visitations happen or to compel the child to uh, be in family therapy with that alienated parent, then the parent doesn’t have very much, very much power. So that’s one thing. Another is to make sure that you don’t get pulled into the weeds if you’re the parent who’s being lied about. So if your kid comes over and says, well, mom said you never paid child support, or Mom said you used to have affairs on her all the time, or Dad says that you, you know, you were always yelling at us when we were little, and I’m starting to remember that, or whatever, you know, it’s tempting to defend yourself angrily and aggressively, but you always wanna keep your child’s wellbeing in mind. So you might say, oh, what, what was that like to hear that, you know, what did you feel hearing that that must have been really upsetting?
(07:35): Well, is that true, you say? No, it’s, it’s not sure. I’m not sure why mom or dad is saying that. Let me see if, let me, let me talk to them. But, uh, I’m more concerned about, you know, about what it felt like for you. But if it’s something concrete like child support, you know, you might say, well, I can show you the checks if you like. I don’t know if that would be helpful. But the main thing is to not get all enraged and upset and, you know, that’s, that’s so typical of your mother, your father, you know, I, I can’t believe they said that because now your child has, you know, now he’s got two parents that’s upset and mad and children feel very loyal to their parents. So they often will choose one parent over the other if they get caught in a loyalty battle.
(08:11): So you don’t wanna put your child into that position. It’s bad for them. And it’s also doesn’t position you as being kind of trustworthy. You wanna, you know, the, the analogy that often uses, you wanna sort of think of yourself as being like a lighthouse that’s on the shore and your child’s being kind of pushed up and down way out to sea by the waves. And periodically they can, you know, surface and see where you are. Uh, and then they’re gonna get pushed down again by, you know, by the other parents’ brainwashing or negativity or criticisms or et cetera. And so by being the lighthouse, I mean by being steady, loving, compassionate, not getting into the weeds, keeping your child’s best interest in mind, I think those are the main principles that are useful for children.
Laura Jenkins (08:55): Mm-hmm. That’s good advice. And I think the examples you gave there would be resonating with many people listening to this <laugh>. I think they’re very real examples. Yeah. And it takes that certain level of self-awareness as a parent in that situation when your blood might be boiling to be the adult and, and to respond, uh, appropriately like you just described. Right. So, um, I’m assuming that therapy is probably a good idea as well for the parent if they’re going through, um, some difficulties hearing things via the child that have been said.
Joshua Coleman (09:35): Yeah, you need a lot of support if you’re on the other end of alienation and you wanna read up on it. Um, and, and either yeah, be in therapy, somebody who can kind of keep you from, uh, saying the inappropriate things that you’re really gonna wanna say. So yeah, I think that’s a really good point. You need a lot of support ’cause it’s really hard. It’s hard enough to feel like you’re losing your child, but to feel like the other parent is orchestrating that, um, is, is very, it’s very provocative, so it’s very hard to respond productively, but you really have to work on responding productively.
Laura Jenkins (10:10): And when the children are grown up and they perhaps have a bit more perspective and they’ve got control to live wherever they choose, and they’re, they’re off doing their own thing in their adult years in your experience is they’re already coming back from parental alienation years down the track.
Joshua Coleman (10:31): Yeah, there can be. Um, yeah, certainly. I think a lot of kids who’ve been alienated do eventually come back. They may realize that a parent who was the alienator was doing something that was really wrong and bad, bad for them, that that was a selfish act on their part. Or they may just be drawn to the parent who’s kind of doing the lighthouse and showing that they’re not the person that the other parent was characterized them as being. I mean, that’s sort of another good reason to be the lighthouse is because that’s your biggest argument, that you’re not this terrible person, the other parent is making you out to be. But a lot of parents, um, do have reconciliations. Part of what’s challenging for parents who, um, have been through parental alienation where the other parent has been lying about them is that, you know, they’re tempted to defend themselves angrily and aggressively.
(11:21): And if a child, much time a child is an, as an adult, they believe what they believe, right? If they’ve been brainwashed and they believe what they’ve been brainwashed. So I commonly tell parents, if your child says, well, you were always so critical of me growing up, and the parent knows that they weren’t, you can’t just say, no I wasn’t. Or Oh, you’re a victim of parental alienation, or, you know, your other parent brainwashed you in that way. You still have to get on the same page as them. So you might say, well, I didn’t think of myself as being critical, but maybe I have blind spots. Tell me, what are some of the ways that you felt I was too critical? How would you like open to doing family therapy with me? In other words, you have to position yourself again as being kind of reasonable, open to criticism, open to feedback, uh, ’cause that’s the only way things are gonna go forward.
(12:04): You can’t, you can’t, if your child believes what they have been brainwashed to believe, that’s their belief system. So you can’t just go at it head on. You have to empathize, you have to take responsibility. If you were critical in some ways, even if you don’t think it justifies the alienation, you could should still say, yeah, I guess I was critical in ways. I I’m really sorry for that. I’m sorry that, you know, sounds like that impacted you more than I, more than I knew. I mean, in general, whether you’re adult child is not talking to you because of alienation that a parent poisoning you or because of other things, parents in general still have to show empathy, take responsibility, not blame, not get defensive, not get mad. They have to kind of create the right climate so the child wants to come back because once kids are an adult, they don’t adult. Nothing obligates a child to be close to a parent beyond whether or not that adult child wants that relationship. So the parent has to make it kind of seem inviting and worthwhile for them to do it.
Laura Jenkins (12:59): That’s right. <laugh> <laugh>. And thinking about the child and the psychological impacts of this as well, I imagine they can be quite significant if it’s, if it’s happening during your early childhood into your teenage years, and then as an adult it might still be resurfacing. So, uh, uh, is it worthwhile in situations where there is parental alienation taking place for the child to be seeking therapy as well?
Joshua Coleman (13:31): Yeah. Well, for smaller children, the, the danger of individual therapy, I’m a bigger fan of family therapy than individual therapy because the danger is that, you know, the average child therapist is gonna support the child. And if they say, oh, my mom’s so mean, or my dad’s so mean, and they don’t really have the other parent involved to really serve as a corrective to that or to really work with, um, helping that parent with their behavior, it can actually make the alienation even worse because now you’ve got another adult who’s supporting that mom or dad is terrible. Um, and it doesn’t really, it doesn’t really move things more towards reconciliation. So I’m not a huge fan of the child being in therapy unless it’s a therapist who’s also doing family therapy along with it and moving things towards reconciliation. Now there are some, some parents who are too problematic, you know, parents say, who molested the children who was physically abusive, who’s an out of control addict or alcoholic. And in that situation, the child may not wanna be with mom or dad because they’re just too dangerous. So, um, in those situations, it’s understandable if the child wouldn’t wanna be closer to the parent, but I think even their parents should be helped and not just treated as pariahs. They should still be given, you know, therapy and an opportunity to work with the child and increase education about how their behavior’s impacting the child and the relationship with them, etc.
Laura Jenkins (14:53): It’s such a complex beast, isn’t it? <laugh>.
Joshua Coleman (14:57): It’s a very complex beast.
Laura Jenkins (14:59): Yeah. And, um, I imagine there’s, there’s really no one size fits all here, and some cases are gonna be lifelong and others potentially not. Right. I assume if you’re co-parenting effectively, you are mitigating the risk of parental alienation occurring in the first place. Yeah. So what advice would you have for co- parents to foster a cooperative and a supportive environment for their children to help them avoid getting into parental alienation territory?
Joshua Coleman (15:33): Yeah, well, I think, you know, for both parents to work as collaboratively as they can, um, on, um, you know, talking about whatever the child is saying, if they have a complaint about that parent, um, you know, bringing that to the parent, trying to work together to address what those complaints are, not necessarily taking it purely at face value and, you know, getting all inflamed and upset about it, but more trying to work collaboratively. And that’s hard for most couples to do realistically, right? I mean, if most couples could do that, then they might not have been divorced in the first place. Part of the reason people get divorced is if they don’t know how to have those kind of engagements and are too tempted to get into the right or wrong, or one person isn’t good at it. So, um, and even when parents were
collaboratively still no guarantee that the child own at some point later in life choose one parent over the other.
(16:26): So parents can’t completely make themselves immune from a later alienation or estrangement rather. I mean, even if there’s not active alienation, there still may be an estrangement, um, later, but the more parents can sort of show that they don’t need the child to ally with them, they’re not doing them any service by throwing the other parent under the bus, you know, with that’s, which is also, I mean, I’m divorced and remarried. I remember when my child was little, um, from my first marriage, I would, you
know, it’s, it’s not like, it’s not pleasurable to hear your child complain about the other parent. I mean we all wanna feel like we’re the preferred ideal parent, um, parent. So it takes a certain amount of discipline not to, you know, kind of go, yeah, I know what you mean.
Laura Jenkins (17:08): <laugh>.
Joshua Coleman (17:08): So it takes a lot of discipline and restraint, but it’s important to do it for the sake of your child.
Laura Jenkins (17:15): Absolutely. Yeah. And based on your research and the work that you’ve done with families, have you got some success stories or any examples where, uh, parental alienation has been addressed effectively or we’ve had a positive outcome on the other side?
Joshua Coleman (17:36): Yeah. You know, I’ve worked with a few families where one of the parents acknowledged that they were alienating the other child and worked with that parent to try to heal that and to take responsibility, which I can’t say it happens a lot, but I was that the parent did acknowledge that and kind of face it. And I think if you have done that and you’ve been an alienating parent, and, um, if you can actually do that, it’s better for everybody, um, if you can. But often it happens from the parent taking
responsibility. I mean, one of the big things I encourage parents to do is to write a letter of amends where they find the kernel, if not the bushel of truth in the child’s complaints, uh, where they don’t complain about the other parent, where they just take responsibility and show empathy, uh, and compassion for the child. To me, that’s sort of the biggest single thing that a parent can do to heal the distance between themselves and a child.
Laura Jenkins (18:28): Hmm. And do they, would you typically send that letter or read it out to the child, or it doesn’t really matter as long as you are taking the time to think carefully about the words?
Joshua Coleman (18:41): Yeah, I generally recommend an email or a text. Um, typically the parents who by the time they reach me, the child probably isn’t even talking to them. So usually it’s gonna be over email or text. Um, but yeah, that’s, that’s typically the best thing to do. Those are hard letters to write though too. ’cause
it’s tempting for parents to be defensive or to say, well, if I did anything that hurt you, rather than just facing the way that they were problematic or the things that they did, et cetera. But that’s really the best, the best pathway to potential reconciliation.
Laura Jenkins (19:12): Mm-hmm. And for someone who’s wanting to learn more about alienation, estrangement, where’s the best place for them to go to do that?
Joshua Coleman (19:23): Well, there are different people who write about that. I mean, I certainly write about it. They can check out my website. Um, Amy Baker in the US has done a lot of research, uh, on that, trying to think of other people. There’s a parental alienation study group, uh, in the US they have also, uh, produced articles. So I think some of the, those are some of the more, the best places to begin to look.
Laura Jenkins (19:50): Fantastic. Yeah. And if, if listeners are keen to connect with you directly, Joshua, what’s the best way for them to do that?
Joshua Coleman (19:58): Uh, through my website, triple www.drjoshuacoleman.com. That’s d r j o s h u a c o l e m a n com. Uh, they can either email me there, I have an ongoing webinar series for estranged and alienated parents. I also have a free Q and A that I do every other Monday. It’s at 1130 Pacific. I don’t know what that is in Australia, <laugh>
Laura Jenkins (20:21): I think that’s quite early in the morning here. But, uh, <laugh>, yeah.
Joshua Coleman (20:25): Make a question and listen to the replay later.
Laura Jenkins (20:29): Definitely. Yeah, definitely. Very good. Well, it’s just been wonderful chatting with you, Joshua. I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to share your insights.
Joshua Coleman (20:39): Thanks so much for having me on.
Laura Jenkins (20:41): Oh, thank you. No doubt it will be extremely valuable for some of our listeners. So I once again, really appreciate your time.
Joshua Coleman (20:49): Yeah, hope so. Thanks so much for having me.
Laura Jenkins (20:52): Thanks for listening to the In the Blend podcast. The show notes for this episode are available @intheblend.com.au. And if you like what you heard, be sure to subscribe and please rate and review in your podcasting app. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.