In the following paragraphs I would like to explore parental alienation and empathy.
The definition of parental alienation is simple. One parent, (in most cases the resident parent) deliberately damages, and in some cases destroys, the previously healthy loving relationship between the child and the child’s other parent (the non-resident parent). A key tell-tale sign of parental alienation is when the alienating parent prevents their children from having any relationship with the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins on the alienated parents’ side of the family. For a more detailed definition of parental alienation see here.
The English word empathy is derived from the Ancient Greek word empatheia, which means “physical affection or passion”. This, in turn, was derived from enpathos, when broken down is seen as en, meaning “in, at” and pathos meaning “passion” or “suffering”. The term was adapted by linguistics to create the German word Einfühlung (“feeling into”), which was translated by Edward B. Titchener in 1909 into the English term empathy.
Empathy describes ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. Not to be confused with sympathy which is defined as ‘feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune’. Simply put, it is how we as individuals understand what others are experiencing as if we were feeling it ourselves. It is a key characteristic of emotional intelligence, which itself is the ability and capacity to be aware of, to have control of and to appropriately express one’s own emotions. This in turn allows us to navigate our way through interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. Ultimately, as is the same for numerous other personality traits, some of us are more empathic than others.
A lack of empathy is all to prominent in the presenting behaviours of alienating parents. Some alienating parents will suffer from psychopathy and it is these parents that are a particular threat to children and need to be identified as soon as possible (Lowenstein, 2010). In my opinion as both an alienated parent and a psychiatric nurse, this point lends itself to the argument that parental alienation as a form of abuse should be viewed within the context of mental health to ensure an effective and robust assessment process. There are only three disorders that have an underlying absence of empathy; autism, narcissistic personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder. I would argue that without an assessment of the alienating parent’s presenting behaviours by a practitioner with a clinical understanding of mental health, any personality traits and/or related psychopathy will be missed.
A lack of empathy is also present in some alienated children. Of all the presenting symptoms expressed by an alienated child, the absence of empathy is the most disturbing (Childress, 2016). Any absence of empathy in an alienated child should be cause for extreme concern. However as stated above, due to the lack of understanding of mental health by the relevant services, such presentation in affected children is missed or underestimated.
Empathy, albeit a lack of, also plays a key part in the behaviours of those that enable parental alienation. Most enablers all too often act out of weakness rather than spite. However, this does not by any means justify their behaviours. The alienating parent will rely on these enablers to not provide any support at all for the targeted parent. Unfortunately, enablers will often go a step further and shun the targeted parent. The alienating parent will capitalise on the lack of empathy enablers have for the targeted parent.
To conclude, among the players within parental alienation there is inextricably a link between them and a lack of empathy.
In Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, her character Atticus states “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”