The Maternal Alienation Project Report 2003 FACT SHEET
by Anne Morris, University of Adelaide, Australia
Sometimes a man who is violent within his family alienates children from their mother as an ongoing part of that abuse. He often isolates his partner from any sources of support, and is skillful at convincing her family, the neighbors, the children’s school, and any professionals involved with the family, that she is mad or bad. This type of abuse has been called maternal alienation.
It generally occurs within a context of violence against women and/or children, and is a term for both
• the range of tactics used by men to deliberately undermine and destroy the relationship between mothers and their children
• the profound and often lasting alienation created in the relationships between mothers and their children by the use of those strategies
• is simultaneous abuse of women and children
• is a form of emotional abuse
• occurs within both domestic violence and child sexual abuse.
Men who alienate children from their mothers usually manage to convince the children and all those involved with the family that they are blameless and misunderstood, and the mother is to blame for all the problems. In this way, maternal alienation successfully hides the man’s responsibility for the violence and abuse, and directs people’s attention towards the so-called 'bad' mother. The man who uses these tactics remains ‘invisible’.
When maternal alienation takes place, mothers are positioned as the ones least able to make changes. A mother's words are discredited before she even utters them, and her actions are reviled before she takes them.
Whatever she does, she has been painted as the mad one, the bad one, the stupid one, the one who can't be trusted. Her children will not listen to her or cooperate with her. Professional interventions that put pressure on her to make changes within the family such as changes to children's behaviour, exacerbate this situation and problems are likely to escalate. This tends to "prove" to practitioners that the woman is the cause of the problems. What is needed from practitioners is both understanding of how maternal alienation has operated to disempower and discredit mothers, and an attitude of respect towards them. Practitioners' authority can be used positively to model respect towards the mother and authorise alternative narratives and behaviours for mother and child.
This counterbalances the power and status of the alienator's voice. Women who leave violence and abuse often find they re-capture a sense of being a worthwhile person that was lost during the abuse; they may discover they have values and a personality that were buried for years. This (re-) emerging self can be strengthened during work with mothers and children, as together they create a life that they choose. Becoming very clear about what they want in their lives enables women and children to re-frame who they are, and step outside the behaviours they adopted to survive the abuse, and the negative narratives about who they were. It can be helpful for women and children to understand how the tactics of maternal alienation capitulated them into particular behaviours.
For women, these tactics often worked to entrap them into 'playing out' the role assigned to them by the perpetrator. After leaving an abusive relationship, women and children often find that perpetrators' tactics to control them escalate. They will need to hold on firmly to the alternative sense of themselves so that they are not tricked back into the old ways of behaving that 'proved' the perpetrators' words about themselves. What is needed from practitioners is both understanding of how maternal alienation has operated to disempower and discredit mothers, and an attitude of respect towards them.
Related article: Maternal Deprivation is a Human Rights Issue