Millions of moms spent Mother’s Day immersed in lopsided hearts drawn on homemade cards and breakfast in bed. But others spent the day avoiding social media for its onslaught of sentimentality, as well as every pink-hued, retail reminder of mothers lost and the ache of their absence. Women unable to have children feel a heavier emptiness in their arms the second Sunday in May. And mothers who have buried a son or daughter are overwhelmed by the loss of the child that was taken from them. Still others have never had a mom worthy of celebration. The holiday also means heartache and helplessness for mothers who have lost contact and connection with a child due to parental alienation.

What’s Parental Alienation?

 “Parental Alienation occurs when a trusted adult, usually a parent, intentionally displays to the child unjustified negativity aimed at the other parent,” child psychiatrist Richard Gardner wrote in 1998. “The purpose of this strategy is to damage the child’s relationship with the other parent and to turn the child’s emotions against that other parent. …Children, programmed by the allegedly ‘loved’ parent, embark upon a campaign of denigration of the allegedly ‘hated’ parent,… a campaign that is encouraged by the other parent.”

The power of a parent to motivate or manipulate a child is profound, and often weaponized following bitter break-ups and custody battles.

The manipulative tactic can lead a child to vehemently disparage the targeted parent, in effort to win approval from the “good” parent. The child may also sever all contact with the targeted parent, often in violation of visitation and shared custody agreements.

Experts are careful to emphasize that parental alienation “can only be applicable when the ‘hated’ parent has not abused or neglected the child or exhibited any behavior that would justify the child’s animosity,” states a report from the National Center for State Courts.

Prevalence of Parental Alienation

An estimated 11% to 15% of divorces and separations of couples with children include some degree of parental alienation. Not all cases are severe or permanent, but no attempts at alienation can be overlooked or dismissed as inconsequential, states a  2021 article by forensic psychologist Ian Blotcky and psychiatrist Dr. William Bernet. 

The existence of parents who effectively teach their children to hate the other parent, and of children who absorb this lesson, is beyond dispute,” agrees child psychologist and parental alienation expert Richard Warshak. 

Impacts of Parental Alienation

“Children alienated by one parent have little if anything positive to say about the rejected parent and often rewrite the history of their relationship to obscure or ignore any happy memories,” Warshak writes. “They seem content to avoid all contact with the parent, may reject an entire branch of their extended family, and often threaten to defy court orders for contact with the rejected parent.”

The offending parent uses his or her influence to make the child believe falsehoods about the targeted parent: She doesn’t love you; he doesn’t want you; she abandoned both of us; we only have each other now; he’s an alcoholic; she’s mentally ill; he has new kids with his new wife; she’s a drug addict; he’s abusive; you don’t have to go see her; he just wants to make trouble for us; you don’t need her; at least you still have one parent who loves you. 

“A parent who corrupts reality and teaches a child to hate the other parent represents a grave danger to the child’s mental health,” Blotcky and Bernet write. “The consequences of severe parental alienation on children are well-documented: low self-esteem, self-hatred, depression, anxiety, lack of trust in others, substance abuse and more. Rejected parents struggle with depression and anxiety due to being demonized and actively excluded from their children’s lives.”

Parental alienation has long-term effects for children deceived and manipulated to disavow a parent. CONTRIBUTED

Raising awareness 

“Alienating behaviors by a parent are often hidden and ferociously denied, so much so that the offending parent casts himself or herself as the victim rather than the aggressor,” write Blotcky and Bernet.

Fortunately, they said, an increasing number of family court judges, child advocates, mental health professionals, attorneys and social workers are becoming aware of and alert to parental alienation, the power of a parent’s influence and the long-term consequences of such manipulation.

“Parental alienation is illegal in five countries, but it’s not officially recognized by the U.S. family court system,” said Jenn Stefanacci Portier, a Key West mother and business owner who became an outspoken opponent of parental alienation after becoming estranged from her 11-year-old son about a year ago, despite sharing custody with his father. “The system is flawed, antiquated and in need of education and reform to protect the children of PA. The effects are generational.”

Victims and opponents of parental alienation — adults who were deceived as kids, the parents they discarded, vigilant judges, mental health professionals, court mediators and custody advocates  —  join forces each year on April 25 for Parental Alienation Awareness Day.

The day is meant to find solutions, spread information and expose the devastating power that one parent can have over a child’s beliefs, relationships and future.

Stefanacci Portier and her husband, Grant, spent April 25 walking 11.4 miles around Key West in honor of the 11.4-year-old son she’s desperate to reconnect with.

Born in Key West, her son moved with his father to mainland Florida in August 2020, when he was 9.

“I agreed to shared custody, visitation and a parenting plan rather than force my 9-year-old son to testify on the stand in court,” Portier said. “I wouldn’t put him through that.”

Portier said her son suddenly started refusing all contact with her a year ago despite prior months of daily calls and texts, weekend visits and baseball games on the mainland.

“For a while, I believed only a few were going through this nightmare and even fewer understood it,” said Stefanacci Portier posted on Facebook after attending a Parental Alienation retreat last month in Jacksonville. “The fact that there was even a need for a parental alienation retreat means this is way bigger and affects way more families then we imagined. Over the past year, I have slowly spoken out about PA. I was afraid of retribution and embarrassed to explain my situation.” 

She remains committed to reconnecting with her child and is exploring her options, after years of custody hearings and six-figure legal bills, she said.

“For generations, everyone has known the mom always gets the kids. So when a kid doesn’t live with the mom, people just automatically assume she did something egregiously wrong,” she said. “It’s the complete opposite with alienated parents. I fall into that category, but so few people truly understand what goes on with it.”

Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.