Mental Health of Adults Alienated in Childhood

The participants described their perception of how exposure to parental alienating behaviours in their childhood affected their mental health in adulthood. There were 459 references to mental health impacts across the entire dataset. Four broad themes were identified: (1) Mental Health Difficulties; (2) Addiction and Substance Use; (3) Emotional Pain; (4) Coping and Resilience. Each theme is presented below using data extracts from individual participants, which represent their experience. Example quotes from participants’ transcripts are provided. These are their exact words. Larger themes have been broken down into sub-categories as described below.

3.1. Mental Health Difficulties

Participants reported experiencing a range of mental health difficulties. Some of these difficulties were self-diagnosed and some were reportedly formally diagnosed by a clinician. Participants also described their perception of how exposure to parental alienating behaviours impacted their adult lives. Although we cannot infer causation, it was the view of the participants that their exposure to parental alienating behaviours and experience of being alienated from a parent were associated with their mental health difficulties. There were 66 references to mental health difficulties across most of the dataset, with eight sub-themes identified and described below.

  • Depression and Anxiety: 55% of participants spoke about experiencing depression and anxiety in their adulthood and the impact they said it had on their ability to function in their daily lives:

“I was a functioning depressed person where I would go to work, I could handle kids, but I would fall apart after that. And the psychiatrist said, “I’m prescribing you this” and he writes it down on his little tablet and he hands it to me, and it says, “move out of your (alienating parent) mother’s house.”

Some participants wondered how their early experiences impacted their depression and anxiety:

“…. It’s quite scary the depths in terms of my negativity and capability to go into depression…I don’t know to what extent this comes from having been denied the attention of a primary caregiver (alienating parent) for some of my formative years.”


Eating Disorders/Body Image Issues: 20% of participants reported experiencing eating disorders and/or body image concerns that developed in adolescence. There was variability in accounts, with some participants able to explain how the origins of their difficulties arose compared to others who were less certain. The extent to which these difficulties persisted into adulthood for these participants was unclear:

“I started getting an eating disorder, I had bulimia… I didn’t understand either, I didn’t understand why I was doing these things either…”


Personality Difficulties: 40% of participants described difficulties related to personality dysfunction ranging from a formally diagnosed case of borderline personality disorder, (BPD) to a variety of difficulties, including emotion dysregulation, fear of abandonment, splitting, excessive reassurance and validation seeking, mistrust in self, impulsivity, inability to resist urges, and the need to impress others:

“I have noticed as well is I have a very needy vibe in relationships where I’m capable of if I’m getting everything I need, possibly in a borderline narcissistic way…”

Some participants also reported experiencing longstanding controlling or perfectionist tendencies which they related to exposure to parental alienating behaviours, mainly aimed at pleasing the alienating parent:

“I’ve had… you know…really struggled with perfectionism because I didn’t really know what would set my parents off and if I wasn’t perfect, I’d get disciplined.”


Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): One participant reported suffering from diagnosed PTSD after living an unstable lifestyle. This participant described moving from one place to another and being exposed to unsafe people after her alienating parent reportedly forced her to move out of the family home at 17 years of age. This participant said the effects of these experiences still caused her difficulty in adulthood:

“I was suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder and all I was doing was hiding like a, a mollusc in a shell, away from the world… I didn’t understand what the posttraumatic stress was, I didn’t understand why I was in a perpetual state of anxiety, and I couldn’t switch it off. It’s taken me 30 years to be able to understand that.”


Psychosomatic Symptoms: 10% of the sample reported experiencing psychosomatic symptoms such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, hypersensitivity to sound and the environment, cognitive “fog”, and alopecia, which some suspected were due to their exposure to parental alienating behaviours:

“I do have moments still today where I can fog over, I have foggy moments, so it has affected me, and I’ve had would you call it chronic fatigue for a lot of life… but it had yeah affected me in a big way physically you know… people say it’s from abuse and stuff like that… I think it has a lot to do with what I’ve experienced, the constant grief…”


Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): One participant spoke about ADHD symptoms and possible related diagnoses. They wondered if they had these diagnoses based on the difficulties they had. They also wondered if these symptoms were related to their exposure to parental alienating behaviours in childhood:

“I think I’ve got serious ADHD; I think I might have mild Asperger’s, I’m not sure… I’m possibly even bipolar, these are all the most likely what ifs, I’ve not got a diagnosis… I do wonder though that considering the symptoms of ADHD and considering I’ve probably had it at an early age, I do wonder if this alienation thing exacerbated it…”


Self-Harm: 15% of participants described experiencing self-harm through cutting with incidents starting from the age of 11 and continuing into early adulthood:

“When I was cutting my legs, I was only 11 years old…I was quite ashamed of that… I had this metal ruler that my brother had given me, and I was doing that but, on my legs, you know, and it was sort of… these little things that started happening over time became my normal.”

“I would hurt myself a lot and one time I ended up in a psychiatric hospital.”


Suicidal Ideation: 30% of participants reported experiencing suicidal ideation from adolescence into adulthood. Some were able to link their suicidal ideation directly to their exposure to parental alienating behaviours:

“I often had suicidal thoughts. That was throughout my 20s. So, I wouldn’t really want to relive like my age from 20 to 25. On an emotional level, it was a horrible life at times. So, I think a lot of emotional instability, but without being able for me at that point, to link it to what I lived, in childhood.”

Some participants described their suicidal ideation plans in detail:

“I thought about suicide where I wanted- I’d drive my Mustang 140 miles per hour down these country roads- You know how easy would it be for me to run into that tree?… I remember standing in the kitchen right before this emancipation thing (from alienating parent) happened, and there was a knife on the counter, and I considered it.”

Further, 50% of the total sample reported becoming targeted parents in adulthood. Of these participants, four reported experiencing suicidal ideation and described how thoughts of their children stopped them from dying by suicide:

“I did get suicidal more than once- I didn’t go through with it. The thing that did stop me was thinking about my kids and wanting to see them again.”

3.2. Addiction and Substance Use

A total of 41 references were made across 55% of the dataset concerning addiction and substance use impacting participants in adulthood with three sub-themes identified and described below.

  • Alcohol: 55% of participants reported their alcohol consumption started in early adolescence and peaked in their late teens–early 20s:

“I started drinking at 16 but that was more as an escape from home life when I was drinking with my friends from work. Because they’d have parties on weekends and whatever, but you know, I wouldn’t drink much back then. It wasn’t until I was in my 20′s that I drank a lot more.”

One participant described how the smell of alcohol reminded her of her alienating parent, thus acting as a deterrent from alcohol for her:

“I can’t drink wine I’ve only ever had two glasses of wine in my life—mum was a really big wine drinker she was such a big wine drinker and I’d be her little butler when she was drinking- I’d go and get more wine, so I’d go empty out half her bottle of wine and fill it up with water and she was so drunk she didn’t know. But yeah, I don’t touch wine. I hate the smell of wine…”


Drugs: 35% of participants described using cannabis daily, occasionally, or reported a previous cannabis addiction; 20% of participants reported recreational use of MDMA; 5% of participants reported dangerous use of methamphetamine and hallucinogens. Some of these participants reported relying on these drugs when going out and consuming high doses of their drugs of choice. Some of these participants recalled using substances to numb painful emotions or to feel normal:

“Anything to get away and not feel- but try and feel at the same time. It was a weird position to be in.”


Sex/Pornography: 10% of participants spoke about leading promiscuous and impulsive lifestyles to find connections with others:

“Drugs, alcohol, sex. Just went on a complete spiral out of control. Taking things so that you don’t feel, but then almost like an addiction trying to attach yourself to people so that you can feel something at the same time. Really quite strange.”

3.3. Emotional Pain

Participants described how their exposure to parental alienating behaviours in childhood was associated with emotional pain in adulthood. There was a total of 83 references to emotional pain across 95% of the dataset. The theme of emotional pain was broken into eight sub-themes described below.

  • Shame and Guilt: 45% of the participants recalled feeling guilt or shame about their experience. Some had come to understand that although they knew their experience was not their fault, they could not avoid feelings of guilt that lasted into adulthood. Some participants were confused by their guilt or were unable to explain why they felt guilty:

“There’s a lot of blame and guilt, and it’s still there like sometimes I’m like “oh, maybe that was, maybe this is my fault, maybe I have done this, maybe this is wrong, maybe that was lies, maybe this isn’t…” You know there’s a lot of, it’s still a lot of confusion, within myself about what to believe and what not to believe…”


Self-Esteem: 40% of participants reported how being exposed to parental alienating behaviours in childhood had impacted their self-esteem into adulthood, with some feeling worthless and unequal to others. One participant reflected on how low confidence and self-esteem was linked back to not having a voice in childhood:

“For so long, it didn’t matter who I met or from what walk of life they were—it could’ve been a street sweeper, it could’ve been a barrister, I immediately thought that I was the lesser person…I didn’t place a lot of value on myself, and I realise now that I was very vulnerable to being mistreated or abused. I realise now that at some level, I accepted this behaviour and agreed that it was what I deserved…I was always fearful that I’d get ripped off because I didn’t have a voice. I guess that’s what we learned as children- we never had a voice.”


Loneliness and Isolation: 30% of participants reflected on loneliness and isolation. Some chose to isolate themselves from the outside world. Others felt lonely or isolated, which they attributed to exposure to parental alienating behaviours:

“Sometimes you can feel a bit lost and forgotten, especially if you’re in a situation where you’re a fairly highly functioning human, but you have all these things that are still the background, and they just, they just remain there. And not many people understand, and so that can be quite lonely…”


Helplessness: 20% of participants reflected on their feelings of helplessness in terms of their exposure to parental alienating behaviours in childhood or their current experience of being a targeted parent:

“My God I’m still stuck in this mess that someone else created…”


Grief and Loss: 60% of participants described their feelings of grief and loss with the most predominant responses involving a sense of loss around childhood, family, and denial of access to the targeted parent:

“I’ve spent probably the last year, almost straight really grieving and mourning, having to work through this because it was so well hidden, it was so normalised, I was grieving. Grieving my childhood. Grieving the parents, I didn’t get. Grieving the person that I thought I was and who I actually was.”


Anger: 45% of the participants reported feeling varying degrees of anger mainly aimed at the alienating parent. Some reported mild degrees of anger, while others were very specific in their resentment towards their alienating:

“I blame my mother and fuck you, fuck you, you fucked it for a fucking long time, you fucked it love. And there’s a part of me that has such major resentment, major, you know…if she wasn’t so old, if I could drag her into court to sue for that, I would do it.”


Abandonment: 15% of participants spoke about how their feelings of abandonment had impacted their lives as adults:

“I don’t believe anyone’s going to stay.”


Trust Issues: Other participants described how it was difficult for them to trust others, and themselves, due to their vulnerability:

“At this point I find it sometimes hard with people, when I meet people to, to build up trust. I think parental alienation also, it causes a lot of.. trust issues.”

3.4. Coping and Resilience

A total of 95% of participants made references to coping and resilience around their PA experience, with 269 references broken into three subthemes of maladaptive coping, adaptive coping, and meaning making.

  • Maladaptive Coping: 50% of participants reported using coping styles that were maladaptive, including stoicism, avoidance, indifference, mistrust, creating barriers, vengeful thinking against the alienating parent, and withdrawing, with 59 references made across the dataset.
  • Adaptive Coping: participants described using adaptive coping strategies with a total of 56 references made by 80% of the group. They described using adaptive coping skills in adulthood to deal with their exposure to parental alienating behaviours in childhood. These strategies included cognitive reframing, acceptance, forgiveness, healing, self-education about PA, self-care, and engaging in therapy or support groups.
  • Meaning Making: all participants spoke about trying to make meaning of their experience in adulthood with 154 references to topics such as using self-reflection and gaining perspective, confusion about their experience of being exposed to parental alienating behaviours in childhood; coming to the realisation the alienating parent was lying; memories; life lessons; conflicting thoughts about their experience and contributing to research into parental alienation.

Verhaar, S.; Matthewson, M.L.; Bentley, C. The Impact of Parental Alienating Behaviours on the Mental Health of Adults Alienated in Childhood. Children 20229, 475.

Author: Linda Turner

Coaching and Therapy Currently studying Psychotherapy , Cognitive psychology, Hypnotherapy. Qualified NLP, EMDR and CBT therapist. REIKI Master. I believe in truth, honesty and integrity! ≧◔◡◔≦

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