In a bad break-up, parents may use their children as pawns to get back at their former partner. Some experts call this parental alienation. By bad-mouthing the other in front of the child, sabotaging contact with the child or threatening to withdraw affection, a parent can brainwash their child to such an extent that their relationship with the other breaks down. The behaviour hurts children as well as the targeted parent, and can lead to problems such as depression, low self-esteem, substance abuse, aggression and troubled social relationships. It’s a controversial idea, though, with opponents saying it’s “pseudo science”. Because there’s no set definition of parental alienation, therapists, courts and social workers battle to help families rebuild severed bonds. But if the conflict is not resolved, the fallout can last for years.

By Christina Pitt

  • As an act of revenge, Abigail Olivier’s* mother barred her father from seeing his daughter while growing up.
  • Feeling unloved, Olivier started acting out at school, struggled with mental health issues and ended up in a difficult marriage later in her life.
  • Some experts call this parental alienation — but it’s a controversial idea.
  • In this #SliceofLife, Olivier describes how yearning for a dad she was not allowed to know affected her for years. #SliceofLife stories are Bhekisisa’s short, first-person accounts of the experiences of some of the people we interview.

“At 58 years old it still hurts. It doesn’t go away.

“I never had a dad. Well, I knew he existed, but he wasn’t part of my life.

“I would ask my mother about him and all she’d say is that he didn’t want me. He wasn’t good enough [for us], she said.

“I got angry when I saw my friends with their fathers at school, because no one was there for me. It made me feel like I wasn’t good enough.” 

When she was 20 years old, Olivier started looking for her father.

“I couldn’t believe it [when we found each other]. We looked exactly the same and he only lived 10 minutes away from me!

“He showed me a box of letters and cards for missed birthdays and Christmases. All the years we were apart, he wrote to me.

“He told me he was in the bleachers when I broke my arm during an athletics meet. There’s no way he would have known that unless he was there. 

“But he told me that my mother said he was to never approach me. 

“I think she was bitter that he married someone else instead of her.

“For a long time, my own marriage suffered too.

“I thought of leaving, but I couldn’t do to them [her three sons] what my mother did to me.  

“I never forgave my mother for what she took from me.”

Olivier’s father died five years after they found each other. She visits his grave once a month. 

“I sit there, and I hope he can hear me. 

“If I could see him just one more time I would ask him to hug me and tell me I’m good enough.”

* Not her real name

This article is republished from Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article on

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