Identity Crisis Within the Alienated Child

Frustrated Child by Himself
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash
Often parents are confused by their alienated children are aggressive towards them, even when they have been warm and welcoming. This article dives into the mindset of the alienated child.

The Neurological Impact on Alienated Children

The biggest question most parents ask me is, “How is it possible that my child who was once so loving to me, now is so hateful and hurtful towards me?”

Of the many ways parental alienation hurts children, conflict within their personal identity lies at the core of it. In trauma research, children who grow up in abused households suffer from higher cortisol levels.

Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone. Your body releases cortisol to keep you on high alert. A child who has been subjected to repeated abuse will have higher cortisol levels. This leads to the child living in a constant state of “survival mode”. Your child is looking to avoid conflict with their abuser as much as possible. As they grow up the child will develop patterns of compliant behavior with the alienating parent to ensure they are not the target for emotional manipulation and other forms of abuse.

Research shows that higher cortisol levels can lead to developing a smaller prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that manages personality expression, social behaviors, and cognitive decision-making.

The long-term result is the child does not explore and grow their own identity. Even adult children who detach themselves from the abusive control of the alienating parent will find themselves struggling with their identity. This identity struggle is much more difficult in children, as their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed. Due to its premature development, children typically rely on their amygdala, the emotional center of the brain. As a result, the child is going to rely on emotions to make most decisions. This means they will struggle with making complex decisions in social situations. That part of their brain has not fully developed yet.

Neurological Impacts Leading to Adulthood

Fortunately, the child is not completely hopeless. When the child has grown up, they will typically begin to assert themselves more. Assuming the child adopts an identity based on their own merits, the child will slowly detach themselves from the alienating parent. If the child removes themselves from the abusive parent, they can begin the healing process, psychologically and neurologically.

The male brain fully matures around 25 years of age and the female brain matures around 21 years of age. These ages are not guaranteed benchmarks for if the child leaves the alienating parent. Once their brains are fully developed as adults, they will be neurologically better able to handle the complexity of social situations. As adults, their prefrontal cortex will be far more developed at this stage. The adult child will be more reliant on their prefrontal cortex, thus employing reason in their decision-making more than emotion.

However, to fully understand what a target parent can do to help their child, we must first dive into the psyche of the child during the alienation process.

Forced Identities: How the Alienating Parent Decides Who the Child Can Be

The alienation process is usually implemented concurrently with the separation of the parents. The outliers in alienation cases would be family members who are cut off from siblings/cousins/grandchildren and have no means of contact. 

As the child begins to adjust to the new environment, the alienating parent begins to engage in manipulative behavior to imprint a new identity on the child.

The child is no longer allowed to be themselves. They must follow the new rules of the alienating parent or else suffer the consequences. Children are not able to fully comprehend how they are being manipulated. Their compliance is rooted in self-defense. If the child does not abide by the new rules of the alienating parent, they are at high risk of physical abuse, emotional abuse, and in extreme cases, sexual abuse. Their compliance is an act of self-preservation.

The child learns to become an extension of the alienating parent. By imitating their behaviors, the child wins favors from the alienating parent. The child receives praise and validation for being abusive towards you. This brings a sense of accomplishment and respect, a feeling they have come to crave deeply in their unloving environment.

This secondary identity operates like a light switch.

Many parents I have consulted tell me how in moments of absolute privacy, their child told them they still loved them. These parents would describe how their child momentarily dropped the act and revert to their loving childlike selves. Some even will say, “Don’t tell Mom!” or “Don’t tell Dad!” with complete seriousness.

The heartbreaking part of all of this is that the child must feel completely safe enough to reach this point. If at any point the child feels like they could get in trouble with the alienating parent, they flip the switch on their personality and resume being spiteful.

Confronting the Fake Identity in the Child

Where many parents fail is in their emotional reactions towards their children when they are acting out. The child is not behaving as themselves; they have simply adopted a shallow version of their alienating parent’s identity. This may mean they will use similar mannerisms, call you names they heard from your ex, and make demands that no child would ever think of themselves.

Your child is unable to discern what is true about you anymore. In advanced alienation cases, the child will be repeatedly told that you, the target parent, does not love them and is a danger to their wellbeing.

Consider for a moment the implications of this. Your child, who has undergone severe emotional abuse from their alienating parent, is being told you are more dangerous as a person to them. More dangerous than what they have previously experienced from their alienating parent. This means that as a parent, you are starting with a huge trust debt with the child. It does not matter how close you were before the alienation. Your child will expect abuse from you when there is none. Your calm, loving demeanor is interpreted as a premeditated attack.

As a defense mechanism, the child will attempt to goad you into conflict. This is an attempt on their part to take control of the situation. By provoking you, they can reassure themselves that they are right to alienate you. They can use your emotional reactions to justify the lies they have been told about you. Your child will echo the insults and attacks that your ex would typically make or have made. In severe cases, the child may even make threats to call the police or CPS on you.

The Emotional Framework in the Alienated Child

Alienated children carry within them 4 core emotions that drive their behavior during the alienation process.

Apathy → Anger → Fear → Grief


The child will dissociate from the target parent as much as possible to avoid feeling anything about them. With apathy, the child avoids feeling emotionally drained during their day-to-day lives. This does not imply they have moved on without you. Instead, the child has just allowed this part of their lives to go numb.


When a child is forced to confront their trauma, they lash out towards the targeted parent. The child is repeatedly told that the separation is your fault. The child believes that you, the target parent, does not love them. Your love is dismissed as insincerity. Most parents make the mistake of addressing their child’s anger. As a result, they only escalate the conflict and further distance their child emotionally from them.

The anger of your child is proportional to the fear they carry within them. These fears are deeply engrained in their subconscious as a result of their experience through the emotional abuse and the separation. The child believes you are dangerous to their well-being. Worse still, they are unable to understand how to assess whether you are a threat to them. Therefore, the child reacts with pure emotion. As children rely more on their amygdala (the emotional center of the brain), they will not listen to any attempts to reason with them. Remember the neurological impacts on the child; the child’s cortisol levels are heightened and they do not have a fully developed prefrontal cortex until adulthood.


The child will use anything they can to push you away as they fear that you will bring them harm. Keep in mind, this harm can be indirect via emotional abuse from the alienating parent. The child is damned if they do, damned if they don’t. The alienating parent has the most control over the child, even in 50/50 custody splits. Compliance with the alienating parent is the only way the child knows how to protect themselves from abuse.


All these fears are the result of the child’s experiences in losing their family, their sense of belonging, and their happiness. A part of the child has died. All that remains is an empty shell of what once was a happy child.

The child fears you will hurt them. That fear breeds anger and resentment. “Why couldn’t their parents do better?”, they ask themselves. That anger helps them get through the day but it is emotionally exhausting. As a result, the child feels powerless to change anything in their current situation. And so, they opt to feel nothing at all.

To Be or Not to Be, that is the Question

As the child approaches adulthood, they face a deep question within themselves,

“Will they continue to feel apathetic about their parent’s separation or will they seek out the truth for themselves to find closure?”

This is a question that the child will have to answer to themselves repeatedly across their lifetime. If the child believes they know everything there is to know about their parent’s separation, they will continue to dissociate.

Every formerly alienated child I have spoken to has talked about how they had to “play detective” and find their own truth. In most cases, they take the time to hear both sides of the separation story and then draw their own conclusions.

Curiosity Kills the Cat, But Satisfaction Will Bring It Back

This sense of curiosity is not random. Oftentimes, a moment of clarity comes to the alienated child when they realize they cannot stand on their own identity. The split begins when once the child tries to be more aligned with their truer self. The alienating parent will fight back and try to control the adult child. This snowballs into a major disagreement with the alienating parent – either a choice in a love interest, contact with the target parent, buying a home, choosing a career, etc. This split creates a great deal of uncertainty within the child. The identity crisis tears the child in half. 

On one side, they have the identity they adopted most of their life. This part of them has been hateful and angry. They have pushed the target parent away, likely for years. On top of that, the child is still afraid of you hurting them again. More importantly, they are afraid of losing the alienating parent. The child can play it safe and continue to hide from their past and ignore the target parent. 

On the other side, is an identity of their own making. This identity recognizes they are partly responsible for all the hurt they have brought to their target parent. Reconciliation means to own up to their behavior. Furthermore, the child has no idea what kind of future will manifest as a result of walking their own path. To align themselves with their own identity would mean they must seek out their own truth. There is a sense of curiosity that drives them to step into the path of the unknown. Once they walk this path, they will learn to see their world in an entirely different light. They won’t know if they will find the closure they need or learn the whole truth. All they know is this path will be one of their own making.

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Hi, I am Andrew Folkler

I am a full time writer with a deep passion for learning about the world we live in.

Reach Out to Me Anytime!

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