What Is Parental Alienation? | Part 1 of 4

How to Combat Parental Alienation is a four part series for parents and family lawyers.  Part 1 discusses: What Is Parental Alienation? What Does Parent Alienation Mean? What are signs of parental alienation? What Is the Harm Parental Alienation Causes? Early Warning Signs in the Child.

Part 1: What Is Parental Alienation?

Parental alienation occurs when one parent adopts behaviors patterned at disrupting or terminating the other parent’s relationship with their child. This insidious child abuse fractures families and wreaks havoc with children’s lives. The perpetrator is the “aligned, favored, or alienating parent” while the adult victim is the “alienated, rejected, or target parent.”[1]

Malicious Campaign Against the Target Parent

Parental alienation is a campaign that starts very small, progressing slowly over time. An effective campaign begins without the target’s awareness and can continue for years undetected. Some campaigns start the moment the parents separate.[2]

Types of Parental Alienation Campaigns

What causes a child to alienate a parent? The answer is obvious when the adult is cruel, drug addicted, absent, or lacking basic parenting skills. But what if the rejected parent is a decent person, devoid of those negative characteristics? What if that parent had a good, loving relationship with the child before the separation? By a growing consensus, both marital strife and high-conflict litigation can plant the seeds of parental alienation. In isolating causation, legal and mental health professionals, “MHPs,” focus on parental actions first and the child’s perception of adult conflict second.

Focus on Parents.  There are two campaign types – intentional and unintentional. With both, the child is conditioned against a decent, loving, responsible parent. By recognizing each type, appropriate countermeasures can be taken to defuse hostilities and correct negative patterns.

            Intentional Campaigns. Intentional means a scheming parent is purposefully destroying the child’s relationship with the other parent. The perpetrator knows the child’s emotional weaknesses, knows the other parent’s insecurities, and has the benefit of time. Comments, actions, reactions, and direct and indirect statements to the child are all engineered to alienate the other parent. The primary objective? To inflict emotional pain on the target by destabilizing his or her relationship with the child. Every act is maliciously designed to be stealthy, unprovable, and deadly. So long as the target suffers, the campaign’s impact on the child is neither a consideration nor a concern.

            Unintentional Campaigns. The term “unintentional” does not give the alienating parent a pass. Instead, the party’s hatred for the other parent is so entrenched, it seeps into daily interactions with the child. A parent’s persistently negative attitude and derogatory remarks gradually dissolve the child’s affection and respect for the targeted parent. Dad says in a huff, “Your mother is late, AGAIN!” The implication is clear – the child is not a priority in Mom’s life. That message has an impact when repeated and reinforced, day-in and day-out.

Focus on the Child

What Is Parental Alienation?

What Is Parental Alienation?

Alienation could be the child’s response to parental separation and conflict. Loving both equally is nearly impossible for a child when parents are angry and hateful toward each other.

Parental alienation can occur with and without indoctrination. A child’s exposure to “specific adversarial conditions”[3] — contested divorce or child custody proceedings – points a finger at both parties and the legal system. In self-preservation, a child escapes the line of fire by aligning with one parent and rejecting the other.

What Does Parent Alienation Mean?

Is alienation really happening? Start with this three-step inquiry:

  1. Has the child aligned with one parent and rejected, resisted, or shown a negative attitude toward the other? If not, then any alienation may be imagined. However, continue to watch for negative developments.
  2. Has one parent said or done things that could interfere with the child’s ability to engage with the other parent? Answering in the negative does not eliminate the possibility of unintentional alienation or persistent conflict as the root cause.
  3. Is the child’s resistance and negative attitude reasonable? A child may legitimately estrange an adult who exhibits highly adverse parenting.[4]

Look into the possibility of child abuse, neglect, domestic violence, substance abuse, poor parenting skills, and other parental deficits, along with high level conflict between parents. If the child needs protecting, then limited contact, supervised parenting time, or a change in custody may be necessary.

What Is the Harm Parental Alienation Causes?

Parental alienation damages relationships, harming children, parents, extended family, and friends. As psychological maltreatment, it rises to the level of child abuse and neglect.[5] Abused children are more likely to have relationship difficulties and become abusive adults.[6] This makes parental alienation a child protection issue.

How Bad Is Bad?

Consider a continuum of harm from mild to severe.[7] With mild harm, the child desires routine contact with both parents, but has a primary affinity for one (often the primary residential parent, “PRP”). The alternate residential parent, “ARP,” might experience less contact and fewer visits. With moderate harm, the child is allied with one parent, but is ambivalent about the other and prefers limited contact (could possibly be due to bad parenting). With severe harm, the child’s negative attitudes and behaviors toward the target are entrenched and crystalized (refuses any contact). How long the behavior has gone on undeterred is one of many factors.

Long-Term Consequences for the Child

The potential for long-term psychological damage is substantial:

  • Significant lag in development and problems in school.[8]
  • Normalizes manipulative, hostile, obnoxious behavior in relationships.
  • Brainwashed about the target, becomes enraged about being used.
  • Self-esteem so low as to be self-hate.
  • Guilt for rejecting or betraying the target.
  • Adolescent drug and alcohol abuse.
  • Rejects the alienating parent, too, for negatively affecting the relationship with the target.[9]
  • Difficulty maintaining positive, trusting relationships. Lacks empathy. Feels unloved or unlovable.

The damage may be multigenerational. Alienated as children, victims are more likely to be alienated by their own children.

Too often, the ARP is the alienated parent with parenting time having little emotional impact on the child. This could happen when a child, especially a teenager, would rather be doing other things. There may be affection for the ARP, yet a minimal sense of attachment.[10]

Early Warning Signs in the Child

What early warning signs should parents look for in their children? Begin with the eight indicators introduced by psychiatrist Richard A. Gardner, MD,[11] in the mid-1980s:

  1. Child’s denigration campaign against the target.
  2. Child’s frivolous rationalizations for complaints against the target.
  3. Child lacks ambivalence (allied parent good, target parent bad).
  4. Child asserts conclusion was independently arrived at (the “independent thinker”).
  5. Child automatically, reflexively supports the allied parent in any dispute.
  6. Child lacks guilt for meanness, disrespectfulness, or cruelty toward the target.
  7. Child parrots the allied parent’s story of what happened to cause the alienation.
  8. Child’s animosity spreads to the target’s extended family and friends, even pets.

Those basic warning signs may indicate the following tactics have long been in place.

What are signs of parental alienation?

What are signs of parental alienation?

What are signs of parental alienation?

Alienating parents use many tactics to manipulate the child into rejecting the other parent.[12] Some are directed at the child, some at the target:

  • Badmouthing: Parent verbally maligns the target in front of the child. “Your father’s an idiot.” Evidence for this could come from the child. “Mom says you’re always wrong.”
  • Blame: Blames the target for the child’s disappointments. “I know you want to go to summer camp. That’s what your mother’s child support pays for. If she managed her money better, you could go – easy.”
  • Contact: Unreasonably limits the target’s contact with the child.
  • Communication: Interferes with the other parent’s communications with the child. “Your Dad’s on the phone. Tell him you’ll call back tomorrow after school.” Or interferes with “symbolic communication”[13] with the target by, for example, removing parent-child pictures from photo albums. Or has the child call to cancel parenting time.
  • Withdraws Affection: Retracts affection if the child dares show love for the target.
  • Unloved: Convinces the child the target does not love him or her. “If your father cared about you, he’d be here now.”
  • Forced Choice: Makes the child choose. “Who loves you the most?” after providing a gift.
  • Dangerousness: Convinces the child the target is dangerous. “Your Mom hangs out with scary people, real losers.”
  • Special Bond: Elevates relationship above the target’s. “Bummer you’ll be stuck with your Dad’s family the whole weekend. Especially after last time.” Or allies with the child to make something positive happen. “You’d rather stay with me this weekend? No problem. I’ll just say you’re sick. I’ve got this.”
  • Confides: Inappropriately shares with the child or discloses the target’s faults in confidence. “Your Mom can’t keep a job because nobody likes her.”
  • Adult Dependency: Inappropriately depends on the child. “What will I do while you’re gone? Call me every day to make sure I’m all right.”
  • Excessive Gatekeeping: Is inflexible with parenting time. “No, you can’t take the kids. I don’t care if you have box seats to the game. I won’t trade weekends.”
  • Spying and Secrets: Has the child spy on the target or keep secrets. “Don’t say anything to your Mom about meeting my girlfriend. That’s just between us.”
  • Parental Substitution: Encourages the child to call a stepparent “Mom” or “Dad.” Or uses the target’s first name when talking to the child. Or changes the child’s surname.
  • Withholds Information: Does not share important information about the child, such as medical updates and school matters, with the target. Or keeps the target’s name off records and documents.

If parental alienation is suspected or actually occurring, how should the targeted parent respond? A lot can be done to change the direction things are headed short of filing an action.


Continue reading: How to Combat Parental Alienation


[1] Daniel J. Hynan, PhD, Parenting Plans, Meeting the Challenges with Facts and Analysis, Chapter 10: Parental Alienation and Gatekeeping, p.148. ABA Family Law Section publisher (2018).

[2] This discussion is not about the diagnostic legitimacy of parental alienation syndrome (PAS). Although the negative consequences of parental alienation are widely accepted, the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 does not include PAS as a distinct mental disorder. The American Psychological Association has no official position on PAS beyond taking domestic violence seriously. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2008/01/pas-syndrome retrieved 7/8/2020. Read about Richard A. Gardner, MD., and the PAS debate at https://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/092109p26.shtml retrieved 8/12/2020.

[3] William Bernet, MD, and Don R. Ash, JD, MJS, Children of Divorce, A Practical Guide for Parents, Therapists, Attorneys, and Judges, p.77. Kriegr Publishing Co. (2007).

[4] Philip M. Stahl, PhD, & Robert A. Simon, PhD, Forensic Psychology Consultation in Child Custody Litigation, A Handbook for Work Product Review, Case Preparation, and Expert Testimony, p.29. ABA (2014).

[5] Practice Guidelines, The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC), https://www.apsac.org/9235fgnl8 retrieved 7/7/2020.

[6] CDC, Preventing Child Abuse & Neglect, https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/fastfact.html retrieved 7/7/2020,

[7] Hynan at p.150.

[8] Demosthenes Lorandos, William Bernet & S. Richard Sauber, Editors. Parental Alienation: The Handbook for Mental Health and Legal Professionals. Charles C. Thomas Publisher LTD. (2013).

[9] Edward Kruk, PhD. The Impact of Parental Alienation on Children. Psychology Today, April 15, 2013. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/co-parenting-after-divorce/201304/the-impact-parental-alienation-children retrieved 7/7/2020.

[10] Bernet & Ash at p.72.

[11] https://psychcentral.com/blog/what-is-parental-alienation-syndrome-pas/ retrieved 8/12/2020.

[12] Robert A. Evans, PhD, Parental Alienation: Child Abuse? – Reportable? http://drbobevans.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Parental-Alienation-Child-Abuse-Reportable-FL-FLBAR-article2.pdf retrieved June 9, 2020.

[13] Baker, Amy & Fine, Paul & LCSW (2008). Beyond the High Road: Responding to 17 Parental Alienation Strategies without Compromising Your Morals or Harming Your Child. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265450917_Beyond_the_High_Road_Responding_to_17_Parental_Alienation_Strategies_without_Compromising_Your_Morals_or_Harming_Your_Child retrieved 7/24/2020.

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