Parental alienation

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Parental alienation (or Hostile Aggressive Parenting) is a theory first popularized by Dr. Richard A. Gardner as parental alienation syndrome. Under the theory, parental alienation occurs when a group of parental behaviors are damaging to children's mental and emotional well-being, and can interfere with a relationship of a child and either parent. These behaviors most often accompany high conflict marriages, separation or divorce. These behaviors, whether verbal or non-verbal, cause a child to be mentally manipulated or bullied into believing a loving parent is the cause of all their problems, and/or the enemy, to be feared, hated, disrespected and/or avoided.[1] Characteristics, such as lack of empathy and warmth, between the rejected parent and child are some indicators.[2] The term does not apply in cases of actual child abuse, when the child rejects the abusing parent to protect themselves.[3] Parental alienation is controversial in legal and mental health professions, both generally and in specific situations.[4][5] Terms related to parental alienation include child alienation, pathological alignments, visitation refusal, brainwashing, pathological alienation,[6] the toxic parent and parental alienation syndrome,[7]


First described in 1976 as "pathological alignment", the dynamic refers to a situation in which a child unreasonably rejects a non-custodial parent.[8] Richard A. Gardner proposed parental alienation syndrome in the 1980s based on his clinical experience with the children of divorcing parents. Since that time, other researchers have suggested focusing less on diagnosing a syndrome and more on what has been described as the "alienated child", and the dynamics of the situation that have contributed to the alienation.[5][9] In this view, alienation is seen as a breakdown of attachment between parent and child and may be caused by multiple factors. The behaviors of all family members, including those of the alienated parent, may lead to family dysfunction and the rejection of a parent.[10][11] The evaluation of all contributing factors and all possible remedies are recommended in evaluating cases where children have become estranged from a parent.[5][12]

Parental alienation lacks a single definition and its existence, etiology, characteristics, and in particular the concept of parental alienation syndrome have been the subject of debate. Some formulations of the concept have emphasized the role of an alienating parent, termed variously the "programming" parent or "embittered-chaotic parent".[8] More recent descriptions, influenced by the research of Kelly and Johnston, have proposed a more complex analysis, in which all family members may play a role. This "systems-based" view acknowledges that a child may be alienated from one parent without "alienating" behaviour by the other parent.[5][8] The results of an empirical study also suggest that alienating behaviors by both parents are the norm in high-conflict divorces. Rejected parents, generally fathers, tend to lack warmth and empathy with the child; instead, they engage in rigid parenting and critical attitudes. The rejected parent is often passive, depressed, anxious, and withdrawn - characteristics which may encourage further rejection. The parent that the child aligns with (the aligned parent) may engage in alienating behaviors, including undermining the other parent. These behaviors may be conscious and deliberate or, alternatively, may reflect a lack of awareness on the effect of the actions on the children. Direct alienating behaviors occur when one parent actively undermines the other parent, such as making derogatory remarks about the other parent, telling the child that the other parent is responsible for the separation, or telling the child that the other parent is the cause of financial difficulties. Indirect alienation behaviors occur when one parent fails to support access or contact with the other parent or tacitly accepts the child's negative behaviour and comments towards the other parent.[5][8]

Most of the peer-reviewed publications on the subject have been in the form of descriptions and definitions. Some empirical research has been done, though the quality of the studies vary widely and research in the area is still underdeveloped.[13] One significant longitudinal study of 1000 cases has been completed by Dr. Clawar and Ms. Rivkin.[14] Sample selection bias is an obvious problem in many of the studies. For example, when alienated children have been interviewed, it is likely that the children selected for study have been among the most severely alienated and suffering children. The beliefs of judges, lawyers, and mental health professionals have been cited extensively in peer reviewed literature.[8]Nonsensical

Professional acceptance[edit]

A survey of mental health and legal professionals indicated that there is moderate support for the existence of parental alienation. However, there remains general reluctance to accept the concept of parental alienation syndrome (PAS).[8] William Bernet argued for the inclusion of parental alienation disorder, a diagnosis related to parental alienation, in the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which was released in 2013. His conception makes reference to PAS and a variety of other descriptions of behaviors he believes represent the underlying concept of parental alienation disorder.[7] Despite lobbying by proponents,[15] in December 2012, the proposal was rejected.[16] Similarly, the American Psychological Association has rejected Parental Alienation Syndrome as unscientific and sexist. The APA whitepaper notes: "Although there are no data to support the phenomenon called parental alienation syndrome, in which mothers are blamed for interfering with their children’s attachment to their fathers, the term is still used by some evaluators and courts to discount children’s fears in hostile and psychologically abusive situations." [ American Psychological Association, Violence and the Family, American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C., 1996, p. 40] Some have suggested that the general idea of PAS is covered in the DSM-5 under a closely related diagnosis: "Parent-Child Relational Problem." For example, the child’s perception of an alienated parent "may include negative attributions of the other’s intentions, hostility toward or scapegoating of the other (parent), and unwarranted feelings of estrangement." [17][18]

In a survey at the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts in 2010, 98% of the 300 respondents agreed with the question, "Do you think that some children are manipulated by one parent to irrationally and unjustifiably reject the other parent?".[19] However, Parental Alienation Syndrome refers not to this manipulation, but to a serious illness in the child in which he or she despises and rejects one of the parents. Since both the American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological Association have explicitly rejected Parental Alienation Syndrome, it does not meet the Frye test for admissibility in court in most states. Attorneys and expert witnesses may still argue that a parent undermines the child's relationship with the other parent through inappropriate actions or statements.


Realistic estrangement is a different phenomenon from "pathological alienation". The former is an understandable refusal by a child to see an abusive parent, while the latter is emotionally harmful and unjustified.[5]

Developments since 2010[edit]

Superior courts worldwide are now recognizing parental alienation as serious child abuse with long-term effects and serious outcomes for the “PAS Child”. Some jurisdictions have enacted parental alienation as a criminal offence, the latest being Brazil and Mexico.[20] Other jurisdictions may suspend child support in cases where parental alienation occurs. For example, in New York, in Matter of Robert Coull v. Pamela Rottman, No. 2014-01516, 2015 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6611 (September 2, 2015), where the father was prevented from seeing his son by the child's mother through a "pattern of alienation", child support was suspended.[21]

As a result of mistrust of psychological expert witnesses,[22] many courts now require professional accreditation and registration of any person invoking the term parental alienation.

Other approaches[edit]

Some [23] [24] [25] have discussed a different approach that defines a set of psychological symptoms in a child and proposes a psychological explanation for how those symptoms were caused by harmful parenting practices and why a parent would employ those parenting practices.[23][24][25] In this approach, the phenomenon is seen simply as a combination of psychological problems, each of which psychologists understand and recognize. [26] Stated formally, according to this theoretical formulation, "the pathology traditionally called ‘parental alienation’ is not some form of new ‘syndrome’ ... it is a manifestation of well-established and well-understood forms of existing pathologies.”[26]


The child lacks attachment to a parent.[23]

In relationship to that parent, the child displays "grandiosity, entitlement, absence of empathy, haughty, arrogant behavior and delusional belief systems"[23][25] [27] about a parent being inadequate or abusive.

The child engages in splitting, believing that one parent is entirely good and the other parent is entirely bad.[24]

Except for the symptoms of attachment and delusional belief, each of these is a criterion in DSM 5 for either Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder.[28][29]

False Narrative[edit]

A parent who experienced feelings of inadequacy or abandonment in their childhood can have those feelings re-triggered by a divorce or breakup. In response, that parent can reenact [24] [30] [31] [32] [33] [34] [35] [36] a false narrative related to their own childhood, where the child's other parent symbolizes an inadequate or abusive parent, the child symbolizes a victim of the other parent, and the parent using harmful parenting practices symbolizes a good parent ostensibly trying to protect their child. The role of the bystander such as friends, therapists, and judges is to confirm the delusion for the parent, which was already partially confirmed for them by the child acting like a victim[24][26][27][30] However, in reality, the other parent is neither inadequate nor abusive; rather, the parent using the harmful parenting practices is abusive.[24][26] In effect, the parent who fears inadequacy or abandonment is able to project their fears onto the other parent [24] because "all can plainly see" that it is the other parent who is rejected and abandoned by the child and who is "inadequate".[25]


The parent using harmful parenting practices suffers from borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder,[23][24][25][26] related to an experience of feeling inadequate or abandoned while growing up. This feeling can be re-triggered by a divorce or breakup, causing them to decompensate into persecutory delusions.[37][38] These parents may believe that they do not need to follow social norms of fairness.[23][25]


The techniques of harmful parenting may be subtle and the decision to engage in them may be made subconsciously.[23][24] A parent can triangulate the child into the marital conflict[39] by encouraging the child to make even minor complaints about the other parent and then "enthusiastically validating" them. This signals to the child that the other parent is dangerous[25] [40] and insensitive [25][40] and manipulates the child into the role of victim without the child's awareness,[40] allowing the parent to move into the protector role, forcing the other parent into the "inadequate" parent role, and leaving no trace of what happened for bystanders who only see the child acting as a "victim".[25][26] Over time, the combined effects of growing closer to the alienating parent through this complaining process[25] and growing further from the rejected parent as the result of focusing on negative things about the other parent cause the child to reject their other parent as being inadequate. A parent may also mix in lies,[25] partial lies,[40] and exaggerations,[25] particularly ones that the child may not be able to verify. [41] As the result of being encouraged to act as judge of their rejected parent,[25] the child then feels superior to their rejected parent, leading to the symptoms of grandiosity, entitlement, and haughty arrogance. This feeds the delusion of the parent, that they are protecting the child from an inadequate parent.[26] The child then begins to adopt this delusion also.[24][25][27] Because the child and parent are from different generations, this qualifies as a perverse triangle, [42] [43] further complicated by enmeshment, [44] [45] and made even worse worse because a member of the perverse triangle has a personality disorder.[23][24][25][26]

Loss of Attachment Seen as Rare for Children[edit]

The loss of attachment to the rejected parent is seen as rare[24] [46] [47] though it could happen as the result of sexual abuse, physical abuse, or parental substance abuse.[24] However in the latter cases, the other symptoms would not be present, for example, delusional beliefs about the rejected parent being abusive or inadequate.

Prerequisites for Treatment[edit]

The success of restoring the child's attachment to their parent hinges on first protecting the child from harmful parenting.[24][26] The child does not experience this protection as traumatic.[26] [48]


This type of harmful parenting is different from Parental Alienation Syndrome, which is a proposed syndrome defined by a cluster of 8 indicators that are different than the symptoms listed above.[49]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "PAAO - Raising Awareness of Parental Alienation and Hostile Aggressive Parenting". Parental Alienation Awareness Organization. Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  2. ^ Warshak, R. A. (2010). Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing. New York: Harper Collins.
  3. ^ Warshak, R. A. (2002). Misdiagnosis of Parental Alienation Syndrome. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 20, 31-52.
  4. ^ Warshak, R. A. (2001). Current Controversies Regarding Parental Alienation Syndrome. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 19, 29-59.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Bala, N; Fidler B; Goldberg D; Houston C (2007). "Alienated Children and Parental Separation: Legal Responses from Canada's Family Courts". Queens Law Journal 33: 79–138. 
  6. ^ Warshak, R. A. (2003). Bringing Sense to Parental Alienation: A Look at the Disputes and the Evidence. Family Law Quarterly, 37, 273-301.
  7. ^ a b Bernet, W (2008). "Parental Alienation Disorder and DSM-V". The American Journal of Family Therapy 36 (5): 349–366. doi:10.1080/01926180802405513. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f Bow, JN; Gould JW; Flens JR (2009). "Examining Parental Alienation in Child Custody Cases: A Survey of Mental Health and Legal Professionals". The American Journal of Family Therapy 37 (2): 127–145. doi:10.1080/01926180801960658. 
  9. ^ Jaffe, PG; Lemon NKD; Poisson SE (2002). Child Custody & Domestic Violence. SAGE Publications. pp. 52–54. ISBN 978-0-7619-1826-4. 
  10. ^ Ackerman MJ (2001). Clinician's guide to child custody evaluations. New York: Wiley. pp. 73–82. ISBN 0-471-39260-X. 
  11. ^ Waldron, KH; Joanis DE (1996). "Understanding and Collaboratively Treating Parental Alienation Syndrome". American Journal of Family Law 10: 121–133. 
  12. ^ Sparta, SN; Koocher GP (2006). Forensic Mental Health Assessment of Children and Adolescents. Oxford University Press. pp. 83, 219–221. ISBN 978-0-19-514584-7. 
  13. ^ Hands, A. J. & Warshak, R. A. (2011). Parental Alienation Among College Students. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 39, 431-443.
  14. ^ Clawar, SS; Rivkin BV (2013). Children Held Hostage: Identifying Brainwashed Children, Presenting a Case, and Crafting Solutions. American Bar Association. pp. 560 [1], 219–221. ISBN 978-1-62722-155-9. 
  15. ^ Rotstein, Gary (February 15, 2010). "Mental health professionals getting update on definitions". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 2010-03-02. 
  16. ^ "American Psychiatric Association Board of Trustees Approves DSM-5-Diagnostic manual passes major milestone before May 2013 publication". American Psychiatric Association. 1 December 2012. 
  17. ^ Kay, B. (2013). Barbara Kay: Teaching children to hate the ex. National Post, May 23, 2013.
  18. ^ Franklin, R. (2013). Limited Definition of parental alienation syndrome included in the DSM-V. National Parent's Organization, May 26, 2013.
  19. ^ Lorandos, D., W. Bernet and S.R. Sauber (2013). Overview of Parental Alienation. In Lorandos, D., W. Bernet and S.R. Sauber (2013) Parental alienation. The Handbook for Mental Health and Legal Professionals. Charles C Thomas, Springfield.
  20. ^ Pagers, Parental Alienation Awareness Association.
  21. ^ Denney, Andrew (9 September 2015). "Father Not Obligated to Pay Child Support, Panel Finds". New York Law Journal. 
  22. ^ See Margaret A. Hagen, Whores of the Court.
  23. ^ a b c d e f g h Schaeffer, Amy. "Parental Alienation Syndrome: Researchers Say the Struggle is Real". Inquisitr. Retrieved 29 August 2015. 
  24. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Bertholdo, Stephanie. "PARENT ALIENATION What happens when ex-spouses wage war with children on the front line". Thousand Oaks Acorn. Retrieved 29 August 2015. 
  25. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Lovejoy, Hans. "Tales of parental alienation and a collapsing legal system". Echo NETDAILY. Retrieved 29 August 2015. 
  26. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Greenfield, Beth. "The Controversial Therapy That’s Shaping Custody Battles". Yahoo Parenting. Retrieved 13 September 2015. 
  27. ^ a b c Weller, Chris. "Parental Alienation Syndrome Isn’t in the DSM Yet, but It’s in Plenty of Arguments". Newsweek. Retrieved 3 October 2015. 
  28. ^ "Narcissistic Personality Disorder". Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved 29 August 2015. 
  29. ^ "Borderline Personality Disorder". National Institute for Mental Health. Retrieved 29 August 2015. 
  30. ^ a b Pearlman, Laurie (2005). "Clinical Applications of the Attachment Framework: Relational Treatment of Complex Trauma" (PDF). Journal of Traumatic Stress 18: 449–459. 
  31. ^ Levy, Michael (1998). "A Helpful Way to Conceptualize and Understand Reenactments". The Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research 7 (3): 227–235. 
  32. ^ Benjamin Sadock PhD. Kaplan & Sadock's Concise Textbook of Clinical Psychiatry. LWWW. pp. 216. ISBN 978-0781787468. 
  33. ^ van der Kolk, B.A. (1987). "The psychological consequences of overwhelming life experiences". Psychological Trauma 7 (3): 5. 
  34. ^ van der Kolk, B.A. (2005). "Developmental Trauma Disorder: Towards a rational diagnosis for children with complex trauma histories." (PDF). Psychiatric Annals 35 (5): 401–408. 
  35. ^ Weber, Jill. "It's Time for a Relationship Audit: When you know yourelf you will know what to do differently next time.". Psychology Today. Retrieved 22 September 2015. 
  36. ^ Reyes, Gilbert; Elhai Jon (2000). The Encyclopedia of Psychological Trauma. Wiley. pp. 0. ISBN 978-0470110065. 
  37. ^ Theodore Million (2011). Disorders of Personality:Introducing a DSM / ICD Spectrum from Normal to Abnormal 3rd Edition. Wiley. pp. 407–408. ISBN 978-0470040935. 
  38. ^ James Masterson, M.D. (1981). The Narcissistic and Borderline Disorders: An Integrated Developmental Approach. Routledge. pp. 38. ISBN 978-0876302927. 
  39. ^ Gartland, Fiona. "Jail time for parental alienation not in best interests of children". Irish Times. Retrieved 29 September 2015. 
  40. ^ a b c d Baker, Amy. "Surviving Parental Alienation, Part 2: The parental alienation tipping point". Psychology Today. Retrieved 3 October 2015. 
  41. ^ Baker, Amy (2014). Coparenting with a Toxic Ex. New Harbinger Publications. pp. 85–86. ISBN 978-1608829583. 
  42. ^ Linda Gottlieb. THE PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME: A Family Therapy and Collaborative Systems Approach to Amelioration. Charles C Thomas. pp. 4,87,180,214,222,249,254,258,259. ISBN 978-0398087364. 
  43. ^ Amy J. L. Baker PhD. WORKING WITH ALIENATED FAMILIES A Clinical Guidebook. Routeledge. pp. 200, 230,238. ISBN 978-0415518031. 
  44. ^ Mark Goldstein. Handbook of Child Custody. Springer. pp. 186, 194, 267. ISBN 978-3319139418. 
  45. ^ Kruk, Edward. "Parent-Child Reunification After Alienation: Strategies to Reunite Alienated Parents and Their Children". Psychology Today. Retrieved 3 October 2015. 
  46. ^ Amy J. L. Baker PhD. BONDED To the Abuser : How Victims Make Sense of CHILDHOOD Abuse. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. pp. 143. ISBN 978-1-4422-3690-5. 
  47. ^ Hill, Tamara. "Bonded to the Abuser: How Victims Make Sense of Childhood Abuse". Psych Central. Retrieved 30 September 2015. 
  48. ^ Kruk, Edward. "Recent Advances in Understanding Parental Alienation: Implications of Parental Alienation Research for Family-Based Intervention". Psychology Today. Retrieved 13 September 2015. 
  49. ^ Baker, Amy. "Parental Alienation Syndrome - The parent/child disconnect". Social Work Today. Retrieved 29 August 2015. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Co-parenting with a Toxic Ex: What to Do When Your Ex-Spouse Tries to Turn the Kids Against You (2014) by Amy J. L. Baker and Paul R Fine
  • Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing, by Richard Warshak (2010, updated edition)
  • Parental Alienation, DSM-5, and ICD-11, by William Bernet (Author, Editor) (2010)
  • Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties That Bind by Amy J. L. Baker
  • Brainwashing Children by John Thomas Steinbeck (2011)

External links[edit]