Parental alienation describes a process through which a child becomes estranged from a parent as the result of the psychological manipulation of another parent. The child’s estrangement may manifest itself as fear, disrespect or hostility toward the parent, and may extend to additional relatives or parties.
The child’s estrangement is disproportionate to any acts or conduct attributable to the alienated parent. Parental alienation can occur in any family unit but is believed to occur most often within the context of family separation, particularly when legal proceedings are involved, although the participation of professionals such as lawyers, judges, and psychologists may also contribute to conflict.
Proponents of parental alienation assert that it is primarily motivated by one parent’s desire to exclude the other parent from their child’s life. Some assert that parental alienation should be diagnosable in children as a mental disorder.
Some propose that parental alienation be recognized as a form of child abuse or family violence. They assert that parental alienation creates stress on the alienated parent and child, and significantly increases the child’s lifetime risk of mental illness.
Parental alienation remains controversial both within the psychological community and the legal system.
The psychological community has not accepted parental alienation as a diagnosable mental condition. Critics within the psychological community note that alienating behaviors are common in high-conflict family situations such as child custody proceedings, but that the estrangement of a child from a parent remains rare.
They assert that the research performed to date does not support the theory that parental alienation results in the harm described by proponents. They also express concern that a parent who has caused a child to become alienated, for example through acts of domestic violence or child abuse, may assert parental alienation to convince a court that the child’s justified response to the abuse is the result of the other parent’s misconduct and to potentially gain custody of the child.
No diagnostic criteria have been established for parental alienation, and proposals made to date have not been established as reliable. No program of treatment has been demonstrated to be safe or valid, and proponents of parental alienation theory agree that more research into treatment is necessary.
What Are the Characteristics of Parental Alienation?
Parental alienation describes the breakdown of the relationship between a child and one of the child’s parents when there is no valid justification for that breakdown. When parental alienation is found to exist between a parent and child, the alienation is attributed to inappropriate actions and behavior by the other parent.
Parental alienation falls within the spectrum of family estrangement, a term that broadly describes when family members become alienated from each other without regard to cause. As estrangement may occur between a parent and child for other reasons, it is possible to discuss alienation in terms of a child’s having a preferred and nonpreferred parent without implying that a child’s avoidance of one parent is due to parental alienation.
While parental alienation describes a context in which a parent and child become alienated from each other, the term is normally used only in contexts in which the child’s alienation from the parent is alleged to be unwarranted.
Under that conception, alienation from a parent falls into one of two broad categories:
- Justified parental estrangement, which results from such factors as the rejected parent’s harmful or abusive behavior, substance abuse, neglect or abandonment.
- Parental alienation, in which one parent engages in actions that cause the child to strongly ally with that parent and reject the other without legitimate justification. The rejected parent may contribute in some manner to the estrangement, but the key concept is that the rejection by the child is out of proportion to anything that the rejected parent has done.
Justified parental estrangement is an understandable refusal by a child to see a parent, while parental alienation lacks justifiable reason, although there is no consensus regarding how to differentiate one from the other.
Attribution of a child’s attitudes toward a parent to parental alienation is complicated by the absence of a means of assessing whether a child’s feelings toward a parent are “irrational” or “without a legitimate basis“.
8 Signs of Parental Alienation
Although there are no official diagnostic criteria, it has been proposed that parental alienation can be diagnosed in a child who displays some or all of the following eight behaviors:
- The child engages in a campaign of denigration against the alienated parent;
- He or she offers frivolous rationalizations for criticisms that the child directs at the alienated parent;
- He or she displays a lack of ambivalence or “splitting” in relation to the alienated parent, and gravitates to an enmeshed relationship with one parent while strongly rejecting the other;
- The child demonstrates the independent-thinker phenomenon, asserting that the child’s opinions about the rejected parent are the child’s own opinions and not the result of the influence of the favored parent;
- He or she expresses reflexive support for the preferred parent;
- He or she does not display guilt over the treatment of the alienated parent;
- The child uses borrowed scenarios, making negative comments about the rejected parent that are identical to those made by the favored parent; and
- He or she displays animosity toward the alienated parent’s extended family.
Theories That Explain the Causes of Parental Alienation
One conception of parental alienation focuses on the role of the relationship dynamics between the alienating parent and the child. An alternative conception focuses on the alienated child and the relationship dynamics between that child and the alienated parent.
In situations where a child avoids one parent and strongly prefers the other, the behaviors that can be observed are simply avoidance and preference. Alienation by one parent cannot be directly measured and is instead inferred from the child’s behavior. Thus some researchers use “preferred” rather than “alienating” parents and “non-preferred” rather than “alienated” or “targeted” parents.
One theory of parental alienation asserts that alienation is driven by a specific parent who experienced feelings of inadequacy or abandonment in their own childhood and has those feelings re-triggered by a divorce or breakup. The triggering results in a reenactment, a psychological process that occurs when a person repeats an event or its circumstances over and over again.
Under this theory, the alienating parent may reenact a false narrative related to their own childhood in which the child’s other parent symbolizes an inadequate or abusive parent, the child symbolizes a victim of the other parent, and the parent who employs practices that result in alienation 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. As the other parent is neither inadequate nor abusive, the parenting practices that result in alienation may themselves be deemed abusive.
In effect, the parent who fears inadequacy or abandonment is able to project their fears onto the other parent because “all can plainly see” that it is the other parent who is rejected and abandoned by the child and who is “inadequate”.
Another theory is that a parent who uses harmful parenting practices may suffer from a borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder, 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. These parents may believe that they do not need to follow social norms of fairness, and they may “parentify their own children”, “excessively bind their children to themselves”, “demand absolute, unlimited control over their children while threatening rejection”, project their own fears onto the other parent, abandon their spouse in favor of their children, and revive their own childhood attachment trauma after a difficult experience.
A survey of the literature suggests that alienating behaviors demonstrated by both parents are common in high-conflict divorces. In cases of parental alienation, the child typically views the two parents in extremely positive versus extremely negative terms, while in cases of mild or moderate abuse a child is more likely to remain ambivalent toward an abusive parent.
The child may be led to misinterpret the grief they experience from the loss of a parent as pain that means the rejected parent is abusive since they mainly experience it in the presence of the rejected parent.
This outcome has been theorized to result from triangulation, in which a parent involved in a custody dispute triangulates the child into the marital conflict by encouraging the child to make even minor complaints about the other parent and then “enthusiastically validating” them.
Because the child and parent are from different generations, this qualifies as a perverse triangle. Triangulation by a parent signals to the child that the other parent is dangerous and insensitive.
This encouragement to complain manipulates the child into the role of victim without the child’s awareness, 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”.
Over time, the combined effects of growing closer to the alienating parent through this complaining process 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.
Alienating behaviors may be direct or indirect:
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 behavior and comments towards the other parent.
A parent may also mix in lies, partial lies, and exaggerations, particularly ones that the child may not be able to verify or where only the true part of the partial lie is easy to verify. As the result of being encouraged to act as judge of their rejected parent, 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. The child then begins to adopt this delusion also.
Rejected parents may lose a sense of warmth and empathy with the child. As a result, the rejected parent may become passive, depressed, anxious, and withdrawn – characteristics that 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 may reflect a lack of awareness of the effect of the actions on the children.
Triangulation may be further complicated by enmeshment and maybe worsened if a member of the perverse triangle has a personality disorder, climaxed by the splitting dynamic of the parent with the personality disorder that requires the ex-spouse to also become the ex-parent of the child.
Parental alienation as child abuse
Some mental health professionals argue that severe parental alienation should be established as a form of emotional abuse and domestic violence. Controversy persists as to whether parental alienation should be treated as a form of child abuse or family violence.
What Are the Consequences for a Child?
Studies suggest that independent of other marital issues, acts of parental alienation may be harmful to children. While not all adults who experience acts of parental alienation during childhood report negative consequences, many report outcomes that they attribute to parental alienation, including low self-esteem, addiction, and substance abuse, lack of trust, and relationship problems.
For example, a retrospective study of adults found that independent of damage of a child’s relationship with the other parent, perceived experiences with parental alienation during childhood correlate in adulthood with lower self-sufficiency, lower self-esteem, higher rates of major depressive disorder, and insecure attachment styles.
A survey of self-reported childhood experiences of three hundred and sixty-one adults in Italy found that 42.1% of participants reported acts of parental alienation by their mothers, and 54.3% reported acts of parental alienation by their fathers. Reports of parental alienation were found to correlate with reports of psychological maltreatment.
Assessment of the impact of parental alienation within the context of legal proceedings, such as child custody litigation, is complicated by the participation of other professionals, including psychologists, lawyers and judges, whose actions and decisions may negatively affect family relationships.
Although alienating behaviors by parents are common in high-conflict divorces, most children do not become alienated from a parent as a result of that behavior.