Parental alienation

Parental alienation describes a process through which a child becomes estranged from a parent as the result of the psychological manipulation of another parent.[1][2] The child's estrangement may manifest itself as fear, disrespect or hostility toward the parent, and may extend to additional relatives or parties.[3] The child's estrangement is disproportionate to any acts or conduct attributable to the alienated parent.[4] 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,[5] although the participation of professionals such as lawyers, judges and psychologists may also contribute to conflict.[6]

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.[7] Some assert that parental alienation should be diagnosable in children as a mental disorder.[8] Some propose that parental alienation be recognized as a form of child abuse or family violence.[2][9] They assert that parental alienation creates stress on the alienated parent and child,[10][11] and significantly increases the child's lifetime risk of mental illness.[12][13][14]

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.[8] Critics within the psychological community note that alienating behaviors are common in high-conflict family situations such as child custody proceedings,[15] but that the estrangement of a child from a parent remains rare.[16] They assert that the research performed to date does not support the theory that parental alienation results in the harm described by proponents.[17] 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.[18] No diagnostic criteria have been established for parental alienation, and proposals made to date have not been established as reliable.[17][19] No program of treatment has been demonstrated to be safe or valid,[20] and proponents of parental alienation theory agree that more research into treatment is necessary.[21]

The theory of parental alienation has been asserted within legal proceedings as a basis for awarding custody to a parent who alleges estrangement, or to modify custody in favor of that parent.[22] Courts have generally rejected parental alienation as a valid scientific theory, but some courts have allowed the concept to be argued as relevant to the determination of the child's best interest when making a custody determination.[23] Legal professionals recognize that alienating behaviors are common in child custody cases, but are cautious about accepting the concept of parental alienation.[15]


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.[17]

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 a nonpreferred parent without implying that a child's avoidance of one parent is due to parental alienation.[17]

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.[24] Under that conception, alienation from a parent falls into one of two broad categories:[25]

  • 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.[3]:37 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 legitimate basis".[26]


Alienating behaviors are often demonstrated by both parents are in high-conflict divorce and child custody cases, but do not ordinarily result in alienation [16] and may backfire against the parent who engages in alienating behavior.[27] Theories of parental alienation attempt to explain the breakdown of the relationship between the child and the rejected parent, to explain why under similar circumstances alienation may occur in one family but not another, and to explain the severity of a child’s alienation from a parent.[19]:122

In situations where a child avoids one parent and strongly prefers the other, the only behaviors that can be observed are avoidance and preference. Alienation by one parent thus cannot be directly measured, and is instead inferred from the child's behavior. Some researchers thus use "preferred" rather than "alienating" parent and "non-preferred" rather than "alienated", "rejected", or "targeted" parent.[17]


One theory of parental alienation focuses upon the alienating parent, and asserts that the alienation is driven by that parent’s own childhood feelings of inadequacy or abandonment. It is theorized that divorce triggers reenactment of those feelings, and causes alienating parents to reenact psychological processes experienced during their own childhood.[28][29]

Under this theory, alienating parents may reenact a childhood feelings in the form of a false narrative in which the child's other parent symbolizes their own inadequate or abusive parent, the child symbolizes a victim of the other parent, while they assume the role of the good parent who is trying to protect their child.[30] The alienating parent’s false narrative is reinforced by the child’s taking the role of victim, and by a confirming response of bystander such as friends.[25][31] In effect, parents who fear inadequacy or abandonment based upon their own childhood experiences project those fears onto the rejected parent whose inadequacy they believe to be obvious.[32]

Personality disorders

Another theory of parental alienation is that it is a form of harmful parenting by a parent who suffers from a personality disorder, specifically borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder.[30] A divorce, breakup of a relationship or similarly difficult experience triggers feelings of inadequacy or abandonment that cause that parent to decompensate into persecutorial delusions, and to project their fears onto the other parent.[33][34][30]

Parents with narcissistic or borderline personality disorder may not believe that they are obligated to follow social norms of fairness.[35] They may also excessively bind to their own children, demanding absolute, unlimited control and authority over the child while threatening rejection if that control is denied. They may project their fears onto the other parent.[36]

The argument that a parent's early disorganized attachment leads to narcissistic or borderline personality characteristics that in turn cause alienating behaviors, and similar views of sources of children's refusal of contact with parents, remains controversial.[17]


In cases of parental alienation, children typically view their parents either in extremely positive or extremely negative terms.[25] One theory of parental alienation asserts that in the absence of significant abuse by the rejected parent, children are not likely to view their parents in such extreme terms. In the absence of abuse, it is theorized that alienation may result from the child’s having been led to misinterpret feelings of grief from the loss of a parent as evidence that the rejected parent is abusive, as the grief is primarily experienced in the presence of the rejected parent.

Under this theory, alienation is theorized to result from the psychological process of triangulation. Within the context of a child custody dispute, one parent triangulates the child into the marital conflict by encouraging the child to make complaints about the other parent and then enthusiastically validating those complaints. Because the child and parent are from different generations, this form of triangulation is described as a perverse triangle.[37]

Triangulation by a parent may signal to the child that the other parent is dangerous and insensitive. As a result of the triangulating parent’s encouragement of child’s complaints about the other parent, the child is manipulated into the role of victim. The triangulating parent then assumes the role of protector, forcing the other parent into the role of the inadequate parent. This process may occur without the child’s awareness, and leave no obvious evidence that would cause a third party to question the child’s role as victim.[25] As a result of the focus on negative beliefs about the rejected parent, in combination with the encouragement of complaints, over time the child grows more emotionally distant from the rejected parent and grows closer to the alienating parent. The child may also come to feel superior to the rejected parent, reinforcing the alienating parent’s false belief that they are protecting the child from the rejected parent.[32]

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.[9] Controversy persists as to whether parental alienation should be treated as a form of child abuse or family violence.[2]


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.[12] 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.[11]

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.[38] Although alienating behaviors by parents are common in high-conflict divorces,[15] most children do not become alienated from a parent as a result of that behavior.[16]


No instrument or measure has been demonstrated to be valid or reliable in the assessment of parental alienation, or to diagnose parental alienation from any list of child behaviors. The claim that any individual behavior or cluster of behaviors demonstrates that the preferred parent has caused the child's avoidance is not based on empirical work and as an inference is the result of a problem of critical thinking called affirming the consequent.[17] No diagnostic criteria have been proposed that can be applied to determine if a child's feelings toward a parent are irrational or disproportionate to the actions or behavior of the alienated parent.[26] The absence of a valid and reliable assessment measure also means that it is difficult to evaluate whether parental alienation treatments are effective.[17]:36

Behaviors of the child

Although there are no accepted 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:[39]:79,183

  1. The child engages in a campaign of denigration against the alienated parent;
  2. The child offers frivolous rationalizations for criticisms that the child directs at the alienated parent;
  3. The child 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;[25]:777
  4. 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;
  5. The child expresses reflexive support for the preferred parent;
  6. The child does not display guilt over the treatment of the alienated parent;
  7. The child uses borrowed scenarios, making negative comments about the rejected parent that are identical to those made by the favored parent; and
  8. The child displays animosity toward the alienated parent's extended family.

The eight criteria have not been studied empirically, and have not been demonstrated to occur more often in children who avoid one parent after high-conflict divorce than they do in children matched for age who are experiencing different stressors and do not have a strong preference for one parent.[17]:32

These symptoms may occur in a high-conflict divorce even without indoctrination by the favored parent,[39]:79 rendering them problematic for identification of improper parenting. The use of the eight symptoms as diagnostic criteria has been challenged based upon the observation that if the symptoms can occur without an alienating parent, they cannot of themselves be used to determine if a child is demonstrating symptoms from parental alienation.[40]

The symptoms have also been criticized as vague and subjective. For example, if a child claims to have independently formulated opinions of a rejected parent, the child's claim can be used as evidence of the independent-thinker phenomenon such that there is nothing that the child could say that could not be interpreted by a therapist as proof of parental alienation.[40]:246


There is no generally recognized treatment protocol for parental alienation.[41] A number of treatment models have been created for children considered to show parental alienation, with treatment typically carried out after custody of the children has been transferred to the nonpreferred parent. Five treatment programs were evaluated in terms of the levels of evidence provided by the empirical research said to support them.[17] None were supported by research that met standards required for evidence-based treatments. Instead, they were at the third level of evidence, often called “promising”, as they involved before-and-after assessment of nonpreferred parents’ opinions rather than randomized controlled trials or clinical controlled trials using standardized assessments. Reports of some young adults who have been through one of these treatments suggest that as well as lacking an adequate evidence basis, the treatments may be either directly or indirectly harmful to children and adolescents.[20]

One form of reconciliation therapy, described by its proponents as family reunification therapy, involves court-ordered removal of children from their preferred parent[41] and the requirement that they engage in intensive programs with the rejected parent.[42] Due to its unproven nature, this form of therapy has been criticized as "quack therapy".[43] In order to avoid regulations and oversight that apply to psychological and medical treatment, these programs are often billed as educational or psycho-educational.[42] These programs tend also to be very expensive.[42][44] The safety and effectiveness of family reconciliation therapy remain in dispute.[17]

Some children who have been compelled to participate in family reunification therapy have reported that they were forced to deny their truthful complaints about the parent that was alleged to be alienated.[45][42] The scientific validity of this therapy,[46] and whether it may properly be considered by a court, is in dispute.[47]

Parental alienation concepts have been used to argue for child custody changes when children resist contact with a nonpreferred parent. The argument generally involves the request for a court order giving full custody to the nonpreferred parent and denying contact to the preferred parent. The child may also be ordered into a treatment program to facilitate reunification with the nonpreferred parent. The rationale of this argument is that the attitude and actions of children who reject a parent without clear evidence of abuse reflects mental illness. If that belief is correct then the child's mental disorder may be attributed to the actions of the preferred parent and, as the actions have harmed the child, those actions can be defined as abusive. Once an allegation of parental alienation is interpreted as abuse by a parent, that interpretation provides a strong argument against custody of or even contact with that parent. This line of argument, however, ignores other possible factors, such as the effect on a child of poor parenting skills of the nonpreferred parent or the influence of one or both parents’ new romantic partners, and depends on inferences about the behavior of the preferred parent rather than direct evidence of inappropriate parenting.[17]

A number of articles in professional journals have presented critiques of the manner in which parental alienation advocates have construed children's avoidance of one divorced or separated parent and strong preference for the other parent. Key among their concerns is that advocates of parental alienation concepts have presented a highly simplified explanation of visitation and contact resistance or refusal by children of couples in high-conflict divorces. As multiple factors are generally involved in human behavior, they assert that without direct evidence it is not appropriate to infer manipulation or exploitation by one parent as the cause of a child's preference for one parent over the other. Another concern is that there is a lack of evidentiary support for the concept of parental alienation, as proponents of this theory have failed to meet standards for evidence-based treatment and have never produced empirical support for claimed symptoms of alienation such as "black and white thinking".[17]

A particularly problematic aspect of the use of parental alienation concepts in child custody decisions is the possible association of allegations of alienating behavior by the preferred parent with allegations of domestic violence by the nonpreferred parent.[20] As allegations of parental alienation can lead to court-ordered custody changes giving the nonpreferred parent full custody, and often including restraining orders against contact with the preferred parent, it becomes possible for a finding of parental alienation to cause children may be placed in the custody of a physically or sexually abusive parent.[18]


Brazil has passed a law prohibiting parental alienation, which it defines "as the interference with the psychological formation of a child or adolescent that promotes repudiation of a parent or damage to the establishment or maintenance of ties with a parent, when such an act is practiced by a parent, grandparent, those who have the child or adolescent under their authority, custody, or supervision." A judge who finds that parental alienation has occurred may issue a warning, may modify the custody arrangement in favor of the alienated parent, may order counseling, or may place the alienated child in an interim residence.[48]


In England, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) was formed to promote the welfare of children and families involved family court cases.[49] Cafcass recognizes the possibility of parental alienation in family separation cases.[50] Cafcass has developed a Child Impact Assessment Framework (CIAF) that is focused on understanding the child's personal experience of parental separation as a tool to help courts make more informed decisions about the best interests of the children. Alienation is specifically identified and assessed within that framework.[51]


In Israel, parental alienation is known as "nikor horim", and the courts have begun to recognize it. In family cases, the welfare of the child is always paramount and previously where the child was settled with one parent, even where there had been parental alienation, the court was reluctant to act. However the courts have recognized parental alienation as being harmful to the child.[52] In an article in the Jerusalem Post Hadassah Fidler[53] explained "Recently, there have been changes to the procedures in the courts in Tel Aviv where, when a case of parental alienation is recognized, it is expedited to avoid the deepening the rift between the child and the alienated parent".


In the Federal District of Mexico, an area that is officially equivalent to Mexico City, 323 Septimus of the Civil Code prohibits a family member from transforming the conscience of a minor so as to prevent, hinder or interfere with the minor's relationship with one of the minor's parents. If a court finds that such acts have occurred and are of mild or moderate nature, and that the person responsible for the alienation is the father, the court must transfer custody to the other parent. If the court finds that the degree of parental alienation attributable to the father is severe, all contact with the father of the child must be suspended, and that the child must receive counseling.[54]

United States

No federal or state laws regulating parental alienation currently exist in the United States. Some courts recognize parental alienation as a serious issue with potential long-term effects and serious outcomes for the child.[22][55] Other jurisdictions may suspend child support in cases where parental alienation occurs. For example, in a New York case in which the father was prevented from seeing his son by the child's mother through a "pattern of alienation", child support was suspended.[56][57] Some United States courts have tried to address the issue through mandated reunification therapy.[58][42]

Due to the nature of allegations of parental alienation, many courts require that a qualified expert witness testify in support of allegations of parental alienation or in association with any allegation that a parent has a mental health disorder.[59]


The term parental alienation is derived from parental alienation syndrome, a term introduced by Richard Gardner in 1985 to describe a suite of behaviors that he had observed in children exposed to family separation or divorce whereby children rejected or showed what he interpreted as unwarranted feelings towards one of their parents.[32][60]

The idea that children may be turned against one of their parents, or may reject a parent unjustifiably during family breakdown, has been recognised for centuries.[35] The position that many family estrangements result from such a process of psychological manipulation, undue influence or interference by a third party (rather than from genuine interactions between the estranged parties themselves) is less well-recognized.[61]

Parental alienation syndrome

Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) was proposed by child psychiatrist Richard Gardner as a means of diagnosing parental alienation within a family by virtue of identifying a cluster of symptoms that he hypothesized would only co-exist if a parent were engaged in alienating behavior.[62] This theory involved looking for a set of psychological symptoms in a child and proposing PAS as a basis for concluding that those symptoms were caused by harmful parenting practices.[35][32] One psychologist disputes the characterization of PAS as a new syndrome, proposing instead that the phenomenon is best viewed as a combination of psychological problems, with the issue being how to develop effective treatment.[63]

Mental health professionals are reluctant to recognize so-called parental alienation syndrome.[15]{ In 2008, the American Psychological Association[64] noted that there is a lack of data to support the concept of parental alienation syndrome, but took no official position on the syndrome.[8] A 2009 survey of mental health and legal professionals found broad skepticism of the concept of parental alienation syndrome, and caution in relation to the concept of parental alienation.[15]

In 2012, in anticipation of the release of the DSM-5, the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, an argument was made for the inclusion of PAS in the DSM-5 as a diagnosis related to parental alienation.[65] The argument was based upon the position that parental alienation and a variety of other descriptions of behaviors represent the underlying concept of parental alienation disorder.[39] Despite lobbying by proponents, the proposal was rejected in December 2012.[66]

With the exclusion of PAS from the DSM-V, some advocates for the recognition of parental alienation as a diagnosable condition have since argued that elements of parental alienation are covered in the DSM-5 under the concept of "Other Conditions That May Be a Focus of Clinical Attention", specifically, "child affected by parental relationship distress". Those proponents assert that children who are exposed to intimate partner distress between their parents may develop psychological symptoms as a result of that exposure.[67]

Recognition of parental alienation

As the psychological and psychiatric communities did not accept the concept of a "syndrome", the term "parental alienation" was advanced in the 1990s as a possible explanation of a child's behavior independent of a psychological or psychiatric diagnosos.[39][8] Among theories of parental alienation that have been proposed, psychologists have argued that the term parental alienation may be used in a manner synonymous with the original formulation of parental alienation syndrome, with diagnosis based upon signs observable in children,[68] that it may be used to describe the process or tactics by which a child becomes alienated from a parent,[12] or to describe the outcomes for parents and others who have experienced unwarranted rejection by a child.[10]

Some empirical research has been performed, though the quality of the studies vary widely and research in the area is still developing.[69] One complicating factor for research is that high numbers of parents involved in high conflict custody disputes engage in alienating or indoctrinating behaviors, but only a small proportion children become alienated.[16]

In an informal 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?". Survey participants were divided as to whether a rejected parent partially blame when a child becomes alienated from a parent and the other parent is exhibiting alienating behaviors, and by a significant margin rejected the inclusion of parental alienation in the DSM.[70] However, parental alienation refers not to the acts of manipulation, but rather to the child's rejection of a parent that results from alienating behavior.

United States courts have broadly rejected parental alienation syndrome as a concept that may be presented in a child custody case, but it remains possible to argue within child custody litigation that parental alienation has occurred and to demonstrate how a parent's alienating behaviors should be considered by a court when evaluating a custody case.[71] Behaviors that result in parental alienation may reflect other mental health disorders, both on the part of the alienating parent and the rejected parent that, if proved, remain relevant to a custody determination.[16] The behavior of the alienated child may also be a relevant factor.[72]


In late 2005, a Canadian activist named Sarvy Emo proposed that March 28 be designated Parental Alienation Awareness Day. The proposed date was later modified to April 25.[73] The date has received some level of recognition, such as a 2006 proclamation by the Governor of Georgia recognizing April 25 as Parental Alienation Awareness Day,[74] and its unofficial recognition by the Governor of Nevada in 2007.[75]

An organization called ISNAF, the International Support Network of Alienated Families, was created to provide support to parents and families who believe that they are affected by parental alienation.[76] Bubbles of Love organizes events intended to draw attention to children's need to be loved by both of their parents.[77]

The National Coalition Against Parental Alienation[78] is a nonprofit organization that was organized to increase awareness of parental alienation. A membership organization called the Parental Alienation Study Group is open to legal and mental health professionals who are interested in the subject of parental alienation.[79]

There are also organizations that actively oppose the use of the concept of parental alienation and the making of custody decisions based on this belief system. For example, the Center for Judicial Excellence argues against the use of the parental alienation argument in custody cases.[80] The American Professional Society on Abuse of Children (APSAC) has at the time of this writing posted on its website a recommendation against using the parental alienation concept or claiming that when a child rejects a parent, emotional abuse by the preferred parent has taken place.[81] The Institute on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma (IVAT) devoted a three-hour session at its September, 2019 meeting to arguments opposing the use of parental alienation concepts and related claims.[82]

See also


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