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Parental alienation is the process and the result of psychological manipulation of a child into showing unwarranted fear, disrespect or hostility towards a parent, relative or others.[1][2] It is a distinctive form of psychological abuse and family violence,[3][4] towards both the child and the rejected family members,[5][6][7] that occurs almost exclusively in association with family separation or divorce, particularly where legal action is involved.[8] [9] The most common cause is one parent wishing to exclude the other parent from the life of their child, though family members or friends, as well as professionals involved with the family (including psychologists, lawyers and judges), may contribute to the process.[10][11]

Parental alienation often leads to the long-term, or even lifelong, estrangement of a child from one parent and other family members[12] and, as a significant adverse childhood experience and form of childhood trauma, results in significantly increased lifetime risks of both mental and physical illness.[13][12][14]


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 consistently in children exposed to family separation or divorce whereby children rejected or showed unwarranted feelings towards one of their parents.[15][16]

The phenomenon itself, however, has a much longer history: 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.[1] 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.[17]

Parental alienation syndromeEdit

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.[18] 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.[19][15] 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.[20]

Mental health professionals are reluctant to recognize so-called parental alienation syndrome.[21] In 2008, the American Psychological Association[22] noted that there is a lack of data to support the concept of parental alienation syndrome, but took no official position on the syndrome.[23] 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.[21]

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.[citation needed] 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.[24] Despite lobbying by proponents, the proposal was rejected in December 2012.[25]

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.[26]

Recognition of parental alienationEdit

As the psychological and psychiatric communities did not accept the concept of a "syndrome", the term "parental alienation" was adopted in the 1990s as a possible explanation of a child's behavior independent of a psychological or psychiatric diagnosos.[24][23] 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,[2][unreliable medical source?] that it may be used to describe the process or tactics by which a child becomes alienated from a parent,[4] or to describe the outcomes for parents and others who have experienced unwarranted rejection by a child.[27]

Some empirical research has been performed, though the quality of the studies vary widely and research in the area is still developing.[28] 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.[29]

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.[30] 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.[31]:14 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.[32] The behavior of the alienated child may also be a relevant factor.[33]

Parental alienation versus parental estrangementEdit

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. While parental alienation describes a context in which a parent and child become alienated from each other, in order to avoid confusion that term is normally used only in contexts in which the child's alienation from the parent is found to be unwarranted.[1][unreliable medical source?] Under that conception, alienation from a parent falls into one of two broad categories:[34]

  • Justified parental estrangement, which results from such factors as the rejected parent's harmful or abusive behavior, substance abuse, neglect or abandonment.[1][unreliable medical source?]
  • 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.[35] 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".[36]


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.[37]

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.[37]


One conception of parental alienation focuses on role of the relationship dynamics between the alienating parent and the child.[21] An alternative conception focuses on the alienated child, and the relationship dynamics between that child and the alienated parent.[38][39]

Alienating parentEdit

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" parent and "non-preferred" rather than "alienated" or "targeted" parent.[37]

Reenactment occurs when a person repeats an event or its circumstances over and over again.[40][41][42][43][44] 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. In response, that parent may reenact 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.[45] 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[34][40] However, in reality, the other parent is neither inadequate nor abusive; rather, the parent using the harmful parenting practices is 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".[15]

Another theory is that a parent who uses harmful parenting practices may suffer from borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder,[45] 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.[45][46][47] These parents may believe that they do not need to follow social norms of fairness,[1][unreliable medical source?] 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.[48] The argument that a parent's early disorganized attachment leads to narcissistic or borderline personality characteristics which in turn cause alienating behaviors, and similar views of sources of children's refusal of contact with parents, have been critiqued in articles in professional journals.[37]


A survey of literature suggests that alienating behaviors demonstrated by both parents are common in high-conflict divorces.[21] 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. 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.[medical citation needed][21][38]

The techniques of harmful parenting may be subtle and "genuine".[45] A parent can triangulate 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.[49][50] Triangulation by a parent signals to the child that the other parent is dangerous and insensitive.[medical citation needed] 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".[34] 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.[15]

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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] The child then begins to adopt this delusion also.[15][34][unreliable medical source?]

Triangulation is further complicated by enmeshment,[31][51][medical citation needed] and may be worsened if a member of the perverse triangle has a personality disorder,[15] 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.[medical citation needed] 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.[34] Finally, 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.[citation needed]

Parental alienation as child abuseEdit

Some mental health professionals argue that severe parental alienation should be established as a form of emotional abuse and domestic violence.[3]:1290 Controversy persists as to whether parental alienation should be treated as a form of child abuse or family violence.[9]


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. These consequences are consistent with those seen with other family systems disruptions, family triangulation and intergenerational alliances.[citation needed] 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.[4] 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.[13]

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.[14] Although alienating behaviors by parents are common in high-conflict divorces,[21] most children do not become alienated from a parent as a result of that behavior.[29]


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.[37]

Among other possible causes, behaviors that may be associated with parental alienation include:

  • The child engages in a pattern of denigration against a parent for unjustified reasons and uses frivolous rationalizations that are disproportionate to the circumstances.[1][unreliable medical source?]
  • The child may display a complete lack of ambivalence wherein the rejected parent is viewed as "all bad" and the favored parent is viewed as "all good." This lack of ambivalence is associated with "splitting",[34] a psychological defensive mechanism through which an object, in this context the child's parent, is perceived as "all good" or "all bad".[52]
  • The child may display reflexive support for the parent they favor during disagreements between the rejected parent and the favored parent.[medical citation needed]
  • The child may use borrowed scenarios that involve making disparaging comments about the rejected parent that are identical to those made by the favored parent.[1][unreliable medical source?]
  • The child may display an independent thinker phenomenon that involves comments by the child that their decision to reject a parent was arrived at without any influence from the favored parent.[53][medical citation needed]
  • The child may display an absence of guilt regarding their denigration of the rejected parent.[54]
  • The child's vilification of the rejected parent may spread to extended family members.[citation needed]


When parental alienation is identified, as part of the effort to restore the child's attachment to the estranged parent, the child must be protected from harmful parenting.[medical citation needed] There is no generally recognized treatment protocol for parental alienation.[55]

One theory of treatment, known as family reconciliation therapy, involves imposing temporary structural change in the family system. The process may involve a period of court-mandated separation from the favored parent.[55] The safety and effectiveness of family reconciliation therapy remain in dispute.[37]

Family courtsEdit

The history of parental alienation reflects an evolution of its acceptance by professionals involved in custody cases.


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.[56] Cafcass recognizes the possibility of parental alienation in family separation cases.[57] 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.[58]


Brazil has passed a law prohibiting parental alienation, which it defines as "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.[59]


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.[60]

United StatesEdit

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.[61][citation needed] 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.[62][63] Some United States courts have tried to address the issue through mandated reunification therapy.[64][65]

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.[66]


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.[67] In an article in the Jerusalem Post Hadassah Fidler[68] 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".


Some adherents of parental alienation concepts assert that children may be identified as having been affected by parental alienation when, in addition to showing a marked preference for one parent, they display a set of other symptoms.[2] If this claim were supported by empirical evidence, a method of assessing whether the child can be considered a victim of alienation could readily be created and tested for validity and reliability. However, claimed symptoms such as “black and white thinking”[10] have never been studied empirically, and have not been shown 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.[37] The absence of a valid and reliable assessment measure also means that it is difficult to evaluate whether parental alienation treatments are effective.

Child custodyEdit

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".[37]

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.[37]

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.[69]. 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.[70]


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.[37] 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.[71]

One form of reconciliation therapy, described by its proponents as family reunification therapy, involves removing children from their preferred parent and then requiring that they engage in intensive programs with the rejected parent.[65] Due to its unproven nature, this form of therapy has been criticized as "quack therapy".[72] In order to avoid regulations and oversight that apply to psychological and medical treatment, these programs are often billed as educational or psycho-educational.[65] These programs tend also to be very expensive.[65][73]

Some children who have been compelled to participate in the family reunification therapy have reported that they were forced to deny their truthful complaints about the parent that was alleged to be alienated.[74][65] The scientific validity of this therapy,[75] and whether it may properly be considered by a court, is in dispute.[76]


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.[77] 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,[78] and its unofficial recognition by the Governor of Nevada in 2007.[79]

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.[80] Bubbles of Love organizes events intended to draw attention to children's need to be loved by both of their parents.[81]

The National Coalition Against Parental Alienation[82] 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.[83]

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.[84] 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.[85] 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.[86]

See alsoEdit


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