Parental Alienation: A Quick Overview

Parental Alienation

Parental alienation is when a child allies himself or herself strongly with one parent (the preferred or favored parent) and rejects a relationship with the other parent (the alienated or rejected parent).  The rejection does not have legitimate justification.  In other words, if a child rejects a parent because the parent has physically abused the child, this is not parental alienation.  Usually parental alienation occurs when parents are engaged in a high-conflict divorce.  However, “high-conflict” does not always indicate that both parents equally contribute.  Dr. Gardner (2002) noted that target parents are innocent victims.  This does not mean that they do not contribute in some manner, but it suggests that the contribution is unequal.  He pointed out that while rejected parents may have certain qualities that irritated, or temporarily alienated the child, the parent does not deserve the ongoing scorn, rejection, and in some cases to never see the parent again.  The animosity goes far above and beyond what might be expected from minor parental weakness.


  • Estrange implies the development of indiference or hostility with consequent separation or divorcement.
  • Alienate may or may not suggest separation, but always implies loss of affection or interest.
  • Rectify to set right.

Recommended Reading

Divorce Poison
Divorce Poison: Protecting the Parent-Child Bond from a Vindictive Ex
by Richard A. Warshak

Applying Warshak’s methods will save you tons of money from therapists who, over and over again diagnose your child with “Adjustment Disorder” but offer no treatment options. Reading this book will save you heartache, as you will know how to defend yourself from your ex-spouses tactics, but more importantly, it can save a relationship between you and your children. It will save you money from attending parenting classes that teaches you to use “I” messages. While, “I” messages are helpful, they will only work if the ex-spouse cares about the mental health of his or her child. Four of the biggest issues in post divorce conflict are: child support, carrying messages, quizzing the other parent, and bad mouthing. Most parenting classes address these issues. However, what the classes do not address is how one should respond when the ex-spouse refuses to stop the badmouthing. What some ex-spouses really care about, is getting even. Unfortunately, their own pain surpasses their child’s relationship with the other parent.

Breaking the Ties that Bind
Breaking The Ties That Bind
by Amy Baker

The Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome, Breaking the Ties that Bind, is a thought provoking series of interviews. After reading the book, one can no longer deny the existence of parental alienation. It also becomes futile to question the claims of PAS as a “credible disorder”. The interviewees shed light on the disturbing outcome of Parental Alienation when it is left untreated. Amy Baker’s research reveals the ramifications of a disorder that leads to devastation, despair, and desertion. Due to venomous words by the alienating parent, the adult children look back on their lives with sorrow. They are distraught by their actions and their words, to a parent that did not deserve such hatred. The regrets for most will last a lifetime.
Sorrowfully, one interviewee recalled, “I tortured her so much when I was there for the three days that she could not handle it” (p.243). This excerpt shows how the actions of children that are enmeshed with an alienating parent are not a depiction of optimal mental health. While many children have adjustment difficulties post divorce, most do not “torture a parent for three days.” Indeed this book exemplifies Breaking the Ties that Bind; the ties are an enmeshment between a child and a parent, the alienating parent. As noted by Baker, “When children feel that their parents are more like friends than parents, it may indicate that the alienating parent is sharing too much personal information with the child, is relying on the child for support and comfort, and may not be setting appropriate limits” (p.244). Most would agree that adult conversations are not meant for innocent ears, and will lead to poor mental health.
This book is not only educational, but it also offers a unique perspective due to the adults’ looking back over a life of regret. In addition, the book shows the long-term results of parental alienation syndrome. After reading the book, debates over terminology are useless. One will realize the magnitude of parental alienation and recognize it for the problem that it is. Many of the interviews cannot see forward for looking behind. They are bewildered and perplexed at how their innocent minds were unjustly poisoned. They suffer from guilt and sleepless nights. While some relationships are troubled, others are permanently severed. This book provides an understanding to this disorder for both the every day reader and professional.

Empirically Based Information (Excerpts)

Although the child’s avoidance-based rejection of a parent has an adaptive component, as it partially removes the child from being in the center of a difficult situation, the child also pays a price. Aligning with a parent often reinforces the ongoing use of black and white thinking—seeing that parent as “all good,” and the other parent as “all bad;” and avoiding the person with whom you have difficulties thwarts attempts to develop a more adaptive, problem-solving strategy such as seeking to discuss and work out those difficulties. (Gans Walter and Friedlander, 2016)

If resistance-refusal dynamics become entrenched, however, the older child or adolescent may begin to exhibit regressed or dysfunctional behavior in front of peers, such as crying, tantrums or rudeness to a parent. The adolescent may then become increasingly socially marginalized, as both peers and other parents react to the inappropriateness of the child’s or adolescent’s behavior. This, in turn, robs the adolescent of the emotional resources and healthy relationships that s/he may need to achieve successful adjustment and independent relationships. (Greenberg, Doi Fick and Schnider, 2016)

Alienated children often sacrifice age-appropriate independent functioning in order to gratify favored parents’ needs to keep the children close at hand and dependent. Mental health professionals describe such parents as infantilizing their children, and refer to the overly close parent-child relationships that emerge from such parenting as enmeshed. (Warshak, 2015)

The alienating parent may employ techniques such as badmouthing (portraying the targeted parent as dangerous or abandoning); limiting or interfering with parenting time, mail or phone contact; interfering with information (refusing to communicate); emotional manipulation (withdrawing love or inducing guilt); and fostering an unhealthy alliance with the alienating parent. (Rosen, 2013)

Of the approximately one third of divorces, that do not evolve into effective co-parenting, a subset deteriorates into parental alienation. In these instances, one of the parents persistently alienates his or her children from the other parent. Alienated children react to their parents in absolute terms of “black and white.” They regard the alienating parent as all things good and virtuous. The parent from whom they are alienated, however, is considered despicable beyond any hope of changing his or her ways. Alienated children are well aware of the animosity with which the alienating parent reacts to the alienated parent. In turn, the children blindly align themselves with the alienating parent. While doing so, they also uncritically adopt the agenda of the alienating parent. (Campbell, 2005)

We are all familiar with the reflexive labeling of two people as a high conflict couple. It begins at home or on the playground at school. One child repeatedly provokes or even physically attacks another and a fight starts. A parent or teacher intervenes, not having witnessed the beginning of the fight, and blames and punishes both participants. We can sympathize with the adult; it might require a great effort and a substantial amount of time to figure out who started the fight. One might never be able to know for sure. But to the child who was provoked and who finally responded, being seen as an equal participant in the conflict and being punished, is a miscarriage of justice. (Friedman, 2004)

In some cases favored parents accept trivial complaints as sufficient explanation for the child’s alienation either because they do not think objectively about their ex-spouse or because they welcome their child’s negative attitudes toward the ex-spouse. In other cases a parent or examiner assumes that trivial complaints mask severe mistreatment that the child is too scared, inhibited, or immature to articulate. In some cases this assumption may be warranted, but it does not account for children who, in the absence of any direct contact, develop an aversion to relatives with whom they previously had a loving relationship. (Warshak, 2003)

Although there may be some kernel of truth to the child’s complains and allegations about the rejected parent, the child’s grossly negative views and feelings are significantly distorted and exaggerated reactions. Thus, this unusual development is a pathological response. It is a severe distortion on the child’s parent of the previous parent-child relationship. These youngsters go far beyond an alignment in the intensity, breadth, and ferocity of their behaviors toward the parent they are rejecting. (Johnston, 2001)

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