I have written extensively on the importance of the movement towards shared parenting. A review of 60-peer reviewed studies found that shared parenting is best for children in separated and divorced families — when time is split approximately equally between homes — including in high-conflict situations.
Very closely related is the recognition by courts and mental health experts of parental alienation, or the psychological manipulation of a child into showing unwarranted fear, disrespect or hostility towards a parent. Parental alienation is increasingly recognized as child abuse, and the result of mental illness in the alienating parent.
This post aims to serve as a clearinghouse of useful information for parents who feel they have been alienated, as well as children who are victims of parental alienation. This article does not address estrangement that is justified as a result of abuse or neglect. Parental alienation specifically focuses on the unjustified dislike or mistrust of one parent (the targeted parent), due to the deliberate actions of the other parent (the alienating parent).
If your children have been alienated from you — or you fear they might be — I recommend starting with the book Divorce Poison, by Richard Warshak, PhD, widely recognized as a leading expert on parental alienation.
From Amazon about Divorce Poison:
Your ex-spouse is bad-mouthing you to your children, perhaps even trying to turn them against you. If you handle the situation ineffectively, your relationship with your children could suffer. You could lose their respect, lose their affection, and even, in extreme cases, lose all contact with them.
This groundbreaking work gives parents powerful strategies to preserve and rebuild loving relationships with their children and provides legal and mental health professionals with practical advice to help their clients and ensure the welfare of children.
Divorce Poison offers advice on how to:
- Recognize early warning signs of trouble
- React if your children refuse to see you
- Respond to rude and hateful behavior
- Avoid the seven common errors made by rejected parents
What is parental alienation?
Parental alienation is a form of child abuse in which the toxic actions of one parent intentionally harm the relationship the child has with the other parent. In these cases, the child rejects the alienated parent based on flimsy reasoning. Parental alienation occurs almost exclusively in cases of separated and divorced families, and one study found that parental alienation was an issue in 13.4 percent of divorced families, with nearly half being severe.
According to Vanderbilt University psychiatrist and parental alienation expert Dr. William Bernet:
“Almost every mental health professional who works with children of divorced parents acknowledges that Parental Alienation—as we define it—affects thousands of families and causes enormous pain and hardship.”
3 types of parental alienation
Psychologists have identified three degrees of parental alienation:
Mild parental alienation
Child may resist visits with the other parent, but then enjoy their time when they are along with their mom and dad, and away from the alienated parent.
Moderate parental alienation
These kids resist time with the alienated parent, and remain resentful during their time together.
Severe parental alienation
Severely alienated children not only resist time with the other parent, but also actively run away or otherwise act fearfully to not be around that parent.
- A campaign of denigration against the targeted parent
- The child’s lack of guilty feelings for rejecting the target parent
- When asked, the child gives irrational and frivolous reasons for the criticisms of the targeted parent
- The child paints the parents in black and white — one parent can do no wrong, while everything the second parent does is horrible.
- A knee-jerk defensiveness of everything about the favored parent
- A child who parrots the favored parent's words, often using phrases of an adult to describe the rejected parent, or citing scenarios that he or she heard the favored parent speak about, but did not himself experience.
- Spread of the child’s animosity toward the target parent’s extended family or friends.
- A child suffering from parental alienation often insists that his feelings are entirely his own. The child might call his father to say: “I don’t want to come to your house anymore. Mom had nothing to do with this decision, I made it all on my own.” The alienating parent is quick to protect the child’s “right” to choose whether he wants to visit his parent.
- Children may show warmth and affection towards the targeted parent when alone with them, but then speak poorly of them to others, including the alienating parent.
What are the signs of parental alienation?
In her book Working With Alienated Children and Families Amy J. L. Baker, author of Co-Parenting with a Toxic Ex, identifies these 17 toxic signs that a parent aims to alienate:
For more tips on co-parenting with an ex, read Co-parenting rules—even with a difficult ex
Alienating parent uses toxic verbal and non-verbal communications that convey to the child that the targeted parent is unloving, unsafe, and unavailable. Existing flaws are exaggerated and non-existent flaws are manufactured.
2. Limiting contact
The alienating parent violates parenting plans and/or takes advantage of ambiguities in the plan to maximize time with the child. The targeted parent has fewer opportunities to counter the toxic, badmouthing message, leading to the attenuation of the parent-child attachment relationship. The child acclimates to spending less time with the targeted parent.
3. Interfering with communication
The alienating parent demands constant access to the child when the child is with the targeted parent but does not reciprocate when the child is with him/her. Phones are not answered, email messages are blocked, and messages are not forwarded. The targeted parent has fewer opportunities to be a part of the child's daily world and share with the child the small moments that make up a child's life.
4. Interfering with symbolic communication
Thinking about, talking about, and looking at pictures of a parent while away can help a child feel close and connected to an absent parent. The alienating parent creates a toxic environment in which the child does not feel free to engage in these activities with respect to the targeted parent.
5. Withdrawal of love
Alienating parents make their approval of paramount importance to the child; so much so that the child would do anything to avoid the loss of love that is experienced when the child has disappointed or angered that parent. Typically what angers and hurts the alienating parent most is the child's love and affection for the targeted parent. Thus, in order to secure the love of one parent, the child must relinquish the love of the other. Although this is not something likely to be explicit to the child, it will be apparent to the targeted parent that the child lives in fear of losing the alienating parent's love and approval.
6. Telling the child that the targeted parent is dangerous
This involves creating the impression in the child that the targeted parent is or has been dangerous. Toxic stories might be told about ways in which the targeted parent has tried to harm the child, about which the child has no memory but will believe to be true nonetheless, especially if the story is told often enough.
7. Forcing the child to choose
The alienating parent will exploit ambiguities in the parenting plan and create toxic opportunities to seduce/compel the child away from the targeted parent by scheduling competing activities and promising valued items and privileges. If both parents are present at the same even/location the child will favor the alienating parent and ignore or be rude to the targeted parent.
8. Telling the child that the targeted parent does not love him or her
Another specific form of badmouthing occurs when the alienating parent allows or encourages the child to conclude that the targeted parent does not love him or her. The alienating parent might make toxic statements that conflate the end of the marriage with the end of the parent's love of the child (i.e. daddy left us, or mommy doesn't love us anymore). The alienating parent will foster the belief in the child that she is being rejected by the targeted parent and distort every situation to make it appear as if that is the case.
9. Confiding in the child
The alienating parent will involve the child in discussions about legal matters and share with the child personal and private information about the targeted parent that the child has no need to know. The alienating parent will portray him/herself as the victim of the targeted parent, inducing the child to feel pity for and protective of the alienating parent, and anger and hurt toward the targeted parent.
10. Forcing child to reject the targeted parent
Alienating parents create situations in which the child actively rejects the targeted parent, such as calling the targeted parent to cancel upcoming parenting time or request that the targeted parent not attend an important school or athletic event. Not only is the targeted parent being denied something that s/he truly desires but s/he is being delivered the news by the child, leading to feelings of hurt and frustration. The targeted parent may respond by lashing out at the child, further damaging their already fragile relationship. Further, once children have hurt a parent, the alienation will become entrenched as the child justifies his/her toxic behavior by devaluing the targeted parent.
11. Asking the child to spy on the targeted parent
The targeted parent may have information in their files, desk, or computer that is of interest to the alienating parent, such as pay stubs, receipts, legal documents, medical reports, and so forth. An alienating parent might suggest directly to a child or hint that the targeted parent has information that s/he is not sharing with the alienating parent. The alienating parent will likely create the impetus in the child by linking the information to the child’s desires (i.e., if we knew whether Daddy got a raise we could ask for more money and buy a new dog for you). Once children betray a parent by spying on them, they will likely feel guilty and uncomfortable being around that parent, thus furthering the alienation.
12. Asking the child to keep secrets from the targeted parent
The alienating parent will ask or hint that certain information should be withheld from the targeted parent in order to protect the child's interests. Such as, “If Mommy knew that we were planning on taking a trip she would take me to court and try to stop it. Let's not tell her until Saturday, when it will be too late for her to interfere.” Like spying, keeping secrets creates a toxic parenting psychological distance between the targeted parent and the child, who may feel guilty and uncomfortable with the targeted parent.
13. Referring to the targeted parent by first name
Rather than saying “Mommy/Daddy” or “Your mommy/Your daddy” the alienating parent will use the first name of the targeted parent when talking about that parent to the child. This may result in the child referring to the targeted parent by first name as well. The message to the child is that the targeted parent is no longer someone whom the alienating parent respects as an authority figure for the child and no longer someone who has a special bond with the child.
14. Referring to a step parent as “Mom” or “Dad” and encouraging child to do the same
Once the alienating parent is remarried, s/he will speak of the new partner as if that parent were the only mother/father of the child. This parent will be introduced to others (teachers, coaches, parents of friends) as the “mother/father” rather than as the step-parent.
15. Withholding medical, academic, and other important information from targeted parent/keeping targeted parent's name off medical, academic, and other relevant documents
All important forms from school, sports, religious education, and so forth ask for information about the child's mother and father. The toxic parent will not provide information about the targeted parent in the appropriate place on the form and may not include the information at all.
16. Changing child's name to remove association with targeted parent
If the alienating parent is the mother, she may revert to using her maiden name after the divorce and will institute a practice of using that name for her children as well. If the alienating parent is a mother and she remarries, she will assume the surname of her new husband and will institute a practice of using that new surname for her children as well. If the alienating parent is the father, he may start referring to the child with a new nickname (convincing the child that s/he has always been called by this name) and in this toxic way forge a new identity for the child in which the alienating parent is the most important parent.
17. Cultivating dependency/undermining the authority of the targeted parent
Alienating children often speak of the alienating parent as if that parent's dependency/undermining were perfect, exceptional, and in every way above reproach. They also behave as if they are dependent on that parent in a way that is not necessary or appropriate given their age and life experience. Alienating parents are able to develop dependency in their children rather than (as is typical of non-alienating parents) help their children develop self-sufficiency, critical thinking, autonomy, and independence. At the same time, they will undermine the authority of the targeted parents in order to ensure that the child is loyal to only one parent. Examples include instituting rules that the child must follow even when with the targeted parent, and mocking or overwriting the rules of the targeted parents.
18. Child’s polarized views of their parents
Richard Warshak, PhD., another leading expert on parental alienation and is author of the bestselling Divorce Poison, How To Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing.
Warshak writes on his website of these behaviors in children suffering from parental alienation:
“Severely alienated children express extremely polarized views of their parents; they have little if anything positive to say about the rejected parent and often rewrite the history of their relationship to obscure positive elements …Severely alienated children treat the rejected parent with extreme hostility, disobedience, defiance, and withdrawal … These children harbor strong and irrational aversion toward a parent with whom they formerly enjoyed a close relationship. The aversion may take the form of fear, hatred, or both.
Alienated children’s thoughts about their parents become highly skewed and polarized. They seem unable to summon up positive memories or perceptions about the rejected parent, and have difficulty reporting negative aspects or experiences with the favored parent. They rewrite the history of their relationship with the rejected parent to erase pleasant moments.
With children who are severely and irrationally alienated, critical thinking about parents is nowhere in evidence. Instead the children demonstrate knee-jerk support of the favored parent’s position in any situation where the parents disagree.”
Learn more about parental alienation, and solutions for reuniting estranged parents and children in the documentary Erasing Family, a film by Ginger Gentile:
How to prove parental alienation
Unfortunately, parental alienation is hard to prove, whether to a therapist, to the victim, friends, family, as well as lawyers and judges.
If you suspect your child is being alienated against you:
- Document everything you observe, in a journal, your calendar, or a co-parenting app. Also document all your visits, so you can counter should the other parent accuse you of missing scheduled visits. Also keep track of requests or remarks made by the other parent. One of the first, and widely used, co-parenting apps is OurFamilyWizard. This app features chat, information storage (like pediatrician and teacher contact info, prescriptions, etc.), and financial record-keeping. They offer a 30-day free trial, discounts for military families, and a program to provide OurFamilyWizard free to low-income families. Try OurFamilyWizard for free for 30 days now >>
- Stick to, and enforce your visitation schedule. Either party skipping or interfering with scheduled visits is something that most courts will recognize as egregious at face value. Documenting any violations can help with future alienation court cases.
- Foster an open relationship with your child, so they feel comfortable talking about everything — including any alienating behavior (“Daddy told me not to tell you …”) or abuse. If you suspect abuse of any kind, take the child to a professional, opposed to addressing the issue with the other parent.
- Seek legal advice. Find a family attorney experienced with parental alienation cases, and seek their advice. This may include filing a court filing against your child's other parent, deposing them as well as any family therapists, relatives or people familiar with your family dynamic. Parental alienation court cases are almost always lengthy, expensive, and hard to prove.
How to disprove parental alienation
This article in the New York Bar Association’s Family Law Review by Ashish Joshi is a great overview of the legal process of disproving parental alienation:
How to deal with parental alienation
- Managing your own feelings and actions, from leading expert Linda Gottlieb. She also has a trove of academic research here. In short: you may not be able to manage the situation, but you can care for yourself. Therapy can help.
- Blog and resource center of leading researcher and bestselling author Richard Warshak. Topics include mistakes alienated parents make, success stories of reunification, co-parenting advice, what courts can do about parental alienation.
- Craig Childress is a California psychologist and parental alienation expert whose site has a long list of academic and practical information on parental alienation.
- Ginger Gentile is director and producer of the documentary Erasing Family, about parental alienation. Her excellent Facebook page is a wealth of live videos around related topics.
- Read this post, A dad explains: “Why I don’t see my son.”, this post The real reason your ex doesn’t see the kids, and this post What to tell your kid when their dad is not involved
Parental alienation FAQs
What changes are needed for parental alienation laws?
Parental alienation affects millions of families, with one third of children whose parents divorce or separate losing all contact with one parent. But parental alienation goes beyond missing out on a relationship with one parent. Parental alienation means lost relationships with siblings, extended family and friends. The reasons for this human rights travesty are complex, and unfair court systems, as well as unstable, angry parents can be blamed.
To stem parental alienation requires a drastic paradigm shift in this country: one that stops celebrating mothers as the default better parent, and gets away from outdated and sexist assumptions that in times of separation, it is best for kids to have one primary home (with the mom), and occasional visit the other parent (the dad, who pays the mom). On all fronts, science has time and again obliterated these notions:
Whether you like it or not, shared parenting — which receives a 70 percent public popularity rating, split equally among men and women, conservatives and progressives, democrats and republics — is quickly being adopted by courts.
Since 2012, Arizona, Kentucky and Arkansas have passed shared-parenting laws that start custody negotiations with the presumption of equal time. This year, 25 states are considering bills that would do the same.
In other words: The world is changing, and if you’re not on board with shared parenting, and recognizing the systematic atrocity that is parental alienation, it is time to get over it. Because faced with it in your own life, you are likely to lose in the face of a court, and if not, by a judging society.
Ginger Gentile produced and directed Erasing Dad, a similar project in Argentina, and herself is the victim of parental resulting from her parents’ divorce.
You can learn more about Erasing Family here, and support this important project.
Is parental alienation a crime?
While social science concludes that parental alienation is traumatic and abuse towards both the child and targeted parent, there is little legal precedent to position it as a punishable crime, primarily because it is nearly always dealt with in family court — not criminal court.
How prevalent is parental alienation against mother? How common is parental alienation against father?
There is an assumption — prompoted often by family violence advocates — that fathers use parental alienation to abuse their ex-partners.
Social science finds otherwise.
Jennifer Harman, a Colorado State University social psychologist who studies parental alienation and its consequences, in 2020 published in the Journal of Family Violence, findings that mothers and fathers use different tactics in alienating tactics, with mothers using indirect methods such as spreading rumors, while fathers used both indirect and direct methods, like badmouthing the mother to the child. Harman found that 14% of fathers, and 20% of mothers in the sample used equal amounts of both forms of aggression.
This article outlines many studies over the past three decades that have found that generally, parental alienation is used against fathers more often than against mothers.
Recommended reading on parental alienation :
‘Parental alienation’: What it means and why it matters at TheConversation.com
Lost Parents: When High Conflict Divorce Leads to Parental Alienation on Huffington Post
Detroit Free Press article about a various reunification programs specifically for alienated families
Expert Richard Warshak's breakdown of leading program Family Bridges
Edward Kruk, PhD, is a leading researcher on parental alienation and co-parenting, and his thoughtful posts on PsychologyToday.com are a great read.
Podcasts about parental alienation
With co-founder of Leading Women for Shared Parenting, Terry Brannen:
On this Like a Mother episode I interview film maker Ginger Gentile, whose latest project is Erasing Family, a documentary about parental alienation. Award-winning documentarian and herself a victim of parental alienation, Gentile's work focuses on the now-adult children who grew up without knowing a parent, siblings, or extended family thanks to the wishes of another parent — and a court system designed to promote conflict between separated families.
Parental alienation is a form of child abuse in which the toxic actions of one parent intentionally harm the relationship the child has with the other parent. In these cases, the child rejects the alienated parent based on flimsy reasoning.
There are nine signs of parental alienation, including: a campaign of denigration against the targeted parent, the child’s lack of guilty feelings for rejecting the target parent, and more.