Parental alienation occurs when a child refuses to have a relationship with a parent due to manipulation, such as the conveying of exaggerated or false information, by the other parent. The situation most often arises during a divorce or custody battle but it can happen in intact families as well.
The perpetrator may leverage a variety of tactics: A father could tell child that the child's mother hates him and never wants to speak to them, when in reality the mother calls to speak to the child every day. A mother could convince her daughter to report—or even believe—that the father physically abused her. Offenders may blame the other parent for the collapse of the marriage, punish the child for wanting to pursue a relationship with the parent, or move away so that maintaining a relationship is extremely difficult.
This experience can be deeply upsetting for a child. He or she may feel confused, sad, and lonely after the loss. Children may feel puzzled as to why they still feel love toward one parent if the other "hates" them so intensely. Yet they have no evidence to counter the other parent’s lies. They also cannot fully grieve their lost relationship because estrangement is uncertain and potentially prone to change.
Severely restricting the time a child can spend with the other parent, especially defying court orders, is a sign of parental alienation. Making negative comments about the other parent, blaming them for the divorce, making false accusations of abuse or neglect, and threatening to withhold affection if the child expresses positive feelings about the absent parent are hallmarks of alienation as well.
The psychological community does not recognize parental alienation as a diagnosable condition. However, brainwashing a child to hate a parent does occur and is recognized by the courts (provided there’s robust evidence). Unfortunately, there are also instances of false allegations of alienation for custody or financial purposes.
One reason parental alienation can start involves a parent having come to rely on their child for emotional support, a need that intensifies during a divorce. To continue supporting the parent, and without evidence to the contrary, the child comes to believe and internalize the alienating parents’ vitriol. Other motivations include revenge, jealousy, the financial extortion.
This phenomenon often originates with a parent who is narcissistic and/or emotionally unstable. They may be motivated by a desire for revenge against their ex or they may need an outlet so desperately that they transfer their pain and rage to the child. Alienated parents sometimes show borderline tendencies as well.
Children generally do better when their divorced parents raise them as amicable partners. To do so, parents should never denigrate the other parent. They should seek outside support rather than turning to the child, hold volatile discussions out of earshot, and try to accept an ex’s new partner, since they will play an important role in the child’s stability and happiness.
Victims of parental alienation can fight the offense in court, although it is difficult to do. Parents should therefore collect thorough, detailed evidence through witnesses and emails, texts, or social media posts. The legal process may involve a psychological evaluation, custody evaluation, family assessment, and reunification therapy to rebuild the relationship.
Some researchers estimate that between 11 and 15 percent of divorces involving children lead to parental alienation. Around 1 percent of children in North American may experience parental alienation.
Parents can fight alienation in court, but they need to provide rigorous proof. A court may then mandate a reunification program, in which the child spends time with the alienated parent under supervision to rebuild the relationship. Treatment may also be needed to address the child’s trauma. Many relationships fractured by parental alienation can heal with time.
Parental alienation is handled through civil proceedings and is not an arrestable offense. Some believe that parental alienation should be criminalized due to the nature of the lasting damage it inflicts, while others argue against criminalization because parental alienation is difficult to prove and is not a diagnosable syndrome.
The clinical understanding of parental alienation is evolving. It is not listed as a disorder in the DSM-5, but some suggest that it could fall under “parent-child relational problem” as one of a set of concerns that may merit clinical attention. Some researchers believe that the experience is a form of emotional child abuse and family violence.
Some scholars argue that the solution to parental alienation involves fundamental changes to the current system of divorce. Those changes include recognizing parental alienation as a form of emotional child abuse, establishing shared parenting as the foundation of family law, forming prevention and reunification programs, and enforcing shared parenting orders effectively.
Parental alienation is deeply painful, but ostracized parents should know that they are not alone. Although it can be frustrating, they should aim to express only compassion and kindness for the estranged child, remaining calm rather than responding to the injustice with anger or rage. They should turn to friends, family, support groups, or mental health professionals as they cope with the strain.
When a child begins to spend time with the alienated parent, it can often allow the relationship to be repaired. Individual therapy for the alienating parent, the target parent, and the child can help throughout this process.
Children may struggle with self-esteem, guilt, and self-hatred, as they can internalize hatred toward the targeted parent and are led to believe, incorrectly, that the parent did not love or want them. Depression and substance use are also pathways by which parental alienation can impact children.
The best course of action is to limit the child’s time with the alienating parent and increase time with the targeted parent. The child’s biased view of the parent will gradually clear and even severely damaged relationships can be repaired, research shows. The targeted parent can help by not denigrating the alienating parent or dismissing the child’s feelings during this time.
Spending more time with the alienated parent can help repair the relationship. One valuable exercise is to open a dialogue about similarities and differences between family members. Discussing neutral topics such as favorite food or color, and later moving on to feelings, can help the child individuate her parent’s experiences from her own.
Therapists can learn the characteristics of an alienated child, such as constantly denigrating the target parent and imitating the alienating parent’s stories, and the degree to which alienation has occurred. Treatment can involve transferring the child to the target parent’s home, prohibiting contact with the alienator, and taking legal action.
Coming to recognize parental alienation as an adult can be a long and difficult journey. Many children develop a new, realistic understanding of their parents later in life. They are often grateful to develop a better relationship with the targeted parent, yet they may also struggle with the fallout of a strained or weaker relationship with the alienating parent.
Children very often come to recognize that they were victims of parental alienation in adulthood. However, the process is emotionally painful and can take years or even decades. Learning the signs and strategies of parental alienation, as well as speaking to the targeted parent to identify truths and falsehoods, can help children identify if they were victims of alienation.
It can be difficult to counteract the misperceptions that a parent instills in a child. But as an adult, children may be able to better understand the other parent’s perspective and the situation more broadly. In the case of one woman, her alienated father kept his distance until she was 17 before calmly explaining that not all of her mother’s claims were true. They were able to then reconnect.
Parents of estranged children may continuously try to repair the relationship by reaching out, expressing empathy, and trying to address the underlying problem. Yet there may come a time to stop, such as when the child is consistently hostile, threatens a restraining order, or, more positively, decides they need time but will be in touch.