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The Role of Anxiety in Parental Alienation

In divorce, some children unconsciously absorb one parent’s intense anxiety.

Key points

  • Parental alienation occurs when a child resists contact with a previously loved parent for no good reason.
  • Some parents lack emotional boundaries and share their intense anxiety about the other parent with the child.
  • Anger is often associated with parental alienation, but often the child has absorbed the parent’s anxiety.
  • Managing a parent’s intense anxiety is a important in overcoming alienation.

Parental alienation generally occurs when a child resists or refuses contact with a parent during and after a divorce (or non-married couple’s separation) when the rejected parent has not been abusive or inadequate as a parent. (See previous posts: “Resist-Refuse Dynamics in Divorce” and “Principles for Treating Parental Alienation and Realistic Estrangement”)

Source: Fizkes / Shutterstock
Source: Fizkes / Shutterstock

Parental alienation is often considered an intentional campaign by the favored parent against the rejected parent, to push that parent out of the child’s life. However, there are many cases that I have dealt with over 40 years as a therapist, lawyer, and mediator, in which the favored parent is highly anxious about the separation or divorce but generally not angry or trying to eliminate the other parent. Some have been excessively tearful and others have even shared their bed with the child for reassurance, where the child absorbs the parent’s emotional distress. Such parents are unable to manage their emotions and lack emotional boundaries. This can have a powerful influence on the child, yet the parent is unaware.

Emotions Are Contagious

Some research shows how emotions are passed from one person to the next often unconsciously:

“Our right brain enables us to read the subjective states of others through its appraisal of subtle facial (visual and auditory) expressions and other forms of nonverbal communication. The right brain makes these appraisals so quickly that our body and mental state is altered before we become conscious of what we are feeling.”1

“Emotional contagion has been defined as the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize others’ facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and other physical states. Emotion regulation refers to the process by which individuals influence their emotions when they have them, and how they experience and express these emotions.”2

Yet children develop the ability to regulate their emotions over time and don’t complete this ability until adulthood.

Anxiety heightens emotional transactions so that people who feel threatened and anxious are especially prone to catching other people’s emotions….”3

Personality Disorders and Anxiety

Some research indicates that approximately 90 percent of those with borderline personality disorder also have a co-occurring anxiety disorder.4 Since personality disorders, especially borderline, appear to be present in many cases of parental alienating behaviors, it would not be surprising if unmanaged anxiety is a major factor in their alienating behavior—and that they are unaware of the impact of their anxiety. Others with Cluster B personality disorders—such as narcissistic, histrionic, and antisocial—are often involved in high-conflict parenting disputes. They are often anxious because their relationships and strategies for coping in life often appear “dramatic, emotional, or erratic.”5 They lack self-awareness of why their relationships and strategies don’t work and therefore don't try to change.

Thus, both parent and child may be exchanging intense emotions without realizing where they come from. In cases of parental alienation, it is common for children to believe that their emotions are their own and to insist that they were not influenced by their favored parent. Yet the science of the transfer of emotions tells us otherwise. (This is the same way that ethnic prejudice and racism are often transferred to children from parents and our culture without their awareness.)

Family Court Heightens Anxiety

When parents go to family court to argue whether a child’s resistance is due to the father’s abusive behavior or the mother’s alienating behavior (or the mother’s abusive behavior vs. the father’s alienating behavior), it heightens their anxiety. When mental health professionals and legal professionals get involved in the intensity of these emotions, they can heighten the parents’ anxiety even more. Then each parent’s anxiety often spills over onto the children, who assume it was caused by the rejected parent; they then reject them even more. Therefore, it is essential for professionals involved in these cases to manage their own emotions and assist parents in doing so.

Managing Emotions

One approach for family courts is to ask parents at the start of a separation or divorce case to explain three ways that they will protect their children from their upset emotions during the process. Another approach is to expect parents to take parenting classes that teach managed emotions.

As a study of many parenting skills concluded: managing one’s own distress is the second most important parenting skill. “Keeping calm is probably step one in good parenting. Fortunately, stress management practices such as meditation, imagery techniques, and breathing exercises can be learned, no matter one’s natural tendencies.”6


Rather than fighting and blaming and shaming parents, we may be able to significantly reduce alienation in many mild and moderate cases by focusing on the prevention of and reduction of unmanaged emotions.


1. Schore, Allan (2019), Right Brain Psychotherapy, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 220.

2. Kuang, B., Peng, S., Xie, X., and Hu, Ping. “Universality vs. Cultural Specificity in the Relations Among Emotional Contagion, Emotion Regulation, and Mood State: An Emotion Process Perspective,” Frontiers in Psychology, 2019; 10: 186.

3. Goleman, Daniel (2006), Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. New York: Bantam, 39.

4, Harned, Melanie S. and Valenstein, Helen R. “Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder and Co-Occurring Anxiety Disorders,” F1000PrimeReports, 2013: 5:16.

5. American Psychiatric Association (APA): Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2022, 734.

6. Epstein, Robert, “What Makes a Good Parent?” Scientific American Mind, November/December, 2010.

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