The Truth About Parental Alienation
New research on the tactics and effects of alienation.
Posted August 10, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Parental alienation can occur when hostility between feuding partners leads to a child becoming hostile and rejecting of one parent.
- There is controversy about whether this is a valid label, and how it fits with existing conceptualizations of domestic abuse.
- Recent work confirms the existence of parental alienation as a form of domestic abuse among separating and unhappy couples with children.
The academic study and practical treatment of domestic abuse are evolving. Historically, researchers and support workers have tended to adopt the view that domestic abuse is inherently gendered, with primarily male perpetrators causing harm to primarily female victims. However, some recent research suggests that female-perpetrated domestic abuse may actually be as prevalent as male-perpetrated cases, leading this field to re-evaluate how it studies and addresses its core subject.
This flipping of the perpetrator statistics comes in lockstep with an expanded view of domestic abuse, which is now an umbrella term that not only refers to physical violence, but also encompasses emotional abuse, blackmail, financial coercion, sexually-based manipulations, and coercive control of a partner's way of living. This broadened definition has been largely uncontroversial, as most people agree that these behaviors are abusive. However, one topic that has been increasingly discussed and disputed is that of parental alienation.
What Is Parental Alienation?
At its most basic level, parental alienation refers to the process by which a child unjustifiably aligns himself/herself with one parent, and expresses hatred or rejection of the other, during a separation or custody battle. This is typically driven by behaviors exhibited by the aligned-to parent that are designed to manipulate the child's beliefs and perceptions about the alienated parent, and the distortion or erasure of any positive memories that they might have about them.
According to one representative survey published in 2019, more than one-third of parents feel somewhat alienated from their children in this way, with 22 million Americans (equating to around 7 percent of the population) reporting having a non-reciprocated alienated relationship with their offspring. Members of this latter group suggest that they are being alienated from their children without enacting any alienating behaviors. Around four million children are said to be alienated from one of their parents. Thus, parental alienation is viewed by many as an important social issue to explore and resolve.
Dr. Jennifer Harman—an associate professor in psychology at Colorado State University, and world expert on parental alienation—recently published an overview of current research and theories underlying parental alienation in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology. When I asked Dr. Harman about the current science on this topic, she highlighted why it was important for her to conduct a review:
The goal of this review paper was to review all publications with empirical evidence on parental alienation to get a clear understanding of what we do know on the topic, and how people around the world have been studying the problem. This is important, because there are advocates around the world who are pushing legislation and policies claiming there is no scientific support for parental alienation. That is false information, and should not serve as a basis for laws that affect millions of children and families affected by this form of family violence.
From recent work, it is unclear whether mothers or fathers are more likely to be the targets of parental alienation, though anecdotal evidence and some older research suggest that fathers are more likely to be alienated by mothers than vice versa in the course of a separation.
However, the effects of alienation on targeted parents seem to be consistent irrespective of sex. Effects include the experience of grief over the loss of a relationship with the child(ren). Poor mental health outcomes are frequently reported, as are feelings of isolation and frustration. Alienation may also involve justice-related contexts, too, with those experiencing alienation often reporting dissatisfaction with how legal remedies to issues such as access and child custody are reached.
Children at the center of parental alienation cases also experience a cascade of losses, according to Dr. Harman's research. This begins with a corruption of the child's reality and a disruption of their identity, through to the loss of extended family and community. The effects of such losses can be profound, with one paper led by Suzanne Verhaar (University of Tasmania, Australia) reporting how adults who experienced parental alienation as children often grow up to experience trauma responses, poor mental health outcomes, and a need to find coping strategies for emotional dysregulation.
Why the Controversy?
Given the evident effects of parental alienation on both targeted parents and their children, it is perhaps surprising to learn that there is a controversy over its existence. Dr. Harman said:
"The take-home message [from her work] is that the research on this problem makes an important contribution to the existing research on child development and family conflict, and that it is no longer tenable to argue that there is no scientific support for the problem."
She did not wish to comment on the motives of those doubting the validity of parental alienation as a concept, but an online search suggests that some such doubts may come from some charities and activists who speak out about the domestic abuse of women. For example, Women's Aid UK has called parental alienation a "harmful and dangerous concept" that is used to counter accusations of domestic abuse being made by a parent who claims to be being alienated.
It appears that the ideological battle over the notion of parental alienation is being fought, in part, between those studying the topic on the one hand and those with concerns about its weaponization on the other. This is not surprising, and is consistent across many areas of socially contested research. One might hope that future work looks to reconcile the science with such concerns, and look to eliminate the misuse of "parental alienation" as an accusation in arguments during separations while also supporting those who are legitimately experiencing these behaviors.
Moving forward, Dr. Harman and her team are developing new ways of studying parental alienation. In response to critiques about the quality of research in this area, she said:
We found similar proportions of studies that used different methods, sampling strategies, and measurement techniques, making claims by critics of parental alienation that the entire field is methodologically flawed wrong. We are now working on a follow-up review of more studies published since 2020 (when our literature search stopped), and are evaluating the quality of all of the studies using an appropriate evaluation approach used for fields where both qualitative and quantitative research is conducted.
As the debate over the scientific and social status of parental alienation rumbles on, it is difficult to see a societal consensus emerging any time soon. A potential route out of this roadblock may be for competing teams to engage in adversarial collaborations, where both sides agree on a set protocol of study in advance, and a joint interpretation of the data.
However, in the background are still those parents who, irrespective of the science, experience loss and separation from their children. The effects on them and their families will continue until services recognize the effects of alienation—real or perceived—and act to improve relationships within feuding families.
Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock
Harman, J. J., Leder-Elder, S., & Biringen, Z. (2019). Prevalence of adults who are the targets of parental alienating behaviors and their impact: Results from three national polls. Child & Youth Services Review, 106, 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2019.104471
Harman, J. J., Matthewson, M. L., & Baker, A. J. L. (2022). Losses experienced by children alienated from a parent. Current Opinion in Psychology, 43, 7-12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.05.002
Harman, J. J., Warshak, R. A., Lorandos, D., & Florian, M. J. (2022). Developmental psychology and the scientific status of parental alienation. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0001404
Lee-maturana, S., Matthewson, M., Dwan, C., & Norris, K. (2019). Characteristics and experiences of targeted parents of parental alienation from their own perspective: A systematic literature review. Australian Journal of Psychology, 71, 83-91. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajpy.12226
Verhaar, S., Matthewson, M. L., & Bentley, C. (2022). The impact of parental alienating behaviours on the mental health of adults alienated in childhood. Children, 9, 475.
Costa, D., Soares, J., Lindert, J., Hatzidimitriadou, E., Sundin, O., Toth, O., Ioannidi-Kapolo, E., & Barros, H. (2015). Intimate partner violence: a study in men and women from six European countries. International Journal of Public Health, 60, 467-478. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00038-015-0663-1