Parental Alienation

The term parental alienation refers to psychological manipulation of a child, by saying and doing things that lead the child to look unfavorably on one parent or the other. In essence, parental alienation amounts to brainwashing the child, and it can be done both consciously and unconsciously. This is a significant problem in family law cases, and something that the courts take very seriously. To explore this concept, consider the following parental alienation definition.

Definition of Parental Alienation


  1. The manipulation of a child to reject one parent or the other.


1980s   U.S. psychology term

What is Parental Alienation

In the eyes of the law, children need to have a good relationship with both parents, and to achieve that, each parent should have significant quality time with the child. Unfortunately, divorce is usually an ugly affair, and many parents allow their anger to spill over into the lives of their children. When a parent takes steps to isolate a child, make the child angry with, or afraid of, the other parent, it is called alienation.

The primary weapons parents use to alienate their children against the other parent include:

  • Badmouthing – This includes criticizing and belittling the other parent, or telling the child that the other parent is dangerous, crazy, or somehow unworthy of the child’s love.
  • Interfering with the Child’s Contact – This includes delivering the child to the other parent late, picking him up early, making excuses to keep the child during the other parent’s scheduled time, refusing to allow the child to call or otherwise contact the other parent, or excessively calling the child while he is with the other parent.
  • Causing the Child to Reject the other Parent – This includes making the child feel guilty for loving the other parent, creating conflict between the child and the other parent, forcing the child to choose between his parents, talking to the child about inappropriate matters (details of the marriage or divorce).
  • Undermining the Child’s Relationship with the other Parent – This includes drilling the child for details of his visit with the other parent, or asking the child to spy on the other parent, encouraging the child to call that parent by his or her first name, changing the child’s name to exclude the other parent.
  • Undermining the other Parent’s Role in the Child’s Life – This includes refusing to provide the other parent regarding the child’s schooling, medical care, and activities; refusing to notify the school, sports team coaches, doctors, and others of the other parent’s contact information; having a step-parent refer to him/herself as “Mom” or “Dad” when dealing with the school, teachers, coaches, doctors, and others; refusing to invite the other parent to important activities such as birthday parties, graduation, parent-teacher conferences, school plays or concerts, and the like.

Signs of Parental Alienation

Every child has a need for, and right to, a close and loving relationship with both parents. Children who have been forcefully separated from a parent – assuming there has been no abuse by that parent – have been found to be highly sensitive to post traumatic stress. Children who are the victims of parental alienation exhibit certain signs of parental alienation, and the true emotional and psychological damage that have been inflicted on them.

  1. Anger – Expressed toward the target parent. Being exposed to the criticisms and accusations of one parent against the other causes a great deal of stress in children for which they have no outlet. They develop poor skills for dealing with conflict and emotional pain, and become quick to anger.
  2. Lack of Self Esteem or Self Confidence – Being made to believe one parent is somehow bad or unworthy leads the child to believe that half of himself is also unworthy. This shows in a serious lack of self esteem, which can lead to destructive behaviors.
  3. Lack of Impulse Control – Alienated children may lack the personal control necessary to evaluate situations before choosing an action. This can cause them to lash out in anger, or to engage in spur-of-the-moment impulsive behaviors, such as fighting, throwing things, or making rash choices.
  4. Separation Anxiety – Children who are “programmed” by one parent to hate, fear, or distrust the other often show anxiety about leaving or being separated from the programming parent. This anxiety not only manifests when spending time with the other parent, but when the child attempts to participate in other activities, such as slumber parties, or summer camp.
  5. Fears and Phobias – Some alienated children develop fears of things what may take them away from the “good” parent (the programmer), such as going to school. They sometimes begin making up physical illnesses as a way to remain at home – and to keep the parent at home with them.
  6. Depression and Suicidal Thoughts – Parental alienation increases the pain of divorce for the children, leading to depression, and even to suicide.
  7. Sleep Disorders – Children may find it difficult to sleep, or even have bad dreams, as they both worry about the dangers the target parent poses them, and feel guilt over their roles in the alienation.
  8. Eating Disorders – In their attempts to gain control over their life and their parents’ behaviors, many alienated children develop eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, and obesity.
  9. Problems in School – Alienated children tend to have more problems in school, from an inability to concentrate, to difficulties remembering what is taught. They may also get in trouble often for misbehaving.
  10. Drug and Alcohol Abuse – Even at very young ages, alienated children have a greater danger of using drugs and alcohol, which often leads to other illegal activities.

Parental Alienation Syndrome

When a parent constantly engages in strategies or acts to alienate a child from the other parent, serious damage to the child’s psyche is likely. Pressured by the alienating parent, many children succumb, and choose a side. This leads to certain irregular behaviors of a psychological issue known as “Parental Alienation Syndrome.” These include:

  1. Campaign of Denigration – Upon choosing a side, the child becomes obsessed with the targeted parent’s faults, and with hating that parent. This initial step occurs so quickly that the targeted parent is often stunned by the about-face taken by his or her child. Hating a parent that has abused the child is considered to be justified and logical, and is therefore not a sign of Parental Alienation Syndrome (“PAS”).
  2. Absurd, Weak, or Frivolous Reasons for Denigration – The complaints made by the child during his campaign of denigration are often irrational, or not sufficiently serious to normally cause a child to hate a parent. For instance, a child might state, as his primary reason for hating the targeted parent, that the parent does not allow him to eat spicy foods, or to see certain types of movies.
  3. Lack of Ambivalence – Normal development of children involves some level of ambivalence – or uncertainty – about both parents. No parent is perfect, and children are prone to frustration and resentment for the limits they set. A child suffering from Parental Alienation Syndrome does not express ambivalence about the alienating parent. Instead, the child automatically and reflexively throws himself into supporting that parent, showing no mixed feelings about pushing away, or hating, the targeted parent. A child suffering from PAS sees one parent as all good, and the other as all bad.
  4. Independent Thinker and Decision-Maker – When questioned about his extreme views of the targeted parent, and about the alienating parent’s actions, a child suffering from PAS often insists that his feelings are entirely his own. For instance, the child might call his father, whom the mother has been engaged in a campaign of alienation, 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.
  5. No Guilt – Children suffering from PAS commonly claim that the targeted parent does not “deserve” to see them. The child does not feel bad about shutting the parent out, and expresses no gratitude for the things that parent does for him, or the gifts given. In fact, many children suffering from PAS will attempt to manipulate the situation, getting whatever they can from the targeted parent, with the absolute belief they are entitled to such gifts because the targeted parent is such a terrible person. PAS children are often selfish, manipulative, and cruel.
  6. Absolute Support of Alienating Parent – PAS children are unwilling to have an impartial view of disputes between parents. Such a child reflexively supports the alienating parent, refusing to even listen to the targeted parent’s point of view.
  7. Borrowed Scenarios – In their communications with the targeted parent, or with court officials, PAS children often spout phrases and ideas that come directly from the alienating parent’s dialogue. The younger the child, the more likely his dialogue contains words and ideas that he cannot even understand. As an example of parental alienation syndrome, a child might claim that he hates his father because he is a “womanizer,” having no idea what a womanizer is.
  8. Hostility Toward Targeted Parent’s Extended Family – At some point, it is common for a child suffering from PAS to extend his hatred of the targeted parent to that parent’s extended family. The child will similarly make complaints about these family members, which may include grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and even refuse to see them. PAS children often grow up missing important family events, such as weddings, funerals, birthdays, and anniversaries.

How to Prove Parental Alienation

Because alienation of a child against a parent has lasting harmful effects, it is taken very seriously by the family court system. In fact, a parent who actively alienates his or her children against the other parent is very likely to lose custody of those children, and may even be restricted to supervised visitation.

A parent who is being targeted for alienation has the right, and responsibility, of informing the court, though he or she will need to prove parental alienation. Taking certain steps will help a parent prove parental alienation. These include:

  • Keep a Journal – Write down any issues that occur when communicating with the alienating parent, and things said by the children that have obviously come from the other parent’s mouth. Record dates and times of irregularities in visitation, such as plans being made by the other parent that conflict with visitation, failure to deliver the children as scheduled, and other happenings.
    • Record the Children’s Actions – It is important to write down aberrant behavior and comments made by the children, which demonstrate the issue of alienation.
    • Record Special Requests or Changes Requested by the Alienating Parent – Alienating parents often ask changes to be made to visitation schedules, as well as to occasions with the children, then blame the targeted parent.
  • Pay Attention to Warning Signs – Be aware of the signs that a child is suffering from Parental Alienation Syndrome. Keep a record of suspect behaviors, including dates, times, and specific words or actions. Be aware of whether the child has “secrets” with the alienating parent. It is not uncommon for such parents to tell the child to keep something perfectly innocent, such as attending a baseball game, secret in order to build a bond with the child.
  • Maintain Open Communications with the Child – It is important for both parents to maintain open communication with their children, making it clear that they are loved by both parents. This does not mean to grill or interrogate the children about the other parent, but to engage in conversation on a variety of topics. The child may say something like, “Mom said you were too busy for me to come over last weekend,” or express some other ideas being pumped into him by the other parent.
  • Stick to and Enforce all Custody Orders – While this includes actual visitation dates and times, it also includes sharing information about the children. For instance, custody orders commonly require both parents to allow the other access to the child’s education records and school activities, as well as medical records and medical appointments. Denying a parent access to such things is seen as being contrary to the child’s best interests.

Once all of the evidence has been gathered, the targeted parent can file a motion with the court to review or change child custody orders. In some cases, the court may appoint a guardian ad litem to actually represent the child’s best interests, separate from the representation of the parents.

Parental Alienation Example in Multi-State Custody Dispute

In 2003, James Miller and Janet Todd separated following a four-year relationship. Though they had never been legally married, they had lived together, and had two young daughters. The parents primarily lived in separate states, and following their separation, Miller was awarded primary custody of the girls, with visitation to Todd.

The animosity between the two led to an ugly custody battle in which Todd repeatedly made accusations of sexual abuse by Miller. Each time, an investigation was launched by family services, medical examinations were performed – including pelvic exams on both girls – and the accusations were dismissed as unfounded. This did not deter Todd from attempting to gain custody of the girls by making similar allegations, which led to repeated investigations, medical exams, and pelvic examinations.

In 2006, the children underwent a court-ordered psychological examination, in which the psychologist determined that the children had not been sexually molested by their father, or anyone else. She went on to say that the older daughter’s statements appeared to have been coaxed or rehearsed, and that the girls’ increasingly anxious behaviors were caused by the constant stress and focus on their genitals and sexual acts, as they were constantly questioned by their mother.

The psychologist advised the court that the mother had engaged in parental alienation, to the level of being as abusive as would have been the sexual molestation, had it occurred. The court then noted that, because of Todd’s repeated interference with Miller’s custody and visitation with the children, he had had very little quality time with them over the previous two years. The court ordered a gradual reunification process between the children and their father.

In 2008, the court noted that Todd had continued her campaign of attempting to “prove” Miller’s abuse of the children, engaging in an ongoing attempt to alienate the children against their father. The trial court ultimately chose not to change primary residential custody of the children to live with their father, because they had lived with their mother for five years by that time, and had established friendships and consistency in their schooling.

Miller appealed the decision, however, arguing that the child’s mother had “engaged in a sustained campaign to alienate the children from [him], and to interfere with his parenting rights, by making multiple accusations of sexual abuse.” The appellate court ruled that, while the family court has wide discretion in handling child custody cases, when one parent is clearly trying to poison a child’s relationship with the other parent, there exists a change of circumstances warranting a modification of custody and visitation.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Surveillance – The close observation of a person or group, especially a suspect in a criminal investigation.
  • Guardian ad Litem – A legal guardian appointed by the court to represent the interests of a child or incompetent adult in a legal action.