What is Parental Alienation?

By Amy J. L. Baker, PhD, director of research at the Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection of the New York Foundling

When parents separate, the goal and the hope is that they can work together in some fashion for the sake of the children. They may imagine that, at the time of the separation, they will have an amicable divorce in which the children freely move between each home and the parents can celebrate family events and holidays together.

Such a “good divorce” is possible but is not the reality for many families. There is a continuum along which separated or divorced families function, from the type of cooperation that represents the ideal at one end of the spectrum to something known as parental alienation and Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) at the other end.

Parental alienation is a set of strategies – attitudes and behaviors – that some parents use in order to emotionally manipulate children, often but not always in divorce situations, to reject the other parent. Based on research with adult children of PAS, as well as “targeted parents,” the following strategies have been identified as the major tools used by one parent to alienate the other:

  • Badmouthing the targeted parent – such as telling the child that the other parent does not love him or her; or telling the child that the other parent is crazy, dangerous, and unworthy when this is not true.
    o Interfering with the child’s contact with the targeted parent  such as throwing out gifts and letters from the other parent; calling excessively during the other parent’s time; picking the child up early or dropping the child off late; forbidding mention or pictures of the other parent; scheduling competing activities during parenting time; or excessive monitoring or forbidding communication or visitation with the other parent.
  • Manipulating the child to reject the targeted parent – such as withdrawing love or making child feel guilty for having a relationship with other parent; forcing the child to choose between his or her parents; creating conflict between the child and the other parent; encouraging dependency on him or herself; interrogating the child after visits with the other parent; providing inappropriate information to the child (details of the marriage, divorce, finances, or court); or allowing child to decide whether to be with the parent when the schedule has been contractually specified.
  • Undermining the child’s relationship with the targeted parent – such as asking the child to spy on the other parent; encouraging or allowing the child to call the other parent by his or first name; encouraging or allowing the child to call someone else “Mom” or “Dad”; or asking the child to keep secrets from the other parent; changing the child’s name to exclude the role of the other parent.
  • Undermining the targeted parent’s role in the child’s life – such as refusing to provide the other parent with information (medical, school, or activities); refusing to provide others (school, doctors, or coaches) with the other parent’s information; having stepparents refer themselves to others (schools or doctors) as “Mom” or “Dad”; preventing the other parent from attending medical, academic, sport, or social activities; saying bad things about the other parent to school, doctors, or other authorities; not inviting or acknowledging the other parent at important events (birthdays or graduations); or diminishing the importance of the other parent’s role in rearing the child to the child and others.
  • Interfering with the child’s relationship with friends and family of the targeted parent – such as limiting contact with the extended family of the other parent; or saying bad things about the extended family to the child or within child’s hearing.

When parental alienation strategies are exhibited by an effective and obsessed alienating parent, it may result in a child succumbing to the pressure to choose sides. Such a choice – although it entails the loss of the targeted parent – reduces the stress on the child by removing him from the middle of a power struggle and loyalty conflict. When children ally with one parent against the other, they tend to exhibit the following behaviors of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS):

  1. Campaign of Denigration – The child becomes obsessed with hatred of the targeted parent. Parents who were once loved and valued, seemingly overnight, become hated and feared. This often happens so quickly that the targeted parent cannot believe that a loving child has turned into a hateful, spiteful person who refuses to so much as share a meal. It must be kept in mind that when there is legitimate reason for the child’s fear or hostility towards the targeted parent, such as founded abuse or neglect, the negative reaction to the parent is not considered PAS. It is only when there is no legitimate cause, and yet the child behaves as if the targeted parent is to be feared and despised, that the most likely explanation is PAS.
  2. Weak, Frivolous, Absurd Rationale for Denigration – The objections made in the campaign of denigration are often not of the magnitude that would lead a child to hate a parent, such as slurping soup or serving spicy food. One alienated child was reported to complain that the targeted parent did not punish her enough. Another’s major complaint was that the parent did not allow the child to nap on the couch.
  3. Lack of Ambivalence – It is a truism of development that children are ambivalent about both of their parents. Even the best of parents are imperfect or set limits for children that cause resentment and frustration. A hallmark of PAS, however, is that the child expresses no ambivalence about the alienating parent, demonstrating an automatic, reflexive, idealized support. The child acts as if she has no mixed feelings or ever has negative reactions to the alienating parent. Alienated children describe the alienating parent as perfect, brilliant, and heroic. One parent becomes all good, while the other becomes all bad. Even much older children who typically express mixed feelings about all sorts of people in their lives – teachers, friends, coaches, and so forth – claim to have no mixed feelings whatsoever about the alienating parent. As one PAS child proudly proclaimed, “I love my father to death, and I would do anything for Daddy.”
  4. Independent Thinker Phenomenon – The child adamantly claims that the negative feelings towards the targeted parent are wholly his or her own, and the alienating parent defends the child’s right to make decisions regarding visitation. These children deny that their feelings about the targeted parent are in any way influenced by the alienating parent. An alienated child may say, “Dad, I don’t want to see you again, and Mom had nothing to do with this. I made this decision all on my own.” The independent thinker phenomenon contributes to the difficulty in countering PAS. An observer might conclude that the child has been brainwashed or unduly influenced but, to the child, the experience is authentic. The more one tries to talk a PAS child out of these beliefs, the more attached to those beliefs he or she becomes. The ownership children take of the alienation through the independent thinker phenomenon is one of the strongest weapons alienating parents have at their disposal. The child no longer requires the alienating parent to tell him what to believe because he has adopted those beliefs.
  5. Absence of Guilt – PAS children will assert that the targeted parent does not deserve to see them. Gratitude for gifts, favors, or child support provided by the targeted parent is nonexistent. PAS children will try to get whatever they can from the targeted parent, believing that it is owed to them and that because that parent is such a despicable person, he doesn’t deserve to be treated with respect or gratitude. Psychologist Richard Warshak has noted the particularly negative effect of this aspect of PAS on the character of the children, who are encouraged to be selfish, manipulative, and exploitive.
  6. Reflexive Support for Alienating Parent – There is no willingness or attempt to be impartial when faced with disagreements between the parents. The PAS child has no interest in hearing the targeted parent’s point of view. PAS children often make the case for the alienating parent better than the parent does. Nothing the targeted parent could do or say would make any difference to the PAS child. Their mind has been made up (for them). A targeted parent could wave written documentation proving the rightness of his or her case or point and the child will have no interest in even looking at or acknowledging the existence of the evidence.
  7. Use of Borrowed Scenarios – PAS children often make accusations towards the targeted parent that utilize phrases and ideas adopted wholesale from the alienating parent. One clue that a scenario is borrowed from an alienating parent is the child’s use of language and ideas that she does not seem to understand, such as making accusations that cannot be supported with detail or using words that cannot be defined. For example, an alienated child called his father a womanizer when he had no idea what the word meant. Another alienated child was provided with a script written by the mother, which the girl was to enact with her father during visitation. At some point in the “play,” the girl was to scream that her father was a bad father and run out of the room crying. This is what lends PAS its feel of programming. Children will adamantly claim things to be true when they do not even understand the words they are saying or it appears as if they are following a script provided to them.
  8. Spread of Alienation to Extended Family of Targeted Parent – Finally, the hatred of the targeted parent spreads to her extended family. Not only is the targeted parent denigrated, despised, and avoided but so too is her entire family. Formerly beloved grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are suddenly avoided and rejected. Alienated children have been known to miss funerals, weddings, and other important, once-in-a-lifetime events.

3 thoughts on “What is Parental Alienation?”

  1. This is an excellent article. But have you considered that the response of a child who has been abused toward the abusive parent might be very similar in many of these points, without the protective parent’s encouragement? I do see one sentence addressing this concern, and it is a well-written sentence. However, it’s not enough. The accusation of PAS can be used by abusive parents against protective parents. It’s a terrible bind to be in. Believe me, it’s bad enough to wake up and find yourself in the position of the protective parent, without having to run the gauntlet of suspicion and accusation from all sides, sides that have recently read articles like these . . .

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