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Parental Alienation – A Summary
  • Nov 20, 2020
  • Latest Journal

Parental Alienation describes actions that a parent takes to intentionally, or unintentionally, distance a child (or children) from the other parent (Darnell, 1998).  Some researchers state that the impact of parental alienation is a form of child abuse because the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (APA, 2013) defines child abuse as non-accidental verbal or symbolic acts by a child's parent or caregiver that result, or have a reasonable potential to result, in significant psychological harm to the child.

Gardner introduced the Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) concept in 1985 and distinguished Parental Alienation (PA) from PAS (Nicholls,2014).  PA is defined as the wide variety of symptoms that may result from or be associated with a child’s alienation from a parent, with potential causes including, but not limited to, physical or emotional abuse, abandonment, ongoing acrimony within the family, impaired parenting, or denunciations by one parent toward the other (Lowenstein,2013).

Gardner further stated that when relationships break down leading to divorce, some parents become overly critical or demean each another in front of the children.  The children may believe these denunciations which influence their relationship with the alienated parent. These denunciations may serve as the foundation for the Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), particularly if the parent is prepared to escalate the denigrations to the point of complete exclusion. When true parental abuse and/or neglect is present, the child’s animosity may be justified and the parental alienation syndrome explanation for the child’s hostility is not applicable (Lowenstein,2013).

Other experts including attorneys and judges have used the terms PA and PAS interchangeably.  Other authors have used the terms Parental Alienation Disorder (PAD), parental alienation (without the word syndrome), Medea syndrome, divorce related malicious mother syndrome, parental alignments, programmed and brainwashed children, overburdened child (Rand, 2011), and a mild form of folie `a deux or “folie a trois” (Bruch, 2001) to describe PAS. Lowenstein (2013) state that Judges prefer the term implacable hostility.

Parental alienation affects 1% in the USA (Rand, 2011), and it has been recognised in other countries including the United Kingdom (Lowenstein,2003; Timms, 2003).

Since the 1990s, research has been conducted in different continents such as North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Australia, and Asia that describe the features of parental alienation and identified similar behavioural patterns in children of parents involved in high-conflict divorces (Rand, 2011).  Rand further says that psychologists, psychiatrists, family counsellors, and other mental health professionals who evaluate and treat children of high-conflict divorces have described individual cases and small groups of divorcing families that show patterns of parental alienation.

Evidence from this research indicates that there are consequences associated with parental alienation on children ranging from the development of mental health disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and conduct disorders), decline in academic performance and suicide ideation (Baker, 2007; Harman & Biringen, 2016) and suicide (Sher,2015).  In addition, Raso (2004) stated that the more severe the PA, the more likely the child will develop externalizing problems such as becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol and early and promiscuous sexual activity.  Other identified difficulties include lacking the ability to trust, to enjoy intimacy in later life, and to demonstrate commitment to another person.  Frequently, in their adult life, their relationships end up in divorce and they become alienators themselves.  Baker (2007) estimated that 40% to 80% of all divorcing families exhibited PA tactics leading to such long-term effects.  Lowenstein (2013) said in adulthood, the children often suffer serious mental health issues.

Confirmation from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory -2 psychometric measure, mainly K and F scales indicate that when assessed, PAS parents are more likely to complete MMPI-2 questions in a defensive manner, striving to appear as flawless as possible. Therefore, parents who engage in alienating behaviours are more likely than other parents to use the psychological defences of denial and projection, which are associated with K and F validity scale pattern (Siegel and Langford, 1998).

Despite the global acceptance of the PA concept, there are controversies around the PAS (Bernet, et al.,2011; Rand,2011).  Many members of the judiciary do not yet accept the concept of parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome, and it has not been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders–5 (DSM-V) or International Classification of Diseases -11 (ICD-11) (Lowenstein, 2013; Nichols, 2014). Cafcass Cymru (2018) do not accept that PA is a syndrome but consider it to be a set of behaviours that may influence a child’s opinion about a parent.

Some of the critiques of the PA and PAS concepts come from the scientific community which has stated that there is no scientific evidence of a clinical syndrome concerning parental alienation, and that PAS is not a mental disorder (Meier, 2009; Nichols, 2014).  For this reason, the PA and PAS concepts did not meet the set criteria for the American court system interpreted in the Rule 702 which incorporate the Frye test (Nichols, 2014).  These standards ensure that courts use objectively valid scientific testimony.  In addition, the theory and empirical research around the PA and PAS remains questionable and does not meet the Daubert standards.  For example, among others, there were problems identified on the inter-rater reliability of the concepts, and that the available research is not published in peer reviewed journals (Rand, 2011; Nichols, 2014).

Treatment considerations
There are relatively few studies that have focused on treatment (Lowenstein, 2013).  Lowenstein further states that many of the decisions or recommendations depend on the expert’s relationship with the courts and whether the courts will accept the PAS label and accept the conclusions reached by the expert as well as the recommended therapeutic input that follows investigation.

Deters (2003) emphasised the importance of helping parents to communicate
in a constructive manner and reducing conflict.

Baker (2007) emphasised the importance of diagnosing PA, which leads to custody evaluations and the making of a recommendation for custody.  For instance, consideration may be given to changing the custody of the child to the alienated parent or removing the child from their alienator and placing the child in a neutral environment.

Lowenstein (2013) emphasised getting the concerned child’s or children’s views.  Currently, there are still ongoing debates in the mental health and legal literature about the PA concepts and the most appropriate mental health intervention to offer (Fidler, Bala, Birnbaum, & Kavassalis, 2008; Reay, (2015).

Woodall (2019) suggests that ‘splitting’ occurs in which the child’s feelings come from a maladaptive position in which the authentic feelings held by the child are hidden by a defensive split.  This defensive split arises when the child faces an impossible dilemma caused by pressure placed upon him or her in the family system via a pathological alignment with a parent.

Successful therapies are those in which a child is supported to encounter the rejected parent as early as possible in the process.  This is done by enabling the child to spend time with the rejected parent in such a way as to allow the child and parent to have proximity to each other.  It is considered that traditional models of family therapy may serve to entrench the alienation that the child exhibits
Woodall (2019a) suggests a model of therapy which is based upon ‘doing rather than talking’.  Woodall considers that if the child does things with the alienated parent this will awaken a previous positive attachment relationship between the child and alienated parent.  This does assume that a previous secure attachment relationship existed between the child and the alienated parent, and that there was no direct or indirect abuse in the relationship between the alienated parent and the child.

Any activity that the child/young person shares with the alienated parent must be in the context of a therapeutic framework that has as a goal, the re-establishment of a secure relationship between the child and the alienated parent.

The objective of adopting a therapeutic context for both the parents and the chidren/young people is to enable positive relationships to develop between the child/young person and both parents, without exposing the child to any additional Adverse Childhood Experiences.  This approach throws into relief the extent to which both parents are prepared to put the needs of their children before their own emotional needs.

A Critical Review
Nielson (2018) reviewed over 300 cases of ‘parental alienation’ that had been through the Canadian courts during a two-year period.  It was found that approximately 65% of allegations were made against mothers, and 35% of allegations were made against fathers.  In approximately 75% of cases in which there were issues of domestic or child abuse, allegations of parental alienation were made by the perpetrator of domestic or child abuse.

In relationships that are characterised by Intimate Partner Abuse, in 88% of cases the abuse continues for at least 3 years following separation, often occurring around issues associated with contact (Women’s Aid, 2016).  Before embarking upon a therapeutic process that encourages the ‘alienated’ child to develop a relationship with the alienated parent, it is essential to confirm that Intimate Partner Abuse was not a characteristic of the parental relationship before the parents separated, and harassment and abuse are not a feature of the parental relationship following separation.

Nielson considered that in addition to gender bias, parental alienation cases demonstrate limited attention to scientifically documented child development factors and limited understanding of the effects of domestic abuse on parents or children.  Allegations of parental alienation may mask domestic abuse issues that the child has experienced as a consequence of the parental relationship.

Trauma affects demeanour, disclosure, fear, and protective responses. Nielson (2018) concludes that reliance on single controversial theories can be replaced by detailed scrutiny of child best interest factors and by reliance upon accepted and scientific child development principles that have broad professional and academic acceptance.  The concept of Parental Alienation has yet to gain this acceptance.
Adult and child trauma knowledge informed practice can replace victim blame in order to ensure safe and effective decisions for children and their families. ‘Draconian’ orders that remove children from a stable parenting relationship who have become ‘alienated’ from the non-resident parent can be replaced by supportive and compassionate orders.

PA marginalises or may even invalidate a child’s wishes and feelings.  Coercing a resident parent into enforcing contact on children who are resistant to contact and who may be afraid of their non-resident parent can have a detrimental effect on the parent-child relationship with a resident parent having to cope with angry, defiant, and distressed children.  

PA may lead to outcomes in individual cases that are harmful to children, including enforced removal of children from their primary carer (Barnet, 2020).  In some cases where residence has been transferred to fathers, there are indications of paternal violent and/or abusive behaviour which have never been tested.
Clinical experience indicates that courts have some difficulty accepting that a mother may have been the primary perpetrator of intimate partner abuse. Research indicates that there is a lack of sex differences when considering the use of controlling behaviour in intimate relationships.  In intimate relationships that are characterised by violence, community studies suggest that in 13% of these relationships the perpetrators are men and in 28% of these relationships the women are perpetrators.  However, in 58% of these relationships’ violence is mutual (Bates & Graham-Kevan, 2016).

Meier (2020) in a study that reviewed 4388 custody cases over a 10-year period considered the use of parental alienation claims to discredit a mother alleging that the father has been abusive or is unsafe for the children.  The findings confirmed that the mother’s allegations of abuse, especially allegations of sexual or physical abuse perpetrated by the father, increases the mother’s risk of losing custody, and if the father cross claims alienation, this virtually doubles that risk. Alienation’s impact is gender specific; fathers alleging that mothers are abusive are not similarly undermined when mother cross claim alienation.  In non-abuse cases the data suggest that alienation has a more gender-neutral impact.

There is significant debate in the literature about Parental Alienation.  It would appear that allegations of PA can distract investigation away from allegations of parental abuse, can lead to young people experiencing significant disruptions in their relationship with their primary carer, and the application of therapeutic approaches that do not reflect broadly accepted child development principles. There is a growing concern that there may be a developing gender bias in the way that PA is applied in the Family Courts.  
Those that embrace the concept of PA should be mindful of the growing body of literature that is critical of the way the concept is applied, and may find that when PA has come under the scrutiny of peer reviewed research at best it may be considered what Cafcass Cymru describe it to be ‘a set of behaviours that may influence a child’s opinion about a parent’.

BA (Hon), MSc Psychopathology, AFBPS,
Consultant Clinical Psychologist
BPS Chartered Clinical Psychologist
HCPC Registered Practitioner Psychologist
Partner and Director- The Forensic Psychology Practice Ltd

BA (Psychology), Postgraduate Diploma (Psychology)
MA Social Health (Psychology).

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing
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Barnet, A. (2020). Parental Alienation and the family courts. Women’s Aid

Bates, E., & Graham-Kevan, N (2016). Is the presence of control related to help-seeking behaviour? A Test of Johnson’s Assumptions Regarding Sex-Differences and the Role in Intimate Partner Violence. Partner Abuse: 7(1) 3-25

Bruch, C.S. (2001). Parental Alienation Syndrome and Parental Alienation: Getting It Wrong in Child Custody Cases. Family Law Quarterly, 35, 527- 552.
Bernet, W., von Boch-Galhau, W., Baker, A. J. L., & Morrison, S. L. (2011). Parental alienation, DSM-V, and ICD-11. American Journal of Family Therapy, 38, 76–187.
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Deters, J.A. (2003). Parenting coordinating services: A forensic intervention for high-conflict child custody cases when parent alienation syndrome is present (Dissertation, Spalding university, Louisville, Kentucky). (In Lowenstein. (2013).

Doughty (2018) Review of research and case law on parental alienation. Cafcass Cymru

Fidler, B. J., Bala, N., Birnbaum, R., & Kavassalis, K. (2008). Understanding child alienation and its impact on families. In B. J. Fidler, N. Bala, R. Birnbaum, & K. Kavassalis (Eds.), Challenging issues in child custody assessments: A guide for legal and mental health professionals (pp. 203–29). Toronto, ON, Canada: Thomson Carswell.

Harman, J.J., Leder-Elder,S., & Biringen,Z.( 2016). Prevalence of parental alienation drawn from a representative poll. Children and Youth Services Review 66 (2016) 62–66

Lowenstein, L. F. (2003). Tackling parental alienation: A summary. Justice of the Peace, 167(3), 29–30.

Lowenstein. (2013). Is the Concept of Parental Alienation a Meaningful One? Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 54:8, 658-667.

Meier, J.S. (2009). A Historical Perspective on Parental Alienation Syndrome and Parental Alienation. Child Custody 232, 237–38

Meier, J.S. (2009). Parental Alienation Syndrome and Parental Alienation: Research Reviews. Applied Research Forum. National Online Resource Centre on Violence Against Women

Meier, J.S. (2020) U.S. child custody outcomes in cases involving parental alienation and abuse allegations: what the data shows. Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law 42

Nichols, A.M. (2014). Toward a Child-Centered Approach to Evaluating Claims of Alienation in High-Conflict. Michigan Law Review [Vol. 112:663

Rand, D. C. (2011). Parental alienation critics and the politics of science. American Journal of Family Therapy, 39(1), 48–71.

Nielson L.C. (2018) Parental Alienation Empirical Analysis: Child’s best interests or parental rights. The Freda Centre for research on violence against women and children.

Raso, C. (2004). If the bread goes stale, it’s my dad’s fault: The parental alienation syndrome (doctoral dissertation). Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Reay, K. M. (2007). Psychological distress among adult children of divorce who perceive experiencing parental alienation syndrome in earlier years (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Information and Learning Company. (UMI, 3266272) (In Lowenstein,2013)

Reay, K. M. (2015). Family Reflections: A Promising Therapeutic Program Designed to Treat Severely Alienated Children and Their Family System. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 43:2, 197-207.

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Sher, L. (2015). Parental alienation and suicide in men. Psychiatria Danubina, 27, 288–289 (doi: 2015-46818-013).

Timms,J.(2003).The Silent Majority: The Position of Children Involved in the Divorce and Separation of their Parents. Child Care in Practice, 9:2, 162-174.
 DOI: 10.1080/1357527032000115738

Woodall (2019) Developing new approaches to therapeutic work with alienated children and families. Family Separation Clinic, London.

Woodall et al (2019a) When the child says no: Understanding and responding to the needs of the alienated child. Family Separation Clinic, London.

Women’s Aid (2016) Domestic Abuse, Child Contact, and the Family Courts. All Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic Violence. Parliamentary Briefing.