Parental alienation can have long lasting effects on both children and parents.  Here’s info on what it is, symptoms of parental alienation syndrome and more.

By Tracy Guth Spangler
Updated January 18, 2018
Mom having serious talk with her daughter
Credit: Robert Llewellyn/Getty Images

Divorce isn’t easy on anyone, and most parents, despite their distress, do all they can to smooth the way for their kids. But with so many intense feelings to cope with, one parent may consciously or unconsciously encourage the children to unjustly reject the other parent. This is known as parental alienation, or, more controversially, parental alienation syndrome.

What Is Parental Alienation?

An alienated child becomes hostile to the rejected parent, and may express fear or even hatred of them. Even if they previously had a good relationship, the child may say he or she can’t remember any good times or positive experiences. He or she will resist talking to or seeing the rejected parent and may try to curry favor with the favored one by being negative and dismissive about the other.

According to Amy J. L. Baker, Ph.D., a nationally recognized expert on parental alienation, some children are able to resist the pressure to choose one parent over the other. But when they can’t, they become alienated. “They reject the targeted parent without justification. Their relationship with the targeted parent is based on the emotional manipulation of the favored parent rather than on actual experiences with the targeted parent,” she explains.

What Is Parental Alienation Syndrome?

The theory of parental alienation syndrome was introduced by psychiatrist Richard Gardner in the 1980s, but there’s disagreement about it among experts. The American Psychiatric Association does not recognize it, and it is not listed in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, though Baker points out that it does meet the APA’s definition of a syndrome. Still, she says, there has been confusion as to whom PAS refers to (the parent, the child, or the family), and she prefers to focus on the tactics alienators use and the behavior of the alienated child. “That way, everyone is clear about what we’re talking about,” she says.

Types of Parental Alienation

There are three kinds of alienators. Each type displays different behaviors, and exhibits different reactions to common situations.

Naive Alienators

The naïve alienator wants the child to have a good relationship with the other parent but will occasionally do or say something hurtful (“Tell your dad it would help if he was on time to pick you up”). Still, decent communication between the parents and their mutual desire to support their kids is apparent. The kids will generally weather the divorce well and will not become alienated from one parent over the other.

Active Alienators

Active alienators also believe their kids should have a good relationship with the other parent, but they have a harder time not letting their own pain and frustration affect their behavior. They lash out at or about the other parent in front of the children and may be rigid and uncommunicative with their ex. This can cause pain and confusion for children around how they should feel about or act toward the other parent.

Obsessive Alienators

Obsessive alienators actively try to win the child to their side and aim to prevent or destroy any relationship with the other parent. If they feel anger, hatred, or fear toward their former partner, they assume or decide the child must feel the same, and they choose to “protect” their child at all costs. The child may begin to parrot what this parent is doing and saying, and his or her negative feelings toward the rejected parent can become extreme.

Parental Alienation Tactics

Baker says research has identified five categories of alienation tactics that foster conflict and distance between the child and the targeted parent:

  1. Portraying the targeted parent as unloving, unsafe, and unavailable.
  2. Limiting contact and communication between the child and the targeted parent.
  3. Erasing and replacing the targeted parent in the child’s heart and mind.
  4. Encouraging the child to betray the targeted parent’s trust.
  5. Undermining the targeted parent’s authority.

“Parents should avoid engaging in behaviors that are likely to result in a child falsely believing that the other parent is unsafe, unloving, and unavailable,” Baker says. “Many parents claim they never bad-mouth the other, but bad-mouthing is only one of a number of behaviors that constitute parental alienation. Some claim they want the child to have a good relationship with the other parent and that they are not intentionally sabotaging it, but intentionality is not really relevant—the behaviors a parent engages in and the attitudes they convey are what matter, not their intentions.”

Signs and Symptoms of Parental Alienation

According to Baker, children display eight behaviors that can be read as symptoms of alienation. “Any parent concerned that a child is becoming alienated should be on the lookout for even a hint of these behaviors,” she says:

  1. Extreme negative views toward the parent, including denying past positive experiences, and lack of investment or interest in improving the relationship.
  2. Frivolous or absurd reasons for hurt and anger with the parent.
  3. Seeing one parent as all good and the other as all bad.
  4. Always siding with the favored parent, no matter what he or she says or does.
  5. A lack of remorse for hurting the rejected parent’s feelings.
  6. Claiming to reject the parent with no influence from the favored parent, even though that parent is an obvious influence.
  7. Repeating the favored parent’s words without always understanding what they mean.
  8. Becoming cold and hostile toward friends and family of the rejected parent.

Parental Alienation Laws—Do They Exist?

Besides the damage parental alienation does to family relationships, it can be a critical issue when it comes to the legal aspects of divorce, including visitation. Parental alienation is sometimes claimed when abuse is alleged, but many mental health professionals and legal experts say it should be inadmissible in child custody hearings.

Baker believes the symptoms of alienation should be investigated, however. “An allegation of PA, just like an allegation of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or physical neglect, should trigger an assessment by a trained mental health professional,” she says. “Allegations should not be taken at face value, nor should they be dismissed without investigation; either could result in an abused child not being treated.” She says she’s not aware of any statutory laws specific to PA, but that the law regarding the best interests of the child is clear that abuse should be a factor when judges make decisions about custody, and that the research is clear that PA is a form of emotional abuse. “However, judges in many states are not yet trained about the relationship between PA and abuse,” she continues. “More needs to be done to ensure that true cases of PA are taken seriously by the courts without harming parents because of false allegations.”

So far, Baker hasn't seen any trend of PA allegations unfairly taking kids away from their parents. “There is no data I am aware of that significant numbers of parents are losing custody because they were falsely accused of PA. But the solution is to ensure that PA is assessed in all cases where it might be present.”

That’s because the emotional well-being of the child—and his or her relationship with both parents—is paramount. “The most important to thing to remember in a co-parenting situation is that you and the child are not the same person,” Baker says. “You may be hurt and angry with the other parent, but your child deserves to have a relationship with both parents, regardless of how the parents feel about each other.” She adds, “I applaud any parent who asks him or herself, ‘What have I done that may be interfering in or undermining the child’s relationship with the other parent?’ That’s the best place to start.”