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Parental alienation

Parental alienating behaviors are behaviors that a parental figure does to harm or damage the relationship between their child and the other parent, and to hurt the other parental figure themselves. Parental alienation is one situation that is a result of Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress (CAPRD), and it has very negative outcomes for children and their families.

How is parental alienation accomplished?

One cluster of behaviors that alienating parents use are to create a negative portrayal of the other parent and increase the child’s loyalty to them. They will tell their children the other parent does not love them, badmouth and belittle the other parent in front of the child, throw away or hide gifts from the other parent, make the child feel guilty for expressing love for the other parent, have the child spy on the other parent, undermine the other parent’s authority with the child, and badmouth the parent to others, such as friends, neighbors, and teachers. Another cluster of behaviors that alienating parents use are designed to minimize the relationship with the other parent. These behaviors include blocking or interfering with communication with the parent when in their custody, asking the child’s school or doctors to limit communication or sharing of information about the child with the other parent, limiting the mention of the other parent’s name in their presence, having the child call the other parent by their first name, and moving and not letting the other parent know whether they moved to. Alienating parents will also use legal and administrative means to harass and minimize the relationship between the child and the other parent. For example, an alienating parent may make false claims about the other parent abusing their child to police and courts in order to restrict their contact with their child and to obtain sole custody. Research has shown that mothers are more likely to use this latter form of aggression because police, social service professionals, and court personnel are more likely to believe claims of abuse made by women than men.

The outcomes of parental alienation for children and their families are similar to other forms of family violence. In the most extreme cases, the child ultimately rejects the targeted parent for unjustified and frivolous reasons. The child is hostile and angry towards the parent, and often refuses contact with them. It is important to understand that this rejection is not due to estrangement; the targeted parent in this case has not done anything to warrant the distancing or rejection; it is due to the behaviors of the alienating parent. There are, of course, complicated cases in which both estrangement and alienation may be happening, such as an alienating parent exaggerating shortcomings of another parent to a child to make them want to distance themselves more than they would on their own. Other outcomes of parental alienation among children are mental health disorders (e.g., anxiety, depression, substance abuse disorders), and externalizing and risk behaviors (e.g., premature sexual debut, cutting, suicide attempts). The targeted parents often have similar outcomes, accompanied by social isolation due to being blamed by others for what is occurring to them. They are often told that things will get better, or that they should just get “over it.” Recently, researchers have documented a suicide epidemic among alienated parents, particularly among fathers, due to their lack of support and few social and legal resources available to address the problem.

Who alienates their children from the other parent?

Clinicians have documented personality disorders as one factor associated with parental alienation. Many alienating parents are narcissistic, borderline, and/or antisocial, and are unable to prioritize their children’s needs over their own. They have poor boundaries and therefore there are role corruptions between them and their children. Individuals with personality disorders such as these have a difficult time regulating their emotions and letting go of their hostility towards the other parent. Their continued hostility serves to motivate many of the behaviors outlined earlier. Parental alienation is a problem that is often transmitted intergenerationally, so some alienating parents were socialized as children to learn that such behaviors are acceptable in their own adult relationships. Parents who have been abused or traumatized as children also replay their trauma in their parent-child relationships by projecting what happened to them onto their own children. For example, if a parent was physically abused as a child, they may perceive their own child is being abused by the other parent, even if it is not happening. Alienating parents are often delusional in their beliefs about the other parent, which is also a symptom of personality disorders.

Intervention in cases of parental alienation requires outside assistance, such as with strict and enforceable court orders, as this is a form of family violence that severely harms children.

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Positive Parenting After Separation

Colorado State University

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