banner ad
Experts Logo


Diagnosing and Treating Parental Alienation/Child Alienation: How a Forensic Psychologist Can Help

By: Dr. Jane K. McNaught
Tel: 952-896-1772
Email Dr. McNaught

View Profile on

History and Definition of Parental Alienation Syndrome:

When divorce occurs in the family, an inevitable loss occurs in the lives of the parents as well as children. Positive adjustment to divorce comes when both of the parents as well as the children develop healthy coping methods to deal with the loss. This enables both parents and children to move forward with their new lives. Unfortunately, many parents who suffer from their own disturbed attachment history or mental health issues, are unable to put aside their anger and constructively cope with the loss. In such cases, parents often undermine the children's relationship with the other parent, in order to express their own unresolved parental anger and sadness about the divorce.

In 1976, Wallerstein and Kelly identified a portion of divorcing families in their sample as experiencing "pathological alignment". They described a child, living with one parent, who irrationally rejected the other parent and who refused to visit or have contact with the other parent. Wallerstein and Kelly (1980) attributed this behavior to the dynamics of the parent-child separation and later used the term "embittered-chaotic" to describe these high conflict families. Since that time there has been considerable debate in the professional community about the concept of alienating dynamics.

Many published articles, subsequent to the work of Wallerstein and Kelly, have examined the pattern of one parent's intentional manipulation of a child's feelings and beliefs about the other parent. Various professionals have used different labels to describe this problem. Currently in the professional and legal community such dynamics are observed to occur typically in High Conflict Divorce cases. However, most researchers concur that many parents badmouth the child's other parent during and after the process of divorce and separation. Yet, the number of children who actually become alienated from the other parent is quite infrequent. The current paper looks at the factors that contribute to the development of a child rejecting a parent for no apparent reason. The term used to describe this intentional manipulation of the child's feelings about the other parent is referred to Parental Alienation (PA). More recently Stahl (???) has used the term Child Alienation to describe this process. The current research and thinking on the topic has evolved from just a focus on the brainwashing parent to factors in both parents as well as the child that may contribute to Parental Alienation. Further there is a continuum of children who have extreme alignments with one parent after separation and divorce. On the far end is a child who strongly resists and rejects the other parent. They strongly resist or refuse contact with the other parent, eve

Is PAS or PA a syndrome? The answer in my opinion is no. A syndrome is defined as a cluster of symptoms that occur together that characterize a specific disorder. In my experience over the past 30 years in practice as a clinical as well as forensic psychologist, Parental Alienation does not always embody the same set up symptoms. Parental Alienation can range from mild to severe.

The current thinking on this issue contrasts to the earlier work of Dr. Richard Gardiner. He identified Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) as a conscious or unconscious attempt by one parent to behave in a manner that undermines the child or children's relationship with the other parent (target parent). In 1992 Gardiner claimed that PAS resulted from two main factors: programing or brainwashing of the child by one parent against the other parent, and the child's vilification of the target parent. Gardiner argued that PAS occurred in mild, moderate, and severe forms (Gardiner, 2004). In Gardiner's work he focused more on the child's symptoms and psychological vulnerabilities, rather than parental behavior. Further in his work, he identified the mother as the parent most often engaged in a systematic attempt to alienate the child.

Later research and practice has placed greater emphasis on the contributions of the entire family system to the child's alienation. Current standards of practice place greater emphasis on the behavior of alienating parents, and distinguish this destructive behavior (labeled "parent alienation") from Gardiner's work, which addressed the child who totally rejects the targeted parent. Today custody evaluators and Family Law Attorneys see Parental Alienation (PA) as a continuum where the most extreme form is that of a child refusing to have contact with the targeted parent, based on erroneous beliefs about the parent. Despite the growing discussion of Parental Alienation, the term Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) continues to stir controversy in child custody matters.

In contrast, the current definition of Parental Alienation (PA) in High Conflict Custody cases places the emphasis on the alienating parents rather than on the severity of the child's symptoms. Kelly and Johnston (2001) renamed the behavior as "child alienation" focusing our attention on the ways in which children can be adversely affected by parental behavior. They also defined alienation dynamics as a multi-dimensional process rather than a syndrome. They outlined a continuum of relationships that children may have with their parents following separation and divorce. At the one end of the continuum, the children have a positive relationship with both parents and enjoy spending time with each parent. This affinity, however, is recognized as possibly shifting over time with the changing needs of the children and other circumstances.

On the negative end of this continuum, the children reject the targeted parent and shows no ambivalence. This happens in several situations. Children who have been exposed to family violence, abuse, and/or neglect understandably have anger and fear. The most severe form of PA, when there is no history of abuse, is where a child openly expresses rejection of a parent with no apparent guilt or ambivalence; in these cases the children's views of the targeted parent have been found to be distorted and exaggeratedly negative, when compared to the history of the parenting relationship.

According to Kelly and Johsnton (2001), in such cases, the behavior of the alienator as well as the targeted parent may contribute to the alienation process. These authors believe that children display specific vulnerability to the alienation process. These vulnerabilities are affected by the child's age; cognitive capacity; personality and temperament; as well as a sense of abandonment and lack of external support, following the parental separation.

James Bow has conducted a number of widely respected studies to assess current professional practice in a number of issues. In 2009, Bow, Gould, & Flens conducted an internet survey to examine the views of mental health and legal professionals about parental alienation (PA) in child custody cases. The responses of 448 respondents revealed much awareness about the concept of PA, and the need for further research in the field. Respondents were cautious in their views of PA and very reluctant to support Parental Alienation Syndrome. They further did not view the concept of Parental Alienation Syndrome as meeting admissibility standards in the courts. Respondents in the legal and mental health field viewed domestic violence as important to assess; however they did not usually find or suspect Domestic violence in cases of Parental Alienation (PA).

On average (Bow, et. al. 2009) respondents reported that one quarter of their cases involved concerns about parental alienation, with approximately half of those cases being classified as mild alienation. Respondents reported alienation most frequently occurred with ten-year-old children, with children between the ages of 9-12 being the most vulnerable to being alienated by one parent against the other. Respondents also found parental alienation to be slightly more common for girls than boys. 65% of the respondents also reported the mother as more likely to be the alienating parent.

In evaluating Parental Alienation, the respondents who were Child Custody evaluators and court facilitators rated numerous assessment factors as more significant than did the trial attorneys/judges. Custody evaluators considered it important to assess the child relation factors (age, rebellion, role reversal); as well as family issues (adversarial nature of divorce, remarriage issues, dynamics between sibling and attachment/alignment issues).

The findings of this study indicate that custody evaluators supported the use of conventional forensic methodology (Bow, 2006; Gould, 2006, Gould & Martindale, 2007) in high conflict cases involving Parental Alienation. Those procedures that were rated as most useful by custody evaluators in such situations included: parent interviews, child interviews, parent-child observation, review of records, and collateral contacts. Further this study supported the importance of hypothesis testing and collecting data from numerous sources in High Conflict cases involving Parental Alienation (PA); this is consistent with the recommendations made by the American Psychological Association (APA, 1994).

"Child Psychological Abuse" is also a new diagnosis in DSM-5. It is defined as "non-accidental verbal or symbolic acts by a child's parent or caregiver that result, or have reasonable potential to result, in significant psychological harm to the child." In many instances, the behavior of the alienating parent constitutes psychological abuse. "Children Affected by Parental Relationship Distress" is another new diagnosis in DSM-5. It should be used "when the focus of clinical attention is the negative effects of the parental relationship discord (high levels of conflict, distress, or disparagement) on a child in the family, inducing effects on the child's mental or physical disorders."

In cases involving Parental Alienation between the child and one parent, both mothers and fathers must be able to honestly look at their behavior. Each parent needs to identify the symptoms of PA and learn strategies for preventing PA, regardless of whether the parent is the alienator or the targeted parent. Often times, Parental Alienation can be a reciprocal process where both parents get caught up in attempts to alienate the children from the other parent.

The children themselves may have agendas that make the parental alienation worse. Children of divorce have a strong desire to avoid discomfort and anger between their parents. This makes them vulnerable to being enlisted as allies for siding with the alienating parent. The children sense the alienating parent's vulnerability and sadness, and oftentimes become the advocate for the alienating parent by becoming the spokesperson for their parent's hatred. While the child becomes the voice piece for the vulnerable alienating parent, this is generally accomplished by the alienating parent directing the action in the background against the targeted parent. The children are frequently unaware of how they are being used. However, if the child is angry and refuses to visit the targeted parent because of actual physical or emotional abuse or neglect, the child's behavior is not a manifestation of PA.

Parental Alienation (PA) can occur ever so subtly and effectively, simply by one parent focusing on the targeted parent's faults that are real and provable. Unfortunately, this is highly damaging to the children. Children need to love both parents if at all possible, even if the parents themselves have years ago ceased to love their ex-spouse or ex-partner. Divorced parents need to help the children dwell on the other parent's good points rather than the faults.

It is important to keep in mind that alienation is not about one parent being the "good" parent, and the targeted parent being the "bad" parent. In some high conflict divorce cases Parental Alienation occurs due to the parents alternating in their role as the alienating parent and the targeted parent. The same parent can be both the alienator and the victim, depending on how he or she is behaving. It is not uncommon for a targeted parent to retaliate with alienating behavior against the other parent. At this point, the parents have reversed their roles. In some cases, the alienation escalates back and forth, with each parent retaliating against the other. This destructive cycle interferes with the children's ability to focus on their own developmental tasks and can lead to significant future psychological problems for the child as well as difficulty in their subsequent relationships.

Professionals placed in the role of evaluating cases of "Child Alienation" as the issue is more commonly referred to currently, cannot assume that the targeted parent is without fault. Targeted parents can become alienators when they retaliate because of their hurt. Now they are in the role of the alienator and the other parent becomes the victim. The roles become blurred because it is difficult to know which parent is the alienator, and which is the victim or targeted parent. Oftentimes both parents feel victimized.

In a review of the literature, as well as my own experience over the past 30 years, the characteristics of Parental Alienators described by Douglas Darnall, Ph.D. (1997) defines parental alienation by focusing on the symptoms or behaviors of the parent. A generally accepted definition of Parental Alienation, is included in the one outlined by Darnall, (1997). Darnell defined Parental Alienation (PA) as: "a constellation of behaviors, whether conscious or unconscious, that could evoke a disturbance in the relationship between a child and the other parent."

Darnall goes on to site the following examples of parental behavior that can result in alienating the child/children from the other parent:

  1. Giving children choices when they have no choice about visits. By allowing the child to decide for themselves to visit the other parent, when the court order says there is no choice, sets up the child for conflict. Children placed in such a position often blame the non-residential parent for not allowing them to decide whether or not to visit. The targeted parent is now victimized regardless of what happens; either the parent does not see the children or if the parent enforces his/her parenting time, the children are angry.
  2. Telling the child "everything" about the marital relationship or reasons for the divorce is alienating. The parent usually argues that they are "just wanting to be honest" with their children. This practice is destructive and painful for the child. The alienating parent's motive is for the child to think less of the other parent.
  3. Refusing to acknowledge that children have property and may want to transport their possessions between residences.
  4. Resisting or refusing to cooperate by not allowing the other parent access to school or medical records and schedules of extracurricular activities.
  5. A parent blaming the other parent for financial problems, breaking up the family, changes in lifestyle, or having a girlfriend/boyfriend, etc.
  6. Refusing to be flexible with the visitation schedule in order to respond to the child's needs. The alienating parent may also schedule the children in so many activities that the other parent is never given the time to visit. Of course when the targeted parent protests, they are described as uncaring and selfish.
  7. The alienating parent assumes that if a spouse has in the past been physically abusive, it follows that the parent will assault the child. This assumption is not always true.
  8. Asking the child to choose one parent over another parent causes the child considerable distress. Typically, the children do not want to reject a parent, but instead want to avoid the issue. The child, not the parent, should initiate any suggestion for change of residence.
  9. Children will become angry with a parent. This is normal, particularly if the parent disciplines or has to say "no". Typically, children will forgive and want to be forgiven if given a chance. If for any reason a parent encourages the child's anger and the child is not is not allowed to heal and forgive, parental alienation should be considered. Children placed in this situation by the alienating parent are often found to make such statements as, "I cannot remember any happy times" with the other parent; or have difficulty saying anything positive about their time with the alienated parent.
  10. Be suspicious when a parent or stepparent raises the question about changing the child's name or suggests an adoption.
  11. When children cannot give reasons for being angry towards a parent, or their reasons are very vague without any details.
  12. A parent having secrets, special signals, a private rendezvous, or words with special meanings with the children; this is destructive and reinforces an on-going alienation.
  13. When a parent uses a child to spy or covertly gather information for the parent's own use, the child receives a damaging message that demeans the victimized parent.
  14. Parents setting up temptations that interfere with the child's visitation.
  15. A parent suggesting or reacting with hurt or sadness to their child having a good time with the other parent will cause the child to withdraw and not communicate. They will frequently feel guilty or conflicted not knowing that it's "okay" to have fun with their other parent.
  16. The parent asking the child about his/her other parent's personal life causes the child considerable tension and conflict. Children who are not alienated want to be loyal to both parents.
  17. When parents physically or psychologically rescue the children when there is no threat to their safety. This practice reinforces in the child's mind the illusion of threat or danger, thereby reinforcing alienation.
  18. Making demands on the other parent that is contrary to court orders.
  19. Listening in on the children's phone conversation they are having with the other parent.
  20. One way to cause your own alienation is making a habit of breaking promises to your children. In time, your ex-spouse will get tired of having to make excuses for you.

The question often asked is why the child believes the alienating parent. There are a number of reasons:

  • The child feels the need to protect a parent who is depressed, anxious, or needy;
  • The child wants to avoid the anger or rejection of the alienating parent; and
  • The child has unresolved feelings about the rejected parent and the divorce.

The impact of Parental Alienation can often cause significant problems for the child as they become adults. These difficulties include:

  • Having trouble trusting others;
  • Low self-esteem;
  • Difficulty sustaining intimate relationships;
  • Experiencing shame for hurting the rejected parent;
  • Depression;
  • Substance abuse to relieve the pain of parental alienation;
  • More likely to experience divorce;
  • More likely to have difficulty with authority figures and the law; and
  • Experience the loss of their own children through parental alienation.

In determining whether or not Child Alienation has occurred, in my evaluations I consider multiple hypotheses. The first hypothesis considered is that the parent termed the alienating parent is in fact consciously or unconsciously involved in attempting to alienate the child from the other parent. In such situations, children often use terms to describe the targeted parent that are not consistent with the child's age and development. Other factors to be evaluated include whether or not the allegedly alienating parent has provided information to the children about the divorce such as telling them their father is withholding money and stealing things from the family home. When a child engages the children in his/her disputes with the other parent about money, the parent is engaging in alienating behavior. This practice is destructive and painful for the child. The alienating parent's motive is for the child to think less of the other parent.

Parental Allegations of abuse to a child, that occur for the first time after the separation in a high conflict divorce, should be interpreted with caution. Such allegations are particularly suspicious if the child has never previously reported abuse prior to the separation. Two hypotheses must be explored in such cases: the abuse of the child did occur; and alternatively the allegations of abuse are false allegations encouraged by a parent attempting to alienate the other parent. Again the alienating partner's motive is for the child to think less of the other parent. Such behavior can also be an attempt by the alienating parent to restrict the parent's access to the child in a custody conflict. The long term effect of false allegations is traumatic for the children and often result in children refusing to have future contact with the targeted parent. Unfortunately the child who is persuaded to make false allegations of abuse against the other parent, inevitably suffers guilt as well as confusion about the reality of the other parent's behavior.

It has been my experience in dealing with Parental Alienation (PA) cases, that one or both parents have a Personality Disorder. Parents who have experienced attachment trauma in their own childhood, often act out their own attachment loss in the context of divorce. In such cases a parent attempts to undermine the children's relationship with the targeted parent in order to prevent further loss for him/herself.

The second hypothesis considered is that there is no PA occurring. When a parent abuses or neglects a child, or is emotionally abusive, it is understandable that a child does not want to spend time with that parent. The term "estrangement" is used when the child refuses to spend time with the other parent for justifiable reasons. In the case of estrangement, the child does not feel safe with the other parent due to abuse occurring. Estrangement is different than a child being angry at a parent when the parent sets a limit. Estrangement involves psychologically damaging events that occur to the child in the other parent's home.

The third hypothesis is that the Parental Alienation (PA) evidenced in this family is related to the reciprocal process where both parents have become involved in the alienating process. As previously stated, in some cases Parental Alienation is not about one parent being the "good" parent, and the targeted parent being the "bad" parent. In some high conflict divorce cases PA occurs due to the parents alternating in their role as the alienating parent and the targeted parent. The same parent can be both the alienator and the victim, depending on how he or she is behaving. It is not uncommon for a targeted parent to retaliate with alienating behavior against the other parent. In some cases, the alienation escalates back and forth, with each parent retaliating against the other. This destructive cycle interferes with the children's ability to focus on their own developmental tasks and can lead to significant future psychological problems for the children. In such cases the roles become blurred because it's now difficult to determine who the alienator is, and who is the victim or targeted parent. Often both parents feel victimized.

The evaluation of Parental Alienation should involve a psychological evaluation of both parties as well as the alienated child. In addition parenting ability needs to be assessed with each party. A psychological evaluation of the alienated child/children also needs to occur. The evaluation of the child should focus on evaluating psychopathology as well as the child's reasons for not wanting to see the other parent. the evaluator needs to have access to the complete court file

Dr. Jane K. McNaught, PhD is a locally and nationally recognized Psychological Forensic Expert. Over the course of her more than 30 years of practice, she has worked with Defense and Plaintiff attorneys and has also been a Court appointed expert. She has administered more than 2,000 psychological test batteries.

©Copyright - All Rights Reserved


Related articles


1/25/2022· Forensic Psychiatry

Drug Treatment Of Personality Disorder Traits

By: Dr. James Reich

This article examines these pharmacological treatments. It first examines some of the drugs that have been used and some of the evidence for their effectiveness. It then takes the mindset of a clinician and looks at how some symptom clusters might be approached.


11/14/2021· Forensic Psychiatry

Understanding Dementia and Medical-Legal Implications

By: Dr. Sanjay Adhia

Dementia encompasses degenerative disorders to the brain. It can be subtle and fluctuate in severity even from day to day. It can accompany genetic factors, or be associated with an injury or repeated injuries to the brain and head. It is serious and marked by symptoms that can impair making informed decisions or manage the most basic tasks we take for granted in living our daily lives.


3/30/2022· Forensic Psychiatry

Personality Of Panic Disorder Alcohol Abusers

By: Dr. James Reich

There has been little scientific investigation of the relationship between anxiety disorders and alcohol abuse and none examining differences in personality factors between those anxiety disorder patients with and without a history of alcohol abuse. There is evidence, however, for an overlap of alcohol abuse and anxiety disorders.

; broker Movie Ad

Follow us

linkedin logo youtube logo rss feed logo