About Parental Alienation

girlContrary to the abundant amount of misrepresentations and pseudo-science found on the Internet, parental alienation is not a new concept. For at least 65 years, it’s been characterized in psychiatric literature, and for at least 205 years, it’s been characterized in legal literature.  Sadly, parental alienation is a burgeoning phenomenon in psycho-legal communities and meets the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for child psychological abuse. As such, parental alienation must be treated as any other form of child abuse.

By definition, the term alienation is used to indicate that a child has rejected a parent without a reasonable or valid reason—i.e. for weak, trivial, frivolous, or absurd reasons. This phenomenon is commonly known as parental alienation. In parental alienation cases, the favored parent is typically referred to as the alienating parent, and the rejected normative parent is typically referred to as the target parent.

In most parental alienation cases, an abrupt, negative change in the relationship between the target parent and child takes place and generally corresponds to the onset of the separation or divorce proceedings.  Moreover, for diagnostic purposes, there must be evidence to prove that a good base-line relationship between the target parent and the child was present prior to the onset of the alienation.

It’s not uncommon for mental health and legal professionals to use the terms alienation and estrangement interchangeably. These terms are not one of the same. The term estrangement is used to indicate that a child has rejected a parent for reasonable or valid reasons—i.e. as a result of bona fide abuse or neglect.

Parental alienation is a scientifically valid concept and the diagnostic criteria for parental alienation are reliable. There are 8 generally accepted manifestations of parental alienation. They include:

1) The child/youth aligns with the alienating parent in a campaign of denigration and hatred against the target parent, with the child making active contributions.

2)  The child’s reasons for denigrating the target parent are weak, frivolous, and absurd.

3)  There seems to be no ambivalence in the child’s feelings toward the target parent.

4)  The child states that the decisions to reject the target parent are the child’s own (referred to as the “Independent Thinker” phenomenon).

5)  The child has an automatic reflexive support of the alienating parent.

6)  The child demonstrates various degrees of cruelty towards the target parent with no remorse or guilt.

7)  The child borrows from various subject matter and jargon of the alienating parent. So, the child’s denigration of the target parent has a distinct rehearsed quality.

8) The child’s animosity spreads to the extended family, friends, and/or intimate partner of the target parent.

Although the eight manifestations of parental alienation are typically triggered during high-conflict child custody battles, parental alienation can also be precipitated during other divorce disputes including, but not limited to, child support issues, property division issues, remarriage, and financial Sad boy cutting paper people family - divorce conceptarrangement issues.

There are three levels of parental alienation: mild, moderate, and severe.  In mild cases, the child opposes contact with the target parent however appreciates the time with that parent once parenting time is in progress. In moderate cases, the child unequivocally opposes contact with the target parent and is tenaciously oppositional with that parent once parenting time is in progress. In severe cases, the child diligently and resolvedly opposes contact with the target parent and may shroud or flee to prevent any form of contact with the target parent. The eight specific manifestations of parental alienation are almost always present in severely alienated children but rarely present in severely estranged children.

Parental Alienation is a highly complex psycho-legal topic. It’s important to keep in mind that alienation not only can occur by parents, but mental health experts, physicians, judges, lawyers, teachers, grandparents, step-parents and others can easily engage in “third party” alienation. Additionally, most mental health and legal professionals lack proper education with respect to alienation and estrangement. Even some of the most seasoned clinicians lack the expertise to properly evaluate and treat parental alienation or estrangement cases. Most judges, attorneys and mental health professionals have no idea that therapeutic approaches for alienated children and their family members significantly differ, dependent on the degree of severity. Traditional or conventional therapeutic approaches do not work for severely alienated children and their family members. The same holds true for most moderate alienation cases. Yet, it’s not uncommon for courts to order a moderately or severely alienated child to go to counseling at a therapist’s office. Unfortunately, but true, the latter judicial approach will make matters catastrophically worse. There are only a couple of therapeutic models and programs that successfully treat moderate-severe alienation. To learn more, please click here.

I strongly urge you to bookmark and regularly read this website.  Whether this is the first time you’ve heard the terms parental alienation or estrangement, there’s plenty of information that will follow on a regular and consistent basis that will increase your knowledge and understanding of
it.  Stay tuned.

Dr. Kathleen M. Reay,

Parental Alienation Sub-Specialist