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Parental Alienation Syndrome

Custody clients often voice concerns about the other parent’s making derogatory remarks about the client to adversely influence the opinion of the parties’ child. When do mere derogatory remarks turn into a harmful psychological phenomenon that psychologists have labeled the "parental alienation syndrome"?
Parental alienation syndrome occurs when one parent's efforts to consciously or unconsciously brainwash a child combine with the child's own bad-mouthing of the other parent. In severe cases, the child will not want to see or talk to the alienated parent. Once the alienation reaches this point, it is difficult to reverse, and permanent damage is done to the child and to the relationship between the child and the alienated parent.
When giving your client advice in custody matters, it is advisable to warn the client about the detriments of parental alienation. Both parties should be encouraged to promote a healthy relationship between the child and the other parent. Disparaging comments about the other parent should be avoided in order to promote the best interest and welfare of the child.
What Not To Do

Here are some warning symptoms psychologists have observed in children suffering from parental alienation syndrome, according to Dr. Douglas Darnall, Ph.D:


  • Giving a child a choice as to whether or not to visit with the other parent.
  • Telling the child details about the marital relationship or reasons for the divorce.
  • Refusing to acknowledge that the child has property and may want to transport possessions between residences.
  • Resisting or refusing to cooperate by not allowing the other parent access to school or medical records and schedules of extracurricular activities.
  • One parent blaming the other parent for financial problems, breaking up the family, changes in lifestyle, or having a girlfriend or boyfriend.
  • Refusing to be flexible with the visitation schedule in order to respond to the child's needs, or scheduling the child in so many activities that the other parent is never given the time to visit.
  • Assuming that if a parent has been physically abusive with the other parent, it follows that the parent will assault the child. This assumption is not always true.
  • Asking the child to choose one parent over the other.
  • The alienating parent encouraging any natural anger the child has toward the other parent.
  • A parent or stepparent suggesting changing the child's name or having the stepparent adopt the child.
  • When the child cannot give reasons for being angry towards a parent or gives reasons that are vague and without any details.
  • Using a child to spy or covertly gather information for the parent's own use.
  • Arranging temptations that interfere with the other parent's visitation.
  • Reacting with hurt or sadness to a child having a good time with the other parent.
  • Asking the child about the other parent's personal life.
  • Physically or psychologically rescuing a child when there is no threat to their safety.
  • Making demands on the other parent that are contrary to court orders.
  • Listening in on the child's phone conversation with the other parent.  
What Causes Parental Alienation?
What causes a parent to want to damage the relationship of their own child with the other parent, at their own child's expense? Intentions differ from one parent to the next, but psychologists have suggested the following as potential motivators:
  • An alienating parent may have unresolved anger toward the other parent for perceived wrongs during the relationship, and may be unable to separate those issues from parenting issues.
  • An alienating parent may have unresolved issues from their childhood, particularly in how they related to their own parents, which he or she projects onto the other parent (whether or not it is factually accurate).
  • An alienating parent may have a personality disorder, such as narcissism or paranoia, which makes him or her unable to empathize with the child's feelings or see the way their behavior is harming the child. Such personality disorders may also make the alienating parent more likely to be jealous of the other parent's adjustment to the breakup, and cause the alienating parent to have extreme rage toward the other parent.
  • An alienating parent may be so insecure as to his or her own parenting skills that he or she projects those concerns onto the other parent, regardless of reality.
  • An alienating parent may be so wrapped up in their child's life that he or she has no separate identity, and sees the child's relationship with the other parent as a threat.
Sometimes new spouses or grandparents push the alienating parent into inappropriate behavior for their own inappropriate reasons, and the alienating parent isn't strong enough to resist them.
What causes a child to buy into the alienating parent's brainwashing? The child may
  • Feel the need to protect a parent who is depressed, panicky or needy
  • Want to avoid the anger or rejection of a dominant parent, who is also often the custodial parent
  • Want to hold onto the parent the child is most afraid of losing, such as a parent who is self-absorbed or not very involved with the child  
In choosing to go along with the viewpoint of the alienating parent, the child can avoid conflict and remove him or herself from the constant tug-of-war.
How Does Alienation Occur?
The alienating parent may use a number of techniques, including but not limited to:
  • Encouraging the child to pretend the other parent doesn't exist. This can range from not allowing the child to mention the other parent's name to refusing to acknowledge that the child has fun with the other parent.
  • Leading the child to believe it is his or her choice as to whether or not to spend time with the other parent.
  • Attacking the other parent's character or lifestyle, such as job, living arrangements, planned activities with the child, clothing and friends (particularly new romantic partners).
  • Putting the child in the middle, by encouraging the child to spy on the other parent or take messages back and forth.
  • Emphasizing the other parent's flaws, such as an occasional burst of temper or not being prepared for the child's activities. Normal parental lapses are blown out of proportion and the child is repeatedly reminded of them.
  • Discussing court battles between the parents with the child, and encouraging the child to take sides.
  • Making the child think there is reason to be afraid of the other parent.
  • Lying about how the other parent treats the child. If this is done frequently enough, the child may begin to believe even preposterous suggestions.
  • Rewriting history, such as suggesting to the child that the other parent never cared for him or her, even as an infant. The child has no memory of prior events and so can't determine whether the alienating parent is telling the truth or not.
What Does An Alienated Child Look Like?
A child who has been successfully alienated will 
  • Fail to show any empathy or guilt regarding hurting the targeted parent's feelings.
  • Reject the targeted parent's friends and family.
  • Refuse to see or talk to the alienated parent.
  • Bad-mouth the other parent with foul language and inaccurate descriptions of the other parent.
  • Offer only weak or frivolous reasons for his or her anger toward the targeted parent.
  • Profess to have only hatred toward the targeted parent, and cannot say anything positive about him or her.
  • Insist that he or she is solely responsible for the attitude toward the other parent and that the alienating parent had nothing to do with his or her attitude.
  • Support and feel protective toward the alienating parent.  
What to Do?
Parental alienation may happen gradually. If your client is a parent who is a victim of parental alienation syndrome, he or she may have had no idea how it happened. Many alienated parents find it difficult to control their anger and hurt over being treated so poorly by their child and ex-spouse.
Suggest the following to your client as ways to cope with the problem:
  • Control feelings of anger and stay calm and in control of your own behavior.
  • Keep a log of events as they happen, describing in detail what happened and when.
  • Always call or pick up your child at scheduled times, even when you know the child won't be available. This is likely to be painful, but you must be able to document to the court that you tried to see your child and were refused.
  • During time spent with your child, focus on positive activities, and reminisce with the child about previous good times you had together.
  • Never discuss the court case with your child.
  • Try not to argue with or be defensive with your child. Focus on talking openly about what your child is actually seeing and feeling, as opposed to what the child has been told to be the truth.
  • Work on improving your parenting skills by taking parenting courses, reading parenting books, etc., so that you can be the best possible parent to your child.
  • If possible, get counseling for your child, preferably with a therapist trained to recognize and treat parental alienation syndrome. If it's not possible to get your child into counseling, go to counseling yourself to learn how to react to and counteract the problem.
  • Don't do anything to violate any court orders or otherwise be an undesirable parent. Pay your child support on time and fulfill all your parenting obligations to the letter.
  • Don't react to the alienating behavior by engaging in alienating behavior toward your ex. This just makes things worse and further harms the child.
  • If you are not getting court-ordered time with your child, go back to court and ask that the parent violating the court order be held in contempt of court. The sooner the court knows about the violation of the court order, the more likely it is that the problem can be stopped before it becomes permanent and irreversible. If your custody order is not specific as to exact times and dates you are to be with the child, ask the court to make the order very specific so that there can be no doubt what is required.
  • Try not to blame your child. Your child did not create the situation, and desperately needs your love and affection.