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Parental Alienation


Parental alienation (PA) is an old problem, even though many people don’t know what it is until it happens to them. In brief, parental alienation is a family dynamic in which one parent engages in behaviors that foster a child’s unjustified rejection of the other parent. This happens often, but not always in the context of a contentious or high-conflict separation and divorce.  

Examples of PA behaviors include denigrating the other parent; interfering in parenting time; creating the impression that the other parent is unsafe, unloving and unavailable; interfering with communication between the child and the other parent; and undermining the other parent’s value and authority. Taken together, these behaviors foster distorted thoughts in feelings about the parent and, when the PA is successful, a child may come to hate and fear a parent with whom the child once had a close and loving relationship.  

To be clear, a child’s rejection of a parent is only considered alienation when the rejected parent did not engage in abuse or neglect or other behaviors that would warrant the child’s rejection. Alienated children exhibit a set of behaviors that are highly unique and specific to this family dynamic.  

For parents who are concerned that the other parent is engaging in parental alienation behaviors, it is essential to become educated about the phenomenon, and not to assume that everything will be OK simply because they have been a good parent who has done nothing wrong. Many parents experiencing PA in their family get advice from friends, and even well-meaning but ill-informed mental health professionals, that turns out to be unhelpful in alienation situations. That is because parental alienation is highly counter-intuitive. This means that parents concerned that alienation is occurring need to become informed consumers about PA theory and obtain PA-specific advice and support in order to avoid making some very common mistakes that could actually make the alienation worse. 

It is also recommended that parents experiencing rejection of their children should begin by examining their own parenting choices in order to rule out that it is their own behavior that is the root of the problem. Likewise, if a parent is having difficulty in their relationship and communication with their former spouse, he or she should begin by looking at themselves and making sure that they are not contributing, causing, or exacerbating the problems. If a parent is assured that the problem is primarily stemming from outside of their own behavior, then the next step is to get PA-specific advice. 

Alienation is a very upsetting, scary and painful experience for a parent. It is one of the worst and most stressful things that a parent can go through and it causes an ongoing source of stress, sadness and frustration. And unfortunately, many people, while well-meaning, do not understand parental alienation and often say things that can make things worse and cause increased pain and suffering for the parent. This is why it is very important for parents dealing with PA to read materials written just for them, get support from PA-trained experts, and receive support from people who understand the devastating experience of parental alienation.  

The good news is that there has been a recent increase in the information gathered, research conducted, and interventions developed and tested in the field of parental alienation. That means that there is an increasing body of knowledge to help parents navigate this terrible family dynamic. 

 By // Dr. Amy Baker 


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