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Signs of Parental Alienation

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 23, 2020

What is Parental Alienation?

The concept of parental alienation was first put forth by Dr. Richard Gardner in 1985. Parental alienation primarily occurs during a high-conflict divorce in which the child identifies strongly with one parent, usually the custodial parent. The other parent is hated and rejected without any justifiable reason, such as abuse.

This alienation is engineered at the hands of the alienating parent, who often pressures the child to go along with their hatred of the other parent. The alienating parent programs the child to despise their other parent by criticizing the alienated parent and interfering with their relationship

While the alienated parent obviously suffers in this situation, the child does as well. The child experiences the loss of their alienated parent like they would a premature death of a parent. The child is also likely to feel neglected and angry. They may take on traits of the alienating parent, such as lack of empathy and rigid thinking. 

Types of Parental Alienation

Parental alienation can be classified by its severity, from mild to severe. Treatment will depend on the symptoms and severity.

Mild

Mild parental alienation is marked by a child who is resistant to visiting with the alienated parent but enjoys spending time with their parent once they are alone together. 

Moderate

A child with moderate parental alienation will strongly resist any contact with the alienated parent and maintains resentment and opposition during their time with them. 

Severe

In cases of severe parental alienation, the child may not only strongly resist any contact with the alienated parent but may also run away or hide to avoid having to visit with them. 

Signs of Parental Alienation

If you’re worried your child may be experiencing parental alienation, here are some signs to watch for:

Unjust Criticism

No parent is perfect, some may even lose their tempers or even yell at their children, and all children get mad at their parents at times. Children with parental alienation, however, will criticize you severely and without cause.

They rarely or never have anything good to say about you. If they do have fun with you, they may ask you to keep it from their other parent. 

Unwavering Support for the Alienating Parent

As much as they criticize you, your child will staunchly defend their other parent. They have extreme “black and white” thinking. Everything you do is bad, and everything their other parent does is good. They will deny that the alienating parent has influenced them and claim their feelings are all their own. 

No Feelings of Guilt

While most children who get mad and say hurtful things to their parents will feel sorry and apologize later, children with parental alienation feel no guilt about their mistreatment of you.

They feel justified in their hatred and may even extend it to include your entire family. Their criticism and harshness may include your parents and siblings as well. 

Treating Parental Alienation

Treating parental alienation depends on the severity of it. If your child has a mild case, it may be enough for a judge to order the alienating parent to stop talking bad about you in front of your child and abide by the parenting plan.

You may also benefit from a parenting coordinator, such as through a parenting class, to help you and your ex to better communicate and support your child’s relationships with each other. 

In moderate cases of parental alienation, a parenting coordinator or counselor can work with you and your child’s other parent to improve communication. It may help all of you to attend individual counseling as well. However, this approach will only work if the alienating parent is committed to correcting the problem. 

In severe cases, or in moderate cases with an uncooperative alienating parent, it may be necessary to remove the child from the custody of the alienating parent. Parental alienation is a type of abuse and sometimes must be treated as other cases of abuse would be, by removing the child from the situation. 

If this is done, the child may be placed with you and the other parent will be given supervised visitation, at least temporarily.

It’s important to recognize parental alienation in its early stages because the treatment for the more severe stages may do more harm than good. If reunification is forced and the child sees it as a punishment, it could cause lasting harm. Children who are taken away from the alienating parent may feel more helpless and experience further traumatization.

If you think your child may have parental alienation, seek professional help. Start with a therapist who understands parental alienation and can work with you to formulate a plan to help your child. 

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: “Practice parameters for child custody evaluations.”

Academy Forum: “Recent trends in divorce and custody litigation.”

American Journal of Family Therapy: “Parental alienation disorder and DSM-V.

Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers: “Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Review of Critical Issues.”

Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: “Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties That Bind.”

Journal of Child Custody: “Recommended treatments for “parental alienation syndrome” (PAS) may cause children foreseeable and lasting psychological harm.”

Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics: ”Parental alienation syndrome: A family therapy and collaborative systems approach to amelioration.”

Journal of Divorce and Remarriage: “The Linkage Between Parental Alienation Behaviors and Child Alienation.”

Journal of Family Medicine and Disease Prevention: “Parental Alienation: Handbook for Mental Health and Legal Professionals.”

Pediatrics: “Helping Children and Families Deal with Divorce and Separation.”

Psychiatric Times: “Treatment and Prevention of Parental Alienation.”

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