Parental alienation involves one parent spoiling the relationship between a child and the other parent in the absence of actual abuse or neglect. In both my personal and professional lives, I have seen many parents actively turn their children against the other parent in an effort to “keep them (the child) close,” and to undermine their child’s loving bond with the other parent. Although research has demonstrated that parental alienation has very negative effects on children (e.g., depression, substance abuse and conduct disorders), few researchers have examined empirically how exactly parents engage in this alienation behavior.1
The majority of research on this topic has surveyed young adults (e.g., children) who report having been alienated from one parent by another. Alienating strategies include bad-mouthing or denigrating the other parent in front of the child (or within earshot),2,3 limiting the child’s contact with the other parent,4 trying to erase the other parent from the child’s mind (e.g., withholding pictures of the child with the other parent),2 creating and perpetuating a belief the other parent is dangerous (when there is no evidence of actual danger),2 forcing the child to reject the other parent, and making the child feel guilty if he or she talks about enjoying time with the other parent.2 The impact of these behaviors on children is devastating, but it also often has the opposite intended effect; parents who denigrate the other parent are actually less close with their children than those who do not.3
Children who are caught in the middle of alienating behavior have a different perspective than the parents, so work that focuses on the alienated parents provides a more thorough view of this unfortunate family dynamic. For example, in a survey of parents who are targets of alienation, Baker and Darnell4 found that targeted parents reported that alienators interfered with parenting time (e.g., scheduled appointments or frequently called during the other parent’s parenting time), interfered with contact with the children (e.g., intercepted phone messages or email), interfered with symbolic contact like gift giving (e.g., threw away gifts or sent them back), did not inform them about important information (e.g., school activities, doctor appointments), threatened to take children away from the them, and formed unhealthy alliances with the children such as having had their children spy and report back information to the alienating parent, or sending cell phones with children to call the alienating parent from the target parent’s home.
Some children were not even allowed to bring personal items (e.g., sports equipment, toys) back home from the alienating parent’s home. In sum, this survey of parents identified a large number of abusive tactics that were not always readily visible to children, yet inflicted damage to the parental relationship nonetheless.4
Ultimately, the researchers drew a grim conclusion from the study: many of the strategies described involved active participation of the children which resulted in the child colluding in the betrayal and rejection of the alienated parent. The result: the child feels guilt and shame about having done these activities; in order to cope with this betrayal, kids justify their actions by actually believing the targeted parent is evil, unreliable, does not care about them, is dangerous, etc.
With endless ways to combine alienation strategies, alienated parents have little recourse to defend themselves and repair their relationship with their children. For example, if the parent tells a child that a lie said about them by the alienating parent is untrue, then it appears to the child that the parent is calling the alienator a liar. It is a lose-lose situation for the targeted parent. There have been calls for intervention and counseling programs to help families that have been affected by parental alienation,4 and there remains a great need to further understand how alienation affects the psychological health of the parents themselves. In addition, court and family systems need better methods of identifying and intervening when alienation is occurring. Many times courts need to determine whether an accusation of abuse (domestic, physical, sexual, etc.) by one parent is true or false: if false, then the accusation is a sign there is active parental alienation, which is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as another form of child abuse.5
Finally, little is known about how alienated parents cope with the damage inflicted on their relationship(s) with their children. Some may retaliate while others may pull away and become less involved with their children because the situation is too painful. How alienated parents cope can then be used against them by the other parents (e.g., “your mom/dad doesn’t care about you because they did not come to your school concert”). My colleague Dr. Zeynep Birngen and I launched the Colorado Parental Alienation Project in 2013, and we have conducted a number of studies trying to understand the prevalence and impact of this problem on families and communities. We also recently published a book on the topic: Parents Behaving Badly: How institutions and societies promote the alienation of children from their loving families where you can find more information about how and why this has become such a problem affecting millions of families, worldwide. On the book’s website, we also offer a resource page for parents who are coping with this problem.
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1Saini, M., Johnston, J. R., Fidler, B. J., & Bala, N. (2012). Empirical studies of alienation. In K. Kuehnle & L. Drozd (Eds.), Parenting plan evaluations: Applied research for the family court (pp. 399 – 441). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
2Baker, A. (2010). “Adult recall of parental alienation in a community sample: Prevalence and associations with psychological maltreatment.” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 51, 16-35.
3Rowen, J., & Emery, R. (2014). Examining parental denigration behaviors of co-parents as reported by young adults and their association with parent-child closeness. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 3,165-177.
4Baker, A., & Darnell, D. (2006). Behaviors and strategies employed in parental alienation. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 45, 97-124.
Dr. Jennifer Harman – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Harman’s research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship