What is Parental Alienation?

Parental Alienation (PA) means that the child has become enmeshed with one parent (the preferred or alienating parent) and has rejected a relationship with the other parent (the target parent) without legitimate justification.

Hostile-Aggressive Parenting (HAP) is emotional child abuse and refers to the behavior of the alienating parent — the parent engaged in Parental Alienation, or alienating behavior.  Parental Alienation leads to the child becoming afflicted with Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), a psychological condition.

Parental Alienation is a tactic used by one parent, the favored or alienating parent, to undermine or destroy the child’s love, attachment and relationship with the other parent, the target parent.  It is seen frequently in custody disputes and has long-lasting and sometimes life-long effects.  Research indicates that children with PAS have problems with their own relationships as adults and, when they become parents themselves, they repeat the alienating behavior learned as a child with their own children.  It becomes a cycle of psychological child abuse.

More information on the definition, symptoms and examples of Parental Alienation or Hostile-Aggressive Parenting may be found at this link: Parental Alienation Awareness Organization.  An article about Parental Alienation published in the Denver Post may be downloaded at this link.  Syndicated News talk shows about Parental Alienation and what to do about it are at these links: Blog Talk Radio 1-11-12 and 1-25-12.

Eight Symptoms of Parental Alienation

  1. Campaign of denigration (the child is turned against the other parent by bad mouthing, criticism, negative comments regarding the other parent; the child is put in a position where they feel that they must choose between their parents and the child must choose a side in order to get out of being put in the middle)
  2. Weak, frivolous, or absurd rationalizations for the deprecation (the child’s reason for suddenly not wanting contact with the other parent is trivial, such as they have to eat healthy food, clean their room, etc.)
  3. Lack of ambivalence (normally, a child is ambivalent toward their parents; when alienated the child views one parent as all good and the other as all bad)
  4. The “independent thinker” phenomenon (the child comes to believe that their opinions about the other parent are their own beliefs and not that of the Alienating Parent; that they were not coached, told what to say, etc.)
  5. Reflexive support of the alienating parent in the parental conflict (the child takes the side of the alienating parent in all cases and argues in their support and never defends or sides with the Targeted Parent)
  6. Absence of guilt over cruelty to and/or exploitation of the alienated parent (the child has no empathy or compassion toward the target parent)
  7. Presence of borrowed scenarios (child makes up stories and incidents where the targeted parent is the villain)
  8. Spread of the animosity to the friends and/or extended family of the alienated parent (not only is the child alienated from the target parent, but also from that parent’s extended family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.)

The eight symptoms of Parental Alienation were originally constructed by Dr. Richard A. Gardner and have been reported, discussed and corroborated by a number of experts in the field including Amy J.L. Baker, Ph.D., Robert A. Evans, Ph.D., J. Michael Bone, Ph.D., and Douglas C. Darnall, Ph.D.

Seventeen Behaviors of Alienating Parents

  1. Badmouthing the other parent
  2. Limiting Contact between the child and the other parent
  3. Interfering with communication between the child and the other parent
  4. Interfering with symbolic communication (no pictures or mention of the other parent in favored parent home)
  5. Withdrawal of love and approval
  6. Telling the child that the other parent does not love him or her
  7. Forcing the child to choose between parents
  8. Telling the child that the other parent is dangerous
  9. Confiding in the child
  10. Forcing the child to reject the other parent
  11. Asking the child to spy on the other parent
  12. Ask child to keep secrets from the other parent
  13. Referring to the other parent by his or her first name and encouraging the child to do the same
  14. Referring to a stepparent/new significant other as “mom” or “dad” and encouraging the child to do the same
  15. Withholding medical, academic, or other important information from the other parent and not including that parent’s contact information on relevant documents
  16. Changing the child’s name to eliminate the association with the other parent
  17. Undermining the authority of the target (other) parent and cultivating dependency on the favored parent

Amy J.L. Baker, Ph.D., discusses the 17 Parental Alienation strategies and how to respond to them in her article “Beyond the High Road”.

What to Do About The Problem

Identify the problem.

Most parents faced with parental alienation in a custody dispute don’t know what to do about it: they have never experienced it before and, faced with uncertainty about what to do, they procrastinate and try to “wait it out” and hope that it will get better on its own.

Many lawyers, therapists, and evaluators also fail to recognize that Parental Alienation is occurring, even if they see that the children are becoming alienated and refusing contact with the other parent.

Judges also fail to recognize or understand what is happening and may think that the parent being alienated is the problem parent because of something they allegedly did and focus on correcting or treating the behavior of that parent. The judge may fail to look at and consider what the favored parent has been doing to promote the estrangement of the children from the other parent.

The question to ask is whether, if the family was intact (still together), would the alleged conduct have been of such magnitude to warrant and justify the child rejecting the parent?

If what the parent is alleged to have done is not something that warrants the child’s rejection, then what is causing, fostering or promoting the estrangement?

  • Teenage daughter reacts to father’s scolding for texting too much and not paying attention by running away to mother’s house; mother harbors daughter and refuses to make daughter return to father’s house saying that it is something father and daughter need to work out by themselves.
  • Teenage son lies to mother about having cleaned his room, mother confronts son and yells at him; son then calls father to come get him, father picks him up and then son refuses to return to mother’s house because mother was “mean” to him.

Both of the summaries above are based upon real events.  Neither are of such a magnitude so as to have warranted the child’s complete and ongoing rejection of the other parent.  Yet, it happened.  Parental Alienation?

Consider the actions, or inactions, of the residential parent – the parent that is with the child the majority of the time and has the ability to influence, manipulate and direct the child’s thinking and behavior toward the other parent.

Dealing with the problem.

Those involved in custody disputes must be educated about Parental Alienation, its causes and treatment.  This is usually done through the testimony of an expert in the courtroom having the training and experience in identifying Parental Alienation.  The assistance of experts in the field and legal counsel knowledgeable about and experienced with Parental Alienation is essential.

Permitting the child to refuse contact with the other parent is not the solution.  It is not the child’s decision or choice to make.

Therapy is not always the best solution.  Many therapists lack training in Parental Alienation; it is not a subject taught in most schools.  What are the therapist’s credentials, training, education, experience?

Too many times a judge, even if Parental Alienation is recognized as part of the problem, will procrastinate and fall back on the “wait and see” approach and order therapy with the hope that the offending parent will change his or her ways.  This may be the worst thing the judge can do to address and remedy the problem.

Most therapists are not trained in Parental Alienation and actually make the situation worse.  The therapist typically believes that the alienated parent did something to cause the child not to want contact with them and focuses the therapy on how to improve the child’s relationship with the alienated parent rather than on stopping the alienating behavior of the favored, usually custodial, parent.  By assuming that it was the conduct of the alienated parent that caused the problem, therapists actually reinforce and confirm that the child’s rejection of that parent is justified.

Contact between the child and both parents should be enforced.  If one of the parents undermines the contact between the child and the other parent, then the ability of the undermining parent to enable or encourage the child’s rejection of the other parent should be limited or removed.

Treatment Programs

Family Bridges – founded by Dr. Richard A. Warshak

Turning Points For Families  – Linda J. Gottlieb, LMFT, LCSW-R

Transitioning Families – Transitioning Families Therapeutic Reunification Model (TFTRMTM), originally conceptualized by Rebecca Bailey, PhD, Director

Stable Paths – Florida

Legal Options

There are legal “tools” available to combat parental alienation.  In the domestic or custody court, one of the criteria for determining the child’s best interests in custodial placement and parenting time include consideration of the parent’s ability (and willingness) to promote and foster the child’s relationship with the other parent.  See, C.R.S. § 14-10-124(1.5)(a)(VI). When parenting time schedules are not followed, they can be enforced through a contempt proceeding or a motion to enforce under C.R.S. § 14-10-129.5. In enforcement proceedings, the court may modify the parenting time in accord with the child’s best interests.  In a severe case of parental alienation, rising to the level of imminent emotional danger to the child, parenting time may be restricted under C.R.S. § 14-10-129(4).

Outside of the domestic or custody court, there is civil litigation under tort against the alienating parent.  This type of litigation, which may include trial by jury rather than a judge, is specifically recognized by statute:  C.R.S. § 14-10-129.5(4).


The information provided above is general in nature, is not intended as legal advice for your particular situation and should not be relied upon without first consulting with legal counsel.


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