Parental alienation

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Parental alienation is a social dynamic, generally occurring due to divorce or separation, when a child expresses unjustified hatred or unreasonably strong dislike of one parent, making access by the rejected parent difficult or impossible.[1] These feelings may be influenced by negative comments by the other parent and by the characteristics, such as lack of empathy and warmth, of the rejected parent.[2] The term does not apply in cases of actual child abuse, when the child rejects the abusing parent to protect themselves.[3] Parental alienation is controversial in legal and mental health professions, both generally and in specific situations.[4][5] Terms related to parental alienation include child alienation, pathological alignments, visitation refusal, pathological alienation,[6] the toxic parent and parental alienation syndrome[7] though the last term is a specific formulation of a medical syndrome proposed by psychiatrist Richard Gardner that is not well accepted.[8]


First described in 1976 as "pathological alignment", the dynamic refers to a situation in which a child unreasonably rejects a non-custodial parent.[8] Richard A. Gardner proposed parental alienation syndrome in the 1980s based on his clinical experience with the children of divorcing parents. Since that time, other researchers have suggested focusing less on diagnosing a syndrome and more on what has been described as the "alienated child", and the dynamics of the situation that have contributed to the alienation.[5][9] In this view, alienation is seen as a breakdown of attachment between parent and child, and may be caused by multiple factors. The behaviors of all family members, including those of the alienated parent, may lead to the family dysfunction and rejection of a parent.[10][11] The evaluation of all contributing factors and all possible remedies are recommended in evaluating cases where children have estranged from a parent.[5][12]

Syndrome Vs single aetiology

Parental alienation lacks a single definition and its existence, etiology, characteristics and in particular the description of the term as a syndrome has been subject to still-unresolved debate. Some formulations of the concept have emphasized the role of an alienating parent, termed variously the "programming" parent and "embittered-chaotic parent".[8]

More recent descriptions, influenced the research of Kelly and Johnston, have proposed a more complex analysis, in which all family members may play a role. This "systems-based" view acknowledges that a child may be alienated from one parent without "alienating" behaviour by the other parent.[5][8]

Based on an empirical study, it also suggests that alienating behaviours by both parents is the norm in high-conflict divorces. Rejected parents, generally fathers, tend to lack warmth and empathy with the child, engage in rigid parenting and critical attitudes, and are passive, depressed, anxious and withdrawn - characteristics which may encourage rejection. The parent that the child aligns with - the aligned parent - may engage in alienating behaviours, by undermining the other parent: these behaviours may be conscious and deliberate or alternatively may reflect a lack of awareness on the effect of their actions on their children.

Direct alienating behaviours occur when one parent actively undermines the other parent, such as making derogatory remarks about the other parent or telling the child that the other parent is responsible for the separation or the cause of financial difficulties. Indirect alienation behaviours occur when one parent fails to support access or contact with the other parent, or tacitly accepts the child's negative behaviour and comments towards the other parent.[5][8]

Most of the peer reviewed publications on the subject have been in the form of descriptions and definitions. Some empirical research has been done, though the quality of the studies vary widely and the research in the area is still underdeveloped.[13] Despite the concept being poorly-defined and conclusions premature, the beliefs of judges, lawyers and mental health professionals have been cited extensively in peer reviewed literature.[8]

Professional acceptance

A survey of mental health and legal professionals indicated that there is moderate support for the existence of parental alienation, but reluctance to accept the concept of parental alienation syndrome.[8] William Bernet has argued for the inclusion of "parental alienation disorder", a diagnosis related to parental alienation, in the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, to be released in 2013. His conception makes reference to parental alienation syndrome and a variety of other descriptions of behaviours he believes represent the underlying concept of parental alienation disorder.[7] Despite lobbying by proponents,[14] in December 2012, the American Psychiatric Association announced that parental alienation syndrome would not be included in the DSM-5 revision.[15]


Realistic estrangement is a different phenomenon from "pathological alienation". The former is an understandable refusal by a child to see an abusive parent, while the latter is emotionally harmful and unjustified.[5]


  1. Warshak, R. A. (2003). Bringing Sense to Parental Alienation: A Look at the Disputes and the Evidence. Family Law Quarterly, 37, 273-301.
  2. Warshak, R. A. (2010). Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing. New York: Harper Collins.
  3. Warshak, R. A. (2002). Misdiagnosis of Parental Alienation Syndrome. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 20, 31-52.
  4. Warshak, R. A. (2001). Current Controversies Regarding Parental Alienation Syndrome. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 19, 29-59.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Template:Cite journal
  6. Warshak, R. A. (2003). Bringing Sense to Parental Alienation: A Look at the Disputes and the Evidence. Family Law Quarterly, 37, 273-301.
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  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 Template:Cite journal
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  13. Hands, A. J. & Warshak, R. A. (2011). Parental Alienation Among College Students. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 39, 431-443.
  14. Template:Cite news
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