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Parental Alienation

Parental Alienation refers to the tragic social dynamic in which a child feels and expresses a powerful dislike or hatred for one parent. This often develops during or after a high conflict divorce. It is mostly brought about by one parent’s campaign of speaking negatively about  the other parent. It can have devastating, long term effects on the relationship between the child and the rejected parent. It is a form of  parental bullying and manipulation, and can have appalling, long term effects on the mental and emotional well-being of the child.


Discounting situations where there has been child abuse or violence against the child, which would result in the child rejecting the abusive parent in order to protect themselves, parental alienation tends to happen in two different scenarios:


Parental Alienation Caused By The ‘Other’ Parent

One parent poisons the child against the other, causing the child great emotional and psychological distress and subtly forcing them to choose between their parents. This happens when one parent speaks negatively about the other parent to the child, manipulating the child and causing them to develop a deep aversion to the rejected parent. This is done using some of the following techniques:


  • offering the child a choice with regards to visitation when the court has clearly ruled that there is no option
  • telling the child the intimate details of the marriage, which includes hurtful things the other parent may have said or done, causing the child to feel protective of the wounded parent and therefore, adverse to being with the “bad” or “mean” parent
  • telling the child that the rejected parent is to blame for financial difficulties, or the “broken” state of the family, or fact that the child has to go without certain things
  • using the child to “spy” or “gather intelligence” on the other parent also sends a message to the child that the victimized parent is not worthy of respect
  • when the parent acts as if the child is in need of protection from the other parent will reinforce the notion in the child’s mind that the other parent poses a threat, or is dangerous


Parental Alienation Caused By The Rejected Parent

The rejected parent causes the rift between the child and themselves by exhibiting behaviors that would cause the child to feel anger and dislike. Then by not allowing for resolution or healing, the child’s feelings fester and soon develop into a kind of hatred that makes a relationship between the parent and child very difficult, for example:


  • repeatedly breaking promises to the child about when they will be available to spend time together, or what time they intend to pick the child up for visitation, or even what they will do together
  • consistently putting work before the child’s needs – this is especially true of parents who have already limited visitation and then cut back even further on time with the child in order to meet the needs of their jobs.
  • listening in on the child when they speak to the other parent on the phone, thereby not respecting their privacy or their feelings
  • refusing to allow a child to bring special or personal items with them from one parent’s house to the other, which shows the child that their property is not recognized as their own and can breed resentment


Legal and Mental Health Definitions of Parental Alienation

While parental alienation is something that many people have heard of, it has no single fixed definition and is subject to some debate in the legal, medical and mental health communities. Some views claim it stems only from a “toxic” parent who works to manipulate the child and embitter them against the other parent.


Other, more recent views allow for other influences, like a situation in which multiple family members play a role in the destruction of a particular parent/child relationship or in which the alienated parent does the damage to the relationship with their child on their own without the interference of the second parent.


Parental Alienation Causes Damage to Children

Whatever the definition used by people to refer to this tragic breakdown of the relationship between a parent and their child, it is a form of emotional child abuse. Children are essentially the product of two people. By disparaging a child’s parent, one is disparaging part of that child.


Parents would do well to remember that when speaking about the the other parent in front of their child. Michigan judges and our family law attorneys have dealt with dozens of parental alienation cases. They aren’t new, unique or unusual. For the most part, the parent responsible for creating the alienation is treated harshly by the judge.


Many mental health professionals believe that the adversarial nature of the court system actually aggravates the problem. Often divorcing parents are put in a “me against you” situation. They are pitted against each other and essentially told that they will have to fight for anything they hope to retain after the marriage has ended.


Bitterness and resentment can become highly charged emotional problems. Unfortunately, some parents choose to pass on their poisonous perspectives to their children, which does more damage than most people realize. According to the custody lawyers at The Kronzek Firm, those cases often end up in front of the judge. They are also usually nasty, long, and expensive court battles.


Key Signs & Symptoms Of Parental Alienation

While this insidious form of emotional child abuse can manifest in many different ways, there are certain common signs that should be cause for concern in all divorced parents when exhibited by their children, which include:


  • a misguided belief that the manipulating parent is the ‘good and honest’, and in some cases also the ‘victimized’ parent, while the other parent is ‘bad’ or ‘a villain’.
  • a total denial that their feelings and perspectives have been coached or manipulated in any way by the alienating parent
  • a refusal to have contact with relatives or even friends of the alienated parent
  • unreasonable anger towards, and dislike of, the alienated parent without being able to provide an explanation for their feelings
  • a refusal to have anything to do with the alienated parent


Parental alienation is sometimes referred to in other terms, including child alienation, brainwashing, pathological alienation, toxic parenting, hostile aggressive parenting, visitation refusal, pathological alignments and parental alienation syndrome.


This last term refers to a medical syndrome that was proposed in the 1980s by psychiatrist Richard Gardner, but is not accepted in the legal, medical, psychological or mental health communities today. Despite rejection of calling it a syndrome, nearly all professionals agree that the alienating conduct does occur.  

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