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Here’s how to avoid false assumptions in cases of parental alienation to ensure better outcomes for children.
Parental alienation is a mental state in which a child—usually one whose parents are engaged in a high-conflict separation or divorce—allies strongly with 1 parent (the offending, but favored parent) and rejects a relationship with the other parent (the alienated parent) without legitimate reason.1 This condition occurs in the context of a maladaptive family dynamic involving at least 3 individuals: the alienating parent, who intentionally and purposefully manipulates the child to reject the other parent; the child, who experiences parental alienation; and the rejected, alienated parent. A variety of tactics and maneuvers are used by alienating parents to achieve their goal, ranging from bad-mouthing and disruption of visitation time to false allegations of abuse and criminal charges.
Research indicates that parental alienation is present in 11% to 15% of divorce cases. It has also been found that 20% to 25% of parents engage in alienating behavior as long as 6 years after divorce. Alienating parents can be either mothers or fathers.
Parental alienation is poorly understood by many mental health professionals, not to mention attorneys, guardians ad litem, and judges. It is a confusing and vexing problem because many of its features and dynamics are hidden behind the scenes, ferociously denied, and counterintuitive from what one would expect.
Because of its counterintuitive nature, many false assumptions are made by professionals who are involved in cases of parental alienation. Much can be learned from recognizing and understanding these false assumptions, both in terms of diagnosis and treatment. This is especially important since early diagnosis and intervention are predictive of better outcomes for the child.
False Assumptions Can Lead to Mistakes
What follows is a description of many false assumptions that are made routinely in alienation cases. Richard Warshak, PhD,2 and Steve Miller, MD,3 have written about fallacies and fundamental attribution error in these cases, and 1 of us has written about misinformation in alienation theory.4 The following concepts serve as the foundation for our fuller understanding of the role of false assumptions in parental alienation cases.
Intuition is king. When we think intuitively, our decisions tend to feel “right,” regardless of whether they are or not. To accurately understand parental alienation, a clinician must have an advanced understanding of the typical dynamics in these cases. Relying on intuition can lead to major mistakes right from the get-go. For example, just because a parent seems healthy or believable, does not make it so.
Both parents are equally responsible. It is a common fallacy that both parents are equally responsible for high conflict during a separation or divorce. It is always important to consider the possibility that 1 parent may be the aggressor, while the other parent is the victim. In most cases, both parents are not equally responsible for the ongoing conflict. It can be a major blunder to assume so.
Outward demeanors are indicative of truth. Alienating parents typically present as calm, verbal, and convincing. In contrast, alienated or rejected parents usually present as agitated, angry, and afraid; they are victims.3 In many cases, the alienating parent appears to be healthier and more believable—but that is a manipulation and a distraction from their intentionally alienating behavior. The rejected parent appears more psychologically disturbed, and so it is assumed that he or she is the one engaging in problematic behavior. Outward demeanors can be quite deceiving and must be considered cautiously in diagnostic decision-making.
Ignoring projection possibility. The intrapsychic defense of projection is often seen in cases of alienation. In essence, the alienating parent accuses the rejected parent of being the aggressor. If you fall for the offending parent’s distortion and misperception, poor diagnostic decisions will be made, and the case can quickly go haywire. Projection can lead to the wrong person being identified as the alienating parent.
Children’s denials and “truths” are gospel. Simply believing a child’s denial of alienation by a parent can be a recipe for disaster. Children are not usually aware of the maneuvers employed by the offending parent to turn them against the rejected parent. Plus, such children are frequently enmeshed with the offending parent and will defend that parent to the bitter end. Independent thinker phenomenon is often seen, whereby alienated children assert that their rejection of a parent is solely their idea and decision—not due to the offending parent’s influence. So just listening to a child’s denials can be a serious error that will undermine good decision-making in a case. There is a body of literature that tells us that children and teenagers do not know what is in their own best interest.5 This is especially true when they are the unwitting participants in alienation by a parent.
Alienation does not involve total rejection. Children naturally want to love both of their parents without interruption or impediment. A child does not totally reject a parent unless there is an alienating influence in the mix. This is true even for abusive parents. Indeed, children who have been verbally, physically, or sexually abused by a parent experience profound ambivalence because they still love the parent. They are upset and in turmoil by the fact that they cannot have a continued relationship despite the well-established abuse.6 As such, total rejection by a child is much more indicative of alienation. And to use a child’s rejection of a parent as corroboration or validation of the rejected parent’s badness can be flat-out wrong.
Estrangement and alienation are the same thing. When children resist contact with a parent for legitimate reasons, this is called estrangement, not alienation. Estrangement is very different than alienation; it is important not to confuse them. For example, it would make sense for a child to be estranged from a parent if that parent engages in substance abuse during the child’s visits. Estrangement can be corrected if the parent is willing to make the necessary changes. Alienation, in contrast, tends to be camouflaged, insidious, and recalcitrant.
Alienating behavior is relatively harmless and will not impact the child’s long-term mental health. Engaging persistently in alienating behavior is child psychological abuse. It is a mistake to deny it or rationalize it away. According to DSM-5, child psychological abuse is nonaccidental verbal or symbolic acts by a child’s parent or caregiver that result, or have reasonable potential to result, in significant psychological harm to the child. In light of this, parental alienation is considered a psychiatric emergency, especially in moderate to severe cases. Minimizing the severity of the problem does a terrible disservice to the child. Unfortunately, it enables the abusive behavior to continue unchecked.
Since persistent alienating behavior constitutes child psychological abuse, the top priority should be to protect the child from further abuse. Until this is accomplished, no form of psychotherapy will be effective. In other words, protecting the child from further abuse must be the first step before psychotherapy of any kind is started. This mistake is common. In many court cases, it is erroneously assumed that psychotherapy can fix the problem when, in fact, little or nothing can be accomplished because the alienating behavior is ongoing.
Removing the child from the home is harmful. There is no credible evidence that removing an alienated child from the home of the offending parent causes a significant risk of psychological harm. The opposite is true. In almost all severe and some moderate cases of parental alienation, the risks of not protecting the child are far greater than the risks of protecting the child. Removal of the child from the offending parent’s care may be necessary, at least temporarily. Children and teenagers may fuss about it, but they will comply with, and benefit from, such an intervention.7
Reunification therapy can start at any time and is easy. Reunification therapy cannot be successful unless the alienating behavior by the offending parent is stopped. Otherwise, progress will be impeded by the continued alienation, and everyone will be perplexed as to why significant gains are not being made. The reunification therapy itself may not be the issue at all. Its progress may be stalled by the omnipresence of alienating behavior by the 1 parent.
Reunification therapy is difficult and complex. It requires a knowledgeable and seasoned therapist. The therapist must be directive and assertive, not passive, lethargic, or naïve. An inexperienced or unknowledgeable therapist can make things worse. Such therapists can begin to feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and disappointed. A negative expectation for improvement can take over and become a complicating and limiting factor.
There are no interventions for alienation situations. Active interventions for parental alienation are available and they do work. The interventions must be aimed at (1) stopping the alienation by the offending parent, (2) clarifying and resolving the alienation in the child, and (3) repairing the child-rejected parent relationship. More traditional psychotherapies that do not target these specific areas are doomed to fail. The right therapy at the right time is critical.
Children’s school performance is the best guide. Just because a child is doing well in school or other activities does not mean they are doing well psychologically or emotionally. This is a common misconception. Focusing on school grades can miss the larger issues at hand.
The truly guilty party will confess eventually. No matter how much pressure is applied, the severely alienating parent will never admit to their intentionally harmful behavior. There is never a Perry Mason moment. Do not be misguided or misled by this parent’s persistent denials, as they are disingenuous and untruthful.
Alienating behavior always results in alienation. Not all children who have an alienating parent become alienated. However, even if the child is not alienated does not mean the parent’s alienating behavior is harmless. The negative consequences of alienating behavior tend to be cumulative over time. In addition, the child might become alienated if the damaging behavior does not cease.
All cases of parental alienation are fraught with complexities and difficulties. None are easy or straightforward. False assumptions are pitfalls to be understood and avoided in these cases. Missteps anywhere along the way can result in misdiagnosis, miscalculations, and ill-fated interventions.
Early diagnosis and intervention are important in alienation cases. The offending parent’s behavior must be stopped as soon as possible. All professionals—from mental health experts to attorneys to judges—must understand this principle. It is unacceptable to turn a blind eye. By doing so, complicity with the offending parent will be established and the child’s mental health will be rendered unimportant.
Professionals want to help children and their parents when they are embroiled in high conflict and escalating acrimony. But falling for any of these false assumptions can take a case down a dangerous path. And, in every instance, a child’s psychological wellbeing and mental health are at stake.
Dr Blotcky is a clinical and forensic psychologist in private practice in Birmingham, Alabama. He is also a clinical associate professor in the Department of Psychology, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is a member of the Parental Alienation Study Group. Dr Bernet is professor emeritus, Department of Psychiatry, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. He was the founder and first president of the Parental Alienation Study Group.
1. Lorandos D, Bernet W (eds). Parental Alienation—Science and Law. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C Thomas Publisher Ltd. 2020.
2. Warshak RA. Current controversies regarding parental alienation syndrome. Am J Forensic Psychol. 2001:19(3);29-59.
3. Miller SG. Clinical reasoning and decision-making in cases of child alignment: diagnostic and therapeutic issues. In Baker AJL, Sauber, SR, eds., Working with Alienated Children and Families: A Clinical Guidebook. New York, New York: Routledge. 2013:8-46.
4. Bernet W. Recurrent misinformation regarding parental alienation theory. Am J Fam Ther. September 24, 2021.
5. Warshak, RA (2003). Payoffs and pitfalls of listening to children. Fam Relat. 2003:52(4);373-384.
6. Baker AJL, Creegan A, Quinones A, et al. Foster children’s views of their birth parents: a review of the literature. Child Youth Serv Rev. 2016:67(C);177-183.
7. Warshak RA. Ten parental alienation fallacies that compromise decisions in court and in therapy. Prof Psychol Res Pr. 2015:46(4), 235-249.