Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Parental alienation occurs when a child refuses to have a relationship with a parent due to manipulation, such as the conveying of exaggerated or false information, by the other parent. The situation most often arises during a divorce or custody battle but it can happen in intact families as well.

What Is Parental Alienation?

The perpetrator may leverage a variety of tactics: A father could tell child that the child's mother hates him and never wants to speak to them, when in reality the mother calls to speak to the child every day. A mother could convince her daughter to report—or even believe—that the father physically abused her. Offenders may blame the other parent for the collapse of the marriage, punish the child for wanting to pursue a relationship with the parent, or move away so that maintaining a relationship is extremely difficult.

What does parental alienation do to a child?

This experience can be deeply upsetting for a child. He or she may feel confused, sad, and lonely after the loss. Children may feel puzzled as to why they still feel love toward one parent if the other "hates" them so intensely. Yet they have no evidence to counter the other parent’s lies. They also cannot fully grieve their lost relationship because estrangement is uncertain and potentially prone to change.

What are the signs of parental alienation?

Severely restricting the time a child can spend with the other parent, especially defying court orders, is a sign of parental alienation. Making negative comments about the other parent, blaming them for the divorce, making false accusations of abuse or neglect, and threatening to withhold affection if the child expresses positive feelings about the absent parent are hallmarks of alienation as well.

article continues after advertisement
Parental Alienation in the Legal System
ESB Professional/Shutterstock

Parents can fight alienation in court, but they need to provide rigorous proof. A court may then mandate a reunification program, in which the child spends time with the alienated parent under supervision to rebuild the relationship. Treatment may also be needed to address the child’s trauma. Many relationships fractured by parental alienation can heal with time.

Is parental alienation a crime?

Parental alienation is handled through civil proceedings and is not an arrestable offense. Some believe that parental alienation should be criminalized due to the nature of the lasting damage it inflicts, while others argue against criminalization because parental alienation is difficult to prove and is not a diagnosable syndrome.

Is parental alienation a form of child abuse?

The clinical understanding of parental alienation is evolving. It is not listed as a disorder in the DSM-5, but some suggest that it could fall under “parent-child relational problem” as one of a set of concerns that may merit clinical attention. Some researchers believe that the experience is a form of emotional child abuse and family violence.

Healing from Parental Alienation
Lenar Nigmatullin/Shutterstock

Parental alienation is deeply painful, but ostracized parents should know that they are not alone. Although it can be frustrating, they should aim to express only compassion and kindness for the estranged child, remaining calm rather than responding to the injustice with anger or rage. They should turn to friends, family, support groups, or mental health professionals as they cope with the strain.

When a child begins to spend time with the alienated parent, it can often allow the relationship to be repaired. Individual therapy for the alienating parent, the target parent, and the child can help throughout this process.

How does parental alienation affect children?

Children may struggle with self-esteem, guilt, and self-hatred, as they can internalize hatred toward the targeted parent and are led to believe, incorrectly, that the parent did not love or want them. Depression and substance use are also pathways by which parental alienation can impact children.

Can you repair the relationship with your child after parental alienation?

The best course of action is to limit the child’s time with the alienating parent and increase time with the targeted parent. The child’s biased view of the parent will gradually clear and even severely damaged relationships can be repaired, research shows. The targeted parent can help by not denigrating the alienating parent or dismissing the child’s feelings during this time.

The Aftermath of Parental Alienation
Lenar Nigmatullin/Shutterstock

Coming to recognize parental alienation as an adult can be a long and difficult journey. Many children develop a new, realistic understanding of their parents later in life. They are often grateful to develop a better relationship with the targeted parent, yet they may also struggle with the fallout of a strained or weaker relationship with the alienating parent.

How do I know if I experienced parental alienation as a child?

Children very often come to recognize that they were victims of parental alienation in adulthood. However, the process is emotionally painful and can take years or even decades. Learning the signs and strategies of parental alienation, as well as speaking to the targeted parent to identify truths and falsehoods, can help children identify if they were victims of alienation.

How can I repair a broken relationship with my parent as an adult?

It can be difficult to counteract the misperceptions that a parent instills in a child. But as an adult, children may be able to better understand the other parent’s perspective and the situation more broadly. In the case of one woman, her alienated father kept his distance until she was 17 before calmly explaining that not all of her mother’s claims were true. They were able to then reconnect.

Essential Reads