Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Parental Alienation

The Forced Removal of Children from Parental Care

Parallels between two different forms of parental alienation.

Parental alienation is essentially the forced removal of a child from the life of a parent, and the forced removal of a parent from the life of a child. It has two principal components: a planned strategy on the part of an alienator to effect such an estrangement, and severe negative consequences to the physical, emotional, social and spiritual well-being, and safety of both the target parent and child.

The effects of parental alienation on children are profound, and include deep sadness and depression, leading to lingering feelings of low self-worth; disrupted social-emotional development, including withdrawal, isolation, and social anxiety; low self-sufficiency and a sense of learned helplessness; diminished cognitive functioning and poor academic achievement, which seriously disrupts their future life chances; and poor impulse control, along with future struggles with mental health, addiction and self-harm.

One of the more dire consequences of parental alienation is a feeling of self-hatred on the part of a child. The alienator seeks not only to estrange children and their parents, but to cause the child to turn his or her heart and mind against the parent, and this hatred leads to a profound sense of guilt and, ultimately, self-hatred.

Hatred of a parent is not an emotion that comes naturally to children. Although children suffer acutely the absence of a parent removed from their lives through alienation in the short-term, over time, the demonization of the parent by the alienator is internalized by the child, and emotional rejection and hatred are the result. This is one of the lesser-known consequences of parental alienation.

The tactics of alienating parents in high conflict divorce situations, involving a set of abusive strategies to foster the child’s rejection of the other parent, whereby children are manipulated by one parent to reject the other, are now well-known. It behooves us to ask whether the demonization tactics against migrant parents at the border, in the eyes of the child, constitute actions that similarly turns children’s hearts and minds against their parents. For the child, parental alienation is a significant mental disturbance, based on a false belief that the alienated parent is a dangerous and unworthy parent.

Just as in divorce situations a loving parent with no history of abuse is labeled as dangerous, abusive, and unworthy to be a parent by the alienating parent, and is removed from the child’s day-to-day life by court decree, so parents with no criminal history fleeing war-torn countries, extreme poverty, drug cartels and gang violence are labeled as criminals, and removed from their children’s lives by government policy and judicial fiat. In both cases, the alienator feels completely justified in the belief that he or she is doing the right thing, protecting children from a criminal or abusive parent. Over time, such demonization takes hold of the child, and hatred toward the parent is the result.

Another parallel between these two forms of parental alienation—alienation by a parent toward the other in divorce situations, and alienation by government officials toward migrant parents at the border—is the “bystander effect,” in which an attitude of passivity, indifference and apathy underlies people’s refusal to get involved or offer assistance. Failure to respond allows the alienation to continue. If it is determined that others are not reacting to the situation, bystanders will interpret the situation as not an emergency and will not intervene, an example of pluralistic ignorance; thankfully, in the case of border separations, mounting public pressure has resulted in the presidential order to end family separations.

In regard to both types of parental alienation, the system is the main problem; that is, the roots of alienation lie primarily in the adversarial nature of legal determination of parenting after divorce, and in the hostile nature of handling migrant parents at the border. Parents are set up to fight in an effort to win primary residence or custody of their children, and the system rewards those skilled in adversarial combat. Similarly, politicians and government agents exercise their authority with impunity, acting as though parents and their children have little or no rights. The saying, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” holds true in both situations. The removal of fit and loving parents as caregivers robs children of their parents’ routine care and nurture, during very stressful times in their lives, and removes the responsibility of parents to protect their children.

I have long believed that the failure to act to protect children and parents of divorce who are alienated from each other will lead down a slippery slope where other forms of parental alienation will take root. This appears to have happened in the case of migrant families at the border; what would have previously been considered unacceptable and an overreach of government authority in the past somehow became established as a routine government policy.

No matter its stripe, parental alienation is a serious form of child and parent abuse, and parental alienators, whether parents or government agents, represent a persistent danger to the lives of children. The public outrage and professional consensus about the harms of separating children from their parents at the border and placement of young children in detention centers should be extended to all forms of parental alienation. We must declare that “time’s up” for all alienators and immediately restore loving parents’ rightful place in the lives of their children in all situations of parental alienation.

More from Edward Kruk Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today