- More and more children are resisting having a relationship with one of their parents after a high-conflict separation or divorce.
- Children’s brains go through a unique period that involves the pruning and growth of synapses between neurons from ages 9 to 13.
- Allowing a child to have no contact with a parent during this age range can become permanent and should be avoided by courts and parents.
Parental alienation is a term raised in high-conflict separation and divorce cases that refers to a child’s resistance or refusal to be with one of the parents (the “rejected” parent) and a strong preference to be with the other parent (the “favored” parent) when the rejected parent has done nothing to cause this rejection (no child abuse, domestic violence, etc.). Parental alienation is not a diagnosis in the DSM-5-TR, but it has been submitted to the DSM-5-TR for consideration with a lot of support from legal and mental health professionals. It has a history of being controversial, but it seems to be growing so rapidly in separation and divorce cases since around 20051 in contested custody cases (perhaps 20-25 percent) that professionals may agree that it is time to recognize it as a diagnosable mental health problem and focus on what to do about it.
A parent with a high-conflict personality—such as one of the Cluster B personalities: borderline, narcissistic, histrionic, or antisocial—is often involved in cases of parental alienation. They might be preoccupied with blaming the other parent, exhibit all-or-nothing thinking, have unmanaged and intense emotions, and engage in extreme behaviors. I am not a brain scientist, but understanding some possibilities of what may be happening in the child’s brain when this alienation occurs may be helpful.
Mostly Starts Around Ages 9-13
While children of any age may resist going from one parent’s household to the other after separation, parental alienation seems to arise most often between ages 9 and 13. Before 8 or 9, most children seem less affected by their parents’ hostility, so they maintain a relationship with both in a relatively neutral manner. After about 13 or 14, some adolescents become so alienated that their relationship with the rejected parent may be over for years or forever.
Research on the pre-adolescent brain suggests that 9-13 is a period of exceptional change when the synapses between neurons that grew from childhood experience get pruned if they are not used much. This is sometimes known as “use it or lose it,” with early adolescence being when this may happen the most in a lifetime:
“Many synapses are formed in childhood that are later removed in adolescence. This occurs in an experience-dependent way, i.e., the synapses that survive are the ones that are more often ‘in use.’”2
“A phase of net synapse elimination occurs late in childhood [10-11], earlier in auditory cortex, where it has ended by age 12 years, than in prefrontal cortex, where it extends to mid-adolescence.”3
This may be good news for children who have been abused in early childhood, as some of their bad memories may get wiped away. But this also means that happy memories in cases of positive parents who are now being rejected may also get erased. I know of cases in which a rejected parent has run into their older adolescent child who seems confused and almost doesn’t recognize their parent whom they have rejected for several years with no contact. This has happened to grandparents as well on the side of the rejected parent, such that the child doesn’t remember the good times they had together, even with prompting.
Courts often are confused by these cases and allow the child to stay away from the rejected parent until this gets figured out. But if the child is allowed to stay away from the parent he or she is rejecting and to live exclusively with the parent who may be angry, badmouthing the other parent, and emotionally intense, then the child may develop an all-or-nothing view of both parents: one all-good and the other all-bad. It appears that while their brain is pruning old, unused memories at this age, it is also opening up to new experiences, especially emotional experiences.
“The brain of the adolescent goes through a new phase of plasticity in which environmental factors can have major, lasting effects on cortical circuitry…. In situations that are particularly emotionally laden (e.g., in the presence of other adolescents or when there is the prospect of a reward), the probability rises that rewards and emotions will affect behavior more strongly than rational decision-making processes.”4
This process is usually thought of in regard to risk-taking and emotional behavior with other adolescents. But it can also include intense emotional experiences with a parent who may be angry at the other parent and wants to reward the child who favors him or her. Research shows that the more repetition of an experience, the stronger the neuronal connections. This is called myelinization, as neurons form more permanent sheaths around themselves to help transfer messages between neurons more quickly.5
Research on children’s brains gives us some hints at what may be going wrong in high-conflict separation and divorce cases. Until recently, courts and legal professionals have been mystified by the rejecting behavior of many children in this age group of 9 to 13. The court process of arguing over whose fault it is may actually make it worse, as both favored and rejected parents get more and more upset and emotional, and the child becomes more emotional and extreme in their all-or-nothing thinking and behavior.
Hopefully, after realizing the rapid changes in a child’s brain at this age, parents, professionals, and courts will make sure that children remain in a regular relationship with both parents unless true danger is involved. Spending 2-3 years arguing over why a child rejects a parent may miss this window of opportunity to keep two parents in the child’s life.
1. Lorandos, D. and Bernet, W., Parental Alienation: Science and Law. (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, 2020)
2. Konrad, et al, “Brain Development During Adolescence,” Deutsches Arzteblatt International. 2013, 110(25): 425-31.
3. Huttenlocher, P.R. and Dabholkar, A.S. “Regional differences in synaptogenesis in human cerebral cortex,” Journal of Comparative Neurology. 1997 Oct 20;387(2):167-78. Retrieved on March 30, 2023 from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9336221/
4. Konrad, above.
5. Konrad, above.