- Parental alienation tends to occur in divorces when one parent repeatedly displays extreme words and behavior about the other parent.
- People with personality disorders tend to have a pattern of repeating hostile and unpredictable behavior in the presence of their children.
- When parents repeatedly display extreme emotion and behavior, children tend to develop emotional problems, which may include parental alienation.
Parental alienation most commonly occurs in separation and divorce when a child resists or refuses to see one of their parents because of the statements and behaviors of their “favored” parent—not because of something the “rejected” parent has done.
The child’s resistance or refusal seems to primarily come from repeated negative emotions and statements made by the “favored parent” about the “rejected parent,” also known as bad-mouthing or brainwashing.1 Other relatives, friends, and professionals may join in the negative messages about the rejected parent in the presence of the child or directly to the child.
There are often serious blockages of the rejected parent’s time and activities with the child, such as scheduling activities during the rejected parent’s time or just not exchanging the child as planned. There are often efforts to make the rejected parent look bad in the eyes of the child, like blaming the divorce on him or her. Also common is saying there isn’t enough money to do fun things because the other parent doesn’t pay enough child support, or the other parent receives too much child support. One may simply say repeatedly that the other is incompetent as a parent.
Parental alienation is not a gender issue: Both mothers and fathers can be the target. It’s not a normal result of divorce: Only a small portion of children become alienated in divorce, perhaps 10-15 percent. And it’s not a symptom of child abuse by a rejected parent because most abused children don’t reject either parent; they just want the abuse to stop. It’s not estrangement, which means that the child is estranged from a parent because of their own behavior (abuse, domestic violence, etc.). It’s not a simple preference for one parent over the other, such as preferring the same-gender parent.
Rather, parental alienation is an intense dislike or hatred by the child for the other parent and a desire to eliminate him or her from their life. So, what is the cause of such an intense and destructive attitude and behavior by a child toward the other parent?
Personality Disorders and Parental Alienation
Personality disorders have a lot of characteristics that may explain the behavior involved with parental alienation. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (currently known as the DSM-5-TR) describes personality disorders as essentially an “enduring pattern” of dysfunctional interpersonal behavior that is long-lasting and unchanging. This is characterized by dysfunctional thought processes, unmanaged emotions out of proportion to events, and impulsive behavior.2
Much of this behavior impacts their children as well as their adult partners: “A growing body of empirical research has also considered associations between personality disorders and the quality of functioning in specific interpersonal relationships, such as with one’s children, parents and siblings, peers, and romantic partners.”3
Cluster B Personality Disorders
The DSM-5-TR lists 10 personality disorders, which are assigned to three categories: Cluster A, Cluster B, and Cluster C. Cluster B stands out as being particularly problematic in raising children.
Cluster B personality disorders include narcissistic, borderline, histrionic, and antisocial personalities. The DSM-5-TR notes that they are “dramatic, emotional, and erratic.” In addition, a meta-analytic study of personality disorders found that Cluster B personality disorders tend to be associated with “domineeringness, vindictiveness, and intrusiveness.” Furthermore, all personality disorders were identified as having an “inability to care about the needs of others."4
Other research identifies parents who simply have “traits” (subclinical level) of Cluster B personality disorders as still being a major mental health risk to their children, even as young as 4 or 5 years old.
“For the first time, subclinical levels of Borderline, Antisocial, and Narcissistic PD symptoms in parents have been documented to predict behavioral and emotional difficulties in their children as early as the preschool age. When parents were not cohabiting, the variance of the children’s emotional problems explained by parental symptoms increased more than six times.”5
What do such parents do that causes their children such difficulties? The same report found that the following interpersonal behaviors were common for parents with these disorders:
“These disorders are characterized by features such as difficulty controlling anger (BPD, ASPD, NPD), impulsive and aggressive outbursts (BPD, ASPD), rage when being criticized (NPD), irritability (BPD), aggressiveness and physical assault (ASPD), being tough-minded, exploitive, and non-empathic (ASPD, NPD), lack of reciprocal interest and sensitivity to the wants and needs of others (ASPD, NPD), extreme sarcasm (BPD), being indifferent to having hurt another (ASPD), sudden and dramatic shifts in their view of others (BPD), emotional coldness (NPD, ASPD) and disdainful, arrogant behavior (NPD).”6
Surely, they must protect their children from such intense and extreme behavior? Apparently not:
“A common characteristic of persons with PDs is that they themselves most often do not consider their behavior to be problematic (i.e., the traits are ego-syntonic), yet their way of dealing with other people may represent a major stressor to persons who are close to them. Subsequently, parents with symptoms that are characteristic of BPD, ASPD, and NPD may readily see the faults and flaws in their children (and spouses) but rarely acknowledge that their own behavior or attitude contributes to any problems.”7
All put together, it would appear that the interpersonal behavior of parents with personality disorders, or even just traits, would significantly impact their children. Their negativity toward the other parent (constantly emphasizing their faults and flaws) may be a significant factor in alienating their children against the other parent so that the child attempts to calm the hostile and unpredictable parent they are with by agreeing with them more and more over time.
More research into these two phenomena and their possible connection would be helpful so that interventions can occur more quickly and effectively.
1. Warshak, Richard A., Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing, New York: HarperCollins, 2010.
2. American Psychiatric Association (APA): Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2022.
3. Wilson S., Stroud, C. and Durbin, C. Interpersonal Dysfunction in Personality Disorders: A Meta-Analytic Review, Psychology Bulletin, July 2017; 143(7): 677-734.
4. Wilson, Interpersonal Dysfunction..., 35/120.
5. Berg-Nielsen, T.S. and Wichstrom, L. “The mental health of preschoolers in a Norwegian population-based study when their parents have symptoms of borderline, antisocial, and narcissistic personality disorders: at the mercy of unpredictability.” Child & Adolescent Psychiatry & Mental Health. 2012; 6:19.
6. Berg-Nielsen, The Mental Health..., 2/24.
7. Berg-Nielsen, The Mental Health..., 18/24.