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Parental Alienation

Identifying Parental Alienation

New study provides four-factors to help determine parental alienation.

Key points

  • A new study reveals a comprehensive way to evaluate for parental alienation.
  • Evaluating data from four-factors can determine a valid conclusion of parental alienation.
  • The model provides more confidence and direction in matters of custody, visitation, and therapy.
Photo by Екатерина Магденко from Pexels
Source: Photo by Екатерина Магденко from Pexels

Parental alienation is the psychological manipulation of a child by one parent against the other parent. The term itself is controversial, yet can show up frequently in matters of custody, visitation, and therapy with children and families to explain the reason a child is not close to one parent.

Baker, a developmental psychologist and researcher, provides a comprehensive way to evaluate for parental alienation (Baker, 2020).

The purpose of Baker’s current study was to determine the reliability and validity of a four-factor model of parental alienation–unlike past models that looked at one factor–to help practitioners working with parents and children who may be unfamiliar with the phenomenon of parental alienation (Baker, p. 6).

Differentiating Alienation from Estrangement

Parental alienation involves acts by one parent to induce alienation from the other parent. Estrangement, unlike alienation, is a separation from a loss or lack of closeness, that’s realistic given the circumstances. In diagnosing parental alienation, it’s necessary to determine if the child’s distance or rejection of one parent is reality-based or induced by the behavior of an alienating parent with the purpose of impacting the child’s perception. The goal is to become the favored parent. Baker’s four-factor model provides a way to evaluate and determine a situation when all four factors are present, the conclusion of parental alienation is valid.

Baker’s Four-Factor Model

1) Presence of a prior positive relationship between the child and now rejected parent

The “premise of parental alienation theory is that the favored parent has turned the child against a parent with whom the child at one time had a close and loving bond….This factor precludes parents who were habitually absent, uninvolved, and uncaring from claiming that they are victims of parental alienation.” (Baker, p. 3).

It’s important for the alienated parent who wants to prove they have been subjected to parental alienation to a lawyer, court, or therapist that a close and loving bond with their child had existed earlier in their relationship. Some ways to do this would be to provide evidence of close, positive interactions.

2) Absence of maltreatment or seriously deficient parenting on the part of the now rejected parent.

When the rejected parent has no history of malice or poor parenting of a child, it sheds light on parental alienation as the cause of the rejection. At the same time, it’s important to determine for legal or therapeutic reasons that the child was exposed to parental alienating behaviors by the favored parent.

3) Use of multiple alienating behaviors on the part of the favored parent.

When abuse and neglect can be identified on the behalf of the rejected parent, an alternative explanation is plausible negating the argument of parental alienation as the reason for the child’s rejecting behavior. An example from domestic abuse cases, is the abusive parent declaring that the distant relationship with a child is the result of being alienated by the other parent rather than their own abusive behavior that intimidated and pushed away their child.

In this case, the actions and attitudes of the favored parent negatively persuades the child’s perception of the other parent beyond the realistic experience with that parent.

Baker identified 17 primary behaviors used to alienate a targeted parent (Baker, p. 4-5).

  • Criticizing the other parent in front of the children
  • Limiting contact by interfering with the other parent’s visitation
  • Interfering or preventing phone calls to the other parent during visitation
  • Destroying the child’s pictures of the other parent
  • Withdrawing love if the child loves the other parent
  • Telling the child that the targeted parent doesn’t love him or her
  • Forcing a child to choose between parents
  • Creating the impression that the targeted parent is dangerous
  • Confiding in a child of the other parent’s unsavory behavior
  • Forcing a child to reject their other parent
  • Asking a child to spy on the other parent
  • Asking a child to keep secrets from the targeted parent
  • Referring to the targeted parent by a first name
  • Referring to a stepparent as “Mom” or “Dad” and encouraging a child to do the same
  • Withholding medical, academic, and other important information from the targeted parent/keeping their name off relevant documents
  • Changing a child’s name to remove association with the targeted parent
  • Cultivating dependency--making the child feel they need to be with the parent to be okay, or making the child feel the parent needs them to be okay.

Using even some of these behaviors can be harmful and make the case for parental alienation. A parent can keep evidence of alienating behaviors such as saving texts, emails, and anything else that can support parental alienation.

4) Exhibition of the eight behavioral manifestations of alienation by the child.

From both clinical and research support, alienated children behave quite differently than children who are realistically estranged from a parent (Baker, p. 5-6). The following behaviors have been identified that differentiate alienated children:

  • Denigration of the targeted parent
  • Weak and absurd reasons offered for the rejection of the parent
  • Lack of ambivalence in the child’s view – seeing one parent as all good and the other as all bad
  • Lack of remorse for cruel treatment of the parent
  • Child’s support for the favored parent in all disputes between parents
  • Child claims to have not been influenced by the favored parent
  • Child’s use of words and phrases taken from the favored parent
  • Cultivating the child’s animosity towards friends and family of the parent

Children’s behavior is revealing, important to address, and invites exploration of all four factors to determine parental alienation.

Baker’s four-factor model is meant for practitioners including mental health professionals. This model can help provide more confidence when evidence of all four factors exists and parental alienation is a clear and warranted conclusion. The resulting understanding then can provide valuable direction in custody, visitation, and treatment with families, couples, children, adolescents, adults and adults who experienced parental alienation during their childhood.



Baker, Amy J. L. 2020. "Reliability and validity of the four-factor model of parental alienation." Journal of Family Therapy. 42:100-118.

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