What is Parental Alienation?

Using modern day lingo, parental alienation is the act of ‘cancelling’ one parent from the life and memory of a child.

In severe cases, a child is told false stories about abuse. Research shows if a child believes a false story that they had been physically, or sexually abused, for example, by a parent, then the child is at the same risk-potential for PTSD as if it actually had happened. This is criminal behavior. Absolutely criminal behavior.

The alienator is assaulting the child’s memory, feelings, thinking, and relationship with the targeted parent. Assault is a crime.

A normal parent appreciates that a child has a need for the other parent and when the alienating parent can’t appreciate that, they lack empathy.

For a child to reject a parent is not just about the dreadfulness of murdering a parent who is still alive and saying, “I no longer want to have you in my consciousness,” it’s about the way a child has murdered part of themselves, and has then been forced to live with it. It’s only when a child comes into their young adulthood that perhaps the gravest consequences of what they’ve been forced to do, really starts to come to light.

Parents (biological or adoptive) who alienate their children are not only engaging in psychological abuse, but also even physical abuse, social isolation, and other types of things to harm a child and keep them away from the other parent.

It does a lot of significant damage to a child and to their relationships with others. This is evidence-based science.

If you’re looking for alienation, and even other kinds of domestic violence, you have to look at patterns over time because abusive parents use coercive control. They use ways to dominate the other person, and you have to look deep and you have to look at it over an extended period of time.

Talking to targeted parents, and researching them, a lot of them are really helpless. They have almost no power or control over what’s happening in their lives and in their children’s lives. The alienating parent really controls everything. They control access and communication to their child.

What’s going on here is the alienating parent tends to be a master manipulator, often an accomplished liar, brilliant at managing impressions and so on, and is the aggressor, who is winning. The other parent is a trauma victim.

Typically, alienating parents are what we call, “narcissistically vulnerable.” They feel very threatened when a part of their identity has been diminished within the dissolution and dysfunction of their family structure. Alienating parents are not confined to biological parents, but are often found with step-parents and adoptive parents.

They externalize the blame and project it outward towards the targeted parent. The children get involved in that and they’re caught in the middle. Usually, when you’re dealing with alienation, it’s one of three types or a combination: Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or some type of Sociopathic Personality Disorder.

Is rejection of a parent serious for a child? It absolutely is.

To reject a parent is a very unnatural thing for a child to do. We are born helpless into the world and we attach to our primary caregivers as a way of avoiding being abandoned and our biggest fear is that we will be abandoned.

Sadly, what happens to children in these circumstances is that they are forced to reject a parent against their natural way of being in the world and then they’re forced to live with and suffer the consequences of that which are very, very deep and they’re long-lasting and one of the problems about alienation is that we don’t readily see the impact on the child in the here and now. What we see is the impact of the child much further down the line.

Whether this is deliberate and conscious, or whether it’s unconscious, the child is still at risk of the same kinds of harm. Therefore, we need to think of it in terms of child abuse and child protection. There’s a world of difference if the child is rejecting the parent for legitimate protective reasons or it’s a result of a brainwashing.

Targeted parents are living in an unending grief. The alienator presents with the 4C’s: He or she is: cool, calm, convincing, and charming. By contrast, the alienated parent, the targeted parent, has the 4A’s: He or she is anxious, agitated, angry, and afraid.

The model says that four things need to be present in order to know that a rejecting child is alienated. All four have to be present. The way this model has been codified, in all the theoretical, practical, clinical, and research available, is in a diagnostic framework called the Four-Factor Model. The model says that four things need to be present in order to know that a rejecting child is alienated. All four have to be present.

Factor One: There was a prior positive relationship between the child and the now rejected parent. This means that whatever the normative flaws are of that parent, it didn’t prevent them from having a close loving attachment bond.

Factor Two: Absence of real abuse or neglect. Not to be confused with lies made up about abuse or neglect by the alienating parent.

Factor Three: The ‘favored’ parent has engaged in many of the 17 primary parental alienation strategies that we know of to foster a child’s unjustified rejection of the other parent. We want to see, did that favored parent do the things that we know can cause alienation?

These are 17 strategies used by parents (step-parents or adoptive parents) to alienate their children from the other parent. The alienating parent engages in these strategies against the targeted parent:

  1. Badmouthing
  2. Limiting Contact
  3. Interfering with communication
  4. Interfering with symbolic communication (i.e. pictures and photos)
  5. Withdrawal of love
  6. Telling the child the targeted parent is dangerous (may include filing false charges with Child Protective Services)
  7. Forcing the child to choose between parents
  8. Telling the child the targeted parent does not love him or her
  9. Confiding in the child
  10. Forcing the child to reject the targeted parent
  11. Asking the child to spy on the targeted parent
  12. Asking the child to keep secrets from the targeted parent
  13. Referring to the targeted parent by first name and encouraging the child to do the same
  14. Referring to a step-parent (or adoptive parent) as “Mom” or “Dad”, or “Mama” or “Papa”, and encouraging the child to do the same
  15. Withholding medical, academic, and other important information from the targeted parent, keeping the targeted parent’s name off medical, academic, and other relevant documents
  16. Changing the child’s name to remove association with the targeted parent
  17. Cultivating dependency and undermining the authority of the targeted parent (may include overly permissive parenting by the alienating parent)

Factor Four: Is the child actually acting like an alienated child? There are eight behaviors that differentiate alienated children from non-alienated children.

Even children who have been abused don’t treat their abusive parent the way that alienated children treat the targeted parent, who we’ve established through factor one and two, has been a normative parent.

Factor Four – Behavior One:

The campaign of denigration. There’s a lot packed into this one. The gist of the campaign of denigration can be thought of in terms of past, present and future. If you ask an alienated child, “Tell me about, you know, a good memory you have of the parent that you’re now rejecting.” Let’s say it’s mom. “Tell me about mom. Can you think of a good memory?” and you show the child a photograph. “This looks like you were having a good time with your mom here.” An alienated child will generally say, “I never had good times with that parent”, “I was pretending in that photograph”, or “that’s not me, that’s been photoshopped”, or, “my mom said she would hurt me, you know, if I didn’t smile for the camera.”

They erase the past.

Even there are cases where the favored parent will say, “Well, the mom used to be a good mom up until whatever,” and because children can be extreme, they will deny ever having a good memory with that parent. That’s the past.

The present. Alienated children are hostile, rejecting, provocative, arrogant, entitled, rude and nasty, in general. Not every child will have every one of those characteristics, but alienated children don’t reject a parent, like, “Gee, mom, I don’t really want to, you know, live with you. I’m feeling you know, closer to dad”, on the contrary, they are like, “Don’t ever darken my doorway. You’re a piece of garbage. I hate you. I hate everything about you.”

Then the future. If you ask an alienated child, “What could mom do to fix this, you know? I think you had a good relationship, you’re not so happy with her now. What does mom need to do to repair the relationship?” They will generally say, “Nothing, I can’t imagine ever wanting to have a relationship with her again.”

Alienated children gleefully share with other people a sort of a smear campaign of the targeted parent. So, they can’t wait to tell the judge, you know, that their mother’s a monster, you know. They sort of take pleasure in saying bad things about the targeted parent to other people.

Factor Four – Behavior Two:

The second of the eight is weak, frivolous, and absurd reasons.

If you ask an alienated child, “What’s the deal? Like, how come you won’t even have a cup of cocoa with your mother on her birthday? You know, what’s your beef with her?” The reasons they give generally are weak, frivolous and absurd, and disproportionate to their complaints. Examples from real life cases:

“My mom cut my hair when I was five and she knew I wanted long hair. She made me feel betrayed and I couldn’t trust her anymore.”

“I hate my father. I never want to see him again. The wooden floors in his house are scratched, okay.”

Or, “My mother wears cowboy boots with skirts. And therefore she’s dead to me.”

So, the level of hostility compared to the complaints, is patently disproportionate. It just doesn’t really make sense.

Factor Four: Behavior Three:

The third is lack of ambivalence. Alienated children see one parent as all good, the other as all bad, and really have a hard time even thinking of any criticisms of the favored parent.

It is a facet of the human brain that we are hardwired to have, not only to have, but to be able to have mixed feelings about people. In fact, the more we love somebody, the closer we are to them, the more likely we are to have mixed feelings, because the more likely they are to disappoint us.

It is highly unnatural for a child to see one parent like literally as like a hero, and the other as like a villain. So, that’s the third of the eight behavioral manifestations.

Factor Four: Behavior Four:

The fourth is lack of remorse for the really shoddy treatment of the targeted parent.

When people ask, what is parental alienation, an easy to comprehend answer is “when one parent gives the child permission to break the other parent’s heart.” Alienated children treat the targeted parent really badly, and it’s brutal.

It’s extremely painful to be not just cut off from your child but to be so invalidated, like you have no meaning to your child. Alienated children act as if they just don’t care about the targeted parent’s feelings.

Factor Four: Behavior Five:

The independent thinker phenomenon.

Alienated children go out of their way to protect the favored parent. You know, at some point, these children figure out that people think they’ve been brainwashed, or programmed, or whatever term we want to use, or coached, and so they say things like, “you know, Mom, you know, this has nothing to do with Papa. Don’t even think that Papa had anything to do with this, this is all my own. I just came up with this,” and then sort of, you know, spew their hate.

It does seem to be that they want to really own it for themselves.

Factor Four: Behavior Six:

Use of borrowed scenarios.

This is where the alienated child repeats back phrases, ideas, beliefs, statements, whole paragraph scenarios that come from the favored parent that again, the child is sort of pretending and then eventually comes to believe for themselves. That these are their ideas, even though they may not know the words they’re saying, or they don’t understand it, or they can’t provide any examples.

A favorite example is a child who said, “You know, gee, Dad, I don’t want anything to do with you anymore, blah, blah, blah.” Why? “Well, I just want good childhood memories.”

It’s just so ridiculous. Children just don’t talk like that. They don’t generally think they’re entitled to only have good childhood memories, right? So, it just has this totally pseudo feeling to it.

Factor Four: Behavior Seven:

Reflexive automatic support for the favored parent.

Favored parents are, sort of, evil geniuses at figuring out the wiggle room in the gray area in court orders. The favored parents always take the advantage and find the wiggle room, and they claim every extra second for themselves, no matter how preposterous the scenario is. The favored parent has to win, and the alienated child will take the favored parent’s side in every interparental conflict. Their mind is made up; the favored parent is always right.

Factor Four: Behavior Eight:

The spread of the animosity.

It starts off with the campaign of denigration against the targeted parent and it spreads to their friends and family, neighbors, anybody who has anything good to say about the targeted parent is ultimately cut off from the child.

Even abused children don’t exhibit these behaviors. Abused children do not erase the past. They still can have positive memories with the abusive parent. They don’t have weak, frivolous, and absurd reasons. Abused children have actually been maltreated and they’ll talk about it in a credible way. They don’t lack ambivalence. They don’t start worshiping the other parent. They can still see the good and the bad in both parents. Abused children don’t generally lack remorse. In therapy with maltreated children, if you read all the books on how to do therapy with abused children, they talk about how hard it is to get the children to confront the parent and, you know, own that they’re mad that the parent hurt them. Abused children are not just wiping out the humanity of their parent and they don’t take the other parent’s side. If two parents disagree, they don’t say, “well, because mom beat me, she must be wrong about what day of the week it is.” It’s clear abused children don’t do that. They don’t cut off the friends and family of the abusive parent.

There is a plethora of threads of other research that shows abused children don’t reject the abusive parent.

We have Harry Harlow’s research with the primates and he actually created this thing called the monster mother. These mechanical mothers who abused their babies, and he found that the babies actually clung to the monster mothers more than baby monkeys raised by non-monster mothers. So, abuse actually induced more proximity seeking and clinging behavior.

There are several really important credible strands of research that support that maltreated children don’t reject their maltreating parent the way that alienated children reject their non-abusive parent.

Effects of Parental Alienation

Thinking about the long term and short term effects of parental alienation, 40 adults who self-identified as having gone through this when they were a child were interviewed.

Of course, they didn’t say, “I’m an adult child of parental alienation,” right, because they didn’t know that term. So, they were asked, “when you were a child, did one parent turn you against the other parent?”, “how did this affect you?”, and “what does this mean to you having lived through this?”

None of them said, “Well, it wasn’t that big a deal, or it hurt for a while, but then I got used to it.” They all talked about it affecting profoundly their sense of who they are, how they felt about themselves, how they felt about the world, their ability to get along with other people, their ability to ultimately separate from the favored parent who was smothering them and interrupting their development, because those parents wanted those kids to stay, you know, dependent on them. It affected their ability to be self-sufficient adults.

We can say fairly confidently, that there are strong associations, the more exposure to parental alienation strategies, that’s factor three, the more likely the children are to grow up to be depressed and anxious and have poor relationships, and be stuck developmentally in their life.

By the way, just like a cult person, so you put somebody in a cult at 18, and they stay in a cult for 10 years, what do you get? At the end, you get an 18 year old. They learn no life skills. It’s sort of the same for many alienated children. They get alienated and then they stay dependent. They’re not learning critical thinking skills. They’re not learning how to navigate interpersonal conflict and how to resolve things in a mutually respectful way.

The alienating parent is teaching these children the opposite of what we want children to grow up to be, right, which is, you know, happy and confident, separate people who have what we would consider to be good values of forgiveness and generosity and compassion.

At this point, it’s fairly settled science, that exposure to alienation is associated with bad outcomes for these children through adulthood.

Parental alienation, established through research, is a form of psychological maltreatment, and severe parental alienation, therefore, would be severe psychological maltreatment.


Targeted parents are living in an unending grief. For targeted parents who have lost a child who, thankfully is still alive, it’s a never ending aggravating grief in their life, because they know their child is out there. Every day is a reminder that their child is growing and changing and developing, and they’re being deprived the opportunity to help their child, and have an influence. You know, it’s one of the greatest pleasures of parenting to be able to see your child blossom in the ways that you’re encouraging and helping them be good people and to navigate life. All of this the targeted parents are deprived of.

On top of that, they are witnessing their child being abused, and they can do nothing to protect their child. On top of the grief is the unsatisfied yearning to be with their child, which is very, very profound and intense, right up there in terms of intensity, is the intense helplessness that they cannot protect their child from all the bad things that the favored parent is doing. So, rather than these children blossoming, they’re kind of wilting under the care of the favored parent and it’s just profoundly frustrating and words don’t really begin to capture how painful it is for the targeted parent to go through this.