Some Myths and Research Findings Regarding Parental Alienation

Some Myths and Research Findings Regarding Parental Alienation

Millions of children worldwide are forced to accept parental divorce as part of their lives. Often, an arrangement is achieved in which the child either lives with and/or sees both parents regularly, via some form of benign custody arrangment. However, in all too many cases (some estimate up to one in three) children of divorced parents are subject to parental alienation, so much so, that this has been described a syndrome, a cluster of related phenomena.

It is well-established that, “children who suffer the most are those who have been exposed to intense and chronic parental conflict such as parental alienation” (Baker, 2007, p. 10). Parental alienation—and the strategies used to achieve it—constitutes a form of emotional abuse (Gardner, 1998; Rand, 1997a, 1997b). There may be additional, co-existing forms of abuse present, since parents who tend to abuse their children in one way, often do so in additional ways. Moreover, the actual separation of a child from a parent, in and of itself, has also been viewed as constituting emotional abuse (Baker, 2007). 

What is Parental Alienation Syndrome?

According to Richard Gardner (1998), a psychiatrist who researched what has been named Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), this syndrome occurs when one parent succeeds in manipulating the children against the other parent. In extreme cases, the children may state they’re afraid of and/or hate the targeted parent, and refuse to be in a relationship with them. 

The Realization of Parental Alienation

According to Baker, the realization by adult children that parental alienation from a targeted parent has occurred is a gradual recognition, and may take years. It is first necessary for the defenses the child erected in order to support the negative beliefs that emerged to begin to soften. Several catalysts may usher in this emerging awareness. 

Defenses that have supported the alienation include:

(1) viewing the world in terms of black and white, meanwhile denying the targeted parent may have some positive redeeming qualities and realizing that the alienating parent is not “all-good”, that it takes both parents to consider divorce.

(2) denying that the alienating parent has focused mainly on his or her own needs at the expense of the child’s, often behaving selfishly and manipulatively.

(3) denying that the adult child needs both parents and wants a relationship with the targeted parent.

(4) denying the adult child is afraid of losing the love of the alienating parent, if they maintain or renew a connection with the targeted parent.

Baker (2007) researched the views of adults who viewed themselves as having been alienated from a parent, due to the influence of the other parent, as children.

She interviewed 40 adult children (ages 19-67) of alienated parents. In all but six cases, the alienating parent was the mother. Seventy-five percent of the parents were divorced. Some participants were actively working through the alienation, whereas others had already done so, perhaps even confronting the alienating parent. All of them considered this alienation to have been “a formative albeit traumatic aspect of their childhood.” (p. 11). 

Research Findings (Baker, 2007)

According to Baker, her findings refuted three myths about parental alienation syndrome:

(1) parental alienation is only perpetuated by mothers against fathers;

(2) parental alienation only occurs in divorced families;

(3) Parental alienation “is only effectuated by custodial parents.” (p.18). It may also occur during visitation with a noncustodial parent.   

Findings included:

Familial patterns identified included (1) self-centered mothers in either divorced or intact families, who alienated children from the father and (2) “cold, rejecting or abusive alienating parents of either gender.”

From a family systems perspective, in the above patterns, there is a breach in the parental unit, and another person is triangulated into the dysfunctional system. For example, a child may become a parental child and is delegated specific functions in the family system (e.g., to provide emotional support to a parent or make decisions instead of the parent). Cross-generational boundaries are not observed.

*  Many alienating parents appeared to have personality disorders, as inferred from descriptions provided by their adult children.

*  In addition to the emotional abuse incurred by the alienating parent, there was often another form of abuse, such as physical or sexual.

*  Such parents functioned like cult leaders who brainwashed their followers, making numerous negative allegations involving black-and-white thinking, regarding the targeted parent.

 Baker identified numerous alienation strategies used to disrupt the attachment between the child and the targeted parent.

In sum: 

 *  Parental alienation is a form of emotional abuse.

*  The alienating parent tended to provide intermittent reinforcement that led to an anxious attachment. The child was maneuverd into seeking to placate the alienating parent and win back their love and support when these were seemingly threatened.

*  The realization of the existence of parental alienation is a gradual process.

 *  The actual impact of alienation continues during the lifespan and may be intergenerational. (In other words, a person with a self-centered parent who alienated them from a targeted parent may end up marrying someone who is like their self-centered and alienating parent. Professional help may be required to break this cycle.)

*  The alienating parent tended to provide intermittent reinforcement that led to an anxious attachment. The child was maneuverd into seeking to placate the alienating parent and win back their love and support when these were seemingly threatened.

 *  How the targeted parent responded made a difference. 


Baker, A.J.L (2007). Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome. Norton.

Additional Reading

Gardner, R.A. (1998). The parental alienation syndrome: A guide for mental health and legal professionals. Creative Therapeutics.

Rand (1997a). The spectrum of parental alienation syndrome, Part I. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 15 (3), 23-52.

Rand (1997b). The spectrum of parental alienation syndrome, Part II. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 15 (4), 39-92.

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