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Prevalence of parental alienation drawn from a representative poll
Jennifer J. Harman
a,
, Sadie Leder-Elder
b
, Zeynep Biringen
c
a
Colorado State University, Department ofPsychology, Fort Collins, CO 80523-1876, USA
b
High Point University, Department ofPsychology, 336C Roberts Hall, High Point, NC 27268, USA
c
Colorado State University, Human Development and Family Studies, Fort Collins, CO 80523-1570, USA
abstractarticle info
Article history:
Received 17 January 2016
Received in revised form 26 April 2016
Accepted 27 April 2016
Available online 28 April 2016
The current work is the rst known representativepoll of adults (N= 610) aimed at determining the prevalence
of parental alienation. Parental alienation describes actions that a parent takes to intentionally, or unintention-
ally, distance a child (or children) from the other parent (Darnell, 1998). Results revealed that 13.4% of parents
(or 9.03% of the entire sample) have been alienated from one or more of their children. Our ndings suggest
that tens of millions of adults and their children may be impacted by parental alienation, which is much higher
than previous estimates. Furthermore, ndings show evidence of parental alienation across all socio-economic
and demographic indicators. However, when compared to Census estimates of different demographic groups
in the U.S. population, targeted parents were over-represented among Blacks/African Americans and Native
Americans, and those with only a high school diploma level education. The sheer magnitude of parental alien-
ation uncovered in this study indicates the need for more attention to be paid to this important and pervasive
problem.
© 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords:
Parental alienation
Prevalence
Random sampling
Methods
1. Introduction
Parental alienating behaviors describe actions that a parent takes to
intentionally, or unintentionally, distance a child (or children) from the
other parent, regardless of the impact that these behaviors have on a
child (Darnell, 1998). Many have argued that the impact these behav-
iors have on children, termed parental alienation, is a form of child
abuse because the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (APA, 2013)denes
child abuse as non-accidental verbal or symbolic acts by a child's par-
ent or caregiver that result, or have a reasonable potential to result, in
signicant psychological harm to the child.(p. 719). Clinicians have
long reported the existence and traumatic impact of parental alienation
on children, with outcomes ranging from the development of mental
health disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and con-
duct disorders), to declines in academic performance and even suicide
(Baker, 2007; Harman & Biringen, 2016). The impact of parental alien-
ation and alienating behaviors on targeted parents has received rela-
tively less attention. However, the consequences for targeted parents
can be severe (e.g., suicide, Sher, 2015) and could be considered a
form of ongoing domestic violence perpetrated on them by the
offending parent.
Although parental alienation and alienating behaviors in separated
or divorced families have been well documented in over 500 references
drawn from professional literatures across 30 countries (Bernet & Baker,
2013), estimates of prevalence vary greatly depending on whether the
study focuses on parental alienation or alienating behaviors themselves.
Estimates have also varied due to methodological differences in sam-
pling, as prevalence estimates to date have predominantly been based
on legal case reviews, clinical caseloads, and convenience samples. The
former two sources represent serious cases of parental alienation in
children that have required legal or psychosocial intervention, respec-
tively. Legal case reviews have provided estimates that around 12% of
cases involving parental alienation can be characterized as severe
(Lavadera, Ferracuti, & Togliatti, 2012). Using a different estimation ap-
proach, William Bernet (2010) deduced that approximately 20% of chil-
dren and adolescents live in separated or divorced households, and
about ¼ of their parental separations involved high-conict situations.
Based on these statistics, he estimated that 25% of children and adoles-
cents in high-conict break-ups become alienated, which is approxi-
mately 1% of children and adolescents (similar to the incidence of
autism spectrum disorders in children and adolescents in the U.S.).
With this approach, Bernet estimated that approximately 740,000 chil-
dren and adolescents in the U.S. are victims of parental alienation. It is
possible that the prevalence of parental alienation may be even higher
if intact families are considered, because parental alienation also occurs
in families that have not been affected by divorce or separation (Moné &
Biringen, 2006).
The prevalence of parental alienating behaviors is often estimated as
higher than parental alienation because not all children become
Children and Youth Services Review 66 (2016) 6266
Corresponding author at: 219 Be havioral Sciences Building, Department of
Psychology, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523-1876, USA.
E-mail addresses: jjharman@colostate.edu (J.J. Harman), sleder@highpoint.edu
(S. Leder-Elder), Zeynep.biringen@colostate.edu (Z. Biringen).
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2016.04.021
0190-7409/© 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Children and Youth Services Review
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/childyouth
alienated from the targeted parent (despite the alienator's efforts). In
one study using a convenience sample, employees of child welfare
agencies reported that about 25% of their adult caseloads were exposed
to parental alienating behaviors as children (Baker, 2010). Prevalence
estimates in convenience samples have varied between 2% and 80%
(Clawar & Rivlin, 1991), suggesting that community samples of sepa-
rated or divorced families take note of and/or experience a wide array
of types or frequency of relationship distancing behaviors, or that
there may not be consensus in what people believe parental alienating
behaviors are.
There are many individuals (including professionals) who deny that
parental alienation exists at all (see Rand, 2011 for a discussion of this
issue). Without knowing how many people and families this problem
affects, greater research attention, funding for basic science and inter-
ventions, as well as legal policy changes are not likely to be devoted to
understand how this problem impacts children, parents, and social in-
stitutions. Judicial systems rely on evidence that has been accepted by
experts in the eld to make decisions that are in the best interest of
the child.Obtaining an accurate picture of the number of families pa-
rental alienation affects can encourage more research in this area. Not
understanding the scope of the problem has also inhibited social analy-
ses of why this problem persists, despite there having been a few recent
clinical, legislative, and judicial interventions attempting to address it.
Therefore, the purpose of the current study was to conduct the rst
known representative poll of adults to determine prevalence of parental
alienation in a U.S. sample of North Carolina adults.
2. Method
A poll of 610 North Carolina (U.S.) adults (18 years of age or older)
was conducted by the High Point University Survey ResearchCenter be-
tween November 7th and 12th, 2015. The probability sample was
contacted using random digit dialing of landline and cellular numbers
generated by Survey Sampling International. If there was more than
one adult in a household that was called, the individual with the most
recent birthday was selected. Data were weighted based on the Center
for Disease Control's estimates for phone use (cell phone only, landline
only, or both) and census data (described in Section 3).
Student interviewers contacted respondents using computer
assisted telephone interviewingsystems. For each number dialed, inter-
viewers read the following script:
Hello,this is [INTERVIEWER NAME]with High Point University Survey
ResearchCenter. We are not selling anything or asking for contributions.
We are speaking with people in your community today about some im-
portant issues facing our country and the state of North Carolina. This is
for research purposes only,so your responses will not be shared with
anyone else.
After verifying that potential participants were residents of the state
of North Carolina and over the age of 18, interviewers stated:
We have selected you to participate in this survey because you are an
adult who lives here in North Carolina. We will ask you some questions
about your background and views on public affairs issues. Would you
like to continue?
Participants who agreed to complete the omnibus survey were
asked a battery of questions on a variety of topics. For the parental alien-
ation items, participants were asked between three and six questions,
depending on whether they were a parent or guardian to a child. The
rst three questions were asked of all adults and began with thefollow-
ing question:
When two people have children together,there are sometimes cases
when one parent intentionally or unintentionally tries to damage or
end the relationship between their child and the other parent. They
can do this by badmouthing the parent of the child,having the child
spy on the other parent,among many other things. Mental health pro-
fessionals call these types of behaviors parental alienation. Were you
aware of this term before?
Respondents were offered yes,”“noand don't know/refusedas
options. They were then asked whether they had heard of parental
alienating behaviors occurring to someone they know (with the same
response options), and how many people they knew who had it happen
to them. Interviewers then asked whether the respondent was a parent
or guardian to a child (yes or no), and for those who responded yes,
they were asked whether they feel they have been alienated from one
or more of their children by the other parent (yes,no, or don't know/re-
fuse). Finally, these parents rated the subjective severity of the alien-
ation they were experiencing on a three-point scale (1 = mild, 2 =
moderate, and 3 = severe). Basic demographic information was also
gathered about gender, race/ethnicity, education level, income, age,
and marital status.
3. Results
Six hundred and ten participants completed the entire question-
naire, and of those nearly all (approximately 99%) answered the rst
four parental alienation questions. Of the 609 adults who responded
to the rst question about whether they were aware of the parental
alienation term before, 58.6% reported yes (1.7% did not know or re-
fused to respond). Although 39.7% of adults had never heard of the
term before, over 2/3 of the sample reported knowing someone who
was being alienated from their children (68.7% of 607 responses, 2
were missing). A large number of respondents reported knowing
many parents who had experienced parental alienating behaviors, and
these are reported in Fig. 1. While 26.8% of 609 adults reported not
knowing anyone, 15.1% reported knowing ten or more people. Charac-
teristics of this sample are reported in Table 1.
Sixty-eight percent of the sample indicated that they were a parent
or guardian to a child (412 out of 609 respondents), and of the 410 an-
swering the question, 13.4% (55 parents) reported that they feel they
have been alienated from one or more of their children by the other par-
ent. It is important to note that these parents may have seen or been the
target of many parental alienating behaviors expressed by the other
parent, but we only asked about whether such behaviors led to the per-
ceived alienation of the child(ren). Nearly half of these 13.4% of parents
reported the subjective severity of this alienation as being severe (48%).
We presentpercentages of different reported severity levels in Fig. 2.For
those parents who reported being alienated from their children, 21.2%
reported not having known the term parental alienation before it had
been dened for them.
We next examined whether there were demographic differences
among participants in terms of whether the parent has been the target
of parental alienation. Because the objective of this poll was to obtain a
formal estimation of the prevalence of parental alienation, data were
weighted for age, race, and gender based on the U.S. Census (2014
American Community Survey and Population Estimate Program) in
order to correct for any possible distortions in representation of the
population of the sample (Statistical Services Centre, 2001). The sample
for this analysis was restricted to those who were parents or guardians
of a child and who provided answers to the questions that were ana-
lyzed. We rst examined whether there were gender differences in
who reported being alienated (versus not). Fathers (30 of 178, 1 re-
ported don't know) were only slightly more likely to report being
targeted than mothers (25 of 226, 5 reported don't know/refuse),
but this difference was only marginally signicant, χ
2
(1) = 2.84, p=
0.09. There were not any statistically signicant gender differences on
the severity of subjectively experienced parental alienation that was re-
ported, χ
2
(2) = 2.63, pN0.05. We also foundthere were not statistically
63J.J. Harman etal. / Children and Youth Services Review 66 (2016) 6266
signicant differences acrossage or race in the sample in terms of whois
a self-identied target of parental alienation (pN0.05).
We did nd statistically signicant differences across marital status
groups (pb0.001), however, it is unclear whether the parents who re-
ported being married and alienated from one or more of their children
(n= 18) are encountering this during a second or third marriage, or
whether they were still married to the alienating parent. Important to
note is that although parental alienation was reported by parents across
all educational levels, there were statistically signicant differences on
this factor, χ
2
(4) = 24.10, pb0.001. Of those parents who reported
being alienated, 8.9% had less than a high school diploma and 36.3%
graduated from high school, while 28.4% had some college, 16.9% had
a college degree, and 7.5% had a graduate degree (2.1% refused). Despite
these educational differences, there was only a marginally statistically
signicant difference in prevalence across income categories, p=
0.07. Of the parents who reported being alienated from their children,
18.7% reported an annual income of $25 a year, 28.2% reported $25
50 K, 15.1% reported $5 075 K, 14.9% reported $7 5100 K, 7.8% reported
$100150 K, and 3.4% reported $150200 K (0% for those over $200 K,
11.9% did not know or refused to answer).
3.1. Comparing ndings to U. S. census data
We next examined how the proportions of those reporting being the
target of parental alienation across different demographic factors com-
pared to their proportional representation in the general U.S. adult pop-
ulation.For example, individuals with less education in our sample were
more likely to report being the target of parental alienation than those
with higher degrees, but there are also more Americans with high
school diplomas than graduate degrees. Data were compared to U.S.
Census Bureau statistics reported on the American Fact Finder website
(U.S. Census Bureau, 2014a; 2014b) and these data appear in Table 2.
Fig. 1. Reported number of parents who have experienced parental alienating behaviorsknown by the sample. Note. N= 609. Nine percent of the sample failed to answer this question.
Table 1
Demographic characteristics of the sample (N=610).
Percentage Percentage
Race/ethnicity AfricanAmerican or Black 22.0% Gender Male 49%
White or Caucasian 71.3% Female 51%
Native American 2.6%
Asian 0.5% Household income $25K or less 10.3%
Multiple/other 2.1% $2550K 21.7%
Hispanic
a
3.1% $5075K 19.4%
$75100K 11.6%
$100150K 14.3%
Age Mean 44.5 (SD = 17.85) $150250K 4.5%
1824 12.7% N$250K 2.7%
2534 17.6%
3544 19.6% Parental status Parent or guardian 67.6%
4554 18.8% Not a parent or guardian 32.0%
5564 15.1%
65 or older 16.3% Marital status Single, never married 19.0%
Separated 3.3%
Education 11th grade or less 3.7% Divorced 8.6%
High school graduate 19.5% Engaged 3.6%
Some college 28.3% Living with signicant other 7.3%
College graduate 31.9% Married 50.2%
Graduate school 14.6% Widowed 4.6%
Note. When percentages do not add up to 100%, the remainder were respondents who reporting Don't knowor Refused.
a
Hispanic ethnicity represents % of overall sample and includes anyone from any racial category.
64 J.J. Harman etal. / Children and Youth Services Review 66 (2016) 6266
The only racial groups that appeared to be disproportionately affected
were Black/African-Americans and Native Americans. Blacks represent
12.6% of theU.S. population, yet they were 19.0%of the sample of alien-
ated parents. Similarly, Native Americans represent 0.8% of the popula-
tion, but were 5.7% of the sample of alienated parents. The percentage of
parents from other racial groups who are targets of alienation were
comparable or lower than their representation in U.S. society
(e.g., Asian-Americans). For example, among those who identied as
Hispanic, only 8.8% of the sample reported being alienated, while His-
panics make up approximately 22.5% of the U.S. population.
The percentage of parents who reported being targeted across in-
come groupings was similar to their representation at the national
level. There were also not any substantial differences using this compar-
ison strategy across educational levels except for those with a high
school diploma (or equivalent), such that those with a diploma or
GED constitute 28.1% of the U.S. population, and yet they represented
36.3% of the sample of parents reporting being the targets of parental
alienation.
4. Discussion
Prevalence of parental alienation determined by this representative
poll of adults in North Carolina, U.S. was 13.4% of all parents. We unfor-
tunately could not determine whether parental alienating behaviors or
outcomes were occurring in intact families, as we only measured cur-
rent marital status. Many individuals who divorce later remarry
(Bramlett & Mosher, 2001), and so the 32.3% of the sample who were
married and reported being alienated could be from intact families or
new marriages. When all individuals in the sample were included in
the estimate of prevalence (parents and non-parents), the overall per-
centage of the sample who reported being alienated from their children
was 9.03%. We used this estimate to calculate national prevalence of pa-
rental alienation.
In 2015, the U.S. population of adults over theage of 18 years old was
approximately 245,201,000 adults (derived from the U.S. Census
Bureau, 2015). Of these adults, we estimate that 22,141,650 adults
(9.03% of the total U.S. adult population) are currently being alienated
from their children by the other parent. Estimated another way, 67.6%
of our sample were parents, whichis approximately 165,755,876 adults
in the U.S. Usingthe percentage of parents who reported being alienated
from their children in our poll (13.4%), this means approximately
22,211,287 adults are currently targets of parental alienation. Given
that many parents have more than one child, our estimate also implies
that there could be 22 million, 44 million, or even more children af-
fected by this problem, although it is uncertain whether all children in
each family unit would become alienated as a result of the parent's
alienating behaviors. Therefore, a formal estimate of prevalence for
both parental alienating behaviors and parental alienation among chil-
dren still needs to be determined. Interestingly, over 20% of the alien-
ated parents on our sample reported not knowing what the parental
alienation term was before it had been dened for them. This nding in-
dicates that there were many adults who had been feeling alienated
Fig. 2. Severity of reported (perceived) parental alienation (N= 55).
Table 2
Comparison of alienated parents to representation in the U.S. population.
Percentage of
U.S.
population
a
Percentage of
alienated
parents in sample
b
Race
White 73.8% 71.8%
Black/African-American 12.6% 19.0%
Asian 5.0% 0%
Native American 0.8% 5.7%
Multiple/other 7.8% 2.0%
Ethnicity
Hispanic 22.5% 8.8%
Annual household income
$25K or less 23.2% 18.7%
$2550K 23.7% 28.2%
$5075K 17.8% 15.1%
$75100K 12.2% 14.9%
$100150K 13.0% 7.8%
$150200K 5.0% 3.4%
N$250K 5.0% 0%
Education
bHigh school diploma 13.8% 8.9%
High school diploma (or
equivalent)
28.1% 36.3%
Some college 31.3% 28.4%
Bachelor's degree 17.2% 16.9%
Graduate degree 9.6% 7.5%
a
Data deduced from U.S. Census data based on 2014 estimates (U.S. Census Bureau,
2014a and 2014b).
b
Don't knowand Refusedresponses make up the remaining percentage in each
category.
65J.J. Harman etal. / Children and Youth Services Review 66 (2016) 6266
from theirchild or children, but did not knowwhat the clinical term was
for their experience.
Nearly half (48%) of the parents in the sample who reported being
alienated from their children indicated that they were experiencing se-
vere alienation (versus mild and moderate). While this rating is subjec-
tive and not based on rating scales utilized by researchers in this area
(for examples, see Lorandos, Bernet, & Sauber, 2013) this percentage
represents approximately 10.5 million parents in the U.S. alone who
are facing what they perceive to be severe disruptions in their parent-
child bonds due to the behaviors of the other parent. The impact of pa-
rental alienating behaviors on the targeted parent-alienated child bond
can result in disenfranchised grief given the denial of this phenomenon
by many mental health and legal professionals (see Rand, 2011 for dis-
cussion). Many survey respondents also reported knowing a large num-
ber of people who are being alienated from their children. Over 61% of
the sample reported knowing at least one other parent, and over 15%
of these individuals reportedknowing ten or more. Our results highlight
the pervasive nature of this epidemic and demonstrates the need for
greater investigation of this serious problem.
For quite some time, separation anddivorce have been characterized
as low points in relationship processes, and many have assumed that
once relationships end, parents and families are able to begin the road
to recovery (Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1985). Unfortunately, this belief
may be more optimistic than our data suggest. Even after separation,
psychological conict and manipulation within the family dynamic con-
tinues and may even escalate at different milestones (e.g., remarriage or
birth of a half-sibling to the children; Harman & Biringen, 2016). Our
prevalence data reported here indicate that the severity of parental
alienation on mothers and fathers do not differ signicantlynearly
half of mothers and fathers who believed they were targets of parental
alienation report their experience as being severe.
There was evidence of parental alienation across all socio-economic
and demographic indicators; it does not discriminate. When compared
to proportions of different demographic groups in the U.S. population,
however, targeted parents were over-represented among Blacks/
African Americans and Native Americans, and under-represented
among Hispanics and Asians, suggesting the importance of understand-
ing possible ethnic disparities with respect to this topic. The reasons for
these differences are not clear, so more research needs to be conducted
to examine this disparity.
One limitation of the current study, which has been an issue for
many researchers studying parental alienation, is in how this phenom-
enon is dened. Although we provided descriptions of parental alienat-
ing behaviors to respondents and asked them whether they knew of
other parents who were experiencing these behaviors, we also told re-
spondents that the behaviors were known as parental alienation,
which is a potential outcome of these behaviors. It is possible that the
parents in our sample may have reported they were experiencing pa-
rental alienating behaviors rather than the actual alienation of their
child(ren). We believe this possibility is unlikely given that the wording
of the question was whether they felt they had been alienated from one
or more of your children by the other parent, not whether the other par-
ent was engaging in alienating behaviors. Due to the phrasing of the
question,it is perhaps more likely that the prevalence of parental alien-
ating behaviors is greater than what is estimated, as not all children be-
come alienated. We realize that the distinction between the two
characterizations (behavior versus outcome) is important, and it was
not our intention in the survey design to confuse the two. Future polls
will need to more clearly distinguish between the two and estimate
the prevalence of both. In addition, there are many parents who are
alienators and blame the targeted parents for their own behaviors
(Harman & Biringen, 2016), so it is also possible that our estimates are
an overestimation and need to be veried clinically. Regardless, there
are many parents who are feeling distanced from their children because
of the other parent's behaviors,and this has important clinical and legal
implications.
The sheer magnitude of parental alienation uncovered in this study
indicates that much greater attention needs to be paid to this problem
that is affecting millions of families. While our ndings should be repli-
cated with other samples in the U.S. and internationally, this pollthe
rst representative, state-wide poll of its kindis a step towards provid-
ing an accurate estimate of how prevalent and severe this problem is.
Future polling efforts would be wise to includequestions about whether
parental alienation and parental alienating behaviors have led to dif-
culties in access to children, the extent of justice system involvement,
and how many targeted parents are from intact, divorced, or new,
blended families. We hope that other social scientists start to view this
problem as a public issue, rather than a private one, and that we work
towards nding more effective solutions for addressing it.
Acknowledgements
The authors would like to thankthe High Point University Survey Re-
search Center, as well as its Director, Dr. Martin J. Kifer, and Associate Di-
rector, Brian McDonald, for allowing us to eld this poll. Without their
assistance, this study could not have been conducted.
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