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PSYCHIATRY & BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE
M.D.; Nilgun Gregory,
Ph.D.; Kathleen M. Reay,
Ph.D.; and Ronald P. Rohner,
An Objective Measure of Splitting in Parental
Alienation: The Parental Acceptance–Rejection
ABSTRACT: Both clinicians and forensic practitioners should distinguish parental alienation (rejection of a parent without legitimate justifi-
cation) from other reasons for contact refusal. Alienated children—who were not abused—often engage in splitting and lack ambivalence with
respect to the rejected parent; children who were maltreated usually perceive the abusive parent in an ambivalent manner. The purpose of this
study was to assess the usefulness of the Parental Acceptance–Rejection Questionnaire (PARQ) in identifying and quantifying the degree of
splitting, which may assist in diagnosing parental alienation. Results showed that severely alienated children engaged in a high level of split-
ting, by perceiving the preferred parent in extremely positive terms and the rejected parent in extremely negative terms. Splitting was not mani-
fested by the children in other family groups. The PARQ may be useful for both clinicians and forensic practitioners in evaluating children of
divorced parents when there is a concern about the possible diagnosis of parental alienation.
KEYWORDS: forensic science, child psychiatry, children of divorce, splitting, parental alienation, parental acceptance–rejection questionnaire
Parental alienation is a mental condition in which children—
usually children whose parents are engaged in a high-conflict sep-
aration or divorce—ally strongly with one parent (the preferred or
alienating parent) and reject a relationship with the other parent
(the rejected or target parent) without legitimate justification. In
contrast, justified estrangement refers to a child’s rejection of a
parent for good reason, such as a history of abuse or neglect. In
both clinical and forensic evaluations, it is important to distinguish
alienation from justified estrangement and other causes of contact
refusal (1,2). The purpose of this study was to assess the useful-
ness of the Parental Acceptance–Rejection Questionnaire (PARQ)
in identifying and quantifying the degree of splitting, which may
assist in distinguishing alienated from nonalienated children.
Splitting in Parental Alienation
Divorce is an important event having many psychological,
social, and legal implications. High-conflict divorce leads to
more significant struggles for children (3). Parental alienation,
which occurs primarily in children of separated and divorced
parents, has been described in the literature of mental health and
legal professionals in at least 35 countries on six continents (4).
The criteria for identifying parental alienation were originally
formulated by Gardner (5; Table 1). Although Gardner referred
to this condition as “parental alienation syndrome,”most con-
temporary authors simply use the term “parental alienation.”
Regarding diagnosis, parental alienation may be identified using
DSM-5 terminology: “child affected by parental relationship dis-
tress,”“parent-child relational problem,”and “child psychologi-
cal abuse”(6–8). Parental alienation is a complex family
dynamic that involves mental mechanisms in the affected child,
alienating behaviors of the preferred parent, reactions of the
rejected parent, and sociocultural phenomena (9,10). This study
is not a treatise on the broad topic of parental alienation, but
simply addresses a particular aspect of the mental state of an
alienated child, that is, splitting or lack of ambivalence.
Of the eight criteria that are commonly accepted for the diag-
nosis of parental alienation, lack of ambivalence is a symptom
that may be measured quantitatively. It is normal for interper-
sonal relationships to feature ambivalence. While young children
typically have an idealized view of their parents, older children
and adolescents usually perceive each parent as having both
strong points and weak points. It is unusual for an older child or
adolescent to perceive a parent in an all-or-none fashion, that is,
totally good or totally bad. However, children who experience
severe parental alienation almost always manifest splitting, such
that they idealize the alienating parent and devalue the target
parent. This aspect of parental alienation is not subtle: A boy
who was alienated from his father said, “My mother is my
angel!My father is a devil!”The same metaphor was used by
Akhtar and Byrne (11) in their review of the concept of splitting:
Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, 1313 21st Ave. South, 209
Oxford House, Nashville, TN 37232.
Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, 110 Magnolia Circle, Nashville, TN 37203.
Final International University, Toroslar Caddesi 6, Girne, Cyprus.
International Institute for Parental Alienation Studies, Kelowna, BC,
University of Connecticut, Department of Human Development and
Family Studies, Unit 1058, Storrs, CT 06269-1058.
*Presented at the International Conference on Shared Parenting Meeting,
May 30, 2017, in Boston, MA.
Dr. Nilgun Gregory received support from the Turkish Scientific and
Technological Research Council (T€
ITAK); Dr. Kathleen Reay was the
founder and clinical director of the Family Reflections Reunification Pro-
gram; and Dr. Ronald Rohner is a partner in Rohner Research Publications,
which publishes the Parental Acceptance–Rejection Questionnaire.
Received 17 May 2017; and in revised form 21 June 2017; accepted 21
1©2017 American Academy of Forensic Sciences
J Forensic Sci,2017
Available online at: onlinelibrary.wiley.com
“To the individual using extensive splitting, the world seems
populated by devils and angels but devoid of truly human fig-
ures”(p. 1014) (11). Parental alienation occurs along a contin-
uum and typically progresses from mild to moderate to a severe
level of alienation. While splitting appears to be a common fea-
ture of severe parental alienation, it is not known how frequently
it occurs in mild and moderate levels of alienation.
The term “splitting”has enjoyed multiple definitions and
applications in the history of psychology, psychiatry, and psy-
choanalysis. For Breuer and Freud (12), “splitting of conscious-
ness”involved alternating states of consciousness in hysterical
patients and was thus closely related to dissociation. In his stud-
ies of psychosis, Bleuler (13) introduced the term schizophrenia
or “splitting of the mind.”He used “splitting”to describe loose
associations and “a fragmentation of the thinking processes”(p.
350) (13). Klein (14) explained that children employed splitting
as a defensive maneuver to separate good from bad experiences,
perceptions, and emotions. Kernberg (15) and many others (e.g.,
16) emphasized how splitting or black-or-white thinking, lacking
ambivalence, is a feature of some mental disorders, especially
borderline personality disorder. Vaillant (17) classified splitting
as a pathological, primitive defense mechanism in which the
defended individual segregates experiences into all-good and all-
bad categories, with no room for ambiguity and ambivalence. In
the current research, we consider splitting to be a maladaptive
mental mechanism by which children protect themselves from
the uncomfortable feelings of cognitive dissonance, that is, from
anxiety caused by ongoing parental conflict. When there is con-
tinual warfare between the mother and father, children often find
it difficult to maintain affection for both parents at the same
time. They typically resolve the dissonance by the mechanism of
splitting, that is, by gravitating to an enmeshed relationship with
one parent and strongly rejecting the other parent.
It is essential to recognize that in parental alienation, the
child’s rejection of the target parent is far out of proportion to
anything that parent has done to justify the rejection. Parental
alienation is maladaptive in the sense that the child has a false
belief that the rejected parent is evil, dangerous, or not worthy
of love. If a parent were truly abusive or severely neglectful, the
child’s rejection of that parent would not constitute parental
alienation. Rather, it would be called realistic or justified
estrangement (2). Whereas alienated children perceive the
rejected parent as evil, most abused or neglected children still
perceive the abusive parent in an ambivalent manner. In her
classic book 50 years ago, Koppitz (18) said, “It is sometimes
amazing to observe children’s loyalty to parents who are actually
rejecting and neglectful”(p. 128) (18). More recently, Baker and
Schneiderman (19)—who have extensively studied maltreated
children—said, “The feeling of rejection experienced by [abused]
children resulted in a heightened desire for that parent’s love
and approval”(p. 93) (19).
Several authors have said that the use of the defense mecha-
nism of splitting distinguishes alienated children. For example,
Lee and Olesen (20) said that the alienated child manifests “lack
of ambivalence”(p. 284) (20). Also, Ellis (21) said that one of
the features of parental alienation is “the mechanism of splitting
to reduce ambiguity”(p. 60) (21). Most recently, Jaffe, Thakkar,
and Piron (22) published qualitative research regarding “denial
of ambivalence as a hallmark of parental alienation.”They said,
“The expressed lack of ambivalence as manifested by the alien-
ated child serves as an observable defining characteristic of the
presence of parental alienation”(p. 1) (22). The research
reported here presents a quantitative method to identify the men-
tal mechanism of splitting in alienated children, which has been
described qualitatively so many times.
Objective Measures of Splitting
There have been previous attempts to measure splitting in
adults. Based on the writings of Kohut (23) and Kernberg (24),
Gerson (25) developed a 14-item questionnaire to measure
defensive splitting. At about the same time, Bond, Gardiner,
Christian, and Sigel (26) developed the Defense Style Question-
naire, a 67-item instrument, which was intended to measure vari-
ous defense mechanisms. Later, Gould, Prentice, and Ainslie
(27) constructed the Splitting Index, a 24-item questionnaire
intended to be a “convenient instrument for empirical investiga-
tions of psychoanalytic object-relations theories of splitting as
well as of the borderline and narcissistic personality disorders”
(p. 416) (27). The Splitting Index, intended for use with adults
in clinical settings, had good correlations with measures of bor-
derline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.
Bricklin (28) developed the Bricklin Perceptual Scales (BPS)
specifically for use in child custody evaluations. The BPS con-
sists of 64 questions, which pertain to the child’s perception of
the mother (32 questions) and the child’s perception of the father
(32 questions). Although Bricklin did not use the term “split-
ting”in his discussion of that instrument, that appears to be what
he was measuring. Bricklin said that alienated children had a
mind-made-up (MMU) configuration, which occurred as part of
a not-based-on-actual-interaction (NBOAI) scenario. Bricklin
found that MMU children rated the preferred parent extremely
or abnormally high (i.e., favorably) and the rejected parent extre-
mely or abnormally low (i.e., unfavorably) on the BPS (p. 108)
The Parental Acceptance–Rejection Questionnaire
In developing this research project, it seemed likely that the
Parental Acceptance–Rejection Questionnaire (PARQ) would
help distinguish alienated children (who lack ambivalence and
engage in splitting) from nonalienated children (who were
expected to manifest ambivalence toward both parents). The
PARQ—a 60-item questionnaire that children complete regard-
ing their mothers and fathers—was not developed specifically
for the evaluation of children of divorced parents, although it
has been used in child custody evaluations (29). The measure
was derived from interpersonal acceptance–rejection theory
(IPARTheory), an evidence-based theory that addresses the
TABLE 1–– Criteria for the diagnosis of parental alienation (5).
•Campaign of denigration against the target parent.
•Frivolous rationalizations for the child’s criticism of the
•Lack of ambivalence.
•Reflexive support of the alienating parent against the target
•Absence of guilt over exploitation and mistreatment of the
•Spread of the child’s animosity toward the target parent’s
2JOURNAL OF FORENSIC SCIENCES
implications of parental acceptance and rejection for individuals’
personality and psychological adjustment (30,31).
The authors developed hypotheses that the PARQ would accu-
rately distinguish alienated children from nonalienated children
in the following manner. (1) We predicted nonalienated children
would manifest ambivalence toward both parents, even parents
who had been neglectful: The mean PARQ score for the parent
who has been neglectful will be high (i.e., somewhat rejecting),
but not extremely high. That prediction was based on research
that maltreated children often maintain ambivalence toward
neglectful and abusive parents. (2) We predicted that severely
alienated children would manifest splitting: The mean PARQ
score for the preferred parent will be very low (i.e., perceived
acceptance), and the mean PARQ score for the alienated or tar-
get parent will be very high (i.e., perceived rejection). That pre-
diction was based on the common understanding that severely
alienated children lack ambivalence with regard to their parents;
that is, they perceive the preferred parent as extremely good and
the alienated parent as extremely bad. (3) We predicted that the
pattern of PARQ scores for the neglected children would differ
significantly from the pattern of PARQ scores for the alienated
children. That prediction was based on the observation that
alienated children intensely reject the less preferred parent,
whereas neglected children still hope that the parent will treat
them better and love them. Review and approval of this study
was obtained from the Vanderbilt University Institutional
The following clinical vignette illustrates parental alienation in
a male adolescent, whose scores on the PARQ: Mother and
PARQ: Father exhibit splitting as described in this article.
“Brad”(a participant in this research) experienced a severe level
of parental alienation; Brad’s clinical symptoms were expressed
in his scores on the PARQ.
The parents of Brad, a 16-year-old male, were in a protracted
custody dispute for nearly three years. About a week after the
parents separated, the father received a text message from Brad
who accused him of fondling the boy’s genitals at age 2 during
a family camping trip. Brad claimed he hated his father and
refused to ever see him again. The father recalled his son had a
urinary tract infection at age 2 and was prescribed an ointment
by the family physician just prior to a family vacation. Both par-
ents responsibly and individually administered the ointment dur-
ing diaper changes in a tent. The mother and son had never
made similar claims against him in the past. Two days after
receiving the text message, the father arrived at the mother’s
home to pick up Brad; the mother refused to let the boy leave.
The father returned the following day in another attempt to see
Brad; the mother opened the front door and insisted that Brad
did not want to see the father. Then, the mother phoned 911.
She alleged to the police that the father deliberately pushed her
to the ground. Although the police officers found the mother’s
statements to be inconsistent, they arrested the father and
released him when he agreed to not communicate with the
mother or go to her address.
Eventually, the family court ordered a child custody evalua-
tion by an experienced psychologist. During interviews with the
evaluator, Brad claimed he remembered his father’s touching his
genitals at age 2. Brad provided other unfounded, vague, and fri-
volous reasons for refusing contact with his father. When the
evaluator visited the mother’s home, he noticed a picture frame
in Brad’s bedroom, which was turned around and taped to the
wall so that the front was not visible. Brad showed the evaluator
the reversed photograph of his father and said it was turned
around because “I hate him. He never loved me and we never
had any fun times together.”The evaluator determined that there
had been a good baseline relationship between the father and
son, but an abrupt change for the worse occurred immediately
after the parents separated. The evaluator opined this was a case
of severe parental alienation. The court made the same finding
and ordered the entire family to participate in the Family Reflec-
tions Reunification Program. At the outset of the intensive reuni-
fication treatment, Brad completed the PARQ, which indicated
an unrealistically positive view of his mother (PARQ:
Mother =63) and an unrealistically negative view of his father
(PARQ: Father =234). (The lowest possible score on the PARQ
is 60; the highest possible score is 240.)
In this article, “children”usually refers to “children and ado-
lescents.”Although some of the children recruited for this study
were sibling groups, we randomly selected one child from each
family to participate in the study. Participants (total N=116, M
age =13.1 years, SD =2.64, range =9 through 17 years in
each of the four groups) were recruited for the following family
Children from intact families (n=35): a control group, that
is, children who lived together with both parents in one house-
Children of divorced parents (n=20): a second control group,
that is, children whose parents were divorced or separated, but
the children continued to see both parents on a regular basis.
Neglected children (n=16): children whose parents were
divorced or separated, but the children did not see both parents
on a regular basis. In this research, all the neglected children
lived with their mothers and rarely or never saw their fathers.
The mothers uniformly described the fathers as being unreliable
in contacting their children, uninterested in having a relationship
with their children, and neglectful by abandoning the family. It
was a coincidence of sampling that all of the children in this
group were neglected by their fathers. That was fortunate
because it became possible to compare children neglected by
their fathers with children alienated from their fathers. Although
we know the children in this group were neglected by their
fathers, we do not know whether they were estranged from their
fathers. We do not know whether they met the definition of
estranged introduced by Kelly and Johnston (2), that is, children
who “wish to severely limit contact with [a] deficient or fright-
ening parent”(p. 254) (2). Thus, in this study we are not able to
directly compare alienated and estranged children, but we do
compare alienated and neglected children.
Children in the first three family types (intact, divorced, and
neglected) were recruited through ResearchMatch, a national
health volunteer registry that was created by several academic
institutions and supported by the U.S. National Institutes of
Health as part of the Clinical Translational Science Award
(CTSA) program. ResearchMatch has a large population of vol-
unteers who have consented to be contacted by researchers about
studies for which they may be eligible. Children in these family
types were recruited through ResearchMatch between April and
December 2015. Although they came from various parts of the
BERNET ET AL. .SPLITTING IN PARENTAL ALIENATION 3
U.S.A., they were homogeneous in their willingness to partici-
pate in medical research.
Alienated children (n=45): children whose parents were
divorced or separated, and the children strongly rejected a rela-
tionship with one of their parents. Of the 45 youth in the alien-
ated families, 24 were alienated from their fathers and 21 were
alienated from their mother. Thus, the alienated families were
divided into the alienated-father families and the alienated-
Children in the alienated families were all recruited from the
Family Reflections Reunification Program, a program in British
Columbia, Canada, which specialized in the treatment of paren-
tal alienation (32). These youth were enrolled in the Family
Reflections Reunification Program consecutively between April
2013 and October 2015. The families of the alienated children
lived in about 14 cities in the U.S.A. and Canada. In all cases,
experienced mental health professionals determined that the chil-
dren’s rejection of one parent was without justification. All the
evaluators had doctoral degrees in clinical psychology (Ph.D. or
Psy.D.) and were licensed to practice psychology in their respec-
tive jurisdictions. The evaluators consistently noted in their writ-
ten reports two important features of parental alienation: The
child’s refusal to have contact with the target parent was unjusti-
fied; and the child’s negative thoughts and feelings toward the
target parent were disproportionate to their actual experiences
with that parent. The evaluators concluded that the children
were severely alienated. Their cases were heard in family courts
in various locations in the U.S.A. and Canada, which also con-
cluded the children were severely alienated. In all cases, the
courts ordered the families to participate in the Family Reflec-
tions Reunification Program. Although they had initially been
evaluated by mental health professionals in several locations in
Canada and the U.S.A.—and they had been ordered into treat-
ment by family courts in several locations in Canada and the
U.S.A.—the alienated families were homogeneous in that the
staff of the same specialized treatment program determined with
a high level of confidence that all the youth in that group exhib-
ited a severe level of parental alienation. Table 2 provides infor-
mation about the characteristics of the children and their
The Parental Acceptance–Rejection Questionnaire (PARQ)
provides an objective, quantitative measure of children’s percep-
tions of parental (maternal and paternal) accepting–rejecting
behaviors (33). Children respond to 60 statements regarding each
parent—for example, “My father says nice things about me”—
by choosing Almost Always True, Sometimes True, Rarely True,
or Almost Never True. The responses are scored 1 through 4,
with the lower values reflecting a more positive perception of
that parent, and the higher values reflecting a more negative
perception of that parent. (Some of the responses are scored in
reverse, so that the positive perceptions are always the lower
value.) Thus, children who gave their fathers the most positive
assessment on all 60 statements would have a PARQ: Father
score of 60, whereas children who gave their fathers the most
negative assessment on all 60 statements would have a PARQ:
Father score of 240.
Rohner (33) found that in the U.S.A., “PARQ scores... typ-
ically fall between 90 and 110, indicating the experience of
substantial loving acceptance”(p. 49) (33). He also found that
7% to 10% of American youths and adults tend to respond at
150 or higher, “revealing the presence of very serious parental
rejection”(p. 49) (33). The PARQ has been used in more than
550 studies in over 40 languages with several hundred thou-
sand respondents in about 60 countries. Extensive evidence
reported in Rohner (33) and Khaleque and Rohner (34) shows
that the PARQ is a reliable and valid measure for use in
national and international research. This conclusion is sup-
ported in the present study, where coefficient alphas are high
for both the PARQ: Mother and PARQ: Father respectively in
all five groups: intact families, .83, .85; children of divorced
parents, .85, .83; children with neglectful fathers, .82, .88;
alienated-father families, .94, .70; and alienated-mother
families, .96, .89.
Respondents in the intact families, children of divorced par-
ents, and neglected children participated in this research online
through the Research Electronic Data Capture (REDCap) pro-
gram, a secure web application for building and managing online
surveys and databases. Research personnel obtained informed
consent from parents and assent from children. After confirming
that the child was located in a room alone without any parent
present, the child completed the child version of the PARQ:
Father and the child version of the PARQ: Mother.
Respondents in the alienated families completed the PARQ
shortly after arrival at the alienation-specific treatment program.
These youth had already been determined by experienced mental
health professionals and a family court to be manifesting severe
parental alienation. These youth also completed the PARQ:
Father and PARQ: Mother. They were administered the child
version of the PARQ with regard to the preferred parent and the
adult version of the PARQ with regard to the rejected or alien-
ated parent. That adjustment in the research protocol was made
because the Child PARQ is written in the present tense (“My
father says nice things about me.”), whereas the Adult PARQ is
written in the past tense (“My father said nice things about
me.”) As the children in the alienated families had typically not
seen the rejected parent for a long time—usually more than a
year—it was appropriate to use a questionnaire that was
expressed in the past tense.
TABLE 2–– Characteristics of participants and their parents.
Family Type Intact Divorced Neglected Alienated-Father Alienated-Mother
Source of participants RM RM RM FR FR
No. of participants 35 20 16 24 21
Gender (male:female) 22:13 11:9 8:8 9:15 10:11
Mean age (SD) of children 12.5 (2.86) 13.1 (3.07) 13.3 (2.98) 13.9 (2.07) 13.3 (2.01)
Preferred parent (mother:father) 16:0 24:0 0:21
RM, ResearchMatch; FR, Family Reflections Reunification Program.
4JOURNAL OF FORENSIC SCIENCES
An initial analysis of age and gender differences in partici-
pants’responses to the PARQ: Mother and PARQ: Father for
each of the five family types showed that—with one exception
—neither age nor gender for either males or females was signifi-
cantly associated with participants’reports of maternal or pater-
nal acceptance–rejection. Data supporting this conclusion are
displayed in Tables 3 and 4. The sole exception to this conclu-
sion pertains to participants’reports of both maternal and pater-
nal acceptance–rejection in alienated-father families. There,
Table 3 shows that the older the youths were, the more loving
(accepting) they reported their mothers to be and the more
rejecting they reported their fathers to be. Because there were no
gender differences in participants’reports of parental accep-
tance–rejection in any of the five family types—and because
there was only one age difference in all of these relations—all
further analyses were pooled across age and gender within each
The children from intact families had PARQ scores that ran-
ged from 73 through 117. The PARQ: Father (M=93.26,
SD =10.04, 95% CI [89.81, 96.71]) and PARQ: Mother
(M=93.14, SD =11.70, 95% CI [89.12, 97.16]) scores were
almost exactly equal. This indicates that both parents in the
intact families fell into the realistic warm and loving (accepting)
range, which reflects the children’s perception of loving, nurtur-
ing parents. These scores are consistent with other studies of
children in the U.S.A. (33). Campo and Rohner (35), for exam-
ple, found that a control group of adolescents and young adults
in the U.S.A. had mean PARQ: Father scores of 93.9
(SD =26.4) and mean PARQ: Mother scores of 95.0
(SD =14.0). Veneziano (36) found that African American and
European American children and adolescents had mean paternal
PARQ scores of 97 (SD =20.4) and the mean maternal PARQ
scores of 98.2 (SD =28.4).
Children of Divorced Parents
Children of divorced parents—who continued to see both par-
ents on a regular basis—had PARQ scores that ranged from 102
through 134. The PARQ: Father (M=118.85, SD =8.05, 95%
CI [115.08, 122.62]) and PARQ: Mother (M=115.20,
SD =9.08, 95% CI [110.95, 119.45]) scores were also very
close to each other. In the divorced families, both parents were
perceived to be fairly loving (accepting), but the children under-
standably perceived both parents to be somewhat less loving
than did children in intact families. That difference is consistent
with a study by €
Ongider (37) in Turkey, who found that children
of low-conflict-married parents had more positive perceptions of
their parents than children of low-conflict-divorced parents.
The children of divorced parents who did not see both parents
on a regular basis had a distinctly different pattern of PARQ
scores. For these children, the PARQ: Mother scores ranged
from 93 through 111 (M=99.06, SD =5.71, 95% CI [96.02,
102.10]) and the PARQ: Father scores ranged from 124 through
170 (M=144.38, SD =13.32, 95% CI [137.28, 151.47]). As
noted earlier, all children in this group lived with their mothers;
the children saw their fathers rarely or never. The fathers were
uniformly described as neglectful. Thus, it is understandable that
the children perceived their fathers to be somewhat rejecting,
whereas they perceived their mothers to be warm and loving (ac-
cepting) in a realistic sense. The children’s perception of their
fathers is negative, but not extremely so. The data suggest that
these children still have some positive feelings (thus, ambiva-
lence) toward their neglectful fathers. Therefore, the first hypoth-
esis was confirmed.
PARQ scores for alienated children were dramatically differ-
ent from those of the other three family groups. As the children
were alienated from their father (n=24) or from their mother
(n=21), it was necessary to separate alienated families into
alienated-father families and alienated-mother families. The pre-
ferred parent in both of these groups had extremely (unrealisti-
cally) low PARQ scores, whereas the alienated parent had
extremely (unrealistically) high PARQ scores.
More specifically, for the alienated-father families, PARQ:
Mother scores ranged from 60 through 102 (M=64.67,
SD =8.43, 95% CI [61.25, 69.32]) and PARQ: Father scores
ranged from 209 through 240 (M=231.88, SD =6.43, 95% CI
[228.11, 233.99]). For the alienated-mother families, PARQ:
Mother scores ranged from 125 through 240 (Mean =212.52,
SD =26.68, 95% CI [200.38, 224.67]) and the PARQ: Father
scores range from 60 through 103 (Mean =67.86, SD =8.92,
95% CI [63.80, 71.92]). These scores reveal that alienated chil-
dren typically have extremely positive perceptions of the pre-
ferred parent, who is called the alienating parent in cases of
severe parental alienation. On the other hand, alienated children
typically have extremely negative perceptions of the rejected par-
ent, who is called the alienated or target parent in such cases.
These data indicate that alienated children manifest the psycho-
logical mechanism of splitting, so the second hypothesis was
confirmed. Figure 1 displays the PARQ: Mother and PARQ:
Father scores for the five family types.
Of great interest, we should note that the pattern of PARQ
scores effectively distinguished alienated children from neglected
children. As shown in Table 5, the children of alienated fathers
perceived their fathers significantly more negatively than
neglected children perceived their fathers. Likewise, children of
alienated fathers perceived their mothers significantly more posi-
tively than neglected children perceived their mothers. Thus, we
conclude that the third hypothesis was confirmed. The effect size
(Cohen’sd=8.37 in comparing the PARQ: Father of alienated
children with that of neglected children) was extremely high.
The very high incidence of severe rejection, which was pre-
dicted, had not been observed in previous research with the
TABLE 3–– Correlation between participants’age and participants’
responses to the PARQ: Father and PARQ: Mother, by family type.
Family Type n
PARQ: Father PARQ: Mother
Intact 35 0.16 0.24
Divorced 20 0.09 0.30
Neglected 16 0.45 0.18
Alienated-father 24 0.55** 0.54**
Alienated-mother 21 0.06 0.04
BERNET ET AL. .SPLITTING IN PARENTAL ALIENATION 5
PARQ. However, Bricklin observed the same phenomenon when
children were tested with the Bricklin Perceptual Scales. He said
that in cases of parental alienation, “most of the child’s
responses will be extremely positive for the alienating parent
and negative for the target parent”(p. 108) (28).
The premise of this research was that it should be possible
to compare quantitatively alienated children’s perceptions of
their parents (which are likely to be strongly positive and
strongly negative) with nonalienated children’s perceptions of
their parents (which are likely to be ambivalent). We expected
that the PARQ would distinguish alienated children, who had
not been maltreated, from maltreated children who had been
neglected by their fathers. The fact that these predictions
were confirmed in this research indicates that the PARQ:
Father and the PARQ: Mother may be useful measures for the
clinical and forensic evaluation of children who may be
This research supports the reality of parental alienation, in that
the severely alienated children consistently manifested a distinct
maladaptive mental mechanism, an intense level of splitting,
which had previously been described in descriptive, qualitative
research for many years (5,20–22). Also, the high level of split-
ting was observed in alienated children, but was not observed in
the other family groups. This support for the reality of parental
alienation is important because some critics have said that paren-
tal alienation does not exist (38,39, pp. 52-53).
Child custody evaluations are an important event for many
families who are experiencing divorce. It is very important for
custody evaluators to understand children’s perceptions of their
parents, and to identify and correctly diagnose parental alien-
ation. Evidence reported here shows that the PARQ may assist
custody evaluators as well as clinicians in distinguishing neglect-
ful parenting such as abandonment and parental alienation.
Future research may also show that the PARQ assists forensic
and clinical evaluators in distinguishing justified estrangement
(contact refusal due to a legitimate fear) and alienation (contact
refusal driven by a false belief). That distinction is important
because the recommendation in cases of justified estrangement
(such as limited contact with the rejected parent) may be the
TABLE 4–– Gender differences in males’versus females’responses to PARQ: Father and PARQ: Mother, by family type.
PARQ: Father PARQ: Mother
tdf pM SD MSD MSD MSD
Intact 93.32 9.24 93.15 11.68 0.04 20.89 ns 91.14 11.14 96.54 12.37 1.30 23.68 ns
Divorced 120.36 6.62 117.00 9.61 0.89 13.77 ns 116.45 10.12 113.67 7.94 0.69 17.98 ns
Neglected 145.25 14.24 143.50 13.25 0.26 13.93 ns 96.75 3.88 101.38 6.52 1.72 11.41 ns
Alienated-father 232.22 4.18 231.67 7.60 0.23 21.92 ns 62.78 3.11 65.80 10.37 1.05 17.82 ns
Alienated-mother 64.60 3.34 70.82 11.36 1.74 11.87 ns 223.00 16.34 203.00 31.22 1.86 15.38 ns
ns, not significant.
FIG. 1–– Relation between perceived parental acceptance–rejection and family type. Lowest possible score on PARQ =60 (very positive perception of par-
ent); highest possible score on PARQ =240 (very negative perception of parent). Error bars: 95% CI.
TABLE 5–– Mean PARQ: Father and PARQ: Mother differences between
children of alienated fathers and children of neglectful fathers.
PARQ: Father PARQ: Mother
MSD t(38) MSD t(38)
24 231.88 6.43
16 144.38 13.32 99.06 5.71
6JOURNAL OF FORENSIC SCIENCES
opposite of the recommendation in cases of alienation (such as
limited contact with the preferred parent).
Clinicians as well as forensic practitioners have found that
there are important counterintuitive features to parental alien-
ation (40). Perhaps the most consistently observed paradoxical
aspect of parental alienation has been the observation that alien-
ated children, who were not maltreated by the rejected parent,
have a much more negative opinion of that parent than do chil-
dren who have been maltreated by the rejected parent. Some
mental health evaluators wrongly conclude that the child’s insis-
tence on the malevolence of the rejected parent is evidence for
actual abuse by that parent. In fact, the child’s extreme insis-
tence on the malevolence of the rejected parent may be evidence
of parental alienation, not of abuse. In cases involving mild or
moderate maltreatment, children typically remain ambivalent
toward abusive parents because they hope those parents will
change their ways and become consistently loving caregivers
There are cases, of course, of chronic, severe child abuse in
which maltreated children totally and rightfully want the abusive
parent out of their lives forever. We realize that both groups of
children—severely alienated and severely abused—might rate
one parent in an extremely negative manner on the PARQ. In
those cases, the distinction between alienation and abuse would
not be made with the PARQ, but the diagnosis would be estab-
lished by a detailed family history. Because of the obvious
severity of the abuse, cases of severe child maltreatment are usu-
ally identified by child protection agencies and are not addressed
in child custody evaluations.
With regard to limitations, we acknowledge that this research
is limited by the fact that the 16 children with neglectful fathers
were clearly maltreated (neglected, abandoned, psychologically
abused), but we do not know whether they were estranged in the
way the term is now used (2). For example, we do not know
whether the children of the neglectful fathers rejected a relation-
ship with those fathers. Thus, we can say that the PARQ distin-
guished alienated children from other family groups (children of
intact parents, children of divorced parents, and neglected chil-
dren), but we cannot say that the PARQ distinguished alienated
and estranged children. Also, it is possible that the very high
PARQ scores for the alienated parents were related to the setting
in which the test was administered; data were gathered from the
alienated children during admission to involuntary, court-ordered
treatment, which the children presumably blamed on the rejected
parent who brought the matter to court. Another possibility is
that the high PARQ scores for the alienated parents were not
related to parental alienation, but were caused by the child’s lack
of contact with that parent. Thus, although we believe that the
extreme level of splitting caused or contributed to the child’s
refusal to spend time with the alienated parent, it could have
been the other way around; that is, the lack of time with the
alienated parent led to a very high PARQ score for that parent.
It will be important in future research to compare directly the
PARQ scores of alienated and estranged children, as well as
children who have experienced a hybrid blend of estrangement
and alienation together. It will be useful in the future to learn
how children who have experienced mild, moderate, and severe
maltreatment respond to the PARQ for the abusive parents and
for the nonabusive parents. Also, it will be useful to learn how
children who have experienced mild, moderate, and severe levels
of parental alienation respond to the PARQ for the preferred par-
ent and for the rejected parent. Typical definitions of those terms
are: mild parental alienation means that the child resists contact
with the target parent but enjoys the relationship with that parent
once parenting time is underway; moderate parental alienation
means that the child strongly resists contact and is persistently
oppositional during parenting time with the target parent; severe
parental alienation means that the child persistently and ada-
mantly refuses contact and may hide or run away to avoid being
with the target parent (9, p. 23).
Of course, the PARQ should not be used in isolation to deter-
mine whether a child is alienated. The measure—like most psy-
chological tests—should be part of a comprehensive psychiatric
and/or psychological assessment of the family, including multi-
ple interviews, meetings with collateral informants, review of
records, and teamwork with other professionals. However, we
conclude that both clinical and forensic practitioners should con-
sider using the PARQ as one component of a comprehensive
evaluation when they are concerned about the possible diagnosis
of parental alienation.
The authors appreciate the helpful assistance of Amy J. L.
Baker, Ph.D., Bradley Freeman, M.D., James S. Walker, Ph.D.,
Sumbleen Ali, M.Phil., and James Lopez in developing this
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Additional information and reprint requests:
William Bernet, M.D.
1313 21st Avenue South
209 Oxford House
Nashville, TN 37232
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