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Despite affecting millions of families around the world, parental alienation has been largely unacknowledged or denied by legal and health professionals as a form of family violence. This complex form of aggression entails a parental figure engaging in the long-term use of a variety of aggressive behaviors to harm the relationship between their child and another parental figure, and/or to hurt the other parental figure directly because of their relationship with their child. Like other forms of family violence, parental alienation has serious and negative consequences for family members, yet victims are often blamed for their experience. In order to be recognized as a form of family violence and to secure protection for victims under law and social policies, a formal review and comparison of parental alienating behaviors and outcomes to child abuse and intimate partner violence has been sorely needed. The result of this review highlights how the societal denial of parental alienation has been like the historical social and political denial or other forms of abuse in many parts of the world (e.g., child abuse a century ago). Reframing parental alienating behaviors as a form of family violence also serves as a desperate call to action for social scientists to focus more theoretical and empirical attention to this topic. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2018 APA, all rights reserved).
Parental Alienating Behaviors:
An Unacknowledged Form of Family Violence
Jennifer J. Harman
Colorado State University Edward Kruk
University of British Columbia
Denise A. Hines
Clark University
Despite affecting millions of families around the world, parental alienation has been largely unacknowl-
edged or denied by legal and health professionals as a form of family violence. This complex form of
aggression entails a parental figure engaging in the long-term use of a variety of aggressive behaviors to
harm the relationship between their child and another parental figure, and/or to hurt the other parental
figure directly because of their relationship with their child. Like other forms of family violence, parental
alienation has serious and negative consequences for family members, yet victims are often blamed for
their experience. In order to be recognized as a form of family violence and to secure protection for
victims under law and social policies, a formal review and comparison of parental alienating behaviors
and outcomes to child abuse and intimate partner violence has been sorely needed. The result of this
review highlights how the societal denial of parental alienation has been like the historical social and
political denial or other forms of abuse in many parts of the world (e.g., child abuse a century ago).
Reframing parental alienating behaviors as a form of family violence also serves as a desperate call to
action for social scientists to focus more theoretical and empirical attention to this topic.
Public Significance Statement
This article presents parental alienating behaviors as a form of family violence with serious
consequences for children and families. Professional recognition of parental alienation and the
alienating behaviors that cause it is a necessary first step toward stimulating much needed research
in this area and in the development and testing of effective clinical, educational, and legal interven-
tions to prevent and mitigate the damaging effects of this form of family violence.
Keywords: parental alienation, child abuse, intimate partner violence, family violence, domestic violence
Human aggression involves behaviors directed toward another
individual with the proximate (immediate) intent to cause harm.
Some psychologists have argued that in order to be considered
aggression, there must also be a belief that the behavior will cause
harm and that the target of the aggression is motivated to avoid it
(Anderson & Bushman, 2002). Human aggression has traditionally
been characterized as hostile or instrumental in form, with hostile
aggression being thoughtless, unplanned behaviors committed
while angry in reaction to a perceived provocation, and instrumen-
tal aggression describing aggressive behaviors that are premedi-
tated and expressed as a means to obtain some goal other than
hurting the target. With instrumental aggression, the target is
essentially hurt in the process of the aggressor trying to obtain their
goal (Berkowitz, 1993). Several theories have guided most re-
search on human aggression including cognitive neoassociation
theory (Berkowitz, 2012) and social learning theory (e.g., Bandura,
Ross, & Ross, 1961), and human aggression can take many forms,
such as gossiping, bullying, physical assault, genocide, and war.
The goal of the current article is to describe and characterize a
specific and complicated form of hostile and instrumental human
aggression that has been controversial and largely overlooked by
many social science researchers: parental alienation.
Parental alienation refers to a child’s reluctance or refusal to
have a relationship with a parent (referred to here as the targeted
parent or TP) for illogical, untrue, or exaggerated reasons (Bernet,
Wamboldt, & Narrow, 2016). Clinicians and researchers have
outlined numerous symptoms that are indications that a child has
been or is being alienated from a parent (Spruijt, Eikelenboom,
Harmeling, Stokkers, & Kormos, 2005), including using a cam-
paign of denigration against the TP, making frivolous rationaliza-
tions for their complaints about the TP, using borrowed scenarios
Jennifer J. Harman, Department of Psychology, Colorado State Univer-
sity; Edward Kruk, School of Social Work, University of British Columbia;
Denise A. Hines, Department of Psychology, Clark University.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jennifer
J. Harman, Department of Psychology, Colorado State University, Campus
Mail Code: 1876, Fort Collins, CO 80523-1876. E-mail: jjharman@
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Psychological Bulletin
© 2018 American Psychological Association 2018, Vol. 144, No. 12, 1275–1299
created by the alienating parent (AP) such that the child’s stories
about past events are nearly exactly the same as the AP’s version
(even using identical words), and spreading animosity about the
TP to other people. When the child rejects a parental figure, their
behavior is often accompanied by a lack of overt ambivalence,
guilt, or remorse for their rejection (Baker & Eichler, 2016;Jaffe,
Thakkar, & Piron, 2017), and the child will automatically side
with the AP in any argument or conflict.
Parental alienation is the outcome associated with alienating
behaviors (Baker & Eichler, 2016). While alienating behaviors
will not always lead to severe parental alienation, which is the
complete rejection and refusal of contact with the TP (Warshak,
2013), they still impact the child and the other parental figure in
many negative ways, even in the mildest of circumstances (e.g.,
Johnston, 2003). These outcomes include, but are not limited to,
the child feeling abandoned and experiencing anger and/or rejec-
tion of the TP for unjustifiable reasons. There are also potential
negative effects in psychological (e.g., depression), educational
(e.g., academic decline), legal (time, expense), and physical (e.g.,
high blood pressure) domains (Harman & Biringen, 2016).
The behaviors that cause parental alienation to occur fall along
a broad continuum ranging from mild and subtle to severe and
explicit. Parental alienating behaviors are not discrete one-time
events; in order to be considered a parental alienating behavior, it
is typically enacted over time (Verrocchio, Baker & Marchetti,
2017) and alongside other clusters of behaviors with the intent of
hurting, damaging or destroying the child’s relationship with that
parental figure, and/or to hurt the parental figure themselves
(Baker & Darnall, 2006;Gottlieb, 2012;Harman, Biringen, Rata-
jack, Outland, & Kraus, 2016a;Kelly & Johnston, 2001;Lorandos,
Bernet, & Sauber, 2013;Warshak, 2015a). These behaviors are
intended to harm the other parental figure and their relationship
with a child, and the TP is motivated to avoid them. For example,
the AP may badmouth the TP to a child and also interfere with the
TP’s contact with the child (e.g., blocking phone calls when in
their care; Reay, 2011). Children are often used as instruments
of the AP in these campaigns (particularly among severely alien-
ated children; Warshak, 2013), and they are subsequently directly
and indirectly hurt in this process. Parental alienating behaviors are
therefore both hostile and instrumental forms of aggression.
Although parental alienating behaviors can occur in intact fam-
ilies (Baker & Verrocchio, 2013;Moné & Biringen, 2006), they
are reportedly used more frequently in nonintact families, partic-
ularly those that are litigating child custody disputes (Baker &
Verrocchio, 2015;Hands & Warshak, 2011). To date, the majority
of research on parental alienation has studied it as occurring
between two biological parents; however, the AP and TP could be
any parental figure in a child’s life (step-parent, coparent, grand-
parent, etc.), and it does not discriminate: Few gender differences
have been found in terms of who is the target of alienating
behaviors (Harman, Leder-Elder, & Biringen, 2016b). Experts
have found that custodial status, rather than gender, is a more
important predictor of who is likely to alienate (for a review,
see Harman & Biringen, 2016). The prevalence of children who
have been alienated from a parent has been challenging to
calculate due to the need to accurately diagnose this outcome,
but some estimates point to around 29% of children from
divorced homes as being alienated from a parent to some extent
(Hands & Warshak, 2011). Parental alienating behaviors are
quite common depending on the type of behavior that is being
reported (Johnston, Walters, & Olesen, 2005). For example, be-
tween 5% and 42% of parents recruited from an online sample
report doing at least one alienating behavior themselves; the be-
haviors that parents report at higher rates (e.g., yelling at the other
parental figure in front of a child) occur more frequently than other
behaviors consistent with the concept of parental alienation (e.g.,
moving the child out of state) because there are more opportunities
to engage in the former behaviors (Harman et al., 2016b). Al-
though some of these behaviors occur because of routine conflict
(e.g., yelling at the other parental figure in front of the child) or
because of necessity (e.g., moving out of state), it is the persistent
and strategic use of these behaviors that results in parental alien-
Extant published literature on parental alienation indicates there
is consensus among affected family members and mental health
professionals about the types of behaviors that APs use to alienate
children (Saini, Johnston, Fidler, & Bala, 2016;Templar, Mat-
thewson, Haines, & Cox, 2017). However, there has yet to be an
explicit professional recognition in the social sciences of these
behaviors as a form of family violence. Indeed, Ron Berglas, a
citizen of the State of California, addressed the California Board of
Behavioral Sciences on March 3, 2017, with a request that parental
alienation be required training for all mental health professionals
across the state. At the conclusion of his presentation, a board
member stated that parental alienation first needs to be established
in the peer-review literature as a form of emotional abuse and
domestic violence. After that criterion has been established, then
training and education could be required of their practitioners
(Berglas, 2017).
Therefore, the purpose of this article is to provide a review of
selected literature and research on parental alienating behaviors
and their associated outcomes using professionally recognized
legal and public health definitions of family violence. This review
is the necessary first step before harms to victims can be indexed
and assessed. We will discuss intent in a later section of the article
because individuals who have denied the existence of parental
alienation or minimized its scope have used intent to fuel debates
about and to justify the use of this form of family violence. This
review is necessary so that greater research attention can be
focused on understanding and finding solutions to prevent and
treat parental alienation (e.g., allocated funding for basic research,
theoretical advancement, and intervention).
Family Violence
Inaccuracies in how family violence has been conceptualized
have led to great variability in legal and clinical definitions around
the world. It is outside the scope of this article to review the
multitude of ways legal and clinical definitions have varied (see
legal reviews such as Cutland, 2012 and Meyersfeld, 2004 for
some examples), so we will describe here how family violence has
generally been defined. The World Health Organization has de-
fined violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power,
threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a
group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood
of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment
or deprivation” (p. 4, Krug, Dahlberg, Mercy, Zwi, & Lozano,
2002). The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Develop-
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ment (OECD) defines family violence, also known as domestic
violence, as any violent act inflicted by one family member onto
another, a term encompassing both child abuse and intimate part-
ner violence (IPV). Violence here includes physical, sexual, emo-
tional, and economic violence, as well as neglect (Organisation for
Economic Cooperation and Development, 2013).
Legal definitions of family violence have specified several
types; for example, the U.S. Department of Justice identifies
physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or
threats of actions as forms of violence that can intimidate, manip-
ulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten,
blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone (Office of Violence Against
Women, U.S. Department of Justice, 2017). State statues in the
United States individually define what violence is, and the major-
ity (42/50) of U.S. states have family violence defined within their
criminal or penal codes (Child Welfare Information Gateway,
In addition to there being great variability in how family vio-
lence has been defined, who is considered a victim of family
violence also varies greatly across legal jurisdictions and countries
(United Nations Office on Drugs & Crimes, 2010). For example,
in the U.S., “victims” are often only those individuals who are
harmed by specific offenses such as a felony or misdemeanor
(National Crime Victim Law Institute, 2011). International law has
traditionally not paid significant attention to victims and there is
not an international concept of what characterizes one (Romani,
2010). The General Assembly Resolution 40/34 of the United
Nations defines “victim” as a person who has suffered harm
“including physical or mental injury [and] emotional suffering...
through acts or omissions that are in violation of criminal laws...
including those laws proscribing criminal abuse of power” (United
Nations General Assembly, 1985). Importantly, this definition has
included family and dependents of the direct victim who have
suffered harm in assisting the person in distress or in trying to
prevent victimization (Romani, 2010).
Legal jurisdictions also vary as to whether children who witness
family violence are considered victims. Children can be exposed to
violence either directly or indirectly by witnessing violence in their
family, community, and/or school (Hillis, Mercy, & Saul, 2017).
Child victims exposed to family violence (intimate partner vio-
lence or IPV) experience many harmful effects and significant
emotional impairments (Ayoub, Deutsch, & Maraganore, 1999;
McTavish, MacGregor, Wathen, & MacMillan, 2016). These ef-
fects can occur either by witnessing the violent behaviors, being in
the home where such events are happening (Hines & Douglas,
2016b) or even just being aware of them (MacMillan & Wathen,
2014). The term child affected by parental relationship distress
(CAPRD) appears in the most recent edition of the DSM–5, and it
encompasses a wide range of parenting relationship issues that
have negative consequences for children, including intimate part-
ner distress and violence and parental alienating behaviors (Bernet
et al., 2016). Children who have been exposed to intimate partner
conflict and aggression have poorer psychological and social ad-
justment, poorer academic performance, and higher incidences of
behavioral disorders (Amato, 2001;Douglas & Hines, 2016a,
2016b). Parental alienation specialists have argued that severe
parental alienating behaviors are a form of child abuse (Templar et
al., 2017), and severe parental alienation is an extreme manifesta-
tion of both CARPD and “parent-child relational problem” in the
DSM–5 (Warshak, 2015a).
Despite the negative consequences that witnessing family vio-
lence has on children, only 24 states in the U.S. have recognized
that children who witness family violence are collateral victims
and have child protection laws written to address this in their
criminal or civil codes. In contrast, the Australian Family Law Act,
1975 Sect 4AB specifies that children are exposed to family
violence when they see, hear, or experience the effects of family
violence (Commonwealth Consolidated Acts, n.d.). Australian
courts have applied this definition of family violence to family law
cases with alienated children because parental alienating behaviors
are recognized as a form of family violence that causes harm to
children (e.g., Federal Circuit Court of Australia, 2015).
In 2010, Brazil passed a law criminalizing parental alienation
because it was labeled as a moral abuse against a child or adoles-
cent, is a violation of the child’s fundamental human right to have
healthy family interactions and family life, and is considered a
breach of parental duties stemming from parental custody (Brazil-
ian Law No. 12 318, 2010). The examples of parental alienating
behaviors described in this law include organizing campaigns to
discredit the TP, the undermining of the TP’s parental authority,
prevention of contact and visitation between the child and the TP
and/or extended family, hiding personal information about the
child (e.g., school records) from the TP, making false claims of
abuse, and changing the residence or contact information for the
child without notifying the TP. The law allows judges to prosecute
APs for their abusive behaviors toward the child and the TP, even
reversing custody if it is in the best interests of the child.
Despite the implicit and explicit recognition of parental alien-
ating behaviors as being a form of family violence in countries
like Australia and Brazil, it has not received legal recognition in
other jurisdictions, such as the U.S. There has also been wide-
spread and persistent denial by some researchers, practitioners,
and policymakers in the fields of domestic violence and child
abuse (e.g., Bruch, 2001;Dallam & Silberg, 2016) about the
reality (Clemente & Padilla-Racero, 2015) and prevalence of
parental alienation (Rowen & Emery, 2014), particularly con-
cerning whether the problem can be considered a psychological
“syndrome” (Parental Alienation Syndrome or PAS; Gardner,
1999;Warshak, 2015a). This denial is reminiscent of the
societal-level denial of the existence and prevalence of domes-
tic violence and the abuse of children in the United States and
Canada at the start of and throughout the 20th century (e.g.,
Pleck, 2004;Roy, 1977).
Due to the resistance to accept the reality that parents engage in
behaviors to hurt another parental figure and that parental figure’s
relationship with their child(ren), parental alienation and the be-
haviors that cause it have been unacknowledged, treated as an
“anomalous” form of aggression. In addition, parental alienation is
sometimes described as a story that only abusive fathers use to
obtain custody of their children and to abuse the other parent (e.g.,
Ellis & Boyan, 2010). This denial detracts attention away from a
serious public health crisis (Fidler, Bala, & Saini, 2013;Vezzetti,
2016) that is affecting an estimated 22 million or more fathers and
mothers and their children in the U.S. (Harman et al., 2016b), and
likely millions more across the world.
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State of the Research on Parental Alienation
Before we outline how specific parental alienating behaviors
map onto professionally recognized (legal and clinical) forms of
child abuse, IPV and their associated outcomes, it is important to
address the current state of research on parental alienation. To
date, more than 1,000 books, book chapters, and articles have been
published in mental health or legal professional journals on the
subject of parental alienation (Vanderbilt University Medical Cen-
ter, 2017). However, the majority of documentation regarding the
presence and sources of parental alienation are drawn from legal
case reviews, expert opinions, clinical case studies, and qualitative
research-based accounts (Saini et al., 2016). Conducting research
on the prevalence, etiology, diagnosis and assessment, and treat-
ment outcomes of parental alienation is resource intensive. The
funding necessary to conduct such research has not been ear-
marked because parental alienating behaviors have not yet been
recognized as a form of family violence. For example, even though
there is cross-sectional evidence from surveys and legal cases that
greater amounts of parental alienating behaviors are associated
with greater hostility and rejection of a parent (Baker & Eichler,
2016;Burrill, 2001), a longitudinal study of a diverse sample of
families is necessary to inform causality. Such a study is not
possible without substantial funding. Consequently, the majority
of empirical studies to date published on parental alienation have
been drawn from convenience samples, rely on retrospective re-
ports of TPs and adult children, and utilize cross-sectional designs,
often without comparison groups. Professional and public denial of
this phenomenon has hindered research progress on this topic
because it has blocked researchers’ access to funding.
In a recent review of the published research on parental alien-
ation, Saini, Johnston, Fidler, and Bala (2016) used a stringent set
of criteria to identify studies (published prior to 2015) that reported
sample sizes and methods of selection, the methods of data col-
lection, information about data analysis procedures, and a report of
the findings. Their search resulted in 45 published articles and 13
doctoral dissertations published in English. Unfortunately, many
of the studies identified had design limitations (e.g., small sample
sizes, lack of comparison groups) which limits their generalizabil-
ity, leading the authors to conclude that the state of the research on
parental alienation is in its early stages (Saini et al., 2016). Despite
these limitations, it is important for our purposes that the authors
found a very high consensus in the finding that “mothers, fathers,
children, young adults, and counselors have been able to describe
the explicit behaviors that may be perpetrated by one parent and
have the capacity to distance, damage, or destroy a child’s rela-
tionship with the other parent” (p. 418), as well consensus as to
what outcomes are associated with different levels of severity of
parental alienation in children (Saini et al., 2016). This consensus
is found across many different studies using different methods and
samples. Therefore, there has been noteworthy professional agree-
ment about the types of alienating behaviors that APs use, and
research has demonstrated reliable identification of clusters of
symptoms in children who have been alienated (Saini et al., 2016).
In our review, we will draw as much as possible from empirical
research studies published on parental alienation to date. However,
in areas where less research has been conducted, we will refer to
clinical, legal, and expert opinion publications. We will also draw
from summarized details of legal cases where parental alienation
was identified (Lorandos, 2013), published testimonies of thou-
sands of adults who attest to having suffered through it as children,
and extensive personal interviews conducted by the first two
authors of this article with alienated parents (some of which have
been referenced in Harman & Biringen, 2016). These sources offer
valuable insight into causes and consequences of parental alien-
ation and provide examples of parental alienating behaviors and
their outcomes which are important building blocks for an emerg-
ing field of inquiry. Whenever possible, we will cite multiple
sources for our examples from different perspectives (parent,
child, mental health or legal professionals) as independent obser-
vations derived from different forms of methodological inquiry
demonstrate consensus and can provide greater confidence in the
Parental Alienating Behaviors as Child Abuse
Due to the many ways that child abuse can be perpetrated,
defining it has proved to be challenging. Indeed, there are many
different and sometimes incompatible definitions of child abuse,
and there are often disagreements about the meaning of the term
itself (Cameron, Hazineh, & Frensch, 2010). There is also debate
about whether child abuse can ever be precisely defined (and
therefore measured; Trocmé, Akesson, & Jud, 2016). Child abuse
is generally defined as a specific form of harm to children that is
significant and may be attributed to human agency (Cooper, 1993)
that is proscribed, proximate, and preventable (Finkelhor &
Korbin, 1988). The American Professional Society on the Abuse
of Children (1995) defines child maltreatment, which is an even
broader term incorporating child abuse and neglect, as behaviors
that a caregiver does that result in a child feeling worthless,
unloved, and only valued for meeting the caregiver’s needs (Bing-
geli, Hart, & Brassard, 2001).
Many writers have indicated that using parental alienating be-
haviors to cause parental alienation is a form of child psycholog-
ical abuse (for a brief review, see Verrocchio, Baker, & Bernet,
2016) and some specific behaviors have been mapped to child
outcomes in a qualitative analysis by Baker (2007). Indeed, the
tactics used by APs in their alienation are often tantamount to
extreme psychological maltreatment of children (Baker, 2010). It
is important to note that while some behaviors may be, at face-
value, inherently associated with parental alienation (e.g., psycho-
logical aggression), other behaviors (e.g., physical aggression)
may be only associated with the concept. While empirical evidence
and greater theorizing is needed to determine whether this distinc-
tion can be made, we believe that regardless of the centrality of
specific aggressive behaviors to the concept (e.g., frequency, im-
pact), the behaviors we will review are described and documented
as being done to hurt the relationship between the child and the TP,
or to hurt the TP directly. Therefore, the reported behaviors are all
important for our understanding of this complex form of aggres-
sion. Our review here is the first step toward classifying behaviors
that have been documented by researchers and experts in the field
using a child abuse framework.
Thorough reviews of child abuse behaviors have identified
several different forms (e.g., Fakunmoju et al., 2013). We will first
review the psychologically aggressive child abuse behaviors that
APs use with their children, and then review other forms of child
abuse behaviors.
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Emotional/psychological aggression. Psychological aggres-
sion involves the use of verbal and nonverbal communication with
the intent to harm the other person mentally or emotionally. This
is the most common form of child maltreatment; it involves
attacking a child’s emotional and social well-being, and can in-
clude spurning, terrorizing, isolating, corrupting or exploiting, and
denying emotional responsiveness (Binggeli et al., 2001). Com-
pared with psychological aggression between intimate partners,
child abusive forms have not been as clearly differentiated. Alien-
ating parents are extensively documented as using this form of
aggression, yet it is one of the more challenging ones to observe
directly because they often occur in privacy.
Alienating parents terrorize their children by derogating the TP
and creating fear in children that the TP might be dangerous or too
unstable to be around (e.g., Baker & Verrocchio, 2013;López,
Iglesias, & García, 2014;Verrocchio et al., 2017). Alienating
parents will often reject, shame, or make their child feel guilty for
showing any loyalty or warmth toward the TP or the TP’s extended
family (e.g., step-siblings, grandparents; Baker & Darnall, 2006;
Harman & Biringen, 2018), or ridicule them for showing the TP
affection (López et al., 2014). They may also withdraw love and
affection when the child talks positively about the TP (Baker &
Verrocchio, 2013,2015), leading the child to fully and openly
reject the TP, or to compartmentalize their feelings and show one
“face” to the AP and another to the TP (Dunne & Hedrick, 1994;
Garber, 2014). Some APs force and reward their children for
rejecting the TP (e.g., not say hello at a sporting event; López et
al., 2014;Verrocchio et al., 2017), or for using the same derogatory
labels that the AP uses to describe them (Warshak, 2015b). The AP
will interrogate children for information after visits with the TP
(Baker & Darnall, 2006;López et al., 2014), and even make them
throw away all clothing, gifts, or reminders of the TP after they return
from visits with them (Harman & Biringen, 2018).
Alienating parents also attempt to corrupt their children and
reject part of their own identity by calling another adult mother or
father (to replace the TP; Verrocchio et al., 2017), and even change
their last name to fully reject the TP (Baker & Verrocchio, 2013;
Warshak, 2015c). In one extreme example, Dunne and Hedrick
(1994) reported an AP as having conducted a “burial ceremony”
with the children to “bury” symbolically their living father in order
to start their “new” family. The AP may also allow the child to
refer to them by first name in order to make it seem they are their
equals in order to create an alliance. Alienated children may even
use their AP’s surname (e.g., maiden name) socially if it is differ-
ent from the surname of the TP in order to publicly reject the TP
(Harman & Biringen, 2018). Children are asked or even paid to
keep secrets from the TP (Reay, 2011;Verrocchio et al., 2017),
and are pulled into a state of dependency on the AP that makes
them even more susceptible to their manipulations (Gottlieb,
Alienated parents will also corrupt their children by using gas-
lighting techniques to accomplish parental alienation. Gaslighting
refers to the presentation of false information to the victim with the
intent of making them doubt their own memory or perception.
Alienating parents will rewrite past history, or use events that the
child recalls and then exaggerate or fill in with details that never
happened in an attempt to distort the child’s memory about the TP
and the TP’s relationship with them and/or the AP (e.g., brain-
washing; Baker & Darnall, 2006;Harman & Biringen, 2016;Reay,
2011;Warshak, 2015a). The AP creates conflict between the child
and the TP by telling them false, incomplete, or misleading infor-
mation about the other parent. For example, the AP may tell the
child that the TP was supposed to be picking them up at a certain
time (when no such schedule was arranged) to make the child
believe the TP rejected them (“your mom/dad forgot about your
visit today;” Harman & Biringen, 2018;Lorandos, 2013). The AP
will often make the child choose between parents (“you can either
live with them or me, not both;” Harman & Biringen, 2018;
Verrocchio et al., 2017).
Alienating parents will manipulate their children to help in their
campaign against the TP (Smith, 2016). For example, they will put
the child in the position to spy on the TP, such as searching a TP’s
computer for bank account information (Baker & Verrocchio,
2013;Harman & Biringen, 2018;Stahl, 2004;Verrocchio et al.,
2017). Alienating parents adultify or parentify one or more of the
children such that as child caregivers, they serve and provide for
the needs of the AP (Moné & Biringen, 2012;Garber, 2011). In
this role, APs often share inappropriate information about financial
and legal matters with their children (Balmer, Matthewson, &
Haines, 2017;Gottleib, 2004;López et al., 2014;Moné, MacPhee,
Anderson, & Banning, 2011).
Parenting time is often based on a stipulated agreement or is
court ordered, and yet APs will give or force their children to make
a “choice” as to whether they want to visit the TP (Baker &
Darnall, 2006;Baker & Verrocchio, 2013). By doing so, the AP
deflects responsibility for violating court ordered visitation (“my
child just doesn’t want to see them. I cannot force them to go”).
This deflection of responsibility for noncompliance of court orders
is placed inappropriately onto a child, who is thereby encouraged
to act in an antisocial manner (Joshi, 2016). Adolescents have a
greater vulnerability to external influences such as parents and
peers, and are highly suggestible, making them willing to fill such
adult roles (Warshak, 2015c) and be manipulated to act on behalf
of the AP.
Child neglect. The World Health Organization (1999) has
defined neglect as failure to provide for the development of the
child in all spheres of life. Therefore, neglect can include behav-
iors such as not caring for a child’s basic needs (food, health care,
clothing, education) or leaving a child with an abusive caretaker.
According to Erickson and Egeland (2011), psychological or emo-
tional neglect occurs when parents fail to meet their child’s basic
emotional needs, such as not comforting children when they are
injured. This form of abuse cannot be identified from one specific
incident, as it is chronic neglect that has significant impact on a
child’s development (Hornor, 2014). Neglect can result in physical
and psychological harm, and it is the most common and deadliest
form of child abuse (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2012).
Unfortunately, this form of child abuse has not been well studied
(Stoltenborgh, Bakermans-Kranenburg, & van Ijzendoorn, 2013).
Neglect is a fundamental element of parental alienation because
the AP’s needs are placed ahead of those of the child, and the AP
fails to recognize the need for the child to be loved and cared for
by the TP (Baker & Verrocchio, 2013;Garber, 2011). Children are
simultaneously infantilized (lives are dependent on the AP) and
parentified. Parents who alienate their children do so regardless of
the impact it has on the child, which demonstrates serious neglect
of their basic emotional needs (Johnston, Walters, & Olesen,
2005). Indeed, many APs fight hard to have full custody and
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control of their children, with little desire to be with the children
themselves (Baker, 2006b). The AP will opt to have third party
caregivers for the children rather than allow any parenting time for
the TP, and they are emotionally unavailable to the child due to
their own psychological pathologies (Garber, 2011;Harman &
Biringen, 2016).
One common form of child neglect is factitious disorder im-
posed by another (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), which
occurs when a parent fails to seek medical care, seeks out exces-
sive and/or inappropriate care, or is noncompliant with care (al-
ternatively known as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, Grace, &
Jagannathan, 2015; or medical child abuse, Yates & Bass, 2017).
Factitious disorder imposed by another is more common among
mothers who have had a history of abuse and who have personality
disorders (e.g., borderline personality disorder), and the abusive
behaviors increase during times of separation with the child (Yates
& Bass, 2017). Some parents will make false allegations of abuse
and fabricate illnesses in an attempt to get custody of (Dauver,
Dayan, & Houzel, 2003;Lorandos, 2013) and to alienate their
children from the TP (De Becker & Ali-Hamed, 2006). In order to
make the TP appear incompetent, the AP may also give the TP
inaccurate medication treatment information for the children while
in the TP’s care. The AP then harasses the TP if they do not
comply with what are known to be false instructions, and tells the
children that only they (the AP) know how to care for their needs
(Harman & Biringen, 2018).
Alienating parents are also described by TPs as neglecting the
academic needs of the children, such as allowing excessive ab-
sences from school to attend appointments that could easily be
scheduled outside of school hours (Harman & Biringen, 2018). By
appearing busy in attending to the “complex” needs of the children
(López et al., 2014), the AP gives the appearance to others as being
the “better” and more “concerned” parent, while the child’s actual
needs are not being met. Alienating parents frequently utilize
mental health professionals to “help” their children cope with the
alleged behaviors of the TP. If the professional becomes suspicious
of parental alienation, or seeks details from the TP to make better
sense of the child’s real issues, the AP typically fires them and
finds another therapist who is more sympathetic and not a threat to
the fiction they are trying to maintain about the TP. “Therapist
shopping” results in the children’s psychological needs not only
being neglected, but being exploited and used against them (Camp-
bell, 2013;Harman & Biringen, 2018).
Targeted parents have reported that APs will restrict and control
the types of friends or later dating partners that their children have,
or in more extreme situations, isolate their children from peers and
social networks. For example, the AP may not support a relation-
ship between their teenager and a healthy romantic partner because
the romantic partner may question the child’s rejection of the TP
or because the romantic partner was seen speaking to the TP
(Baker & Darnall, 2006;Harman & Biringen, 2018). Limiting the
children’s social networks in these ways neglects the child’s need
to develop their own individuality that is separate from the identity
of the AP.
Legal and administrative aggression. This form of aggres-
sion refers to a partner manipulating legal and administrative
systems to hurt the other partner, such as making false claims of
abuse to child protective services about the parent (Hines, Doug-
las, & Berger, 2015;Kruk 1993,2011). While this form of ag-
gression is primarily used against the TP, APs have had their
children testify against the TP in court or to mental health profes-
sionals and teachers about false events (e.g., abuse) and perceived
or unsubstantiated fears (Harman & Biringen, 2018). Some chil-
dren are convinced by the APs to tell social workers, teachers,
medical providers, and other mandatory reporters about events that
never happened, or are exaggerated by the APs to create percep-
tions of danger to the children, which prompts unnecessary third-
party intervention (Dunne & Hedrick, 1994).
Physical and sexual aggression. Physical aggression inflicts
pain on a child and has the potential of causing injury or
impairment to development. This form of aggression can in-
clude slapping or hitting a child, throwing objects at the child,
banging a child’s head on an object (e.g., wall), or dragging a
child on a floor as punishment (e.g., Straus & Hamby, 1997).
Sexually aggressive behaviors include exposing a child to sex-
ual behaviors of adults (e.g., having sex or masturbating in their
presence), videotaping or viewing a child naked for sexual
pleasure, allowing a child to watch pornography, asking the
child to perform sexual acts with an adult, and engaging in
sexual conversations with a child for sexual pleasure. There is
some clinical and survey evidence that children are physically
abused (e.g., hit) when they tell the AP they want a relationship
with the TP (e.g., Rand, 1997) and that adults who were
alienated as children have experienced physical and sexual
abuse at the hands of the AP (Baker, 2005). It remains unclear
whether this behavior is an inherent component of PA, or
whether it is correlated with its occurrence. The AP may also
select new partners who put the child at risk for physical or
sexual abuse. The TP is often physically and legally prevented
from being able to help the victimized child in these situations,
and the AP does not intervene. For example, the first author has
interviewed several TPs who learned the new romantic partners
or spouses of the AP had histories of sex offenses and did not
have any legal means to protect their children from harm
(Harman & Biringen, 2018).
Parental Alienating Behaviors as Intimate Partner
Violence (IPV)
Parental alienating behaviors do not just contribute to child
abuse; they are direct and indirect attacks that an AP makes on
the TP. Intimate partner violence (IPV) describes aggressive
and abusive behaviors perpetrated by a current or former inti-
mate partner (i.e., spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, coparent, dating
partner, or ongoing sexual partner; Breiding, Basile, Smith,
Black, & Mahendra, 2015) and, like child abuse, has been a
difficult form of violence to define due to the many forms it can
take. In 1999, the National Center for Injury Prevention (NCIP)
at the Centers for Disease Control published a report intended
to outline a clear definition of IPV (Saltzman, Fanslow, Mc-
Mahon, & Shelley, 1999). Since that time, the NCIP has pub-
lished updated definitions in order to account for behaviors that
have long been documented but were not easily categorized
before (e.g., stalking; Breiding et al., 2015). The most com-
monly used form of IPV by APs is psychological aggression, so
we will focus primarily on this form here. We will then briefly
review other IPV behaviors that APs use in their aggression
toward the TP.
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Psychological aggression. This form of IPV includes at-
tempts to control the partner or the relationship, demonstrate
power, and/or damage the victim’s sense of self (Williams, Rich-
ardson, Hammock, & Janit, 2012). Perpetrators intimidate, emo-
tionally wound, express anger, restrict, and coerce a partner
(Follingstad, 2007). Psychological aggression can also include
threats to damage property and falsely accusing a partner of having
an affair (Doherty & Berglund, 2008). Most parental alienating
behaviors directed at the TP are examples of psychological ag-
gression (Mason, Lewis, Milletich, Kelley, Minifie, & Derlega,
2014). The most recent NCIP report (Breiding et al., 2015) pre-
sented numerous types of psychological aggression, and we will
provide examples of how APs use this type of IPV in their
1. Expressive aggression entails the use of name-calling,
degrading the target of the behavior, humiliation, and
behaving in a physically dangerous manner.
Nearly all TPs report that the AP has used some form of
badmouthing and derogation, either directly or indirectly, and
often in front of a child (Baker & Darnall, 2006;Godbout &
Parent, 2012;Harman et al., 2016b;Kruk, 2011;López et al.,
2014;McMurray & Blackmore, 1993). This form of psychological
aggression is common because it is a “potent technique to under-
mine the child’s love and respect for parents and other relatives”
(Warshak, 2015b, p. 13). Alienating parents will go to great
lengths to destroy the TP’s credibility (Gith, 2013;Lowenstein,
2015). For example, APs have told their children, friends, neigh-
bors, teachers, and other involved adults that their child’s father is
a “deadbeat,” “dangerous,” or “inappropriate,” or that their mother
is “crazy,” or only cares about her career (Harman & Biringen,
2016;Rand, 1997;Warshak, 2015b). Belitting of the TP often
occurs at parenting exchanges or at children’s activities (e.g.,
sporting events) in front of others. When talking to their children,
some APs refer to the TP using their first name in order to
undermine the TP’s role as parent to the child (Warshak, 2015b),
or even use third person pronouns (e.g., “s/he is here to pick you
up now”) to create a sense that the TP is not worth recognizing as
a parent (Baker & Darnall, 2006;Harman & Biringen, 2016;Kruk,
2011). Alienating parents may even forbid or limit all mention of
the TP in the AP’s presence. This “erasing” of the TP is an extreme
form of degradation.
The AP will also use humiliation to hurt the TP, such as
mocking their hobbies, personality, job, friends, or family (Baker
& Darnall, 2006;Harman & Biringen, 2018), and focusing the
child and others on the TP’s flaws and mistakes they have made
(Warshak, 2015c). For example, a TP reported to one of the
authors that the AP in his life put him on speakerphone when
he called to speak with his children, and the AP mocked him
during calls to make the children see him as a joke.
Much of the yelling and name-calling behaviors that APs use are
designed to make the TP seem angry and dangerous. Alienating
parents frequently will yell angrily at the TP in front of the child
and others, slam doors, and throw things at them (e.g., shoes,
rocks; Harman et al., 2016a). These behaviors are intended to scare
the TP, particularly because the TP does not want their children to
see them in the way the AP portrays them at such times. Unfor-
tunately, this behavior can result in the child subsequently not
wanting to see the TP because they become afraid of them, or they
want to avoid exposure to the aggression that occurs during such
2. Coercive control refers to a wide range of behaviors
designed to minimize the power of the target by control-
ling their behaviors. Controlling behaviors include limit-
ing access to transportation, money (financial abuse),
friends, and family; manipulation of others to accomplish
their goal to control; excessive monitoring of a person’s
whereabouts and communications; monitoring or inter-
fering with communication (e.g., social media, texting)
without permission; making threats to harm the self; and
making threats to harm a loved one or a possession.
(Breiding et al., 2015)
Having the loyalty of children (and typically legal control over
them) affords the AP a considerable amount of power to wield
over the TP (Baker, 2006b;Harman & Biringen, 2016;Reay,
2011), and APs use their children as weapons to a great extent
when they exercise coercive control. The limitation of access to
children, or postrelationship gatekeeping (Saini, Drozd, & Olesen,
2017), is a commonly reported behavior, with as many as two out
of three of APs doing it (Baker & Darnall, 2006;Harman &
Biringen, 2016;Kruk, 2011). The AP will often prevent visits
(e.g., arguing the child is too “sick;” López et al., 2014;McMurray
& Blackmore, 1993), change pick-up and drop-off times and
locations to make parenting exchanges difficult to coordinate, and
put their children in daycare or with another service provider rather
than cooperate with the TP to coparent the child (Kruk, 2011).
Studies report that APs schedule children’s activities (e.g.,
sleepovers, excessive after school activities) during the TP’s par-
enting time in order to minimize the TP’s time with the children
(Harman & Biringen, 2018;Reay, 2011).
Similarly, APs will withhold information about the children
from the TP and will make the child’s medical or academic records
nearly impossible for the TP to access or obtain (Baker & Darnall,
2006;López et al., 2014). For example, the AP may change
emergency contact information for the children at school so that
the TP and/or the TP’s family are not informed when their child is
ill. Alienating parents often fail to send parent–teacher communi-
cation to the TP or tell them about school events, resulting in the
child believing the TP does not care about their academic success
or involvement in afterschool activities (Harman & Biringen,
2018;Reay, 2011). Alienating parents sometimes do not commu-
nicate to the TP that their child is receiving an award at school or
provide them wrong information (date, location) about an event,
leaving the child disappointed and angry that the TP was not
present. The AP will follow up this contrived situation by rein-
forcing the negative feelings the child has toward the TP (“your
mom/dad cares more about work than being here for you,” “tell me
everything that happened . . .”). Even though most TPs have a legal
right to medical information about their children, APs often in-
struct medical providers to only communicate with them about
their children’s care, sometimes using their court-appointed sole
medical decision-making authority as their rationale (Harman &
Biringen, 2018).
Financial abuse is another example of coercive control reported
by TPs. Excessive attorney and court fees expended to litigate
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custody disputes, defend against false accusations of abuse, and
modify child support and/or alimony (see legal and administrative
aggression below) leave many TPs financially destitute (Giancarlo
& Rottman, 2015;Kruk, 2010,2015). Alienating parents also hide
or delay notifying the TP about changes to their employment or
educational enrollment status as a way to continue obtaining
money from them (e.g., alimony, child support), or are dishonest
about extraordinary expenses spent on their children as a way to
extort money from the TP (Harman & Biringen, 2018).
Alienating parents will also limit the TP’s access to family and
friends. Through the use of derogation and lies about past events,
APs typically turn friends, neighbors, teachers, coaches, and other
important adults in the child’s and TP’s lives against the TP (Gith,
2013;Harman & Biringen, 2016;López et al., 2014;Rand, 1997).
Nonresident TP fathers have reported that the extended family of
the mother of their children often contributed to or drove the
conflict that they experienced in trying to parent their children
(Lehr & MacMillan, 2001). Many of these adults believe the
stories told by the AP about the TP, and fail to consider that there
may be another side to the story (Harman et al., 2016a). When TPs
try to reach out for support, or act on behalf of the child (e.g.,
contacting teachers about homework), they are met with a “cold
shoulder” and treated with hostility (Harman & Biringen, 2016;
Kruk, 2015). In other words, the AP manipulates these adults into
acting aggressively toward the TP on the AP’s behalf.
The monitoring of the TP’s whereabouts and communication is
a strategy that TP’s report APs have used, and it is quite similar to
stalking. For example, APs are reported to have discovered the
TP’s Internet passwords and subsequently hacked into their ac-
counts to learn details that can be used against them, such as who
they are dating, what they are communicating about to their
attorneys, and bank account information. Some TPs have reported
that their AP has hired spies or enlisted family members to monitor
the TP’s behaviors. For example, neighbors are asked to inform the
AP if the TP is entertaining a new romantic partner and whether
the TP is home (Harman & Biringen, 2018). As described earlier,
the AP can have the child monitor the TP on their behalf as well.
Alienating parents interfere with contact and communication
between the children and the TP (Baker & Verrocchio, 2013). The
AP reads the text message and e-mail exchanges between the child
and the TP, listens to their voice messages, makes the child
communicate by phone while they are in the room to overhear their
conversations, and even force the child to communicate with the
TP on speaker phone to listen to both parties on the call (e.g.,
Harman & Biringen, 2016). Targeted parents have reported that
their messages (e-mails, voice mails) are not relayed by the AP to
the child, and that the AP impersonates the child via text or e-mail
to the TP so they do not always know if the communicator is their
child or the AP (Harman & Biringen, 2016). The AP will also
interfere with symbolic communication between the TP and child,
such as throwing away or hiding gifts sent to the child by the TP,
or not allowing pictures or mention of the TP in their home (Baker
& Darnall, 2006;Reay, 2011;Verrocchio et al., 2017). The AP
may also restrict or prohibit contact with the TP’s extended family,
thereby alienating the child from the TP’s social network (Baker &
Verrocchio, 2013;Worenklein, 2013). Many TPs have not seen or
spoken to their children in many years (even decades), due to the
interference of the AP.
Interference of communication also occurs when the child is in
the care of the TP. During the TP’s parenting time, the AP often
texts or calls the child incessantly (López et al., 2014), sometimes
sending pictures of their animals or other loved ones who “miss
them” to pull their attention away from their time with the TP, or
even asking the children whether they are feeling “safe” to imply
that they should be concerned for their safety when with the TP
(Harman & Biringen, 2018). The interference of parenting time
with the TP detracts from the quality of their parenting time, and
does not allow the child to be fully present and emotionally
available to the TP.
Some APs will threaten to hurt themselves as a strategy to make
the TP comply with their wishes. For example, an AP may threaten
suicide or say they will become depressed if the TP seeks court
intervention to enforce court orders. The TP rarely wants the
children to lose a relationship with the AP, even with the amount
of abuse that the AP has subjected them to, so the TPs are often
coerced into compliance with such threats (Harman & Biringen,
2018). Alienating parents also threaten to harm loved ones or
possessions of the TP, such as telling the TP that the children will
be financially destitute or psychologically traumatized by a TP’s
actions in order to control the TP’s behavior (e.g., if you file that
motion, your children will be traumatized to be away from their
mother/father). Alienating parents threaten to hurt new romantic
partners or family members of the TP (e.g., spread rumors about
them), or threaten to call the TP’s employer to get the TP fired
should the TP not comply with the AP’s wishes (e.g., stay away
from the child, give them money; Harman & Biringen, 2018).
3. Threat of physical or sexual violence is a form of psy-
chological abuse that entails the use of words, gestures, or
weapons to communicate the intent to cause death, dis-
ability, injury, or physical harm.
Alienating parents use these types of threats to coerce the TP to
stay away from the children or create the illusion of danger. For
example, APs are reported to have had an intimidating adult
present (step-parent, friend, even hired help) at parenting time
exchanges to be their “bodyguard” (Harman & Biringen, 2018).
The presence of a bodyguard conveys the message that the AP
needs protection from the TP, and communicates that the TP is in
physical danger for being there to see their children. Another
example is documented in a legal case from the U.S., in which an
alienating father blocked the targeted mother’s car in his driveway
so she was unable to leave his property while he read the mother’s
court motion to the children out loud (Lorandos, 2013). Intimida-
tion and threats made by the AP to hurt the TP are often so scary
that the TP will have other adults pick up their children when they
exercise their parenting time in order to avoid an altercation with
the AP or their proxy (Lehr & MacMillan, 2001).
4. Control of reproductive or sexual health is a form of
psychological abuse that includes behaviors such as re-
fusing to use birth control or coercing a pregnancy
While this type of abuse is not as commonly used by APs due
to the fact that many TPs are no longer in an intimate or sexual
relationship with them, these behaviors can happen before the
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relationship dissolves. For example, a TP interviewed by the first
author reported to having been coerced undergo a vasectomy
because their AP did not want more children. Immediately after
this procedure, the AP filed for divorce and restricted all contact
between the TP and his children. While there could be many
reasons for the AP’s behavior, the TP was devastated because he
later wanted children (Harman & Biringen, 2018). More research
is needed to determine how common this form of psychological
aggression is among TPs.
5. Exploitations of victim’s vulnerability is a form of psy-
chological abuse that entails exploiting the target’s liabil-
ities or vulnerabilities, such as their immigration status, a
disability, or an undisclosed sexual orientation that the
target is motivated to remain hidden.
The AP often exploits any misstep or mistake that the TP makes
(Smith, 2016). Targeted parents have reported being blackmailed
by APs to sign court documents or “agreements” out of fear that
the AP will share negative information about them (e.g., a prior
criminal record) that would hurt their reputation or perceptions of
their children. In order to limit the TP’s access to the child, APs
sometimes exaggerate or inappropriately share medical or mental
health information (that has very little to do with their ability to
parent) about the TP with others. If an AP moves with the child
to another country, the TP may relocate in the hopes of continuing
to have a relationship with their child. When this has occurred,
APs have made false reports of visa violations as an attempt to
have the TP deported. Alienating parents in these situations also
exploit the TP’s alien status in court, which often has very different
rules and procedures than the court from their native land (Harman
& Biringen, 2016;Lorandos, 2013).
The amount of parenting time that has been allocated or court
ordered to the TP can also be used as a liability by the AP. For
example, if a court’s temporary order assigns only alternating
weekends of parenting time to a TP, APs often use the time period
between the temporary and final orders (which can be months or
years) as “proof” that they should be the primary custodial parent
(Harman & Biringen, 2016;Kruk 1993). This strategy is even
encouraged by lawyers to obtain full custody for their clients,
because many American and Canadian judges base final parenting
orders on what the “normal” distribution of parenting time was
prior to the final hearing. Creating an extended temporary order
period with imbalanced parenting responsibility provides the AP
with power to exploit the TP’s limited parenting time in their favor
(Kruk, 2011).
Similarly, the AP will also exploit unequal parenting plans in
order to obtain and retain sole decision-making regarding the
children. For example, the AP will claim that the TP does not
“know” the children as well as they do because the TP only visits
them twice a month. Therefore, the AP argues to the court that they
should be making all decisions because they know their children
best. The AP’s strategy is initially a power play to obtain full
control over the children and strip all parental decision-making
from the TP. Once this control is obtained, it is further exploited by
the AP to minimize the TP’s access to and information about the
children (e.g., not providing full medical information to them,
telling school personnel to not allow the TP to visit the children at
school) and to harass the TP (Harman & Biringen, 2018). For
example, APs often misinterpret the legal meaning of medical
decision-making to mean that they have the authority to micro-
manage all day-to-day medical care of the children while in the
TP’s care. If the TP does not respond to the AP’s overstepping of
authority on such matters, APs often exploit such actions to use as
“proof” that the TP is not being a good parent, or is being
“uncooperative” with them (Harman & Biringen, 2018).
6. Exploitation of perpetrator’s vulnerability is another
form of psychological aggression that includes the ex-
ploitation of one’s own liabilities to control or limit the
target’s options.
In this case, the “liabilities” of one’s gender can be used to
exploit the TP. For example, an alienating mother may use gender
stereotypes to her advantage such that she portrays herself as a
“victim” of abuse perpetrated by the targeted father (with no
supporting evidence). Such claims are often believed because of
deeply held beliefs about men being aggressive; these beliefs are
then used as justification for how the custody of children is
assigned (Harman et al., 2016a). An alienating father may use
gender stereotypes to show he is a better “provider” for the
children than the mother if she was a stay-at-home parent, partic-
ularly if he can also incorporate stereotypes about women being
mentally unstable. Being a breadwinner can sometimes be a lia-
bility (e.g., he or she may be portrayed as working too much), and
it can also be exploited to the AP’s advantage (Kruk, 2010).
Alienating parents may also use a physical ailment or disability to
make others have sympathy for them beyond the actual limits these
vulnerabilities pose. For example, the AP may have an illness that
has the potential to limit their working ability, but they portray this
illness as “proof” they are completely incapable of working and
therefore require lifetime alimony or spousal maintenance while
they stay home to care for the children (Dunne & Hedrick, 1994;
Harman & Biringen, 2018).
7. Gaslighting, a strategy used most often by the AP with
the children, is also a form of psychological abuse APs
use with the TP.
For example, among married heterosexual couples, men are
more likely than women to admit to trying to make their partner
feel like they are crazy (Kar & O’Leary, 2013). Alienating parents
will send e-mails or other written correspondence that rewrite past
events in order to create a new version of reality that better suits
their goals. For example, the AP may e-mail the TP and claim that
they had agreed in the past to let the children move out of state
with them, when such an agreement never happened (Harman &
Biringen, 2018). The communication is intended to make the TP
question their own memory of past events, and to create a paper
trail of “proof” for future use against the parent (e.g., modification
of parenting plans). Alienating parents will also use this strategy
with medical records by inserting inaccurate information about the
TP in the child’s medical forms (e.g., claims of alcoholism, mental
illness), and with legal affidavits and other legal documents to
make such retelling of and lies about past events public record
(Harman & Biringen, 2018). Alienating parents frequently accuse
the TP of engaging in behaviors that they themselves are doing in
order to create confusion on behalf of the TP, and to create the
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illusion to others (who only see the outcome of the behaviors) that
the TP is doing things that the AP is actually responsible for. This
strategy deflects attention and blame away from the real aggressor
(Kruk, 2011).
Aside from psychological aggression, APs will also use other
forms of aggression to hurt the TP because of their relationship
with the child. Physical violence is defined as intentional use of
physical force with the potential to cause death, injury, harm, or
disability (e.g., choking, slapping, use of a weapon). This dimen-
sion also includes coercion of others to commit the violent act on
behalf of the perpetrator. Targeted parents have reported experi-
encing physical violence at the hands of the AP prior to leaving
their relationship (Godbout & Parent, 2012) and report being
physically attacked by APs and/or their AP’s new romantic part-
ners/spouses or other family members at parenting time exchanges,
sometimes in front of their children (Baker & Darnall, 2006;
Harman & Biringen, 2016). Sexual violence involves sexual acts
that are committed (or attempted) by a person without the consent
of another, such as rape and sexual harassment. As with physical
violence, TPs have reported being the victims of sexual violence,
such as rape, prior to leaving their relationship (Godbout & Parent,
Stalking behaviors are patterns of repeated and unwanted atten-
tion and contact that cause concern for one’s safety and the safety
of others (e.g., a close friend). These behaviors can include re-
peated and unwanted phone calls, watching or following the victim
at a distance, and leaving gifts when the victim does not want
them. These behaviors need to occur multiple times to the same
person in multiple forms, and the victim needs to feel afraid or
unsafe for their physical safety (Breiding et al., 2015). Stalking
behaviors committed by the AP are frequently reported by TPs and
documented in legal cases (Lorandos, 2013). In a qualitative
interview study, 51% of TPs that were interviewed reported being
stalked by the AP after their relationship ended, in some cases
(20%) for nearly a decade (Ratajack & Harman, 2018). Typi-
cally, this stalking entails using social media to obtain information
about the TP to use against them (e.g., in court, with the police).
Alienating parents will also convince domestic workers (e.g.,
nannies) of the TP to spy on their behalf; have friends, family, and
other community members follow TPs in their cars; sit outside
their homes to spy on them; and hire people to hack into their
home computer network (Ratajack & Harman, 2018). Most re-
search on stalking has been conducted with relationships that have
recently ended or never began in the first place (e.g., stalking
someone to try to establish a relationship; Cupach & Spitzberg,
2014). Much more research needs to be conducted to understand
the types of and motives for stalking TPs in parental alienation
Targeted parents also report experiencing legal and administra-
tive aggression at the hands of the AP. While other forms of IPV
target the individual and their peer groups to destroy the individ-
ual’s reputation, this form of aggression uses people in power to
exact more devastating consequences on the target (e.g., impose
restrictions on visitation, jail time; Hines et al., 2015;Kruk, 2011).
With respect to parental alienating behaviors, outside forces such
as family court can be used to block or interfere with the TP’s
relationship with the child (e.g., Balmer et al., 2017). Negative
court experiences are cited as one of the most serious concerns for
nonresident parents, particularly due to gender biases of court
professionals that favor mothers over fathers in some parts of the
world (Ayoub et al., 1999;Kruk, 2011;Lehr & MacMillan, 2001).
One of the primary reasons male victims of severe IPV cite for not
leaving their abusive spouses is fear that they will not see their
children again (Hines & Douglas, 2010). Similarly, many women
report staying in abusive relationships out of fear of losing their
children (Hardesty & Ganong, 2006). Although both alienating
fathers and mothers use legal and administrative aggression, this
form of aggression is more commonly and easily used by women
against men because people are more likely to believe claims of
abuse made by women (Hines et al., 2015;Tilbrook, Allan, &
Dear, 2010). In addition, there are gender biases in the granting of
court ordered temporary restraining orders favoring women over
men who report being victims of IPV (Muller, Desmarais, &
Hamel, 2009).
Targeted parents have reported that AP’s would often (several to
dozens of times) call the police to their home when their children
were there in order to associate the TP with “danger” (López et al.,
2014;Harman & Biringen, 2018). Allegations of abuse (particu-
larly sexual abuse) are documented (e.g., Vassiliou, 2005) and
have been described as the weapon (Lowenstein, 2012) or “silver
bullet” in child custody disputes because once a claim is made, the
chance of the TP getting custody or being taken seriously by the
courts for the parental alienating behaviors they are experiencing is
almost eliminated. Indeed, male victims of IPV have reported that
their partners manipulated the “system” by filing false restraining
orders and manipulating the court system to obtain sole custody of
their children (Hines, Brown, & Dunning, 2007).
When parents are court ordered to attend legal mediation to
resolve disputes rather than utilize court resources, TPs have
reported that APs do not engage in such negotiations in good
faith; they would rather engage in adversarial combat using the
legal system because it is more expensive (and therefore puni-
tive for the TP), and they want to “win.” When legal mediation
is “successful” under these circumstances, TPs report that the
AP only used the process in a manipulative fashion to “force”
an agreement with them, with threats that their outcomes in
court would be worse. Alienating parents will break court
orders regarding parenting time or decision-making, and will
even blame the TP for engaging in this form of aggression when
they seek court assistance in enforcing their existing court
orders (e.g., compliance with parenting time orders; Harman &
Biringen, 2018;Kruk, 2011).
Representatives from social systems, such as social workers,
mental health professionals, guardian ad litems, teachers, medical
providers, and police officers, can be “blinded” by the AP’s stories
and engage in legal and administrative aggression against the TP
on behalf of them (Rand, 1997). Social system representatives
often have negative biases about the TP (e.g., gender or racial
biases), poor training in the identification of parental alienation
and/or human development (e.g., a belief that children never lie),
and will often stop at nothing to limit or interfere with contact or
a relationship between the TP and the child (Harman & Biringen,
2016,2018). The TP’s parental rights may even be taken away due
to severe injustices in how their cases were handled (e.g., false IPV
claims). The act of removing a child from a parent (or removal of
a parent from the child) or making sole-parental custody decisions
without sufficient evidence of the other parent’s inability to parent
is also a form of IPV.
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Severity and Reciprocity of Parental
Alienating Behaviors
The severity of parental alienating behaviors is challenging to
quantify as research has yet to clearly determine what specific
behaviors and other determinants result in mild, moderate, and
severe forms of parental alienation—there is only preliminary
empirical research drawing this direct connection based on theory
(Baker & Eichler, 2016). For example, we do not yet know
whether certain specific behaviors are more damaging than others,
and which behaviors, or clusters of behaviors, cause very severe
alienation. Badmouthing the TP is not healthy for a child, but are
particular characterizations of the TP more damaging than others?
Does badmouthing also need to be paired with other behaviors
(e.g., interference of parenting time), and to what extent? Severity
could also be determined by length of time and frequency with
which behaviors are used, regardless of how “bad” individual
behaviors are. For example, if an AP only badmouths the TP in
offhanded comments that are not blatantly demeaning, does this
behavior eventually result in mild, moderate, or severe alienation
if done regularly for five or 10 years? There is some evidence that
factors such as age of the child (Fidler & Bala, 2010;Kelly &
Johnston, 2001) are associated with outcome severity, with older
children (adolescents) being more likely to manifest severe paren-
tal alienation symptoms (e.g., complete rejection of the TP). Are
the severe outcomes due to exposure to very severe behaviors such
as blocking all access to the TP or due to persistent exposure of
milder clusters of behavior over long periods of time? Or, does the
number of behaviors matter, but only in conjunction with partic-
ular vulnerabilities at particular stages of social and cognitive
From legal and clinical perspectives, the issue of severity is
exceptionally important, as it drives how practitioners are to in-
tervene. When an AP causes severe parental alienation due to their
behaviors, they are likely guilty of child abuse, but an AP who
causes mild or moderate parental alienation may not yet meet the
threshold of child abuse. Such cases would need to be determined
on a case-by-case basis by specialists who are well trained in the
diagnosis of parental alienation, child abuse, IPV, and its precur-
sors. More systematic and empirically based research on the eti-
ology of parental alienation will aid in this diagnosis.
Reciprocation of IPV varies by the type of aggression. About
4% of cases in a large sample of divorcing couples have reported
mutual high levels of coercive controlling violence (domination
tactics and physical violence; Beck, Anderson, O’Hara, & Benja-
min, 2013), although there is evidence that psychological aggres-
sion is often reciprocal (Cuenca Montesino, Graña Gómez, &
Martínez Arias, 2014;Straus & Sweet, 1992). Psychological (Kar
& O’Leary, 2013) and physical aggression (Langhinrichsen-
Rohling, Misra, Selwyn, & Rohling, 2012;Madsen, Stith, Thom-
sen, & McCollum, 2012) among intact couples is typically recip-
rocal rather than unilateral, yet we know little about how this
reciprocity operates or about the balance of power and aggression
within the relationships. Research on IPV has been primarily
studied with partners in intact relationships, so we know even less
about whether such aggressive behaviors are reciprocal among
families that have dissolved.
Many professionals believe parental alienation only occurs in
relationships that are high in conflict; in other words, both parents
are presumed to be responsible for the conflict that they present to
mental health or legal professionals, such as when a parent has to
ask for the court to enforce their parenting time. When the parental
figures appear in court over this conflict, the judge or magistrate
will then assume that both parents must be engaging in parental
alienating behaviors (Warshak, 2015c). Using the example above,
the court will perceive the parents as having high conflict, despite
the conflict being caused by the parental alienating behavior of the
AP (e.g., restricting access of the child). While some researchers
have found evidence that both parents in divorced families may
report alienating behaviors committed by the other (Braver, Coat-
sworth, & Peralta, n.d.), the reciprocity myth has been debunked
by many researchers, legal professionals, and clinicians, because
one parent is often responsible for instigating and continuing
conflict (Kelly, 2003) and was often an abusive partner before the
relationship ended (Godbout & Parent, 2012;Harman & Biringen,
2016). The AP is the more likely parent to engage in controlling
and coercive behaviors, display paranoid and hostile behaviors,
and promote enmeshment with the child (Warshak, 2015c). In-
deed, the AP’s behavior is the primary driver of the child’s
rejection of the TP (Baker & Eichler, 2016;Clawar & Rivlin,
The TP may respond in maladaptive ways to the alienating
behaviors of the AP, but it is important to interpret such behaviors
in light of the alienation. For example, if an AP has sustained a
long campaign of derogation about the TP to friends, neighbors,
community members, and extended family, the TP may retaliate in
defense of their reputation (Reay, 2011), such as send an e-mail to
such individuals calling the AP a liar. Retaliatory behaviors are
certainly aggressive and a form of IPV, but they would not be
considered parental alienating behaviors, which are clusters of
behaviors enacted over extended periods of time with the intent to
harm the TP and damage/destroy their relationship with their child
(Darnall, 1998). This distinction between the APs’ and TPs’ be-
haviors is an important one to make for legal and clinical purposes
when interpreting the cause and maintenance of parental alienating
Although some nonresidential parents can alienate a child (War-
shak, 2015c), the custodial parent is most often the AP because
they have a monopoly on the child’s physical, mental, and emo-
tional attention, regardless of gender (Harman & Biringen, 2016).
Nonresidential TPs often have limited or no contact with their
children (sometimes for years at a time), making it almost impos-
sible to reciprocate many of the behaviors outlined above. The TPs
we have studied have observed the negative outcomes of alienation
in their children and report not wanting to make the situation
worse. Despite being the target of severe IPV, none of the TPs in
studies by the first authors reported wanting to take their children
away from the AP or reverse roles entirely; indeed nearly all of the
TPs that we have interviewed and studied (Harman & Biringen,
2016;Kruk, 2010,2011) want the children to have a healthy
relationship with both parents. These parents make the conscious
decision not to reciprocate the aggressive behaviors of the AP.
These parents also know that if the TP reciprocates the behavior of
the AP, it only serves to justify the child’s negative feelings toward
the TP due to their enmeshment or alignment with the AP (War-
shak, 2015c).
Some clinicians have argued that TPs are the architects of their
own fate, or are partially responsible for the child’s alienation due
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to problems with parenting that result from their situation (e.g.,
Johnston, 2003). Most research has indicated otherwise: The re-
jection of the TP exists independent of the TP’s actual “subopti-
mal” parenting behaviors (Baker & Eichler, 2016), and TPs want
to be actively involved in their children’s lives, not passive victims
of the AP (Balmer et al., 2017). The parent who is the target of this
aggression often resists complaining because they do not want to
escalate the aggression or expose the child to ongoing high conflict
(Cloven & Roloff, 1993;Newell & Stutman, 1991), and they fear
that their reports will not be taken seriously or acted on by legal
and mental health professionals. Indeed, IPV and child abuse are
often underreported because of the reluctance of police and child
protective services to address emotional and psychological abuse.
Targeted parents have reported they are afraid to challenge the AP
on parenting time violations out of fear that the AP will restrict
their time further or stop all visitation entirely. It is because of this
fear that many TPs feel helpless about enforcing the little parenting
time that they are given (Lehr & MacMillan, 2001).
There is a serious power imbalance in families where alienation
is occurring, and the AP holds the power granted to them by social
institutions (e.g., court-ordered custody allocation) and the sanc-
tioning of their behavior by personal and social bystanders (Har-
man & Biringen, 2016;Reay, 2011;Warshak, 2015c). Relation-
ship and family systemic outcomes are more affected by the
partner who has greater control over relational resources (Dragon
& Duck, 2005;Hanks, 1993), which children by definition are.
Despite having more societal-level power than women due to
patriarchy, men often feel powerless in their family relationships
(Blanton & Vandergriff-Avery, 2001;Walsh, 1989).
Being able to inflict punishment also creates feelings of having
more power (Lawler & Bacharach, 1987;Stets & Henderson,
1991;Straus, Gelles, & Smith, 1990). The residential parent serves
as a gatekeeper between the child and the nonresidential parent,
which places this individual in a strong position of power
(Madden-Derdich & Leonard, 2000;Sobolewski & King, 2005).
Having a greater amount of parenting time with a child provides
the parent with more decision-making opportunities and therefore
more power in the daily lives of the children (Kelly, 1993).
Nonresidential parents (more often fathers) can have little involve-
ment in decision-making related to their child and are rarely
consulted by the other parent about decisions (Furstenberg &
Nord, 1985;Kalmijn, 2015). Parents who gatekeep their children
have admitted to punishing the other parent when they are not
getting what they want (Holcomb et al., 2015).
Outcomes of Family Violence
There are many harms associated with child abuse and IPV. We
will now review the outcomes that have been associated with these
two forms of human aggression, and compare them with the
outcomes that have been documented about and reported by alien-
ated children and TPs. Most of the damage caused by parental
alienating behaviors falls under the category of psychological
injury; in forensic settings such injuries fall under three types:
chronic pain, traumatic brain injury, and posttraumatic stress/
distress (Young, 2008). While victims of parental alienating be-
haviors often develop posttraumatic stress and adjustment disor-
ders, they also experience many other negative outcomes that are
associated with family violence such as anxiety and depression.
Outcomes of Child Abuse and Parental Alienation
Outcome severity. Parental alienation has been described as
ranging from mild to severe, depending on the intensity, type, and
frequency of the alienating behaviors the child is exposed to, the
child’s age and temperament, the quality of relationship with the
TP before the alienating behaviors began, and the amount of
quality parenting time the child has had with the TP (see chapters
in Lorandos et al., 2013 for a review of the levels of severity and
outcomes). In mild cases, the alienated child resists and criticizes
the TP, yet still enjoys the company of the TP when away from the
influence and interference of the AP (Darnall, 2013). Moderately
alienated children have consistently negative attitudes toward the
TP whether they are with the AP or not, as they have come to
internalize the hostility and negative attitudes of the AP as their
own (Worenklein, 2013). These children often openly express
hostility toward the TP, particularly during transition times be-
tween homes, and will not feel guilt or ambivalence about the
impact of their behaviors on the TP. At higher levels of severity,
alienated children have more extreme polarized attitudes toward
their parents (with the TP being all bad and the AP being all good;
Bernet, Gregory, Reay, & Rohner, 2018), will refuse to have a
relationship with the TP and anyone associated with them (e.g.,
extended family), will be hostile and violent toward the TP when
in their care (e.g., destroying property), and have irrational and
unfounded reasons for their rejection (Warshak, 2013). Some
severely alienated children are guided toward simply erasing the
TP from their hearts and minds. Besides these indications of
parental alienation severity, what outcomes do alienated children
The consequences of child maltreatment are severe and lifelong,
and have resulted in a United Nations call to action to eliminate
violence against children due to many personal, community, and
societal-level costs associated with it (Hillis et al., 2017). Adverse
childhood experiences such as experiencing or witnessing abuse
increases the risk for a host of negative outcomes such as having
shorter lifespans (Brown et al., 2009). Children exposed to mal-
treatment early in life (0–5 years) are at high risk for developing
internalizing behavior problems such as depression, anxiety, and
social withdrawal (Johnson et al., 2002) and/or externalizing be-
haviors such as aggression and acting out (Bongers, Koot, van der
Ende, & Verhulst, 2004). Repeated maltreatment of children and
exposure to conflict and violence has been associated with severe
internal and external outcomes (Li & Godinet, 2014) such as
poorer academic performance and physical health (particularly
among children in separated families, Corrás, Seijo, Fariña, Novo,
Arce, & Cabanach, 2017;Martinoˇn, Farinˇa, Corras, Seijo, Souto,
& Novo, 2017), neurological damage (e.g., negative impact on
brain development; Teicher, Dumont, Ito, Vaituzis, Giedd, &
Andersen, 2004), and developmental delays. These children also
experience physical health problems as adults, such as migraines
(Tietjen et al., 2009), cancer, cardiac disease, and asthma (Hyland,
Alkhalaf, & Whalley, 2013), as well PTSD and other mental health
problems (Kaplan, Pelcovitz, & Labruna, 1999). These outcomes
are evident across different cultures (e.g., East Asia and Pacific
regions; Fry, McCoy, & Swales, 2012).
Stress and adjustment disorders. Disorders such as post-
traumatic stress disorder (symptoms lasting more than a month
after a traumatic event), psychosocial adjustment disorders (after a
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stressor rather than that required by PTSD as psychological vio-
lence), and acute stress disorder (the symptom pattern in acute
stress disorder is restricted to a duration of 3 days to 1 month
following exposure to the traumatic event) can occur after wit-
nessing family violence, regardless of the frequency or intensity of
the violence, or characteristics of the child such as age or gender
(Kilpatrick & Williams, 1998). Parental conflict, regardless of
marital status of the parents, has been associated with posttrau-
matic stress symptomology in children (Basile-Palleschi, 2002).
Psychosocial adjustment disorders include internalizing and exter-
nalizing problems and declines in academic achievement (Fore-
hand, Biggar, & Kotchick, 1998), and alienated children experi-
ence these problems more than children who have not been
alienated (Barber, Bean, & Erickson, 2002;Johnston, Lee, Oleson,
& Walters, 2005). Many alienated children are separated from the
TP for long periods of time, and parental separation accompanied
by parental alienating behaviors has been associated with poor
psychological adjustment among children (e.g., adjustment disor-
der; Ellis, 2000;Seijo, Fariña, Corras, Novo, & Arce, 2016).
Psychosocial and behavioral outcomes. Psychological con-
trol, otherwise known as “intrusive parenting,” undermines chil-
dren’s autonomous development (Joussemet, Landry, & Koestner,
2008). Psychological aggression results in greater amounts of
anxiety in children than the use of physical aggression (corporal or
severe; Miller-Perrin, Perrin, & Kocur, 2009). For example, in a
study of nearly 2,000 father–mother dyads in China, psychological
aggression used by mothers and fathers were unique predictors of
children’s anxiety (Wang, Wang, & Liu, 2016), one of the most
common psychological disorders among children (Barlow, 2002).
These consequences are long term: Even as adults, having an AP
was associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression than
among those adults whose parents were not APs, regardless of
whether the parents were divorced or not (Baker & Verrocchio,
2016). Witnessing family violence while also being maltreated
(e.g., neglect) intensifies negative mental health outcomes for
children (Ayoub et al., 1999), so the combination of these factors
poses particularly high risk for child abuse when an AP uses
parental alienation behaviors and also neglects the emotional needs
of the child (Lorandos, 2013). When a child has neurotic traits and
has frequent exposure to conflict, they have more severe parental
alienation than children without these traits or experiences (Zack,
Although not all children who are exposed to parental alienating
behaviors become severely alienated from the TP (Baker & Dar-
nall, 2006); even mild and moderate harms to children that result
from the AP’s behaviors are devastating and no different from
other forms of child abuse. In retrospective accounts and reports
made about children by an AP, children who were exposed to
parental alienating behaviors have low levels of self-esteem, inse-
cure attachment, substance abuse disorders, guilt, anxiety, depres-
sion, develop fears/phobias, form attachment difficulties, and learn
not to trust others or themselves (Ayoub et al., 1999;Baker, 2005;
Baker & Ben Ami, 2011;Baker & Chambers, 2011;Baker &
Verrocchio, 2015,2016;Ben Ami & Baker, 2012;Bernet, Baker,
& Verrocchio, 2015;Johnston, Walters, et al., 2005;Rand, 1997;
Reay, 2007;Verrocchio et al., 2016). For the child, parental
alienation is a serious mental health issue based on a false belief
that the TP is a dangerous and unworthy parent.
Self-hatred is particularly disturbing among affected children, as
children internalize the hatred targeted toward the TP who is part
of their own identity. Alienated children are led to believe that the
TP does not love or want them and so they are therefore unlovable
(Reay, 2011;Verrocchio et al., 2016), and although not openly
expressed, will experience severe guilt related to betraying the TP.
Their depression is rooted in feelings of abandonment, being
unloved by the TP, and being denied the opportunity to mourn
their loss. Many children are not even allowed to talk about or
recognize the TP while in the AP’s presence (Reay, 2011). These
children also experience ambiguous and disenfranchised grief (de-
scribed in greater detail under Outcomes of IPV and for Targeted
Parents and are more likely to engage in nonsuicidal self-injury
behaviors the more alienated they are from a parent (Yates, Tracy,
& Luthar, 2008).
Even if alienated children appear on the surface to be “normal”
or as excelling in a particular domain (e.g., school), they often fall
short of their optimal development in other areas, such as psycho-
logical, physical, academic, social, and emotional domains. The
outcomes of this form of child abuse will manifest most overtly in
psychosocial problems (Warshak, 2015c). These children also
learn that their experiences of love from the AP are conditional
upon their rejection of the TP and they must validate the AP’s
worldview in order to retain their acceptance (Verrocchio et al.,
2016). Due to being unable to develop a healthy, independent
identity, the alienated child has problems in their peer and roman-
tic relationships because they often interpret behaviors in the same
dichotomous ways that the AP does (all good or all bad; Carey,
2003;Harman & Biringen, 2016;Moné et al., 2011), lack trust in
their own and others judgment (Baker, 2005), and frequently end
friendships over disagreements simply because they have not
learned strategies to cope with conflict (Kelly & Johnston, 2001).
Parental alienating behaviors are transmitted intergenerationally
(Baker, 2005;Sher, 2017), just like other types of family violence.
For example, studies of bullying behaviors among teenagers have
found that the parenting practices and attitudes of the mother and
father, together or separate, create a climate that promotes this
form of aggression in children (e.g., Baldry & Farrington, 2005).
A child whose parent has been engaging in alienating behaviors is
at high risk of becoming alienated from their own children, just as
children who are victims of other forms of child abuse are more
likely to become abusers as well (Baker & Eichler, 2016).
Early signs of a child becoming alienated from a parent are
when children complain or express dislike of the TP, and not
engaging in or enjoying—or even resisting—spending time with
the TP (Johnston, 2003). At the same time, the child will exhibit
anxiety about being separated from the AP. The AP is very
intrusive, making it extremely difficult for the child to individuate
from the AP and maintain a strong relationship with the TP (Ellis
& Boyan, 2010). Unfortunately, the child becomes enmeshed with
the AP and unable to develop a healthy identity that is separate
from them (Eysenck, 2004). When a child is enmeshed or has
formed a coalition with the AP due to the AP’s behaviors, they will
sadly act in ways to protect and hold the coalition in higher
“esteem” than their relationship with the ousted TP (Lorandos,
2013;Warshak, 2015c). The result of this enmeshment is an
anxious or dependent attachment to the AP (Stahl, 2004) and there
is preliminary case study data that children who have been alien-
ated have greater difficulties mentalizing, or thinking about the
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internal states of others (Faccini & Ramires, 2012), resulting in an
inability to feel empathy for others. Over time, the child will
strongly reject the TP, or in mild cases act very ambivalent toward
them when in their care, and negative toward the TP when in the
care of the AP. The reasons the child provides for their rejection
are often vague, or the child will use coached language (language
that is used by the AP, not the child; Reay, 2011). Due to hori-
zontal power structures (vs. hierarchical; Nixon, Greene, & Hogan,
2012) in the AP’s family system, parentified children feel powerful
and become manipulative like the AP (Garber, 2011;Stahl, 2004).
In other cases, children socially withdraw and lose the few social
connections they had due to extreme isolation.
Outcomes of IPV for Targeted Parents
Although it is imperative to consider first and foremost the
outcomes of parental alienation behaviors on children, the TP is
also seriously affected by these behaviors, which are intended to
hurt or destroy them (Darnall, 1998). IPV is a serious public health
problem (Center for Disease Control, 2012) because of the sub-
stantial physical and psychological costs associated with the out-
comes of this they of aggression. The targets of IPV suffer from
many mental health problems such as posttraumatic-stress disor-
der, substance abuse disorders, depression (Zlotnick, Johnson, &
Kohn, 2006), and anxiety (Stewart & Vigod, 2017). In addition,
many survivors lose economic security and become functionally
homeless when they leave their relationship (Johnson & Zlotnick,
Even after controlling for, or in the absence of other forms of
IPV, psychological aggression has been linked to negative physical
and mental health outcomes such as posttraumatic stress disorders
(e.g., Lawrence, Yoon, Langer, & Ro, 2009), anxiety, depression
(Taft et al., 2006), suicidal ideation (and attempts; Marshall, 1999;
Sher, 2017), increased substance use (Shorey, Rhatigan, Fite, &
Stuart, 2011), limited physical and cognitive functioning (Straight,
Harper, & Arias, 2003), increased somatic complaints (Kaura &
Lohman, 2007;Próspero, 2007), and an impaired ability to work
(Coker, Smith, Bethea, King, & McKeown, 2000). Although the
majority of this research has been conducted on female victims of
IPV, similar results have also been found with male victims of IPV
(Hines & Douglas, 2016a). Victims of psychological aggression
report that their experience is as damaging as physical aggression
(Williams et al., 2012) and that friends, family, and other individ-
uals (e.g., police) perceive their abuse as harmless or insignificant
because it is not visible (Seff, Beaulaurier, & Newman, 2008).
Consequently, this form of abuse does not get as much public
attention or funding for services, and has resulted in a call to
practitioners to take psychological aggression more seriously than
they have in the past (Comecanha, Basto-Periera, & Maia, 2017).
The outcomes of parental alienation are no different for TPs
than other forms of IPV. Targeted parents have reported being
diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder due to the behaviors
of the AP (Harman & Biringen, 2018;Kruk, 2015), and TPs
appraise their situation as highly stressful and severe (Balmer et
al., 2017;Harman et al., 2016a). Many TPs report experiencing
depression, anxiety, and suicidality (Baker, 2010;Baker & Ver-
rocchio, 2016;Balmer et al., 2017;Sher, 2015). Despite the stress
associated with being a TP, most TPs want to remain involved and
active in their children’s lives, which can fuel the AP’s behaviors
even more because their desire for involvement is at odds with
their intent (Balmer et al., 2017). A large number of TPs report
being unable to work effectively and to devoting nearly all their
waking time worrying about and trying to find ways to reconnect
with their children (Harman & Biringen, 2018;Kruk, 2015). Con-
sequently, TPs report having lost their jobs, having to move in with
family or become homeless, and are unable to form new relation-
ships with others (Giancarlo & Rottman, 2015;Harman & Birin-
gen, 2016). As mentioned earlier, many (but not all) of the AP’s
behaviors take the form of psychological aggression, so it is not as
visible as other forms of IPV; TP’s reports of parental alienating
behaviors often go unheard, unnoticed, misunderstood, denied, or
disbelieved (Warshak, 2015c).
Aside from the emotional, physical, and financial toll that pa-
rental alienating behaviors put on TPs, the TP also experiences
grief and loss due to the impact of the AP’s behaviors on their
child (Kruk, 2015). Ambiguous loss refers to incomplete or uncer-
tain loss, such as when a loved one is physically present but
psychologically absent (e.g., a parent with Alzheimer’s disease), or
when someone is physically absent but psychologically present
(e.g., kidnapped children; Boss, 1999). Targeted parents experi-
ence ambiguous loss for one or multiple children because their
children may be physically present during their parenting time but
may be psychologically unavailable (and even hostile) to them, or
they are completely denied access to their child (Baker, 2007).
Like psychological aggression, this ambiguous loss goes largely
unrecognized by society and is not acknowledged as a significant
loss, resulting in what is termed disenfranchised grief (Attig, 2004;
Doka, 1989, as cited in Corr, 2002). When one adds the profes-
sional and social denial that parental alienation is even a real
phenomenon, the disenfranchised grief experienced by TPs is more
severe. The TP is unable to mourn for their children publicly, they
are often told by others that it will get “better” when the children
get older, or are encouraged to just “move on.” As a consequence,
TPs are often unable to formally process their grief and loss, and
have problems moving on with their lives (Abrams, 2001;Kruk,
2011). Indeed, mental health professionals who have worked with
TPs have reported feelings of rejection, depression, disbelief,
anger, guilt, and loss, and often, the TPs are isolated from others
due to other people’s ignorance and negative judgments about
what they are experiencing (Kruk, 2011;Whitcombe, 2014).
Social support is crucial during times of grief, particularly for
individuals experiencing both ambiguous loss and disenfranchised
grief (Abrams, 2001). Unfortunately, many TPs fail to seek exter-
nal support for assistance due to learned helplessness (Kruk, 2011)
and the belief that courts and other forms of intervention will not
work (Balmer et al., 2017). One of the most common alienation
tactics employed by the AP is expressive aggression in the form of
derogation of the TP to friends, family, teachers, community
members, and any other adult who is willing to listen. The result
of this strategy is the isolation of the TP from important sources of
personal and social support. Although representative surveys have
not found statistically significant differences between men and
women in reports of having been alienated from a child (Harman
et al., 2016b), men typically do not seek formal mental health or
support as often as women (Addis & Mahalik, 2003), and this may
explain why researchers have noted a “suicide epidemic” among
TPs, particularly fathers (Kposowa, 2003).
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The task of parenting as a TP can be extremely challenging. It
is very difficult for TPs to be emotionally available to a child who
is hostile or holds false beliefs about them (Biringen, Harman,
Saunders, & Emde, 2017;Johnston, 2003). The result can inad-
vertently lead to parental behaviors that confirm what the child
believes and can be used to justify or exacerbate their rejection of
them (Stahl, 2004). When parents have limited contact or decision-
making with their child, their role as a parent can become passive;
the AP then gains more power and influence.
Intent and Characteristics of the Perpetrator
of Aggression
Regardless of why acts of aggression are committed, they are
very harmful to their victims. For example, regardless of intent,
killing another human being causes great harm to many, not only
with the loss of a human life, but in terms of the impact the act has
on others in the deceased’s life (e.g., family members and friends,
cost to society). Intent becomes important when decisions are
made about how to respond to aggressive acts. For example, there
are many reasons why someone might kill another individual, such
as by mistake (e.g., out of self-defense), after being provoked (e.g.,
crimes of passion), or with premeditation (e.g., murder). These
reasons are important for how legal cases against the killer are
prosecuted because the intent of the killer determines whether the
crime is prosecuted as first- or second-degree murder, or as vol-
untary or involuntary manslaughter.
Some researchers of parental alienation have posited that APs
intentionally behave in a way that turns the child against the other
parent (Whitcombe, 2014) and their behaviors are driven by “im-
pacable hostility” (Lowenstein, 2015). Hostile aggression is un-
planned aggression in response to a perceived threat or provoca-
tion (Anderson & Bushman, 2002) and, as we will discuss below,
many APs are predisposed to interact almost automatically with
hostility toward the TP and even their own children, due to
pathological traits and disorders (e.g., borderline personality dis-
orders) and deeper childhood trauma of their own (e.g., childhood
sexual abuse, Lorandos, 2013). While some experts have argued
that some parental alienating behaviors can be enacted uninten-
tionally (Whitcombe, 2014), we believe that “unintentional” in this
case is a misnomer. Rather, such behaviors can be unplanned or
automatic responses to the TP and/or child, and they are inten-
tional. Parental alienating behaviors may also be carefully planned,
particularly in adversarial arenas such as family court.
When the child hates and rejects the TP for no legitimate or
justifiable reason, it is important to recognize that the AP likely
implanted their feelings. In this case, the child is essentially an
“instrument of war” or “weapon” against the TP (Smith, 2016),
and is an unintended casualty in their assault. Therefore, APs
intentionally engage in instrumental aggression by “weaponizing”
their child against the TP. In cases of parental alienation, most
children had a very positive relationship with the TP prior to the
AP’s behaviors, and so the child later just serves as a proxy for
the AP to hurt the TP. It is likely that many APs are not aware of
the impact their behaviors have on the children because they are so
preoccupied or obsessed with hurting the TP.
One strategy to prevent aggression and intervene in abusive
relationships has been to identify the precursors for abusive po-
tential (Rodriguez, Gracia, & Lila, 2016), such as identifying
personality characteristics or situational factors that lead to the
intent to enact aggressive behaviors. For example, personality
disorders such as narcissism, borderline, and sociopathic traits
have been identified as prevalent among APs (Cunha Gomide,
Camargo, & Ferdandes, 2016;Gordon, Stoffey, & Bottinelli, 2008;
Harman & Biringen, 2016), and they are typically angry, jealous,
emotionally fragile, and dependent on others (even their children)
for their self-esteem. Alienating parents also are reported as having
poor impulse control, poor management of personal boundaries,
see the world in dichotomous ways (e.g., black/white, all-or-
nothing, all good or all bad; Stahl, 2004), refuse to accept account-
ability or responsibility for their own contribution to problems,
insist on being “right,” and lack remorse or guilt for their behaviors
(from the TP’s perspective, Kruk, 2015). Attachment concerns are
also factors associated with the escalation of parental alienating
behaviors (Harman & Biringen, 2016). Alienating parents feel
threatened by their child’s love for the other parent (attachment
anxiety), and TPs report substantial increases in parental alienating
behaviors when this occurs, particularly after extended parenting
time with the child. Because the focus of our article is on the
alienating behaviors and outcomes themselves, we refer the reader
to other sources for more details on characteristics of APs (e.g.,
Harman & Biringen, 2016;Kruk, 2015).
Is the Intentional Use of Parental Alienating
Behaviors “Justified?”
Cross-cultural research indicates that severe physical violence
(e.g., choking a romantic partner or a child) is perceived as
inexcusable and unjustifiable in most human cultures of the world
(e.g., Fakunmoju et al., 2013), so intent to harm is presumed when
a person commits such an act. But what about those acts that are
perceived as more “socially acceptable?” Harman, Biringen, Rata-
jack, Outland, and Kraus, (2016a) found that although parental
alienating behaviors are perceived negatively by adults, they are
more “acceptable” when mothers do them than when fathers do
them. Do cultural variations in what is considered “abusive” (Re-
isig & Miller, 2009) impact how we perceive the culpability of the
perpetrator? How do these perceptions influence how harm is
Legal and mental health professionals, victim’s rights advo-
cates, and lay people have argued that parental alienating behav-
iors are justifiable when the other parent is abusive, mentally ill, or
dangerous (e.g., Coffman, 2017;Meyer, 2011). The term “justified
estrangement” has been used to imply that the child’s rejection of
the TP is justified because the TP is abusive or “bad,” and that the
intentional, alienating behaviors the AP uses are acceptable. Call-
ing parental alienation “justified estrangement” reflects a misun-
derstanding of the difference between parental alienation and self-
Self-estranging behaviors are those that a parent does to damage
their relationship with their own child, typically due to the parent’s
own shortcomings (e.g., parenting skills; Ellis & Boyan, 2010). In
contrast, parental alienating behaviors are those behaviors com-
mitted by the AP against the TP to hurt the TP and to damage or
destroy the relationship between the child and the TP. This dis-
tinction is important because self-estrangement refers to behaviors
within the estranged parent–child relationship that are the result of
the estranged parent’s behaviors (or sometimes the child’s behav-
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
iors); parental alienating behaviors refer to the alienating behaviors
the AP does to hurt the TP and the TP–child relationship (Whit-
combe, 2017). By stating that the actions of the AP are self-
estrangement implies that the actions of the AP are the TP’s fault,
which blames the victim (Grubb & Turner, 2012).
Dallam and Silberg (2016) have argued that parental alienation
researchers encourage clinicians to dismiss claims of abuse when they
are evaluating or treating families where there are claims of parental
alienation. Their argument implies that researchers who study parental
alienation overlook or ignore claims or evidence of abuse, which is an
unsubstantiated position. Clearly, claims of abuse should be investi-
gated in order to protect the well-being of the child and family
members, as their well-being and safety are of paramount concern.
However, claims and evidence of parental alienating behaviors should
be considered with the same weight and concern because they are also
aggressive and abusive—it is as unethical to ignore them because they
also cause substantial harm to children and family members.
Like other forms of family violence, we do not believe parental
alienating behaviors are ever justified—they are abusive to both
the child and the TP. When a parent has shortcomings and actually
poses risk to the child, it is obviously imperative to protect the
child. However, there are strategies that can keep children safe
while still promoting a positive relationship with both parents so
that one parent does not have to act abusively to “protect” the
child. The AP’s portrayal that their aggressive behaviors are in
their child’s best interest are justifications for their abuse. Stopping
these behaviors is imperative for the promotion of the child’s best
interest and to improve the health of the entire family system.
In this article, we conclude that causing severe parental alien-
ation is an egregious form of family violence, specifically child
abuse and intimate partner violence. The challenges of defining
and recognizing the scope of parental alienating behaviors as
family violence is rooted in the challenges inherent in defining
child abuse on one hand and IPV on the other. There are parallels
between the present-day disavowal of parental alienation among
some legal and mental health scholars and practitioners, and the
historical recognition of both IPV and other forms of child abuse
among professional groups and the general public. For parental
alienating behaviors to be recognized and accepted as a form of
serious child maltreatment and IPV, a clear and precise definition
of the phenomenon of parental alienation is needed, and the exact
nature of the harms befalling TPs and children as a result of
parental alienating behaviors needs to be unambiguous.
We also extensively reviewed the behaviors that APs use to
harm the TP and their children’s relationship with the TP. When a
parental figure repeatedly uses the behaviors over extended peri-
ods of time, they are alienating their child from the other parent.
This is the first review to directly map parental alienating behav-
iors onto categories of child abuse and intimate partner violence
behaviors. Even if the child is resilient and does not come to fully
reject or hate the TP, the AP’s behaviors still do affect them
negatively (Baker, 2005). Therefore, the AP’s aggressive behav-
iors should no longer be socially or legally sanctioned; there is no
legal or psychological justification for parental alienating behav-
iors. These behaviors should be addressed uniformly as a child
protection issue and form of family violence that needs to be dealt
with on a broader structural level, requiring fundamental reform
within the mental health and family law systems. We will now
briefly describe strategies that will assist in this reform.
Patterns of aggressive behaviors are more informative for as-
sessment purposes than single events, because only patterns can
demonstrate whether abuse has occurred (Tolman, 1992). Unfor-
tunately, custody evaluators often focus on separate incidents of
child abuse and IPV rather than patterns of abuse (Pence, Davis,
Beardslee, & Gamache, 2012), which can make it unlikely they
will identify parental alienating behaviors when they are occurring.
For example, if a parent says something negative about the other
parent to a child, an evaluator must assess whether this behavior is
a retaliatory and discrete reaction (albeit not healthy) to the be-
haviors of the other parent (therefore not a parental alienating
behavior), or whether the behavior is and as part of a larger set and
pattern of aggressive behaviors enacted over time (making the
behavior a parental alienating behavior). It is important to empha-
size a focus on actions and not just the words and claims made by
the members of the family system, and to consider how these
behaviors are expressed in family systems where the power dif-
ference between parents is asymmetrical, with the AP typically
having more power than the TP (Warshak, 2015c).
To complicate matters, mental health professionals differ sig-
nificantly from victims in their perceptions of psychological ag-
gression (which is the most common form of parental alienating
behaviors) severity because victims often base their opinions on
the intent of the perpetrator of the behavior and not just the
behavior itself. When a victim seeks intervention, they are privy to
more historical background than the professional, who has avail-
able a smaller number of behavioral instances with which to draw
an opinion, and even less to infer intent (Follingstad & DeHart,
2000). Unfortunately, the victim is often unable to obtain inter-
vention from these gatekeepers of services due to professional’s
inability to properly diagnose the problem. Although there is
preliminary evidence that there are particular patterns of alienating
behaviors used by particular types of individuals (e.g., narcissistic
parents; Baker, 2006a), more research is needed to determine
whether there are particular patterns of aggressive behaviors that
different types of APs use, which types or clusters of behaviors
create the most damage, how frequently different strategies are
used, and what adaptive and protective factors there are for TPs
and children to resist the parental alienating behaviors of the AP.
In order to effectively assess whether parental alienation is occur-
ring, empirically validated and refined assessment tools that con-
sider these patterns and nuances are needed.
Prevention and Intervention
The understanding of intent is important for the prevention of
aggression. For example, sentencing criminals who have commit-
ted assault to anger management classes will only be effective if
the cause of the original assault was due to an inability to manage
anger or conflict. Obviously, protection from harm should be the
first priority for not only the child, but also the entire family
system. In cases where there is an abusive parent, it is not enough
to provide therapy only to the child or the parent who is a victim
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of abuse. A family systems approach (e.g., Burnette, 2013)isa
preferred treatment method, such that treatment is provided to the
perpetrator and the victims to prevent future harms.
Primary prevention. Educational programs for adolescents
and mass media campaigns are commonly employed as forms of
primary prevention for bullying (Saracho, 2017) and IPV (Whita-
ker et al., 2006), and could be employed for parental alienation.
Although many risk factors for child maltreatment have been
identified, little is known about factors that can protect children
from being abused. However, there is ample empirical evidence
that parents’ emotional availability, recognition of problems, par-
ents’ willingness to seek support, supportive grandparents and
extended family, and accessible mental health care may help
prevent children from experiencing abuse. As well, there are
parenting interventions that successfully prevent abuse (e.g., Men-
delson & Letourneau, 2015). There has been relatively little atten-
tion in the literature to community and societal protective factors
for abuse. An important point of primary prevention for PA are
educational programs in schools and the community on effective
coparenting as a couple, or with parents living apart before paren-
tal alienating behaviors have begun to affect the child (in mild
Clinical interventions. Every child has a fundamental right
and need for an unthreatened and loving relationship with their
parents, and to be denied that right by one parent without sufficient
justification such as abuse or neglect, is in itself a form of child
abuse not only given the harms associated with parental alienating
behaviors for children, but also the fact that this abuse is prevent-
able (United Nations Treaty Collection, 1989). No form of child
abuse is acceptable, including parental alienation (Lowenstein,
2015). A child’s spontaneous reunification with a TP is rarely
successful without an intact felt bond and acceptance from both
parents (Darnall & Steinberg, 2008). Therefore, clinical interven-
tions are necessary for repairing the damaged relationships that
result from parental alienating behaviors.
Implementing large scale, evidence based clinical interventions
to address child abuse has been challenging because many coun-
tries around the world lack professionals with the knowledge base,
skills, and expertise, the infrastructure or funding to support such
programs, prevalence data to demonstrate the scope of the prob-
lem, and the ability to evaluate the programs (Mikton et al., 2013).
A number of models of clinical intervention for children with
severe parental alienation have been developed (e.g., Friedlander
& Walters, 2010), the best-known being Warshak’s (2010) Family
Bridges Program. Family Bridges is an educative and experiential
program focused on allowing the child to have a healthy relation-
ship with both parents, removing the child from the parental
conflict, and encouraging child autonomy, multiple perspective-
taking, and critical thinking. These interventions are effective
because they apply a child abuse model for treatment. Unfortu-
nately, there are few, if any, structured interventions for the treat-
ment of mild to moderate levels of parental alienation.
Some researchers have argued that some interventions designed
to address parental alienation such as reversing legal child custody
have not been effective, and can actually cause lasting psycholog-
ical harm to the child (Dallam & Silberg, 2016). Empirical support
has not been provided to support these claims; indeed, if this
problem is accurately understood as a child abuse matter, it would
not be in the child’s best interest to leave them in the sole or
primary custody of the abusive parent. The abusive parent needs
treatment to prevent further abuse, and the child should be sup-
ported in the repair of their relationship with the TP. Measuring the
effectiveness of interventions is challenging for all types of child
abuse and IPV interventions because what is considered “effec-
tive” needs to match the expectations of those who are involved in
the intervention itself, as well as measure the expected benefits
(Howarth et al., 2015). Therapists who do not recognize parental
alienation as child abuse and who use traditional therapeutic ap-
proaches to treat it often cause additional harm to children and
families (Moore, Ordway, & Francis, 2013), and those who as-
sume that this form of family violence is reciprocal in nature often
fail in their treatment of the family (Warshak, 2015a). Modifying
the TP’s behavior, when they are the victim, is tantamount to only
treating the victim of violence or rape. The perpetrator of the
abusive action is allowed to continue acting aggressively and to
abuse power in the family dynamic. Blaming and treating victims
alone is not the solution.
Professionals have argued that parental alienation is a serious
form of emotional abuse of children (e.g., Johnston, 2003) and that
it needs to be addressed by the child protection system. We extend
this position in saying that parental alienation is a child protection
matter that warrants attention by child protection authorities in the
same manner that other forms of child abuse and neglect are
addressed. Child protection is a contested field, focused on best
practices using a “best interests of the child” (child removal)
versus a “least disruptive” (parental support/family preservation)
approach to child abuse and neglect (Kruk, 2011a). In a review of
literature pertaining to the best practices for therapists and legal
practitioners to address parental alienation, changing the custodial/
residential status of the children to be in the primary or equally
shared care of the TP, followed by systematic family therapy
(Smith, 2016), is an effective strategy to stop this form of abuse
(Templar et al., 2017). It is the responsibility of child protection
authorities to protect the safety and well-being of children trapped
in families where parental alienating behaviors are occurring. It is
also the responsibility of these agencies to provide family reuni-
fication programs by practitioners with specialized expertise in
parental alienation reunification. Evaluation of intervention pro-
grams is also needed to assess trauma and abuse effects prior to
and after intervention.
Judicial and administrative interventions. Psychological
abuse is not often singled out as a specific form of abuse in
courtroom settings; however, it is not always ruled out when
considering child custody disputes (Verrocchio et al., 2016). Ju-
dicial interventions with families where the child fully rejects the
TP requires more intensive and collaborative partnerships between
legal and mental health professionals, such that confidentiality
concerns about treatment should be altered to allow for commu-
nication about therapeutic progress to be shared with the court
(Sauber, 2013;Walters & Friedlander, 2016). In order to prevent
additional conflict, very specific court orders regarding expecta-
tions for the family, coparenting time, and clear boundaries for the
AP are also needed (Warshak, 2015a). In a review of custody
recommendation practices, Saunders (2015) has suggested that
joint custody when IPV has been present only allows the abuser to
continue to abuse the victim through harassment and manipulation
through legal channels. Although written to address a narrower
definition of IPV, the same recommendation may apply to other
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forms of family violence such as parental alienation. The AP often
uses legal channels to abuse the TP, as well as professionals, social
networks, and the children to manipulate and harass the TP. If
evaluators continue to deny the existence of this form of IPV,
millions of adults and children around the world will continue to
be victimized by an outdated family law and policy. Family court
judges must also be educated about the scientific basis of child
custody evaluation and to give guidance to evaluators to look for
all forms of family violence, including parental alienating behav-
Numerous legal approaches have been recommended to address
parental alienation, but unfortunately, many judges are reluctant to
take action to address this form of child abuse and IPV because
they are unaware or underestimate how the AP’s actions will affect
the child, and they are concerned about how their decisions will be
viewed publicly (Lowenstein, 2015). Expert witnesses have also
leaned on the side of “caution” to maintain the status quo, and
make recommendations that exacerbate the alienation process,
such as recommending therapy only for the child rather than
treating the family system (Lowenstein, 2015), or leaving the child
in the sole care of the abusive AP. This latter recommendation is
based on the erroneous belief that such action will reduce conflict
because the AP will have gotten what they want (full control of the
child). Unfortunately, parental alienating behaviors do not stop
even when a parent has all control, and such recommendations
ignore the abuse that the children are suffering at the hands of the
It is vital to protect children and parents who are victims of IPV
in legal settings, particularly when child residence is being deter-
mined at the dissolution of marriage. Unfortunately, determining
whether allegations of IPV are true or not can be difficult, and
courts sometimes interpret reports of IPV made by a parent as false
when they were true, and this can be used against the parent who
is actually being abused (Saunders & Oglesby, 2016). For cases
where allegations are made, they are not often substantiated with
actual evidence, so there is not an easy way to determine their
validity. For example, one large study that examined alleged and
substantiated claims of abuse in child-custody disputed cases in
California found evidence that claims were made against fathers in
23% of cases (only 6% against mothers), and of these, only 6% of
the claims against fathers were actually substantiated with evi-
dence (only 3% for mothers; Johnston, Lee, et al., 2005). The
authors also noted that there are much greater numbers of unsub-
stantiated claims of abuse when custody was at stake than when it
was not. When claims of family violence, whether they are about
child abuse, IPV, or parental alienation, are used as a strategy to
obtain custody and are found to be false and unsubstantiated, the
perpetrator should be held accountable for any attempts to damage
the relationship between the TP and the child, as it is in the best
interest of the child to have a positive and health relationship with
both parents (Nielson, 2017).
Our exhaustive review of the aggressive behaviors that APs use
highlights the need for more theoretical understanding about why
parents engage in these behaviors. For example, evolutionary
theories regarding intrasexual competition have been used to ex-
plain why young women use indirect forms of aggression (e.g.,
gossiping, derogation) against each other (Vaillancourt, 2013). Do
evolutionary theories concerning maternal and paternal protection
of offspring apply to this form of family violence? Similarly,
lifelong monogamy does not characterize the typical mating pat-
terns for humans, and humans abandon costly relationships by
“mate switching” (Buss, Goetz, Duntley, Asao, & Conroy-Beam,
2017). Do alienating behaviors serve as a mechanism to cut losses
by erasing the TP from the child’s life? Some clinicians have
proposed that children become alienated due to pathogenic par-
enting, meaning that the AP, who often demonstrates narcissistic
or sociopathic tendencies, relives their own childhood trauma (e.g.,
abuse) and attachment problems through their relationship with
their child. Pathogenic parents are proposed to “protect” the child
from the other parent due to a delusion that the other parent is
dangerous or abusive, when he or she is in fact not (e.g., Childress,
2014). This latter opinion has not been empirically tested or
undergone peer review, but theories such as these are important to
empirically test and extend so that a greater understanding of the
problem can be reached.
In conclusion, there is emerging consensus that parental alien-
ating behaviors are a form of family violence. However, parental
alienation does not result from the individual actions of a parent;
its source also lies in social and legal policies. For example,
parental alienation flourishes in situations where one parent has
exclusive care and control of children, and legal systems that
remove a parent from a child’s life by means of sole custody or
primary residence orders are contributing to parental alienation.
Laws that make shared parenting the default parenting plan, which
are a legal sanctioning that children have two primary parents, can
potentially serve as a bulwark against parental alienation because
it limits the abuse of power that can occur when a parent has
primary custody. By recognizing this form of aggression as child
abuse and IPV, protections for parents and families can be pro-
vided by law, funded research can be devoted to advancing the
understanding the problem and motives for this form of family
violence, and the development and testing of interventions to
address the problem can occur. It is time to acknowledge and
recognize this form of family violence, and to attend to the needs
of parents and children who are its victims.
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