Current Directions in Psychological
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Since the early 1800s, courts in the United States and
England have documented volumes of family law cases
involving one parent vilifying the other parent and
poisoning the minds of their children against the
rejected parent. By the mid-1940s, clinicians working
with divorced families started publishing their observa-
tions about parents who tried to break down the child’s
love for the other parent and to enlist their children as
“allies” against the rejected parent (Rand, 2013). It was
not until the 1980s that a label was coined for this
phenomenon: parental alienation syndrome (Gardner,
1985). For a variety of reasons (e.g., whether it consti-
tutes a valid syndrome; Warshak, 2001), the term most
commonly used today is simply parental alienation
(Lorandos, Bernet, & Sauber, 2013). Research on this
topic has increased substantially over recent decades;
today, there are over 1,000 books, book chapters, and
articles in professional journals on the topic across 35
countries and six continents (Bernet, 2013).
Despite extensive historical documentation of paren-
tal alienation across legal and clinical arenas, accumu-
lated data on this topic have been largely descriptive
in nature. However, there has been extensive research
on processes that constitute parental alienating behav-
iors (e.g., gatekeeping behaviors; Austin & Rappaport,
2018). We argue that our understanding of parental
alienation has moved from a “greening,” or what is
considered a growth, stage of development into a “blos-
soming” stage, which is characterized by greater devel-
opment and integration of theories and hypothesis
testing (Simpson & Campbell, 2013).
What Parental Alienation Is
Parental alienation refers to a psychological condition
in which a child allies himself or herself strongly with
an alienating (or preferred) parent and rejects a rela-
tionship with the alienated (or targeted) parent without
legitimate justification (Lorandos etal., 2013). Parental
alienation often occurs in families in which a more
powerful parental figure (the alienating parent) engages
in abusive behaviors intended to damage and destroy
the relationship between the other, less powerful parent
(the targeted parent) and the child (Harman, Kruk, &
Hines, 2018). Parental alienation is not typically an
outcome that arises when both parents contribute to
827271CDPXXX10.1177/0963721419827271Harman et al.Parental Alienation
Jennifer J. Harman, Colorado State University, Department of
Psychology, 410 W. Pitkin Ave., Fort Collins, CO, 80523-1876
Parental Alienation: The Blossoming
of a Field of Study
Jennifer J. Harman1, William Bernet2, and Joseph Harman3
1Department of Psychology, Colorado State University; 2Department of Psychiatry, Vanderbilt University;
and 3University of Sydney
Parental alienation has been an unacknowledged and poorly understood form of family violence. Research on parental
alienation and the behaviors that cause it has evolved out of decades of legal and clinical work documenting this
phenomenon, leading to what could be considered a “greening,” or growth, of the field. Today, there is consensus
among researchers as to what parental alienating behaviors are and how they affect children and the family system. We
review the literature to detail what parental alienation is, how it is different from other parent–child problems such as
estrangement and loyalty conflicts, and how it is perpetuated within and across different social systems. We conclude
by highlighting research areas that need further investigation to develop and test effective solutions for ameliorating
the devastating effects of parental alienation that, we posit, should be considered and understood not only as abusive
to the child but also as a form of family violence directed toward both the child and the alienated parent.
parental alienation, divorce, separation, family violence, child abuse
2 Harman et al.
the arguing and fighting (Warshak, 2015b). When parents
reciprocate conflictual behavior, they often have similar
levels of power—in such cases, the outcome for the child
is a loyalty conflict rather than parental alienation
(Bernet, Wamboldt, & Narrow, 2016). Although parental
alienation can occur or begin in intact families, it most
commonly occurs after the parental relationship ends.
The manifestations of parental alienation in the child
consist of (but are not limited to) the following: a cam-
paign of denigration against the targeted parent; weak,
frivolous, or absurd rationalizations for the deprecation;
a lack of ambivalence; an “independent-thinker” phe-
nomenon in which the child denies being influenced
to feel negatively about the targeted parent; an appar-
ent absence of guilt for actions and attitudes toward
the targeted parent; borrowed scenarios about past
events; and the spread of animosity to other people
associated with the rejected parent (e.g., extended fam-
ily members; Gardner, 1992). Of these outcomes, those
most strongly associated with parental alienation are
the first two: the child’s campaign of denigration against
the rejected parent and the child’s frivolous rationaliza-
tions for the denigration. Outcomes that are readily
identified objectively and measured quantitatively are
the child’s rejection of the parent (Huff, Anderson,
Adamsons, & Tambling, 2017) and the child’s lack of
ambivalence toward the parents, namely, one parent is
all good, the other is all bad (otherwise known as split-
ting; Bernet, Gregory, Reay, & Rohner, 2018).
Parental alienation outcomes are classified in the
fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual
of Mental Disorders as a mental condition under the
diagnosis “child affected by parental relationship dis-
tress” (CAPRD; Bernet et al., 2016). This condition
appears in the same chapter as child sexual abuse,
parent–child relational problems, and other forms of
domestic violence (“other conditions that may be a
focus of clinical attention”), and CAPRD can be diag-
nosed independently or as a modifier of a mental dis-
order (e.g., major depressive disorder). Estimating the
prevalence of parental alienation among children is
challenging because a psychological assessment is typi-
cally needed to determine whether and to what extent
a child has been alienated. If we extrapolate from pub-
lished research and use deductive methods, we find
that an estimated 1% of all children in the United States
are alienated from a parent (Bernet, 2010; Warshak,
2015a). Another estimate, albeit one based on a rela-
tively small sample, suggests that around 29% of chil-
dren from divorced homes experience alienating
behaviors from a parent (Hands & Warshak, 2011).
What Parental Alienation Is Not
It is important to distinguish parental alienation from
parental estrangement (Kelly & Johnston, 2001), as the
terminology used in this context is slightly different
than definitions in most dictionaries, in which alien-
ation is described as an emotional detachment and
estrangement adds an element of physical disconnec-
tion (Warshak, 2010). In this article, estrangement refers
to problems with a parent–child relationship that are
due to issues within the relationship itself. For example,
a parent may have poor parenting skills and engage in
physically or emotionally abusive behaviors that make
the quality of the parent–child relationship poor. Hence,
the child is explicably and realistically estranged from
a parent on the basis of and in reaction to the child’s
lived experience. In contrast to estrangement, the cause
of the parent–child problem in cases of parental alien-
ation lies primarily with the alienating parent. Through
words and actions, the alienating parent influences the
child to such a degree that the child begins to reject a
relationship with the targeted parent. The child’s rejec-
tion is not typically due to the actions of the targeted
parent; if it is, then it is grossly exaggerated and out of
proportion to his or her actual experience with the
parent. Indeed, the child’s rejection of the targeted par-
ent can be irreconcilable with and contradicted by the
child’s lived experience of the targeted parent. When
allegations of abuse are raised during custody disputes,
this distinction between estrangement and parental
alienation becomes important. If there is a substantiated
history of domestic violence or child abuse over the
course of the relationship, the accuser’s and child’s
behaviors are explicable; if the accusation is manufac-
tured as a strategy to gain the upper hand in a custody
dispute, then the accusation is a parental alienating
How Do Parents Alienate Their Children?
Parental alienating behaviors have recently been con-
sidered a form of family violence, which has generally
been understood as behaviors that coerce, control, and
generate fear in the child. This behavior makes it child
abuse for children as victims and intimate-partner vio-
lence for the targeted parent as the victim. Parental
alienation is the result of an alienating parent’s coer-
cion, control, and generation of fear in the child toward
the targeted parent, making this a very complex form
of family violence (Clawar & Rivlin, 2013; Harman etal.,
2018). Hundreds of parental alienating behaviors have
been documented by researchers, including badmouth-
ing the targeted parent and his or her extended family,
engaging in coercive controlling behaviors to force an
alliance with the child and to reject the targeted parent,
saying the targeted parent does not love the child,
confiding in the child about adult matters, limiting the
child’s contact with the other parent, violating court
orders regarding parenting time and communication,
undermining the targeted parent’s authority with the child,
Parental Alienation 3
letting the child choose whether to visit with the targeted
parent, and making false allegations of abuse (Baker &
Darnall, 2006; Harman, Biringen, Ratajck, Outland, &
Kraus, 2016; Harman etal., 2018).
Obviously, no parent is perfect; an occasional nega-
tive comment or discrete action is not considered a
parental alienating behavior. It is the use of clusters of
behaviors over an extended period of time, commonly
used with the intent to harm the relationship between
the child and the other parental figure (or just the other
parent because of his or her relationship with the child),
that characterizes an action as a parental alienating
behavior (Harman etal., 2018). Whereas the repetition
of one or more behaviors over time is important for
creating or cementing the child’s negative and rejecting
view of a parent, the nature and content of those behav-
iors (e.g., suggestions to the child that he or she has
been sexually abused by the targeted parent or that the
targeted parent has attempted to kill the child) will
impact the rapidity of rejection and alienation.
More than 22 million American adults are estimated
as having experienced alienating behaviors by the
other parent, with over half reporting this experience
as being severe (Harman, Leder-Elder, & Biringen,
2016). Fortunately, parental alienating behaviors do not
always lead to the ultimate alienation of a child from
a parent. Alienating behaviors (the actions of the alien-
ating parent) are very common and can have very
negative consequences for the child; parental alien-
ation (the child’s refusal to have a relationship with
the targeted parent) is much less common. There may
be many reasons for this discrepancy, such as the
amount of parenting time the targeted parent has with
the child; the quality of the parent–child relationship
prior to the initiation of parental alienating behaviors;
the severity and longevity of the alienating behaviors;
the child’s temperament, age, and birth order; the
extent to which other people reinforce or counter
alienating influences; and the social sanctioning of the
parental alienating behaviors.
How Are Parents Who Alienate Their
Children Enabled To Act This Way?
Families exist within communities, societies, and cul-
tures that can promote or deter parental alienation.
Research does not yet provide support for there being
gender differences in who alienates their children;
mothers and fathers appear similarly likely to be per-
petrators (Harman, Leder-Elder, & Biringen, 2016), but
they may use different types of behaviors (e.g., mothers
may use more indirect and fathers more direct forms
of aggression; López, Iglesias, & García, 2014). Gender
differences do arise in how parental alienating behaviors
are perceived and addressed by third parties. For exam-
ple, mothers who use parental alienating behaviors are
not perceived as negatively as when a father or a
gender-neutral “parent” uses them (Harman, Biringen,
etal., 2016). Arguably, gender biases may have influ-
enced how parental alienation has been handled in
social institutions such as family court (Lorandos, 2017),
indicating that perceptions of mental health, legal, and
law-enforcement professionals; financial resources; estab-
lished distribution of custody practices; and other factors
can generate great disparities in terms of who is more
affected by parental alienating behaviors. Therefore, gen-
der biases, outmoded institutional practices, and other
social factors play an important role in the promotion
and deterrance of parental alienation.
What Impact Do Parental Alienating
The impact of parental alienation on children, the tar-
geted parent, and the entire family system is substantial.
Ongoing and unresolved conflict between parents may
be associated with posttraumatic stress symptoms
(Basile-Palleschi, 2002) and other negative conse-
quences in children (Cummings & Davies, 2010). How-
ever, alienated children experience more psychosocial
adjustment disorders (e.g., internalizing and external-
izing problems) than children who have not been alien-
ated (Johnston, Lee, Oleson, & Walters, 2005). Alienated
children are often separated from the targeted parent
for long periods of time; this separation paired with
parental alienating behaviors is associated with poor
psychological adjustment among children (e.g., Seijo,
Farinˇa, Corras, Novo, & Arce, 2016). Adults who were
alienated as children report severe long-term effects of
this abuse (Baker, 2005; Baker & Verrocchio, 2013): low
levels of self-esteem and high levels of self-hatred, inse-
cure attachment, substance abuse disorders, guilt, anxi-
ety, and depression. These individuals also develop
fears and phobias, experience attachment difficulties,
have problems communicating with their children as
adults (Aloia & Strutzenberg, 2019), and develop a lack
of trust in others or themselves (see Harman etal.,
Perhaps more is known about the impact of parental
alienating behaviors on targeted parents because they
are most easily accessed for research purposes. For tar-
geted parents, the outcomes of parental alienation
appear to be similar to other forms of intimate-partner
violence; targeted parents report experiencing depression
(Taylor-Potter, 2015), anxiety, and high levels of suicid-
ality (Baker & Verrocchio, 2015; Balmer, Matthewson,
& Haines, 2018). In addition, targeted parents live with
unresolved grief and ambiguous loss (Boss, 2016) and
4 Harman et al.
face considerable social isolation caused by either the
behaviors of the alienator (e.g., loss of friends) or poor
emotional coping (Harman etal., 2018).
What Remains To Be Discovered
In order for a science to mature, scientific fields become
action oriented and cumulative, test integrated theories,
and increase our understanding of the etiology and
manifestation of the problems under study (Reis, 2007).
Research on parental alienation has always been action
oriented because it has arisen in response to the work
of legal and mental health professionals with families
affected by this problem. There has been extensive
scholarship on processes that constitute parental alien-
ating behaviors (e.g., gatekeeping, false memories), so
even though it superficially appears that research on
parental alienation is in its greening stage, it is actually
blossoming because greater attention to theoretical
extension and development has been occurring. For
example, attachment theories have been applied to
clinical observations in order to create a better under-
standing of parental rejection (Garber, 2004), and more
recently, the first author has been applying interdepen-
dence theory to understand how imbalanced power
dynamics characterize these family systems.
New directions forward include establishing what
patterns of parental alienating behaviors have the stron-
gest association with parental alienation outcomes,
developing the best methods for assessment and treat-
ment of parental alienation at different stages of sever-
ity, identifying more direct and indirect impacts
associated with this family violence and how it is dif-
ferent from estrangement, assessing the global preva-
lence of the problem, and identifying whether particular
demographic groups are more vulnerable (e.g., military
Parental alienation is a serious form of family violence.
Although there is professional consensus about what it
is and what its causes are, the field is ripe for greater
research attention with more extensive theoretical and
integrated methodological inquiries to inform empiri-
cally validated interventions and treatments.
Bernet, W., Gregory, N., Reay, K. M., & Rohner, R. P. (2018).
(See References). An article demonstrating splitting of
children’s perception of parents (all good vs. all bad)
that is unique for alienated children in comparison with
children who were not alienated.
Harman, J. J., & Biringen, Z. (2016). Parents acting badly: How
institutions and societies promote the alienation of chil-
dren from their loving families. Fort Collins, CO: Colorado
Parental Alienation Project. A book written for a general
audience that provides an overview of the literature on
parental alienation and how it has come to be such a seri-
Harman, J. J., Kruk, E., & Hines, D. A. (2018). (See References).
A review of research on parental alienation and how the
behaviors that cause it are considered both child abuse
and domestic violence.
Lorandos, D., Bernet, W., & Sauber, S. R. (Eds.). (2013). (See
References). A book with chapters explaining the differ-
ent levels of outcome severity in children, legal cases in
which parental alienation has been at issue, and practical
advice for legal and mental health professionals working
with clients who are coping with this problem.
Warshak, R. A. (2010). Divorce poison: How to protect your
family from bad-mouthing and brainwashing. New York,
NY: HarperCollins. One of the most widely read books
on the topic of parental alienation and a classic guide for
how to prevent and overcome the problem.
Randall W. Engle served as action editor for this article.
The authors would like to recognize all the families who have
been affected by parental alienation. It is our hope that tar-
geted parents will no longer be blamed for their child’s rejec-
tion of them and that the scientific field can devote more
attention to this problem in order to find solutions to protect
children from this form of family violence.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared that there were no conflicts of interest
with respect to the authorship or the publication of this
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