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Sadly, in situations of divorce or in cases when single parents are no longer in a relationship with each other, it’s not uncommon for one parent to try to brainwash the children into an alliance against the other parent. This is one of the cruelest things a parent could ever do. It’s a malicious act not just against their former partner, but against their child as well. Parental estrangement – whether it is because of divorce or abandonment or having a parent in prison – is as detrimental to a child’s long-term health as things like physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. (see our book: Child Maltreatment – A Cross Comparison) So parents who intentionally try to alienate a child from their mother or father aren’t just punishing their ex, they’re tormenting their child as well.

By way of such parental sabotage, many kids become alienated from a loving parent during divorce with little or no justification. (Lyon, 2009) Although we don’t know of any hard and true numbers for how often this occurs (it’s a difficult thing to measure, let alone prove when it happens), it’s something that hundreds of thousands of parents likely experience each year.

What is parental alienation syndrome?

Unfortunately, this tactic is common enough that psychologists have even coined a phrase for it: Parental Alienation Syndrome, or PAS for short. Parental alienation is something separate and apart from children merely “taking sides” in a divorce, which kids frequently do all on their own. (Although it isn’t always easy to distinguish between the two; sometimes a parent will co-opt a child’s natural alliance and use this as a means to alienate the other parent.) Nor does it qualify as parental alienation when one parent IS an alcoholic, or DOES have a violent streak, or HAS battered his wife or children in the past, or otherwise struggles with problems that might require a parent to broach these issues for safety purposes. If a parent warns a child about her father’s drinking problem because she’s giving her daughter instructions to never get in the car with a drunk driver, that caution serves a legitimate purpose, and should not be misconstrued as an attempt to alienate the child from her father.

Parental alienation occurs when one parent is manipulating a child into taking sides or actively trying to make a child think poorly of the other parent in order to punish their former spouse, satisfy a personal vendetta, or obtain custody of the kids. There are varying degrees of parental alienation; it can range from giving children subtle suggestions that another parent is somehow unworthy or coaching the kids to gang up against him, all the way up to making false allegations of abuse so that the other parent is arrested.

The definition of parental alienation

Cases of parental alienation tend to have the following qualities about them:

A) A parent is encouraging or promoting a negative view of the other parent in some way, whether through actions, statements, or subtle suggestions. (See the next page for examples)

B) The actions are motivated by anger, hurt, greed, or a desire for revenge, and are designed to punish the other parent or get them out of the picture.

C) The actions or statements focus on destroying a parent’s reputation based on past mistakes, rather than their potential as a parent going forward.

D) The actions or statements serve no reasonably useful or constructive purpose (i.e., protecting the child). For example, it doesn’t matter if a father once hit his wife. So long as he never struck the children or acted violently towards them, telling the kids that dad is dangerous does not serve a constructive purpose.

E) The actions are designed to interfere with the relationship a child has with his or her parent. For example, deleting messages and then saying their parent never calls.

Inversed roles

Ironically, parental alienation is often engaged in by an abusive, otherwise substandard parent against the “good” parent. Abusive spouses typically seek to gain power and control over their partners (past or present), and manipulating the child is a good way to accomplish this. You might think that no child would enter such an alliance that so directly goes against their best interests, but this isn’t always the case. Children tend to side with whichever parent is trying to reconcile the marriage, and such people can also be very manipulative.

Divorce researchers Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee noted that when abusive men sought to co-opt their children as allies in order to exert power over their ex-wife, “often these men found a receptive audience for their plan.” They add that “these bizarre alliances…are powerful because they assuage the loneliness and hurt felt by one child and one parent. By becoming each other’s trusted companions in arms, they support one another.” (2000, pp. 112, 116)

Additional information on parental alienation

  • How parents brainwash their children
  • Effects & consequences of parental alienation
  • How to deal with parental alienation (see Divorce eBook)
  • Words of comfort for parents experiencing parental alienation (Divorce eBook)


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