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Is it Me or is Everyone Talking About Parental Alienation?

By Gregg Woodnick and Isabel Ranney

Things do not just “trend” in fashion or TikTok. They happen in courtrooms too. In the 1980s, the era of unlocking repressed memory had people suddenly remembering childhood traumas at a scientifically unsupportable rate, and with significant consequences. In the 1990s, guided imagery led to even more “recollections” of memories, and, in the past few decades, we are seeing a mainstream trend in people psychologically diagnosing one another. Perhaps the availability of Google to answer such vacant questions as “does my ex have borderline personality disorder?” suddenly replaced scientific validity?

Of course, not everyone’s ex is suffering from a personality disorder, but you would not know that if you sat in on consultations at divorce attorney’s offices. It is not just the misuse of terms like “Bipolar Disorder” or “Narcissistic Personality Disorder,” but also the use of non-diagnostic terms like “alienation” and “gaslighting” to describe the behavior of a person’s former partner or spouse. Although the term “gaslight” finds its origin in the 1994 film “Gaslight,” what about “alienation”? In recent years, it seems to have become a trend for parents in custody battles to accuse the other parent of “parental alienation.”

What is parental alienation?

Parental Alienation or Parental Alienation Syndrome is not, despite its name, a psychological diagnosis [1]. Parental alienation is defined as “the theory that children in divorcing families may be turned against one parent by the other favored parent” [2]. This occurs “when one parent starts to alienate the affections of the children so the child does not want to be with or spend time with the other parent” [3]. Often, children who are subjected to “parental alienation” have a parent who vilifies the targeted parent with the goal of convincing the child to express that they feel unsafe in the care of the targeted parent. The result of parental alienation is that the child(ren) engage in an “unjustified campaign of denigration against a parent” [4].

Parental alienation is a legitimate concern. When it does occur, it can permanently harm the relationship between the child and the targeted parent. For example, one parent may falsely allege that the targeted parent abused their child, triggering police and Department of Child Safety investigations. Although the targeted parent focuses on addressing the allegations in the investigation, the other may have unfettered access to the child and exert efforts to reaffirm the narrative that the targeted parent did something inappropriate to them [5]. This means that even after the allegation is unfounded, the targeted parent has to repair their relationship with a child who has been told they are a victim by the other parent.

Sometimes, the relationship can be so affected by alienation efforts that intervention specialists may be needed.   This can be in the realm of court-ordered counseling to address the issue and, in extreme cases, can involve intensive outpatient and even residential programs. Although the programs have critics, they are designed to help reunite children with the targeted (or “out”) parent. These programs can be very successful, but they receive significant criticism from the non-targeted (or “in”) parents.

This article is not intended to be a review of studies involving “alienation”, but it does appear that pure parental alienation is not that common. Because parent-child dynamics are multi-faceted, it is unusual for one parent to successfully manipulate a child into vilifying a parent when there are roots of an otherwise healthy relationship. Recent studies show that children are not likely to reject the targeted parent “in the face of their parent’s negative attitudes and behaviors toward one another” [6]. This means that even when parents overtly attempt to manipulate their child into having a negative attitude toward their other parent, it is not likely to reverse the child’s feelings. Even when a parent is saying negative things about the other in front of the child this, though inappropriate, it does not necessarily amount to what has been colloquially referred to as “alienation.”

”Alienation” does occur, but the term itself is used so frequently in custody litigation that it has lost its zeal. Parents lack control over how their children react to a separation, and often the result is the child blaming one parent for the break-up of the family or to react to the divorce by “hating” both parents. There are also myriad other reasons a child might not want to have a relationship with their parent that have nothing to do with the favored parent demeaning the other or even with the divorce itself (e.g., child is a teenager, disagrees with one parent’s parenting style, out parent is not as involved in child’s life, etc.). It could also be as simple as the child favoring one parent because the other is struggling to cope with the reality of the divorce or is too consumed by the legal battle that they have been less attentive to the child’s needs.

However, because of the contentious nature of custody litigation, there is some inertia in divorce/custody proceedings to use the term “parental alienation” when there may be other issues or benign explanations for a child’s behavior.

None of this conflict is healthy for children.  Parents who, in earnest, want to avoid this “alienation” vortex can be proactive by engaging in co-parenting counseling. In fact, in Arizona (and most states), parties who are getting a divorce with children must attend at least a parenting class.  It is not clear if mandatory education and other services in custody matters help the worst cases of intentional and malignant alienation, but co-parenting counseling may provide meaningful introspection into how the parent decoupling affects the children and reduce the impact the separation has on their well-being.

Certainly “alienation” occurs, and when it does, the impact can be devastating and expensive to fix. However, the term is so misused (and overused) in custody litigation that the term has lost its gravity. Proving alienation in matters where it sincerely occurs is made more difficult by dozens of other parents “crying wolf” when their family is transitioning through a divorce within normal expectations. Every divorce or parent separation is challenging for the family, and not every hiccup along the way should be treated as a catastrophe of malignant behavior

There are many books and articles from respected psychologists and child advocates that can be helpful in teaching parents how to handle high-conflict matters. Although a book recommendation is not a cure-all, understanding parental alienation is a good place to start. I recommend parents read Overcoming the Alienation Crisis: 33 Coparenting Solutions by John Moran, Shawn McCall, and Matthew Sullivan as one good example containing strategies to identify and overcome co-parenting issues. However, it is important to note that parents navigating these issues needs to be cautious about where they get data—there are Facebook groups, websites, and probably TikTokers who misrepresent parental alienation to support unspoken agendas.

[1] https://drive.google.com/file/d/10r_oUv_fZXQ4jUVXQC-4UnMdaneR3TD5/view (It is not a term that will be found and clearly defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (5th Edition)—although parental alienation is considered when diagnosing a child as a victim of psychological abuse).

[2] https://scholarship.law.gwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1857&context=faculty_publications

[3] https://childrenanddivorceguide.com/articles/signs-of-parental-alienation/


[5] This is not to suggest that parents do not make serious allegations to DCS or that the response by the Agency should be different because one parent is alleging parental alienation. Allegations of child sexual abuse are and should be treated seriously and there is a dangerous trend in courts believing in a “vengeful ex-wife” narrative and dismissing valid child abuse allegations. The allegations also are, unfortunately, frequently made by parents in their attempts to “win” custody battles. (For information on the “vengeful ex-wife” narrative, see http://xyonline.net/sites/xyonline.net/files/202005/Meier

[6] https://scholarship.law.gwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1857&context=faculty_publications

Gregg Woodnick has been practicing law in Arizona for over 20 years. He is a former adjunct law professor and has lectured for Yale University, Midwestern College of Osteopathic Medicine, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University.

Isabel Ranney is a law student at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, Associate Editor for the Law Journal for Social Justice, and clerk at Woodnick Law.

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