Understanding Parental Alienation



Parental alienation is...

Le concept d’aliénation parentale est maintenant largement documenté et publié par des experts de nombreux pays. Cependant, il est un sujet méconnu de la population et des professionnels de tous les milieux et demeure malheureusement un sujet tabou. Pour un parent ciblé, il est impératif de s’éduquer sur le sujet afin de reprendre son pouvoir d’action et agir pour le mieux-être de son enfant et de sa relation avec lui.

Parental alienation is described as a family phenomenon in which one parent engages in alienating behaviors, programming the child's mind in order to promote unjustified rejection and estrangement with the other parent.

The following two conditions must be present simultaneously to diagnose of parental alienation in a family:

  1. One parent uses alienating behaviors to exclude the other parent from the child's life unjustifiably.
  2. The process results in a deterioration of the relationship between the child and the target parent, or may include severing the relationship altogether.

It is important to understand that the child participates in the phenomenon of parental alienation in spite of himself/herself. Indeed, the child may believe that his or her relationship with the targeted parent is harmful to him and realizes significant benefits through the alignment with the alienating parent.

View Examples

Some examples of strategies used by the alienating parent:
  • Uses contemptuous and disparaging words against the other parent,
  • Hangs up the phone when the target parent calls,
  • Prohibits child-centered workers (teachers, coaches, educators, etc.) from giving information to the other parent,
  • Encourages the child to take a side; theirs rather than the other parent,
  • Involves the child in the marital conflict by informing him of the sources of conflicts and the different,
  • Obstructs the other parent's on-call time.

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* Publié par la Chaire de partenariat en prévention de la maltraitance

Parental alienation is not ...

Different problems related to the phenomenon of conjugal separation may arise and resemble parental alienation, but is not considered parental alienation, such as:

Parental conflict is the fact that conflicts persist over time, even after parental separation. The child is therefore exposed to the tensions and different from these parents and may feel torn between his two parents. This conflict may involve a conflict of loyalty in the child, a feeling of having to choose one of the parents (even if he does not wish to do so), to find out who is right and who is wrong and to take part To the conflict with the intention of reducing it.

Here is a conflict of loyalty in the child when the child:

  • experiences  guilt with respect to the conflict or separation of parents,
  • has a different way of acting with both parents,
  • the emergence of internalized behaviors (decreased self-esteem, withdrawal, decreased affirmation, sense of psychological distress),
  • experiences a deterioration in school performance,
  • has a tremendous need to please one or both parents and may choose to lie in the process.

Denigration is the act of one or both parents, smearing the reputation of his/her ex-spouse, discrediting him/her, slandering him/her and demeaning him/her in the eyes of his/her family, friends and child. The presence of denigration alone does not automatically indicate the presence of parental alienation, although denigration is one of the key strategies used in the parental alienation process.

For the untrained eye, parental alienation may look like a teenage crisis when the child is an adolescent. Ostensibly, one finds the opposition or denigration of a parent and the same will to display his choices and his opinion vis-à-vis parental authority.

The similarities end there: time stamping, intensity of conflict, absurd rationalizations, focusing the conflict on a single parent relate rather to the context of parental alienation.

Parental lapse: This involves the loss of parental authority. Parental authority is a set of rights and responsibilities of a parent to his or her child that allows a parent to make decisions about the welfare of his or her child up to the age of majority. Among other things, there is consent for psychological services, school selection, the right to have custody of the child, the safety of the child, and so on.

In some cases, it is possible that a parent loses parental authority if, for example, there is abandonment, extreme violence or sexual abuse of the child by the parent.

The severity of alienation

The degree of alienation of the child is measured in three stages: mild, moderate and severe, depending on the intensity of the rejection of the target parent.

Mild stage
At the mild stage, visits to the targeted parent are calm and the campaign of denigration is rare or discrete.
Moderate stage
In the moderate stage, the smear campaign intensifies at the time of the change of parental residence and the episodes and conflicts become more numerous and frivolous against the targeted parent. However, the child agrees to be cooperative once separated from the alienating parent, after a period of transition.
Severe stage
At the severe stage, visits are absolutely impossible to the target parent and the child shares the paranoic fantasies of the alienating parent. If the child remains with the targeted parent, he may be paralyzed by fear, run away or engage in destructive behaviors.


The alienating parent

The Université of Laval Partnership Chair in the Prevention of Maltreatment has put in place a toolkit (available in French) to support the assessment of the risk of parental alienation. The inventory of indicators of parental alienation, while not a diagnostic tool, is designed to help professionals gather their observations of parenting behavior and behavioral responses of children. The combination of indicators helps to assess the extent of the risk of parental alienation.

For a targeted parent, this toolkit makes it possible to make an inventory of ones situation by identifying the actions or attitudes of the other parent and to assess the magnitude in order to take action.


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The Alienated Child

When exposed to the alienating behavior of the parent, some children may potentially reject the targeted parent unjustifiably, and it is at this point that they are said to be alienated.

Psychiatrist Richard Gardner introduced the concept of "Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)" in the 1980s. Although the term PAS has never been unanimous, the concept of parental alienation (PA) is now used and widely accepted. There are eight behaviors that represent the key criteria to help identify an alienated child:

  • The child denigrates a parent;
  • The child gives absurd and frivolous reasons to ‘justify’ the denigration;
  • The child does so with a total lack of ambivalence;
  • The child claims that no one has influenced him; this phenomenon is referred to as the "independent thinker" criteria;
  • The child presents himself as a supporter or "champion" of the alienating parent;
  • There is a total lack of guilt in relation to the psychological exploitation or "assassinating" of the rejected parent;
  • The child parrots the words and scenarios from the alienated parent;
  • he child’s animosity extends to the whole world of the rejected parent: extended family, friends, nationality,  etc.

It is important to note that, contrary to cases of parental alienation, an abused child nevertheless respects his abuser if it is his parent. The children are ready to remain silent so as not to lose this link. This is not at all the case in parental alienation. For these children, the absence of contact is a relief. Indeed, contact puts them in a conflict of loyalty which is extremely distressing for them. They are, however, unable to formulate why the relationship is alienated in clear and rational terms.



Severe parental alienation has the effect of a boomerang or a time bomb. In the majority of cases, the children give the impression of being well in their skin and balanced. The symptoms only appear much later vis-à-vis their autonomy and emotional development. These long-term effects, described by several experts, give rise to numerous pathological symptoms whose common denominator tends to the difficulty of establishing social bonds.

Some of the difficulties experienced by alienated children include:

  • Ruptures or cleavages in their relationships
  • Difficulties in establishing intimate relationships
  • Low self-confidence
  • Difficulties in managing anger or conflict in their personal relationships
  • Psychosomatic symptoms and sleep or eating disorders
  • Psychological vulnerability and dependence
  • Conflictual relationships with authority figures
  • Unhealthy feeling of having the right to get angry without a valid pretext, whic leads to social tensions in general
  • Conscientious or unconscious guilt, to have dismissed the other parent.
  • Being at greater risk of replicating this pattern of behavior by becoming a rejected parent.


From her research and testimonials of reconciliation, Dr. Baker * was able to extract the catalysts that favor the return to a relationship with the alienated child. It is not really possible to know which of the catalysts will make a difference, but there are many opportunities to move from alienation to reconciliation.

The child has many opportunities to observe how other people's families behave and can gradually question himself about his own family; questioning that could be reinforced over time by one's own experience, cognitive maturity and distance from the alienating parent.

The alienating parent becomes excessively and unnecessarily controlling in addition to being hard with the child, thereby showing his/her ‘true colors’.

The child who has the opportunity to return to live with his rejected parent by a court judgment can realize with this experience that this parent is not the ‘monster’ he once thought.

Multiple life stages such as graduating from college, getting married, becoming a parent, etc. can all be opportunities that create a desire to reconnect with the rejected parent and want to re-examine the situation from another perspective.

Discussing with a caring and neutral third party can lead to questions about his/her family history and the desire to rethink the past and be open to a different future.

A person in the extended family with whom the child trusts can help by encouraging the child to question and rethink his or her severe stance towards the rejected parent.

A person in the social circle of the child, other than a family member, whom the child has confidence can help by encouraging the child to question and rethink his or her severe stance towards the rejected parent.

The child who sees the alienating parent treating other people severely and cruelly may come to realize that the rejected parent has probably also been a victim of the family abuse or trauma.

The child who witnesses unambiguously the dishonest behavior of the alienating parent creates a loss of trust in his supposedly perfect relative.

Having a child makes it possible to realize the importance of both parents for the health and well-being of the child, thus raising the "why" one of his parents has insisted so much to reject the other.

The child, who becomes an adult, who marries and finds himself in the situation of the rejected parent, finally realizes the perspective of the rejected parent and finds that his own childhood is very different from what he has always thought.

* Amy J.L. Baker, Paul R. Fine, Surviving Parental Alienation: Journey of Hope and Healing, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2014

"A child injured based on his authenticity does not cease loving his parents, he ceases to love himself"
- Jesper Juul