Parental Alienation Syndrome: Researchers Say The Struggle Is Real

Divorce is rarely easy. Occasionally there will be a tale of couples who amicably splits their assets, share their children, and are successful in co-parenting and raising children who are psychologically sound and happy. They might even vacation together, or be friends. They might share holidays.

What happens when that doesn’t happen — when the opposite occurs? Perhaps there is mental illness, substance abuse, unresolved anger, conflicting beliefs regarding ethics and religion, financial woes, and square in the middle are one or more little people. When divorce that involves child custody turns ugly, is that all there is to it? A divorce that just went very wrong, like the marriage before it?

According to, clinical psychologist Dr. Craig Childress says it is a situation in which one parent consciously or subconsciously turns their shared children against the other parent, through various means of manipulation. It often involves the premise that one parent falsely accuses the other of abuse and indoctrinates the child into believing that abuse took place, whether it be mental, physical, sexual, or a combination. While there are true cases of abuse, and even times when either parent may have behaved in a way that was not appropriate, what is key is to look at the childrens’ behavior, says Dr. Childress.

“It’s the child’s behavior that need to be observed. Unnecessary levels of anxiety or fear of the alienated parent can be a sign.”

Eventually, children can become so indoctrinated and eager to please who they view as the “powerful parent,” they may start hating, harassing, or abusing the targeted parent themselves.

What drives a parental alienator? Most commonly, some type of narcissistic personality features, says Dr. Childress. According to Dr. Childress, parents who indoctrinate children into alienating the other parent are linked to narcissist borderline pathogenic parenting.

The symptoms of narcissism include: grandiosity, entitlement, absence of empathy, haughty, arrogant behavior and delusional belief systems. Although narcissistic personality disorder is listed in the DSM-5, which is considered to be the “Bible” of Psychiatric Disorders, so far Parental Alienation Disorder is not listed. Researchers expect that to soon change.

The late author and child psychiatrist Richard A. Gardner coined the term Parental Alienation Syndrome more than 20 years ago. He characterized the breakdown of previously normal, healthy parent-child relationships during divorce and child custody cases. His definition of parental alienation is simple — one parent deliberately damages, and in many cases destroys, the previously healthy loving relationship between the child and the child’s other parent.

This can be very difficult to prove, although it has been successfully used in the United States to win child custody cases, with custody going to the targeted parent. The reason it is difficult to prove is that one symptom is the child steadfastly refuses they are being indoctrinated by the other parent, and claims their hatred of the other parent is of their own will.

Researcher Amy Baker says that parents who try to alienate their child from the other parent subtlety, or not so subtletly gives a three-part message to the child.

“I am the only parent who loves you and you need me to feel good about yourself; the other parent is dangerous and unavailable; and pursuing a relationship with the other parent jeopardizes your relationship with me.”

The effects of this situation for the children involved have included depression, poor academic performance, self-esteem disorders, and even suicide.

Although the disorder remains controversial, with some psychologists claiming it has not been proven; other psychologists claim that it has all of the necessary components to be categorized in the DSM-5. As of yet, that has not happened.

Whether it is included in the DSM-5 or not, many parents and children claim they have suffered as a result of the syndrome. What are your thoughts? Have you had experience with this situation?