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Preventing Parental Alienation in Children of Divorce

Ex husbands and wives turning kids against their former partner is now called parental alienation syndrome and may be a form of child abuse.
custody argument with divorced parents
Updated: December 1, 2022

Parental alienation (PA) is when a parent uses strategies to distance their child from the other parent intentionally. Typically, this occurs as the result of a messy divorce or separation. One parent may not allow the other to see their children during their assigned visitation time, or trash talks them to the kids in order to get a better custody agreement


In most cases, parental alienation is done purposefully, even if the parent doing the damage has never heard the term parental alienation syndrome. However, PA can also happen unintentionally if adults are not conscious of their words and actions. 

Parental alienation syndrome describes the symptoms or side effects the afflicted child experiences. Child psychologist Richard Gardner coined the term PAS or parental alienation syndrome in 1985; however, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has yet to recognize it. 

The most recent revision, the DSM-5, was revised in 2013, and it included PAS in the section “Other Conditions that May Be a Focus of Clinical Attention” under the heading “A Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress” or (CAPRD). 

There is no indication of when the DSM-6 will be released and whether or not it will contain PAS. But even without an official clinical definition, child development experts and mental health professionals can almost all agree that purposefully damaging your child’s relationship with the other parent has long-term, harmful consequences. 

This article uses trusted resources to explain what parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome look like, why and how to avoid it, and what to do if you are a child or parent who has suffered the consequences of PA due to the actions of family members. 

Related: Co-Parenting Problems: What to Do When Children Fight Visitation

The Dangers of Parental Alienation

Divorce and separation are often messy and emotional events. For some parents, marriage was never even in the picture, but a difficult break-up or battles over custody can also wreak havoc on the parent-child relationship. No matter how much you despise your child’s other parent or family, it is essential for your child's well-being that you do not engage in alienating behavior or language. 

Regardless of whether the claims of the alienator are valid, bad-mouthing your co-parent or their extended family in front of your child can have devastating effects. Even if your children are adult children, you can still inflict damage when you engage in a campaign of denigration. Therefore, it is essential that parents also speak to their extended family and ask that they also avoid speaking negatively about their co-parent in front of their child.

parents fighting in front of their daughter

While one parent typically commits parental alienation against another parent. It can extend to other family members such as grandparents, half-siblings, step-parents, aunts, and uncles. However, the emotional damage in those cases may not be as severe depending on your child's relationship with their extended family. 

Regardless, discussions that reflect poorly on parents and other significant adults in a child’s life should be done out of earshot for the best interests of the child. 

Effects of Parental Alienation 

The effects of parental alienation are long-lasting and often affect your child for the rest of their life. Common side-effects include:

  • Feelings of increased anger
  • Heightened feelings of neglect (Children may experience actual neglect because parents are fighting or overwhelmed.)
  • Adopting destructive behavioral or emotional patterns that they pass on to others
  • Having a skewed view of reality
  • Becoming prone to lying about others
  • Feelings of worthlessness or low self-esteem
  • Experiencing difficulty bonding with others; attachment and trust issues
  • Becoming combative with others due to learning an “us vs. them” mentality
  • Seeing things as very literal and in “black and white.”
  • Lacking empathy for others
  • Engaging in risky, attention-seeking behaviors

Signs of Parental Alienation

Sometimes, parents feel angry and abandoned, particularly when dealing with a nasty divorce or complex custody case. As a result, they engage in narcissistic behavior and direct their anger at the other parent, hoping they will look like the “good parent” or the “reliable parent.” 

Whether or not they aimed to undermine the targeted parent or simply blow off steam, parental alienation behaviors can affect their child’s life. 

Common behaviors alienators engage in include:

  • Preventing their child from seeing the other parents
  • Insist that all personal items stay at their house and not go to the other parents
  • Plan tempting or fun activities at the same time the child is supposed to be spending time with the other parent
  • Frequently break or alter custody arrangements in their favor
  • WIthhold information from the co-parent; medical documents, report cards, updates about school, activities, or friends
  • Ask their child for personal information or “gossip” about the other parent
  • Talk up their new partner or spouse over the child’s biological parent. For example, “Your step-dad loves spending time with you much more than your dad does.”
  • Making false accusations of physical or sexual abuse

Parental alienation is considered by many psychologists and mental health professionals as a form of brainwashing and even child abuse. In severe cases of parental alienation, the child’s rejection of the other parent is long-lasting, harsh, and may have life-long after effects. 

How to Avoid Undermining Your Co-Parent 

The easiest way to avoid undermining your co-parent after divorce is to not speak negatively about them in front of your child. For example, if your co-parent has canceled their scheduled parenting time or has done something that angers you, find another adult you can speak to and vent your frustration privately. 

Have conversations with your co-parent that have the potential to blow up in a neutral spot; a coffee shop, park bench, or a mutual friend’s house who acts as a mediator. Don’t assume that once your children are in bed, you can raise your voices or have heated debates, and they won’t hear. 

Respect your co-parent's time and rules. For example, if they are supposed to be spending time with your child at 3 pm on Saturday, don’t show up at 3:45. Not only does that show your child your co-parent's time isn’t valued, but it could affect child custody proceedings if you’re not holding up your end of the bargain. 

Similarly, if your co-parent has expressed strong views about particular television shows, religious or cultural aspects, or activities, don’t undermine them and ignore their wishes. This also shows your child that the other parent’s rules and ideas don’t matter. If you disagree with a rule or decision, find a time to discuss it. 

Dos and Donts

  • Do speak positively about your co-parent.
  • Do encourage a loving relationship between your child and their parent
  • Do respect their wishes and rules in regards to culture and religion
  • DOshare school, medical, and other important information with your co-parent
  • DO involve them in major decisions pertaining to your child
  • DO respect court orders and any provisions the family law court sets forth.
  • DO make provisions to protect your child in cases of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse.
  • DO consider family therapy or individual therapy for you and your child
  • DO be flexible when it comes to holidays, vacations, and emergency schedule changes
  • DO seek out the help of a parenting coordinator if needed


  • DON’T blame the other parent's behavior for problems affecting your child
  • DON’T withhold important information or exclude the co-parent from important events
  • DON’T make false allegations against your co-parent
  • DON’T discuss personal issues about your high-conflict divorce within earshot of your child
  • DON’T blame the other parent for financial problems (even if they are not paying child support)
  • DON’T give your child a choice over visitation or custody arrangements
  • DON’T discuss adult or marital issues with your children; even older teens and adult children should not know intimate details
  • DON’T blame or bad-mouth step-parents or significant others as the reason for problems with your ex-spouse
  • DON’T praise your new spouse or partner over your child’s biological parent

What To Do If You’re the Alienated Parent

mom comforting worried son

It can be challenging to make amends if you are on the receiving end of parental alienation, either as the parent or alienated child. Often, severe parental alienation goes on for years, and the targeted parent and child may not even be aware they are being subjected to the situation.

As with most mental health situations, early intervention is best. Family or individual therapy can help. If you are not the custodial parent, you may be able to present a case in family court, which can bring about child custody evaluations or changes. But proceed with caution as these events are often traumatic for children. 

If you are the target of parental alienation, you mustn't do it yourself and begin to target the other parent. Instead, document what you are seeing, hearing, and experiencing, and allow legal professionals to intervene as appropriate. 

An excellent place to start is by speaking with your child’s pediatrician or contacting a family counseling center in your area. 

For more resources to help manage your custody schedule and co-parent in peace see: How to Make a Custody Schedule After Divorce (Free Printable Custody Calendar)

L. Elizabeth Forry

About L. Elizabeth Forry

L. Elizabeth Forry is an Early Childhood Educator with 15 years of classroom… Read more

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