resources and articles on family law matters.

Free Consultation (780) 423-2643

Parental Alienation: What is it and what causes it?

By Jaskiran Bajwa

What is it?

Parental alienation arises in situations where a child persistently rejects one parent in favor of the other for no objectively valid reason. This is at least partly because of a favored parent’s behavior. To begin, the terms ‘alienated parent’ and ‘targeted parent’ are, among others, both used to refer to the parent who is the subject of the parental alienation and therefore rejected by a child. Conversely, the ‘alienating parent’ or ‘favored parent’ is the one engaging in a campaign of alienation that the child eventually embraces to a varying degree.

If a parent is validly rejected by a child, then the child is said to be ‘estranged’ from the parent and not ‘alienated’. While the estrangement of a child can be described as protective and reasoned, the alienation of a child is distinguished by the child’s disproportionately negative feelings and beliefs regarding the alienated parent; and these negative feelings and beliefs must be contrary to the child’s actual experiences with the alienated parent.

Consequential reasons for rejection of a parent could include physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. As well, the alienated parent may have an authoritarian parenting style or be inconsistent and unpredictable when it comes to expectations of the child. The alienated parent may also be immature, emotionally unavailable, or have substance abuse issues.

There are three levels of parental alienation:

  1. Mild cases in which visitation with the alienated parent is not significantly affected and the child manages to have a relationship with both parents despite there being programming by the favored parent;
  2. Moderate instances in which there are struggles around visitation with the alienated parent because of significant programming by the favored parent; and
  3. Severe cases where the child vehemently refuses to have a relationship with the alienated parent because of a stated absolute hatred toward that parent. In these latter scenarios the child does not have any sort of relationship with the alienated parent, but has a strong allegiance to the favored parent.

Parental alienation as a syndrome remains such a hotly contested topic amongst some judges that some judgments very clearly avoid using the term “parental alienation” instead opting for phrases such as “inauthentic estrangement”. Stemming from concerns of whether it exists as a syndrome, the judiciary can at times be hesitant to intervene as swiftly and severely as is necessary. As it stands, parental alienation is not currently recognized as a syndrome. Regardless of whether or not it should be considered a diagnosable syndrome, the existence of the behaviors connected to parental alienation is not contested.

What causes it?

Parental alienation is a consequence of high conflict relationship breakdowns. These high conflict cases are often characterized by manipulation and a refusal to comply with Court Orders. Affidavits submitted to the court are regularly lengthy and contradicting, making it extremely difficult for the Court to decipher the true facts. In some instances a party may use parenting arrangements as a way to punish the other party or continue to exert control. These high conflict separations involving a child almost always result in the child being pulled into the conflict, and it is in these situations that the risk of parental alienation arises.

Common risk factors associated with alienating parents include:

  1. Mental illness or personality disorder;
  2. Use of alcohol and/or illicit drugs;
  3. Experiencing the romantic relationship’s end as humiliating;
  4. Speaking negatively of the alienated parent around, or to, the child;
  5. Forcing the child to choose between the parents either deliberately or by the child interpreting the same through the favored parent’s actions. An example of the latter is if the favored parent withholds affection from the child if the child seemingly accepts the targeted parent or speaks of him/her positively, in time the child will form an association between accepting the targeted parent and the favored parent’s negative reactions and begin to behave accordingly;
  6. Limiting or interfering with the child’s contact with the alienated parent as well as his/her family; and
  7. Making baseless allegations of physical, mental, or sexual abuse against the alienated parent.

In the significant majority of cases the alienation is done by the parent who has more significant parenting time.

Common characteristics of targeted parents include:

  1. Mental illness or personality disorder; and
  2. Lacking parenting skills or having an authoritarian parenting style.

The targeted parent may also inadvertently contribute to his/her alienation by behaviors such as:

  1. Counter-rejection of the child; and
  2. Responding passively to the conflict or completely giving up parenting.

For a child, risk factors and indicators associated with alienation include:

  1. The child being vulnerable in terms of their temperament, resilience, or personality;
  2. The child lacking other support structures;
  3. The child using negative scenarios relating to the alienated parent provided by the favored parent which are believed by the child to be independent thought;
  4. The child exhibiting oppositional behavior;
  5. The child showing hatred towards the targeted parent; and
  6. The child living far from the targeted parent such that they don’t see the targeted parent often.

Lastly, there are certain characteristics, if evident in the parents’ relationship, that can also indicate a possibility of alienation:

  1. A history of violence in the relationship;
  2. Either or both parents having new partners; and
  3. High conflict.

If you or someone you know is dealing with parental alienation, we can help. Our lawyers are trained all aspects of parenting, custody, and access disputes. We have the resources and experience to help you through this process.

Contact us to set up your consult today

Contact us today

Are you ready to move forward?
Set up an appointment with one of our experienced family and divorce lawyers today.
We offer a free 15 minute telephone or video consultation to see how we can help.