What is Parental Alienation?

The late child psychiatrist Richard A. Gardner came up with the term Parental Alienation Syndrome over 20 years ago to explain the breakdown of once normal, healthy parent-child relationships during divorce and child custody cases. The explanation of parental alienation is heartbreakingly simple—one parent purposely hurts, and in some cases destroys, the previously loving healthy relationship between the child and their former spouse.

Many mental health professionals argue over whether the patterns of behaviors that make up parental alienation constitute a clinical “syndrome.” Parental Alienation Syndrome is not yet in the DSM, the psychology profession’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The manual is the clinician’s guide to symptoms and syndromes and the definitive diagnosis of any legitimate mental health condition.

Whether or not mental health professionals ever classify parental alienation as a clinical “syndrome,” the patterns of behavior that make up this destructive family dynamic are often consistent within families where parental alienation exists.

Unresolved emotional and psychological issues are at the root of the alienating parent’s actions. These issues may lie dormant for years, but when the divorce, the ultimate adult abandonment, becomes real, the alienating parent becomes symptomatic.

Most professionals believe there are three levels of parental alienation ——to describe increasingly more destructive parental alienation behavior – low, moderate, and severe. These “levels” are simply identifying markerss or labels along a continuum of behaviors. These marks make it easy for people to clarify and compare their actions. Both psychologists and non-professionals use these labels to quickly and easily communicate complicated concepts.

Low Parental Alienation

The “Low Parental Alienation” label defines parents who direct negative comments or behaviors toward the other parent in the presence of the child, but who regret the outbursts, worry about their effect on the child, and makes an effort to explain the inappropriate behavior.

Many parents will sometimes engage in low-level alienating behavior, but these parents know that the child must have a normal, healthy, loving relationship with the other parent. These parents realize that their occasional accusations are wrong and have a positive enough attitude to correct their errors. They may not necessarily want to do the right thing, but they mostly do an excellent job without regret because they know what’s right is what’s best for their child.

Moderate Parental Alienation

The “Moderate Parental Alienation” label refers to parents who mean well; who believe their child should have a normal, positive relationship with their other parent, but who also believe that the relationship shouldn’t come at their expense or in any way interfere with their life.

Parents who engage in moderate alienating behavior sometimes react to some perceived or real slight from the other parent. Moderate-level alienators have a difficult time controlling their feelings and will tend to have more emotional problems than someone who falls into the low-level alienator category. The all-out attack on the other parent typically lasts as long as their emotional reaction lasts. When these parents get through their anger, they cease the alienating behavior and move forward. While they may not try hard to encourage the child’s relationship with the other parent, at least they don’t sabotage their relationship. That is, until the next real or perceived attack from the other parent. Then the alienating behavior resumes.

Severe Parental Alienation

The “Severe Parental Alienation” label applies to parents with a clear objective  – destroy the one-time loving and healthy relationship between the child and the child’s other parent. These alienators are obsessed and relentless. They never get tired, stop scheming, or pass up a chance to reitertae their destructive message to the child. They conscript family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors, the police, and social service agencies into their battle against the targeted parent.

When severe alienators are in the midst of an alienation campaign, the child is both a weapon against the targeted parent and a method to make them feel emotionally complete. They rarely stop to consider how their actions affect the child. If they do recognize the child, severe alienators quickly address those thoughts with simple behavior-reinforcing platitudes such as, “I know best,” “Whatever it takes,” and “It’s the other parent’s fault.” Severe alienators are neither aware of nor interested in, the confusion and conflicted emotions raging inside the child. These parents are only interested in satisfying their own unhealthy, internally driven needs.

Once the alienation is fulfilled, and the parent/child relationship is permanently damaged, unsatisfied severe alienators may continue using the child to exact further revenge on the previously loved spouse. Together parent and child can run up unnecessary bills aimed at leaving the targeted parent in debt. They can make false physical or sexual abuse allegations aimed at branding the targeted parent, an abusive parent, or sex offender. They can make false statements to the police in an attempt to get the targeted parent arrested and jailed. Severe alienating parents tap a bottomless source of creativity that only hatred, obsession, and vindictiveness can fuel.