Parental Alienation – 7 things you should know

You were probably unaware that parental alienation existed until you found yourself experiencing it first-hand. Even though parental alienation affects millions of people, it is poorly understood by the general population and the professionals who are supposed to protect you and your child from abuse.

I have been through this personally and know that parental alienation can be extremely confusing and stressful for you. I hope this overview provides you with a greater understanding of parental alienation, what to look for, how this affects you and your child, and what actions you can take to rebuild those precious relationships with your child plus restore your own emotional resilience.

1. Parental Alienation

Parental alienation is a complex dynamic when one parent wilfully embarks on a campaign to psychologically manipulate your child into fearing and despising you. This can result in your child’s unjustified rejection of you as a loving parent, and anyone associated with you. The alienator’s intention is to hurt you and, in some instances, to erase you from your child’s life.

Alienating behaviours can be triggered by various events and are usually associated with a high-conflict separation or divorce. Both men and women can be perpetrators of parental alienation and we often see links to cluster B personality disorders such as narcissism. It is a form of domestic abuse that is difficult to prove once the child has become enmeshed in the pathology and shared delusions of the alienating parent, also known as trauma bonding. It is an issue of child protection, not child custody. It is a mental health issue, and a social crisis.

Alienating parents deploy a range of tactics designed to damage the relationship with your child. Here are three examples of common techniques they use. Firstly, they undermine your character by portraying you as an unfit parent, untrustworthy, and not having your child’s interests at heart. Secondly, they put your child in a conflicted position by pressuring them to choose between you or the alienator. This makes your child fearful that failure to appease and align with the alienating parent will have repercussions for them that may include psychological, emotional or even physical punishment. Thirdly, the alienator tries to minimize your child’s contact with you and seeks to make any time you have together an uncomfortable experience.

The alienator’s actions can strain the relationship between you and your child, who might even feel compelled to cut off contact with you to avoid further abuse at the hands of the alienating parent.

Degrees of parental alienation can range from mild to severe. Mild alienation is when a child is encouraged to start aligning with the alienating parent, but this is only having a limited impact on the child’s relationship with you. With moderate alienation, a higher degree of pressure is exerted on your child, who then starts taking on the thoughts and opinions of the alienating parent and voicing these as their own. Your child may also find contact with you more problematic, making excuses not to see you and reducing their overall level of communication with you. In cases of severe alienation, we often see vengeful or obsessed behaviours on the part of the alienating parent, determined to do as much damage as they can to your relationship with your child. When your child is exposed to high levels of psychological abuse, you may experience them emotionally cutting themselves off, ‘psychologically splitting’ from you, rejecting you, plus refusing communication and contact. You may even lose all contact with your child, which can continue for long periods.

2. Signs of parental alienation

You may become aware that your child’s behavior towards you starts to change because they are embroiled in a high-stress situation. Children can become hyper-sensitive about the fact that alienation is occurring, making it difficult for you to speak openly to them about the underlying issues and ways to address the situation. They typically deny that they are being alienated, insist on their own autonomy and are afraid to say anything negative about the alienator. This creates the “elephant in the room” that your child refuses to talk about. This can be highly frustrating for you and can contribute to feelings of powerlessness. Thankfully there are other ways for you to support your child through their experience beyond just trying to deal with this head on.
You may notice other signals, such as your child being less affectionate, becoming frustrated or hostile. There might be a breakdown in communication as the child gradually or suddenly ‘choses’ to spend little or no time with you. Your child may start using adult language or have inappropriate degrees of familiarity with adult matters, such as details of your divorce or custody disputes. They may also be coerced into breaking your trust, for instance, by spying on you on behalf of the alienating parent or stealing from you.
A recognized sign that your child is being alienated is their inability to articulate why they do not want to spend time with you. Your child will typically resort to using unsubstantiated statements, such as you make them feel unsafe, or a level of minutia, such as they do not like the food you provide, neither of which adequately explain their discomfort with you.

It is natural for a child to want relationships with both parents and their families. There are studies evidencing that even in situations where a child has been abused by a parent, they still seek a relationship with that person. Alienation is therefore an unnatural state created between you and your child by the alienator, especially where you had a loving relationship with your child prior to alienation starting. The unnatural alignment with one parent, and a rejection of the other is a point that should receive greater attention when investigating cases of parental alienation.

3. Alienation versus estrangement

Some people confuse alienation with estrangement. Alienation is when someone else is intentionally harming the relationship between you and your child. Estrangement is where your own actions damage the relationship with your child.
Because alienation is counterintuitive, you can unwittingly estrange yourself from your child when trying to address what you and your child are experiencing. For instance, you may be feeling a great sense of injustice about what is happening and try to educate your child on parental alienation, not expecting your child to react defensively. Having such conversations can discourage them from wanting to spend time or have contact with you as this re-enforces the conflicted position that the alienator has created. There are many mistakes that alienated parents commonly make, which can push your child away from you. This is why it is so important to understand alienation, adapting your own behaviour as a parent, to preserve and enhance the precious relationship with your child.
When you estrange your child, you help the alienator in damaging your relationship. In effect, you are doing the alienator’s job for them.

4. Alienators

Our understanding of alienators leads us to believe that these are individuals who experienced past trauma, and where this has been oppressed rather than addressed. We see this manifest in a range of personality traits including narcissism, borderline personality, histrionic personality and paranoia.
These traumas created psychological insecurities, vulnerability and often infantile behavior in the way that alienators conduct themselves in their adult life. We see these insecurities manifest in a focus on themselves and the use of coping mechanisms such as manipulation, bullying, lack of self-responsibility, blame shifting, projection, a need for control or vengeance and switching from hero to victim according to their goal. We also find a degree of dehumanization and the propensity to consciously or unconsciously subject their children to psychological distress where it suits the alienator’s purposes.

You may experience more than one person actively involved in alienating your child. Common examples of people who are alienators include:

  • an ex-partner or spouse seeking to hurt you
  • an ex’s new partner supporting the ex or as a result of their own agenda
  • members of the alienator’s family who support the alienator’s perspective
  • members of your family that align with the alienator
Alienation does not always start when the marriage or partnership ends. We observe periods of pre-alienation, as the alienator lays early foundations for turning your child against you. This period of pre-alienation is often associated with the alienator being unhappy with you or anticipating that the marriage or partnership is coming to an end. You may even have experienced the alienator threatening to stop you seeing your children as a punishment if your marriage or partnership ends. When the relationship with the alienator finishes, this can act as a catalyst to accelerate their efforts, becoming more overt in the actions they take to alienate you from your child.

We also know from experience that alienation can begin or accelerate because of events or circumstances that trigger the insecurities of the alienator, who then wants to hurt you back. We have identified five key triggers:

1) breakdown of the marriage, partnership or divorce
2) money matters
3) legal matters
4) you start a new romantic relationship
5) you have a good relationship with your child.

Alienators can have very little regard for the authorities and are often prepared to perjure themselves in court proceedings if they feel the need to protect their ‘truth’. Worse still, many are prepared to make false accusations of physical, psychological and sexual abuse against you as a mechanism to undermine your credibility. This can provide them with an opportunity to gain further control over your child whilst you clear your name.

5. Your experience

Parental alienation is one of the most challenging experiences you are ever likely to endure. Having relationships with your children damaged, or, worse still, losing contact with them, affects you to your very core. This may come on top of trauma associated with an unhappy or abusive relationship with the person who is now alienating your child.


It is an emotionally draining and bewildering time for you. Unpicking aspects of your experience enhances your understand of how this is impacting your mental and emotional state and can help in overcoming your trauma and healing yourself. Although this is a very complex area, we find that alienated parents find it helpful to focus on the following:

Extent of Alienation 

The degree of alienation from your child is a strong indicator of how you will be affected mentally and emotionally. The more severe the alienation, the greater the impact this is likely to have on you. The initial onset of alienation is often the most traumatic period, and whilst the passage of time can help reduce emotional pain, this may endure over many years. Alienation has been compared with a living bereavement where there is no closure for the loss of the relationship with your child. 

Alienator Control

The alienator’s behaviors can heavily influence your experience.  Some alienators are intent on inflicting the maximum psychological and emotional damage and take steps to try and eradicate you and any association with you from your child’s life.  This can include blocking all access to the child through visits, phone and social media, stopping the child from seeing your family, turning your family against you, alienating you from friends and stopping you from receiving information related to school and medical records. The more vindictive the alienator, the greater your efforts will need to be to restore your own emotional resilience.

You

Your own mental and emotional state prior to entering the relationship with the alienator can also have a bearing on how you experience alienation. When you are being alienated, your own insecurities can be re-lived and contribute to your experience of how the alienator and your children are treating you.  For instance, if you had suffered a lack of support or love earlier in life, when your own child rejects you, your emotional response can be linked to that past trauma. 

Taken together, these factors can create significant mental and emotional strain that permeates all aspects of your life. We refer to this state as an “emotional rollercoaster”, where you are contending with feelings of grief, guilt, shame, powerlessness, isolation, injustice, anger, fear and anxiety. You may find yourself becoming fixated on emotional traumas, keeping you on the rollercoaster, until you start taking back personal control of the situation.

6. Why is Parent Alienation not recognized and better supported?

You may have discovered that there is little awareness of parental alienation amongst the population in general and this lack of understanding often extends to the legal profession, social services and psychologists/therapists. This has created a widespread inability across all parts of the establishment that have responsibility for safeguarding children to be effective in protecting your child.

There is still controversy regarding the validity of parental alienation as being a real phenomenon. The term Parental Alienation Syndrome (“PAS”) was developed in the 1980s by Dr Richard Gardner, and proponents of PAS advocated this being recognized and adopted within legal and therapeutic settings. However, the adoption of PAS was resisted by others on the basis that there was not enough evidence to support PAS as a distinct psychological issue and that there was an overemphasis on one parent. Some critics even made unsubstantiated personal attacks on Dr Gardner. Since then, the term Parental Alienation has largely survived as a concept, but ‘Syndrome’ has been dropped due to the negative association of the accusations made against Dr Gardner.

More recently, there has been resistance from movements seeking to present parental alienation as merely a false allegation made by male perpetrators of domestic violence to continue harassing and abusing their victims. These movements willfully ignore evidence that both men and women suffer parental alienation outside the context of domestic abuse cases.
The advocates for parental alienation remain focused on building the evidence and support for having this formally recognised by legal and psychological experts. Progress is slow but is being made.

7. What you can do to address the effects of parental alienation

Parental alienation is a complex area, and we have only skimmed the surface here, but we hope that this overview has provided insights and understanding that helps you take actions that improve your situation.

In our years of experience, we know that parents are broadly seeking the same outcomes: –

  • Rebuilding relationships with your child
  • Reducing the harm being done by alienators
  • Restoring your own mental and emotional wellbeing and resilience 

To achieve the above objectives, we advocate that you invest in understanding 3 Key Areas that will help you navigate and overcome alienating behaviors and impacts. These 3 Key Areas are: –

1. Your Child’s Experience

Learning about alienation to understanding what your child is experiencing, looking beyond their behaviors to support your child’s real needs. When you perceive what your child is going through and see the world through their eyes, it changes your view of their experience and needs. You can help them most when you understand what they need from you, as this informs the changes you need to make in how best to support them. Part of this is learning about the do’s and don’ts of helping your alienated child, understanding how your relationship has shifted and ways to adapt your parenting style.  You need to focus on continually adapting yourself over time so that you provide the best support as your relationship evolves.  

2. Alienator Tactics

Understanding the alienator mindset is key to reducing the harm they are doing. You gain insights from knowing why they are acting in certain ways, what triggers them, how to maintain boundaries and what they are likely to do next. Most alienated parents are reacting to the alienator, who has already put their plan into action, leaving you at a disadvantage. However, alienators can be surprisingly predictable, which provides you with opportunities to develop strategies that get you ahead of the alienator.  This can reduce their options to harm relationships with your child, plus help you take back some control of the situation.

3. Your Wellbeing

Focusing on your own mental and emotional state is critical for your own wellbeing and resilience. This may feel uncomfortable as you are probably used to focusing all your attention on your child.
However, you are less able to help your child if you are still dealing with your own mental and emotional experience of alienation. Two examples illustrate this well. Firstly, if you are triggered by something your child says or does, this takes your attention off the child’s needs, and your interaction risks being about defending yourself and protecting your own emotional needs. Not only does this make your support less effective, but your reaction may end up estranging your child.
Secondly, if you are acting in a sad or depressed way, you can make yourself unattractive as a role model or someone your child wants to spend time with. Being confident and life-embracing provides a much better example for your child. Focusing on your wellbeing is therefore important not just for your own benefit but also because it helps your child.

If you do not currently have contact with your child, the emphasis of actions changes. In your situation, you still need to learn about alienation, the alienator mindset and also your emotional wellbeing, but you use this knowledge to prepare for the future. You want to be ready to take the right steps when your child does decide to reach out, so that you can start to rebuild relationships and not waste that precious opportunity. Restoring your emotional resilience ahead of that time not only helps you to be ready for that opportunity, it also helps you to live a fuller life in the period between now and then.

How we can help you

We have extensive expertise in helping parents just like you through your unique experience of alienation. We have two core offerings that can help you.

Coaching. One-to-one sessions held over Zoom provide a flexible way to access our expertise according to your specific needs. For instance, you may want support in handling one specific aspect of alienation, such as preparing to meet a child you have not seen for a period, and you want to make the most of that opportunity. Alternatively, you may want several sessions that are structured to help your understanding of alienation and support you in changing your parenting style. In such instances, we are unique in providing supporting materials that help you prepare for and get the most out of the coaching session. Whatever your preference and need, our coaching service can help you. Click here for more information.

9-Step Program. This is our flagship service. We focus on the 3 Key Areas set out above, providing you with a range of tools that support you in rebuilding relationships with your child, reducing the harm done by alienators and restoring your mental and emotional well-being. The 9-Step Program is designed to help parents who currently have contact with their children as well as those who are preparing for future opportunities to rebuild relationships. The Program is 8 weeks long and provides tutorials, videos and exercises, plus weekly live coaching sessions to rapidly build your ability to transform your experience of alienation and support you with your unique situation. Having completed the Program, we have included a further 2 months of ongoing support to help you put what you have learnt into practice and refine your personal strategy for maximum impact. Click here for more information.

Please note we do not provide legal advice and would strongly encourage you to ensure that any legal representative, social worker or mental health professional dealing with your case has experience of parental alienation so that they can best protect your child and you.

Charlie gave me a new perspective on parental alienation and I came to understand each of my children’s experience for the first time.  I now regulary change my parenting style to help my children’s needs as our relationships evolve.

I also learnt that I was paying too little attention to one of the most important parts of overcoming alienation – focusing on me. I now know how my own wellbeing is core to helping my children. Plus I was reminded that I deserved a fulfilling life, even with everything else that was going on.

Thank you Charlie, you changed my life!

GP, United States