The devastating reality of parental alienation

Is your close relationship with your child dissolving and you don't know why? Is your child showing adverse feelings toward you and less trust? Are you completely confused as to why this is happening? Then the answer may be that the relationship with your child is being subject to abusive strategies by an alienating parent. This is a devastating form of abuse that seriously affects the child for the rest of their lives. It can also send the targeted parent into a state of depression and despair.


Parental alienation is increasingly being recognised as an abusive tactic, especially in high-conflict divorce where there are children involved. CAFCASS is the government body that advises the UK Family Courts about the welfare of children in divorce. They define parental alienation as follows:

'When a child's resistance or hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.'

How can we tell that this is happening?

Legally and scientifically it is still problematic to show the difference between children who are being deliberately alienated by one parent against the other, and children who are distancing themselves from a parent, potentially due to abusive treatment or violence and fear in the family environment.

There are patently circumstances where the child needs to be isolated from one parent for their own safety and the accusation of parental alienation has been used in courts by abusers seeking to retain contact with their children. This makes it a highly contentious area in law and also, currently, in mental health. It needs greater evidence and more investigation to be more widely accepted.

However, where there is a great amount of empirical evidence is that, even in situations where children have been abused by one of their parents, the child frequently seeks to have a relationship with that parent and they do not reject them. Children have an essential and intrinsic urge to have a relationship with their parents. If a child appears to outright reject one of their parents, who is proven to have been a good enough parent and has been present in the child's life, there is a good chance that the child has been subject to manipulation by the other parent. This is child abuse.

What are the signs of parental alienation in the child?

There are distinct signs that a child is likely the victim of alienating tactics by one parent. These signs are named in the five-factor model to attempt to establish whether parental alienation is present:

  1. There is no evidence of any abuse or neglectful treatment of the child perpetrated by the rejected parent.
  2. The child had a positive relationship with the parent before they were rejected.
  3. The child exhibits behaviour and manifestations of alienation such as extreme anger and disdain towards the alienated parent.
  4. There is reject of the loving 'good enough' parent.
  5. The abusive alienating parent uses recognised tactics to create the alienation.

The child may criticise the alienated parent for everything they do and, at the same time, staunchly defend the alienating parent who can do no wrong. Although children can say hurtful things to parents in the normal run of life and individuation, they usually feel guilt and will apologise. In parental alienation, there is no demonstration of guilt around their mistreatment of the alienated parent and they will deny that the alienating parent is influencing them.

If the above elements are present, the child is displaying characteristics of parental alienation syndrome (PAS). The psychiatrist Richard Gardner created the term in 1985 to help explain this form of child abuse, which has a devastating long-term impact on the mental health and well-being of the child.

What is the impact on the alienated parent?

The impact on the alienated parent cannot be underestimated; they suffer immense grief as they feel their child turn from them. There is complete confusion and despair as their child is emotionally abducted from them in plain sight. The child may also extend their rejection towards others in the victim's family; like loving grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. This also is not normal behaviour in a child within affectionate relationships.

What are parental alienation strategies?

The strategies employed by alienating parents are extremely similar to the tactics used by cult leaders to alienate and isolate individuals from their families and support systems. These techniques include: creating the impression that the targeted parent is unreliable, or even dangerous to the child. Erasing positive memories of the targeted parent. Undermining the targeted parent's love for that child and even telling the child that the targeted parent does not truly love them. Denigrating and diminishing the targeted parent in the eyes of the child and letting the child know that any positive feelings that they may express towards the targeted parent meet with disapproval from the alienating parent.

These are tactics used by cults in order to control and isolate because they work. They are extremely powerful.

The other tactic that is extremely powerful is the sudden and intense Love Bombing of a child by a previously absent, or even mildly abusive, parent. This can create in the child a great need to please that parent when the Love Bombing begins. If the child has been desperate for a show of kindness and a relationship with that parent, once it appears and feels good, they are even more likely to give that parent the benefit of the doubt and seek to please them. Even if the child had a good enough relationship with both parents, the strategies employed by an alienating parent can be too powerful to resist.

What can you do as an alienated parent?

Although parental alienation is increasingly recognised and understood, in the family courts and with counsellors, there is still a deficit in understanding the amount of damage to the individual who is being deliberately isolated from their child. It is even harder when the parent is struggling to comprehend what is happening, which can lead them to the point of despair with how to cope with it and know what to do.

The feeling that this is happening is powerful and should be taken seriously when sensed by a parent, or extended family member, where there is no evidence of a previously detrimental relationship with the child. Seeking a counsellor who understands this life-destroying situation is crucial - not only for the alienated parent or grandparent - but also for the future well-being of the child.

If you would like help with this devastating and delicate situation, please seek counselling from someone who has knowledge and experience around parental alienation to walk with you through this traumatic experience and help you come to a place of understanding, look at ways of healing estranged relationships, learn coping strategies and move forward in your life with hope and self-compassion.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Hungerford, Berkshire, RG17
Written by Susie Bowell, BA (Hons), RGN, Cert & Dip in Counselling, BACP reg.
Hungerford, Berkshire, RG17

Susie Bowell
BA (Hons); RGN; Dip. Counselling.
I trained as a counsellor after a wonderful and rewarding twenty years experience as a senior nurse working with those with life-changing and life-limiting conditions. A difficult realisation led me to retrain and begin to focus my time where I feel I can give the most added benefit to my clients.

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