Parental Alienation in Child Custody Litigation



When marital discord evolves into hatred, many couples are quick to see divorce as their best option. Divorce may be an easy way out for the couple; but it often wreaks havoc on the children.  Family Court judges welcome mental health professionals to guide them in determining the future best interests of the children.  These “guides” are called Custody Evaluators.  When the Custody Evaluator correctly identifies Parental Alienation (PA), the evaluator can recommend a particular strategy that best serves the interests of the child.

Parental Alienation vs. Parental Alienation Syndrome

Parental Alienation is frequently confused with the Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). Dr. Richard Gardner1  coined the phrase, “parental alienation syndrome” in 19852  and wrote extensively about it.  He defined the syndrome as

“…a childhood disorder that arises almost exclusively in the context of child-custody disputes.  It is a disorder in which children, programmed by the allegedly ‘loved’ parent, embark upon a campaign of denigration of the allegedly ‘hated’ parent. The children exhibit little if any ambivalence over their hatred, which often spreads to the extended family of the allegedly despised parent.”3 

Simply stated, the syndrome describes the children’s campaign of denigration against one of their parents, a campaign that is encouraged by the other parent.  It should be noted that there is no PAS when abuse or neglect is present.  PAS can only be applicable when the “hated” parent has not abused or neglected the child, or exhibited any behavior that would justify the child’s animosity toward that parent.

While PAS identifies a problem in the child [“a childhood disorder”], Parental Alienation on the other hand, identifies a collection of one parent’s behaviors aimed at causing the child to become alienated from the other parent.  Children can become alienated from a parent for a variety of reasons, such as sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, parental abandonment, adult alcoholism, narcissism, and other reasons.  Indeed, a child may become alienated from the parent who initiated the divorce, blaming that parent for breaking up the family.  But, while these reasons may explain why the child is alienated from the parent, none of these reasons would qualify as descriptors for Parental Alienation.  Parental Alienation is a strategy whereby one parent intentionally displays to the child unjustified negativity aimed at the other parent.  The purpose of this strategy is to damage the child’s relationship with the other parent, and to turn the child’s emotions against that other parent.  This strategy has been called a “head-trip game.”

Parental Alienation is a particular type of family dynamic that can emerge during divorce in which the child becomes excessively hostile and rejecting of one parent.  The trans-generational dynamics involved with this family process troubles mental health professionals, family law attorneys, and judges as well.

Descriptors of Parental Alienation

When the custody evaluator investigates whether or not Parental Alienation is present, he/she looks for a variety of descriptors, recognizing that one or two alone are usually insufficient to identify a parentally alienated child.  Some of these descriptors are (1) the child expresses a hatred for one parent; (2) the child parrots the language of the favored parent; and (3) the child feels no guilt.

Effects of Parental Alienation on the Children

Parental Alienation is a form of emotional child abuse.  The potential impact of this abuse on a child’s life can be devastating.  Some of the frequently listed effects of Parental Alienation have been reported in the child welfare literature.  These include the following:

(a) An impaired ability to establish and maintain future relationships; 
(b) A lowering of the child’s self-image; 
(c) A loss of self-respect;
(d) Lack of impulse control. Aggression can turn into delinquent behavior; and 
(e) Educational problems, disruptions in school.

Family therapists who have attempted to treat alienated children have classified the problem as a “parent-child relational problem,” (# V61.20) outlined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
The expression, “poisoning the mind of a minor” as an example of parental interference can be traced back in case law to the early years of the last century. When one parent “poisons” the child’s mind against the other parent in hopes of alienating the child against the other parent, it is tantamount to teaching the child how to hate.  In recent years, Quebec’s Judge John H. Gomery put it eloquently this way:

“Hatred is not an emotion that comes naturally to a child.  It has to be taught…Defendant has deliberately poisoned the minds of his children against the mother that they formerly loved and needed.” 

In conclusion, Parental Alienation can be devastating to the mental health of the child as well as to the parent-child relationship.  In addition to Custody Evaluators, it is important for family lawyers, Guardians ad Litem, and family court judges to understand this increasingly prevalent phenomenon in child custody litigation.


1 Richard Alan Gardner, American psychiatrist, died May 25, 2003.
2 Dr. Gardner wrote, “Of the many types of psychological disturbance that can be brought about by [custody] litigation, there is one that I focus on here…The term I use is parental alienation syndrome.” “Recent Trends in Divorce & Custody Litigation,” 29(2) Academy Forum 3-7 (1985).
3 Gardner, R. A. (1998) “Recommendations for Dealing with Parents who Induce a Parental Alienation Syndrome in Their Children,” Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 28(3/4), 1.
4 See, Ken Lewis, (2009) “The Head-trip Game,” Child Custody Evaluations by Social Workers, Washington, DC: NASW Press, p. 44.
5 “The state is a party to every marriage contract…and will not tolerate even parental interference that is not prompted by true parental love and a disinterested motive to promote the child's welfare and happiness.”  Allen v Forsythe et. al., 160 Mo. App. 262; 142 S.W. 820 (1912). Stuart-Mills, P. v. Cher, A.J., Sup. Ct. Quebec, District of Montreal (1991).                        



This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

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