Parental alienation involves a parent attempting to negatively interfere with a child's relationship with the other parent. An alienating parent may lie to a child, or place that child in a position of disliking the other, for no valid reason. Social science continues to evolve on the subject, which has not been universally accepted.

Perhaps your previously happy-go-lucky children have now become withdrawn and even hostile towards you following your divorce. You might also notice that they seem more agitated after spending time with your former spouse. Could your kids be suffering from Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), a condition in which a brainwashed child acts out toward a targeted parent? Here are eight common indicators of PAS.

1.    The other parent asks the children to secretly snoop into your personal business, such as dating, friendships and private activities. The children think that sneaking around is normal in a relationship. They feel tense because they love both parents, and they do not want to be put in a position of having to choose between them.

2.    The other parent keeps secrets, shares private confidences or uses special code words to destroy your relationship with your children.

3.    The other parent lets the children choose to skip visits or end visits prematurely, despite a court-ordered schedule. He or she blames the non-custodial parent for the conflict, and the children become angry.

4.    The other parent fails to cooperate regarding activities, schedules, vacation plans and other events.

5.    The other parent discloses sensitive personal information about the divorce or relationship to diminish the children’s respect for you.

6.    The children get defensive when confronted with evidence that Parental Alienation has occurred. They use the same language that the other parent does when describing your quirks or the “bad things” you’ve allegedly done to the family. In other words, the children have no awareness that these ideas have been programmed in them.

7.    The other parent becomes upset when the children have fun during your visits. Children develop feelings of guilt for enjoying themselves around you, almost as though they are betraying the alienating parent by doing so.

8.    The other parent will not adjust schedules to meet the child’s needs. For example, the child wants to attend summer camp, but the camp falls during your scheduled family vacation. The other parent will sign the child up for camp anyway and blame you for not being flexible.

According to the Parental Alienation Awareness Organization website, “Parental alienation is defined as a set of behaviors that are harmful and damaging to a child’s emotional and mental health. It generally involves the mental manipulation and/or bullying of the child to pick between their mother or father. These behaviors can also result in destroying a loving and warm relationship they once shared with a parent.”

If you suspect that your ex-spouse has been engaged in alienation, what can you do to resolve your family’s crisis in a way that protects your relationships with your children and avoids or at least minimizes hostile interactions with the other parent? What therapies actually work to roll back the damage of alienation and strengthen families?

Strategies for Recovery

Dr. Elizabeth Ellis proposes five steps for alienated parents to help their children overcome PAS:

1.    Show children that the alienated parent is not the “bad guy.”  Per Dr. Ellis, children who see the targeted parent treated with respect might reconsider their perspective and come to see that parent as valued and worthwhile, contradicting the alienating parent’s narrative.
2.    Avoid making the child choose between the two parents.
3.    Look for ways to mitigate the other parent’s hurt and animosity.
4.    Find ways to create allies among all parties.
5.    Persist in seeking reunification despite setbacks and frustrations.

Dr. Ellis also suggests that, in some cases, physically separating the child and alienating parent can be useful and can end the bad effects of the brainwashing. Depending on circumstances and nature of the alienation, the courts might consider actions, such as altering the custody arrangement.

Cautions when Addressing PAS

According to Edward Kruk, Ph.D., children who’ve been alienated could also suffer from something akin to post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD). Dr. Kruk cautions that while the relationship between the targeted parent and children can be restored over time, those involved need to be sensitive and to avoid rushing the process. Undoing the damage caused by brainwashing is neither simple, nor linear. Prepare for ups and downs.

Reunification Goals

According to PAS authority, Dr. Richard Warshak, the goals for reunification after PAS include the following:

•    Avoiding parental conflict in front of the child
•    Encouraging an independent child
•    Teaching critical thinking skills
•    Understanding different perspectives and
•    Promoting a healthy relationship with both parents.

Dr. Warshak believes that therapies should teach children how to overcome their codependence with the alienating and enmeshed parent and help them view relationships more empathetically.

Therapy for the Targeted Parent

It’s normal for targeted parents to feel deeply hurt and betrayed by the alienation. Frustratingly, this pain can prevent them from getting the help they need and even lead them to internalize a sense of victimhood. “Perhaps my ex and the kids have a point when they criticize me?”

Targeted parents may need extensive therapy both by themselves and with the children (and with the other parent, if possible) to heal from the experience and rebuild good relationships and a sense of self-esteem.

Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) refers to specific negative behaviors that children exhibit when one parent intentionally turns them against the other parent. This manipulation radically alters the family dynamic. Left unchecked, it can be nearly impossible to reverse the brainwashing.

History of PAS

Psychiatrist Richard Gardner introduced the concept of Parental Alienation in 1985 after observing patients and reviewing literature on child development and divorce. At first, Gardner’s work was viewed with skepticism by many of his peers. He countered by arguing that the research community was neglecting an epidemic of PAS across the country in much the same way as it had turned a blind eye to the problem of domestic violence for decades. He saw himself as a crusader for the rights of children.

By taking a radical stance, Gardner left himself open to criticism. For instance, when actress Mia Farrow accused director Woody Allen of child abuse, he issued a statement of support for Allen’s general position. The response from Farrow’s defenders was fast and furious.

His New York Times obituary, written in 2003, captured the essence of this debate and the fractious relationship he had with the research community:

“Dr. Gardner, who testified in more than 400 child custody cases, maintained that children who suffered from parental alienation syndrome had been indoctrinated by a vindictive parent and obsessively denigrated the other parent without cause.
In severe cases, he recommended that courts remove children from the homes of the alienating parents and place them in the custody of the parents accused of abuse.

His theory has provoked vehement opposition from some mental health professionals, child abuse experts and lawyers. Critics argue that it lacks a scientific basis, noting that the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association have not recognized it as a syndrome.

They also say that the theory is biased against women, as allegations of abuse are usually directed at fathers, and that it is used as a weapon by lawyers seeking to undermine a mother’s credibility in court.”

Gardner’s Shifting Stance on the Role of Gender in PAS

Dr. Gardner wrote an article in the American Academy of Psychoanalysis in 1994 arguing that fathers deserve more legal protection from alienating mothers than vice versa. He later changed his views and declared that the problem was gender neutral.

Some thought leaders have stood with Gardner. For instance, psychologist Amy Baker authored a book, Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties That Bind, wherein she catalogues numerous PAS instances and observes that both men and women can be victimized.

Scientific Challenges to the Theory of Parental Alienation

A research paper written by Jennifer Hoult, The Evidentiary Admissibility of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Science, Law, and Policy, published in 2006, examined the reliability and validity of PAS and assessed Gardner’s original work. She argued that PAS should not be admitted in court as a defense based on scientific and legal precedent.

As of Jan. 1, 2008, the American Psychological Association had no stated position on PAS.

Famous PAS Case

Jason Patric, a Hollywood actor who appeared in Speed 2: Cruise Control and The Lost Boys, fathered a child with his ex-girlfriend, Danielle Schreiber, in 2009. Gus was fathered via in vitro fertilization. After his birth, the parties argued. Schreiber claimed that Patric never wanted to be a father, while he insisted that he had wanted to be involved in the child’s life from the start. The courts eventually awarded full custody to Schreiber, due in part to a letter Patric wrote stating that he wasn’t ready to be a father.

However, Patric countered these allegations, and he has since been seeking paternity. He claims that Gus is a victim of PAS, and he fears that the child will suffer from related issues for the rest of his life.


Divorce proceedings, and their aftermath, can stir up complicated emotions – sometimes causing parents to lose sight of what’s most important: ensuring happy, healthy lives for their children and healing from past pain.

Unfortunately, pressures from the divorce as well as other triggers (e.g. financial problems and psychological distress) cause some parents to say and do things to alienate their children from the other parent. This brainwashing can take many forms. For instance:

  • Badmouthing the other parent (“your dad never feeds you anything healthy”).
  • Intentionally skipping or being late to visits.
  • Acting angry or unhinged when the child says anything good about the targeted parent.

Parental Alienation can have lasting negative effects on the relationship between the victimized parent and the child. These effects often persist for years or decades and require painful work to undo.

Psychologist Dr. Richard Warshak, who did pioneering research in this field, explained the problem this way:

Most children whose parents live apart from each other long for a good relationship with both parents and want to be raised by both… Some children, though, do not crave more time with an absent parent. Instead, these children reject one parent, resist contact, or show extreme reluctance to be with the parent. These children are alienated. In some cases, children have good reasons to reject a deficient parent. In other cases, children reject a parent with whom they previously had a good relationship, often paralleling their other parent’s negative attitudes. The children’s treatment of the rejected parent is disproportionate to that parent’s behavior and inconsistent with the prior history of the parent-child relationship.

Is Parental Alienation occurring? Here are five signs that it might be:

  1. Your child has suddenly, and without explanation, become emotionally distant.

Children’s emotions can be a rollercoaster, particularly during and right after a separation. However, if your children have suddenly and oddly become uncommunicative or even hostile, this attitude shift could be a sign that they are being exposed to negativity toward you from the other parent.

  1. The other parent arbitrarily withholds visitation or interferes with court ordered time-sharing.

Alienating parents sometimes wield time-sharing as a cudgel. He or she might suddenly cancel a visit “because the child is sick” or may take the child on a weekend holiday without telling you, in violation of your agreement.

  1. The child’s hurtful comments to you mirror what your ex has said.

Children repeat what they hear at home. If your child is voicing negative comments about you, your job, or your family that sound suspiciously like something your ex might say, Parental Alienation might be at work.

  1. The child exhibits behavioral changes that others notice.

If your normally well-behaved child all of a sudden starts acting out at school or day care, the abnormal behavior could signal Parental Alienation.

  1. The child insists that his or her negative affect towards you does not come from the other parent.

In the of this field, this is known as the “independent thinker phenomenon.” The child refuses to acknowledge that any brainwashing has occurred, even if you offer solid evidence and arguments to the contrary.

The Ohio Divorce Attorneys with Holzfaster, Cecil, McKnight & Mues author the popular Ohio Divorce & Family Law Blog. They recently posted a useful article entitled “What is Parental Alienation and Parental Alienation Syndrome?”

Attorney Robert Mues notes that there are a number of different factors and circumstances that have an effect on the determination of custody. As in Ohio, Minnesota judges must consider a number of relevant factors when determining the best interest of a child. One of those factors includes whether either parent has continuously and willfully denied the other parent’s right to parenting time or visitation as ordered by a court.

While visitation denials may be relatively easy to prove in court, that alone doesn’t amount to parental alienation. It is not uncommon for some amount of alienation to occur when parents first separate. Usually, the alienation subsides after the parents’ transition through the separation and move on with their lives. In some cases it doesn’t, and instead it continues and escalates to what has become referred to as “Parental Alienation Syndrome.”

This disorder was first identified by Richard A. Gardner, a forensic psychiatrist in the mid-1980s, who defines it as:

A disorder that arises primarily in the context of child-custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming or brainwashing of a child by one parent to denigrate the other parent and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent.

Mues accurately points out that there are three stages of parental alienation syndrome. These stages include mild, moderate and severe. In a mild case there are naive alienators and the perpetrator can be educated and changed. However, in a severe case the perpetrator is often delusional and their entire being is focused on destroying the other parent’s relationship with the child. Experts must be brought in to prove the alienation and, more importantly, to assist the child in gaining an accurate perspective on things.

Having handled many custody disputes involving parental alienation syndrome, I can honestly say that they are, by far, the most difficult and raw of all family cases. At the end of the day, the parent who engages in parental alienation behaviors is committing an act of abuse upon a child. The caselaw in Minnesota on this issue is rather undeveloped. But, like so many psychological theories and concepts, the public, and the courts, are becoming much more familiar with the syndrome and consequence of parental alienation.

There are some experts and jurists who have criticized the concept of parental alienation syndrome, calling it “inadmissible junk science.” This author, however, questions how many times they’ve actually experienced and dealt with the conduct described by Gardner. Parental alienation syndrome is very real (no matter what you call it) and is an example of a parenting at its lowest and most neglectful level.