Parental Alienation: Recognizing The Signs And What Steps To Take If It’s Happening To Your Children

  •   |   Meghan Freed

Updated November 22, 2023

According to the American Psychological Association, Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is when one parent manipulates a child to turn them against the other parent.  Most often, this follows a contentious custody dispute in a divorce or separation.  This form of psychological manipulation can cause damage to the parent-child that may be difficult or even impossible to repair.

Child psychologist Richard Gardner was the first to call attention to this issue. He concluded that there are 8 distinct symptoms of PAS that differ from the typical adverse reaction a child may have to an estranged parent during a separation or divorce. It’s a high bar to prove parental alienation.  The symptoms are:

  1. A campaign of denigration.  Children become increasingly consumed with hatred for one of their parents
  2. Weak, frivolous, and absurd rationalizations.  When questioned about the reason for their hatred, children offer explanations that may be weak, frivolous, absurd, or even impossible.
  3. Lack of ambivalence about the alienating parent.  The child may demonstrate wholly positive emotions or opinions about the alienating parent, and may even perceive them as perfect.
  4. The “independent thinker” phenomenon.  Alienated children will deny that the alienating parent caused their hostility and insist that these are their own thoughts and opinions.
  5. Absence of guilt about the treatment of the targeted parent.  Alienated children will appear impervious to feelings of guilt toward the targeted parent, even while displaying rude, ungrateful, spiteful, or cold behavior toward them.
  6. Reflexive support for the alienating parent in parental conflict.  In cases of conflict, the child will always side with the alienating parent.
  7. Presence of borrowed scenarios.  Children may make accusations toward the targeted parent that utilize phrases and ideas sourced from the alienating parent.
  8. Rejection of extended family.  The hatred the child feels toward the targeted parent will spread to their extended family.

Parental Alienation Red Flags

So, what do these symptoms look like in action?  There are several signs your ex-spouse may exhibit that could point to your attempted alienation from your child, including:

  • They speak negatively toward and about you.
  • They withhold medical, academic, or other important information regarding your child from you.
  • They refer to you by your first name around your child, instead of addressing you as “mom” or “dad.”
  • They tell your child that you don’t love them.
  • They force your child to choose between the two of you.
  • They tell your child that you are dangerous.
  • They withdraw their love or affection unless your child aligns with them.
  • They interfere with the communication between you and your child.
  • They limit contact between you and your child.

While these signs are important to be aware of, you likely do not spend extended periods of time around your child’s other parent.  Plus, it’s reasonable to assume that they do not exhibit behaviors like this in your presence if you do.  Therefore, paying attention to your child’s behavior is crucial if you believe you may be alienated.  Your child may:

  • Express opinions of disapproval toward you that they never have before
  • Justify their bad behavior in irrational or disrespectful ways
  • Be hostile toward your relatives or close friends
  • Avoid speaking to you or spending time with you
  • Express opinions that likely stem from the alienating parent (usually because they seem more “adult-like”)
  • Express little to no guilt about their behavior toward you
  • Try to convince you that their negativity towards you is because of their own personal feelings
  • Only express positive opinions about their other parent or compare the two of you in an uneven way

Effects Of Parental Alienation On Children

While the most obvious and immediate effect of PAS on a child is the damage to their relationship with the targeted parent, studies show that they will also have difficulties in other types of relationships as well, such as those with their peers and romantic partners.  They may develop a fear of loss and have difficulty trusting others and believing that they are supported.  There is also a higher chance for them to stay in dysfunctional or abusive relationships in a desperate attempt to feel loved.

Moreover, a victim of PAS will likely develop mental health difficulties, such as anxiety, PTSD, or depression, and turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate.  They may struggle with their identity or even experience shame because they are conscious of how they are similar to the targeted parent, who they have been manipulated into thinking is bad.  Overall, studies have proven that most victims of PAS have low self-esteem and confidence.

What You Can Do If You Think You Are Being Alienated

If you have noticed a behavior change in your child and feel your relationship is being threatened, there are a few things you can do to address your attempted alienation:

  1. Begin documentation.  Keep a detailed log of your child’s and their other parent’s behavior.  Also include instances of when the other parent blocked communication with your child, or tomes when they violated the custody or visitation agreement.
  2. Keep all communication with your child’s other parent in writing.  You may use texts, emails, and phone calls as evidence of your suspicions in the event that a judge becomes involved.
  3. Seek counseling for your child.  A child therapist may be able to identify and work against PAS, as well as provide expert testimony if your case goes to court.  If PAS is not the culprit, they may be able to get to the bottom of your child’s shifting behavior.
  4. Consult a family law attorneyYou will be able to share the dates of each custody or visitation violation (because you have documented them) and the pattern of behavior displayed by your child.  The court may find them in contempt and impose sanctions on them.  It may also be possible to have the legal or physical custody agreement modified if your child’s mental and emotional health is truly being harmed.

Call Freed Marcroft Today To Learn More

If your child is suffering from PAS, you need aggressive and experienced legal representation on your side to lead you in the right direction and develop the strategy that puts you in the best position to overcome this challenge.  Of course, there are cases when a party claims parental alienation, but it doesn’t in fact exist.  If your ex-spouse has falsely claimed that you’ve alienated your children, it’s critical that you also seek a highly knowledgeable custody attorney.  Parental alienation cases are particularly difficult and high-conflict.  Call today to schedule your initial consultation with a member of our team and let’s take control of the situation, together.

Freed Marcroft LLC

Freed Marcroft LLC