Five Signs of Parental Alienation

By Nancy Kay

When Esther shared her experience with parental alienation and how her ex used religion against her, I commented that I could see how she would be puzzled by her children’s behavior, wondering if it was real, wondering what exactly she had done to warrant the rejection, wondering what her ex and others had said to have such an impact. Sometimes parental alienation can start off quite benign but the seeds are planted and the indoctrination grows. By the time it’s clear what’s happened it’s often very difficult to counteract.  My guest blogger today is divorce coach Nancy Kay and she says there are five signs of parental alienation. Here’s Nancy:

Parental alienation is a problem that most often arises when parents engage in bitter and extended child custody litigation. Although intense feelings of anger and mistrust are common when parents are  beginning to transition from the tidal wave of emotions surrounding divorce into a co-parenting relationship, most parents experience less anger and anxiety over time as they make efforts to co-parent in a way that is healthier and more productive for the children.

Parental alienation is real and very difficult to fight

There are five signs that your child is being brainwashed

“Parent alienation occurs when a child is influenced by one parent (often called the alienator) to completely reject their other parent (often known as the target.)  In severe cases, parent alienation results in the child’s complete rejection of the target parent. Typically, the reasons for the child’s rejection are frivolous or unjustified,” explains parent educator and author Christina McGhee in her book, Parenting Apart.

Due to the intensity of emotions that erupt during the often lengthy process of separation and divorce, many parents experience strain and frustration within the parent-child relationship. Some parents engage in harmful or destructive behaviors that lead to the natural consequence of the child distancing themselves from that parent.

In contrast, true parental alienation takes place when one parent unduly influences the child to respond to the other parent in a consistently negative manner despite there not being evidence of abusive, destructive or harmful parenting behaviors.

There are five common signs that a child is being affected by true parental alienation.

  • The child views the alienating parent as the good and honest parent and expresses only negative feelings toward the target parent who is seen as all bad. This black-and-white thinking is consistently reinforced by the alienating parent until the child expresses hatred, contempt and fear regarding the target parent while not showing any guilt or remorse.
  • The child denies being coached or influenced by one parent. “Mimics accusations and opinions of the alienating parent yet insists they have formulated ideas about the target parent on their own,” explains McGhee.
  • The child’s negativity extends to the targeted parent’s extended family. The child begins to refuse visits or contact with relatives of the target parent, even if they had a warm and interactive relationship prior to the alienation.
  • The child’s contempt, hatred and rejection toward the target parent are based on frivolous and unwarranted reasons.  The rejection is not based on personal experiences that are justified by abusive, harmful or destructive behaviors.
  • The child consistently rejects one parent and refuses to have contact with them. “Many parents describe having a formerly loving and close relationship with their children only to become completely leveled by the fact that their children no longer want to have any contact with them,” explains McGhee.

The direct and collateral damages that result from parental alienation lead to long-lasting effects that are enormously destructive and destabilizing to both the children and the parents involved.

“Alienation of affection damages the child’s core of her sense of self and her ability to form lasting, intimate relationships with friends and family. The loss of a connection with the alienated parent also damages the child’s psychological road map for understanding where she came from, since she will now lack one parent as a role model,” explains psychotherapist and author Aleta Koman, in her book, My Ex is Driving Me Crazy!

Since parental alienation has such destructive long-term consequences for both parents and children, it is extremely concerning that more is not being done by professionals to clarify when early stage alienation is taking place and take strategic actions to turn things around before the alienation has reached a critical stage. Unfortunately, many courts and other professionals who deal with parties experiencing high-conflict divorces are not trained about how to detect alienation early on when professional intervention could have the greatest impact.

Alienation is often hard to clearly define and legally prove and many target parents come to realize that trying to prove parental alienation in court is quite challenging, expensive and time-consuming.

Even if these parents are able to do so, many court systems are not equipped to deal with such high-conflict parenting situations that need intensive intervention. When the courts are reluctant to deal with such cases or not able to effectively intervene in a consistently effective manner, these parents often find that the family law attorneys they consult with either minimize the situation or are reluctant to pursue the issues in court.

Complicating matters further, some parents refuse to participate in parent-child therapy or respond to guidance from a therapist or parenting coordinator unless it is court-ordered and carefully monitored and evaluated on an on-going basis.  In addition, since the alienating parent is usually well-experienced at using litigation as a means to control the target parent, many target parents are exhausted and depleted by previous litigation and may fear that more legal intervention will only make things worse.

McGhee recommends that parents seek out professionals who truly understand the underlying dynamics of the problem, try hard not to take the child’s rejection personally and stay committed to positive co-parenting behaviors. She also advises parents to not give up hope despite the complexity of the situation. “The journey to repair your relationship with your child can be long and often requires an enormous amount of patience and persistence. In some parent-child relationships, it may take years before you will see the results of your choices and effort. Never make the mistake of thinking you do not matter to your children—you do.”

Are you experiencing any of these signs? What strategies do you use to cope?

Nancy Kay, Divorce Management Coach at Moving Forward Through Divorce provides guidance to women and men as they learn how to manage the chaos that comes along with divorce. She combines her experiences as a Family Law Paralegal with Coaching Training to provide clients with the resources, skills and strategies they need to save time, money and avoid headaches as they navigate through divorce.  Connect with Nancy on Facebook or Twitter @NancyKay7.

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  • Pauline Gaines

    This piece nails it. My son exhibited every one of these symptoms. At 15, he’s finally gotten a more balanced perspective after being sent to residential treatment for behavior issues. I think many kids don’t figure it out until they’re old enough to leave home and get away from the alienating parent.

    • http://sincemydivorce.com Mandy Walker

      Pauline – what you say about getting the child away from the alienating parent makes absolute sense and it must be extremely frustrating if that means having to wait until college/after high school graduation for your child to start seeing a different perspective.

  • Angie Kadow

    I’ve been alienated for almost 5 years now.
    My story 4evertheirmomangie.blogspot.comy
    My Facebook page 4 ever their mom

    • http://sincemydivorce.com Mandy Walker

      Dear Angie – thank you for visiting and sharing your resource. Appreciate it!

  • Randall Keller

    I see only women commenting. I have been alienated for one year from my sons. The few times we have seen each, we had a great time only to have it destroyed two days later.Does this happen more against men then women? I ask because 95% of those who are awarded primary custody are women.
    A great many men deal with this. HELP ME PLEASE!!!!!

    • http://sincemydivorce.com Mandy Walker

      Hi Randall – Thank you for commenting. Most of my readers are women and I suspect that’s the reason behind the comments being from women. I don’t know if PAS happens more to women than men or vice versa but it’s always devastating. From what I’ve read, at it’s most extreme it is only resolved when the child is removed from the alienating parent. Sad. Have you read A Family’s Heartbreak by Mike Jeffries. Here’s my review: http://www.sincemydivorce.com/parental-alienation-family-heartbreak/ . You might find it helpful if for no other reason than understanding that it isn’t you who’s crazy.

    • Janet

      I am a 43 year old mother to my 11 year old daughter and my ex-husband and his wife are in the process of alienating my daughter from me. We are going to court in one month, had a parent responsibility evaluator inestigate in which I had to pay the entire bill of $15,000. and then he was fooled by my ex-husbands plot and recommended he get full custody and more parenting time. I have spent $50,000. to date and we haven’t even gone to court yet. My attorney has not been helpful but it is too late to find another one.

      • http://sincemydivorce.com Mandy Walker

        Dear Janet, Unfortunately I suspect that your situation is not atypical in PAS cases. Based on my reading, the reason for the alienating behavior is often a serious mental disorder and an inexperienced evaluator may not recognize this. Have you asked for a child advocate to be appointed? yes … it probably means more money but it’s someone who is there to specifically represent your child and it gives your child the opportunity to voice their own concerns directly.

  • hope

    my 22 yrs old daughter has been brainwashed by my ex. I am heartbroken. It seems I cannot do ANYTHING to undo his influence. I warned him that he may succeed in turning her against me and hurting me, but it would be to her peril. That was 6 years ago. She bares the scars and continues to rack up the negative consequences. When will her eyes open? Please God, protect her and let it be soon, for her sake.

    • http://sincemydivorce.com Mandy Walker

      Dear Hope – keeping hope and keep love in your heart for your daughter. make sure she knows you love her no matter what This is a very difficult journey but hopefully one day she will understand what your ex has done.

  • michael concerned father

    I have experienced many many time over the signs

    i am not sure but my ex wife has been well lets just say sick 4 pros said the same thing i just love i had the court pro simply say the is the most extreme case of parent alienation he had ever seen and even in his report said the time spent with my ex wife needs supervision it was also her extended family it was like they held my children hostage and i just had to sit back recently i seen my daughter she had nothing to say to me may because i know the truth but my daughter sat with my new partner and just came out with the most ridiculous accusations of abuse
    i have sat back for 3 years and it still goes on but my ex wife is still very very angry (sick)

    what do you do ???

    • http://sincemydivorce.com Mandy Walker

      Hi Michael – my heart goes out to you and your daughter. This must be heartbreaking for you. From what I know of PA, you likely won’t get your daughter “back” until she is separated from her mother and that means a long haul for you but please don’t give up on her. Keep telling her how much you love her. She will realize the truth in time. Have you read “A Family’s Heartbreak” by Michael Jeffries. It’s his personal story and he was eventually reconciled with his son. Stay strong – Mandy

  • Jeannie

    I have three boys ages 5 10 and 15., My oldest is the one thats being told all the lies and now hes hating my family and not wanting to have anything to do with us. his father has a gf that has money and he don’t work, so there he takes me to crt and gets more time taken away from me bc he feels he deserves it. all along the father has told my boys that i don’t care and im the one that is trying to take them away yet i haven’t once tried to file any papers he has. its heartbreaking to see your son say nasty things about you and literally hate you and theres all the signs of what he going through.
    i do hope and pray that my son that use to be a loving child opens his eyes soon. tears all the time .x

    • http://sincemydivorce.com Mandy Walker

      Dear Jeannie – I understand your heartbreak and pain. From what I’ve read, the best chance of reconciling with your son will come when he’s no longer under your ex’s influence so probably when he finishes high school. I know that will seem like an eternity. Have you read Mike Jefferies book, A Family Heartbreak’s? Here’s a link to my review: http://www.sincemydivorce.com/parental-alienation-family-heartbreak/

  • Shelllsa

    I have a child who I love so much! My ex common law husb has been hurting our relationship since my child’s life began. I fought with him, took him to court, had gotten very sick from all the stress. Court basically laughs in my face, but still we do have 50/50 custody. He will not let me talk to my child by phone very often, he will eliminate contact or visits or custody time despite the 50/50. He does as he wants along with his mother against me. He has told our child Im stupid etc, same with my family he has put down. I told my child they may try to undermine our relationship, but my child and I have a lot of love and nothing will change that. It still hurts to the point, I can’t eat or sleep properly and I will be attending court to get advice, I keep holding out hope that maybe it’s all my fault somehow and maybe he is a good person. He has however been an abusive ex. He recently went behind my back with my child on a matter that caused me enormeous distress. How do I survive? I am so depressed right now.

    • http://sincemydivorce.com Mandy Walker

      Shelllsa – my heart goes out to you. You don’t say how old your child is but I fear you’re facing a long battle. You need to believe in yourself and know that you are not crazy and nor are you imagining this. Keep good documentation – you will need it for any legal action. Pauline Gaines at http://www.perilsofdivorcedpauline.com went through alienation and eventually was reconciled with her son. You may find her site helpful. There’s also a book – A Family’s Heartbreak by Michael Jeffries that recounts Jeffries own struggle as an alienated parent. Never give up hope and never stop telling your child you love them. Stay strong.

  • Mom

    In our case, my stbx and his choices to drink, commit adultery, (discovered by my 15 year old son on his father’s computer documents) during the past 10 years of our marriage and his generally self-centered, self-serving “fathering” (meaning uninvolved and absent and preoccupied with himself and his own pursuits) has served to alienate the kids from him. What is the solution to that? What kind of counseling is going to force the boys (11 and 15) and a daughter (20, now in college) who he essentially regarded as “competition” to his being the center of attention – calling her a princess, spoiled, superficial — which we all realize now was projection — to give him respect and affection that doesn’t exist on their part? Sorry, but a narcissist is a narcissist. They will only tolerate him. They’re not blind. They’ve seen his abrogation of responsibility, his mid-life breakdown, where he’s now acting like a sex-crazed 18 year old. They’ve seen his dating profile where he’s grown his hair down to his shoulders and is advertising himself as meeting everyone’s “saxual needs” — parental alienation? Embarassment, mortification, mistrust, lack of respect…and yes, alienation — he has invited this on himself. The kids do NOT need my
    “help.”

  • Susan

    Parental alienation has been the most painfully powerless experience I can imagine. It’s complete agony that you have no control over. In some states it’s child abuse, but very difficult to prove, most people don’t do it in front of anyone and my kids were so manipulated by him for so long to keep his secrets, they protected him. Narcissist seem to be very suited to this triangulating web of chaos. Its been a long battle & I’ve learned to use the legal system to have as little to do with him as possible. That is really the best treatment for it, to limit their access to you, which is so difficult with your kids because you know that co-parenting is best for them and I tried that for so long. Now I only talk to my kids and have very gradually rebuilt with them over the past 2 years. It’s not ideal but he just uses the kids to hurt me at any opportunity & he’s not going to change.

    • http://sincemydivorce.com Mandy Walker

      Hi Susan, It’s a very hard road to travel as the victim of parental alienation and the children always suffer. Unfortunately, I think you’re right – he’s not going to change.

  • Namaste

    I have a 9yo Daughter who for the past 6 months does not want to visit me. I have asked her why and everytime she cannot give me an answer apart from “I don’t know”. When i pick her up she cries and screams and does not want to enter the car, but when she is home with me she is perfectly fine and happy..
    Does this sound like she is being coached?

    • http://sincemydivorce.com Mandy Walker

      This isn’t sufficient information on which to form an opinion. The frequency of your parenting time, contact between parenting time, circumstances of your divorce and your child’s character/personality could all play into this. For example, if being with you means she’s going to miss some playdates with her friends, she might wish she didn’t have to go but at the same time not want to tell you that because she doesn’t want to hurt your feelings. Next time, wait until she’s settled down and happy and then have the conversation with her, reassuring her that she can be honest with you, that you’re concerned about her well-being. Ask open-ended questions and be sure not to phrase them to make her feel she has to choose or speak against her other parent.

  • Laurie Campbell

    I fought this battle for about five years and walked away last year. I am happier now than I was then and expect to be even more so next year at this time. My four were/are teens and young adults. I was always so deeply hurt by the disgust, contempt and disdain, while their father walked on water. He who had rarely made it home in time to join us for dinner, he who was not taking them to gymnastics classes, swimming lessons, camps, dr appts, etc while they were growing up. It is very sad because I can see how he is using them and manipulating them with promises of hefty life insurance. They all still live with him! – I suspect they will for a long time since he is too lonely to allow them a way to move out. Instead, some of them have boy and girlfriends who have moved in as well. Our youngest daughter – in high school – is easily manipulated and he uses her for backrubs and other physical things I would consider to be inappropriate. Remember though, he is a saint and I am the worst parent on the planet. I don’t see her or any of them as victims – he is their choice for parent of the year.

    I merely exited the stage and let them enjoy their choice.

    I have a wonderful few dogs who are more deserving of my time and affection. My teen and young adult children actually saved me a great deal of money by pushing me out of their lives. And there is some relief to do it early on in their lives as well. I won’t know any grandchildren since I am out of their lives before any are born, I won’t be second place at any weddings as I was at the Scouting and high school graduation ceremonies/events, and I am nearly completely free of their hatred, as well as the sadness and despair that felt so overwhelming last year at this time.
    I can admire those of you willing to stick it out but I am just not seeing any change down the road. My chihuahua has an entire wardrobe and will never turn on me like my children did. I will be fine. I hope they have nice lives.

    • http://sincemydivorce.com Mandy Walker

      Dear Laurie,
      It takes courage to walk away from your children and I know there will be people who don’t understand your choice. I’m sure it wasn’t easy. Do you hope that you’ll be reconciled at some point in the future?

      • Laurie Campbell

        I spent many years trying to convince them to like me. The more I paid for at their request, the more I made time-consuming meals, the more they treated me with contempt. I am not sure how much parental alienation was taking place via their father but I do know he was the bright white hero and I was the super cesspool-residing bad guy. I remarried five years ago and I think that was a huge trigger. I do know this is a taboo but I am an INFJ and highly value harmony in life – reconciliation doesn’t interest me at all. I don’t believe my leaving their lives hurt them one bit, except for my no longer being an instant ATM machine. For myself, the lack of contempt and drama has been wonderful for the last year. Being free of them has been less painful than it was to have them in my life. All losses hurt, but no one would keep a friend in their lives who treated them as my children treated me. I am trying to enjoy the remainder of my life. I chose to not serve as an endless punching bag and money tree for children I raised with everything I had, and were spitting in my face virtually at every occasion. Why would anyone choose otherwise? Just because you once parented them and loved them does not make some choices healthy.
        Additionally, I think their hatred of me was a strong unifying factor in their little community – in fact one of them told me this. I wanted to free them to move on with their lives with each other. :-)

  • caroline

    I don’t know if im dealing with alienation or estrangement bc I haven’t always done or said the rite thing since my divorce. my son shows signs of parent alienation, the biggest red flag is his total lack of interest and almost dislike for my mother and brother, whom he used to love. The past 10 mos he has become a different kid..acts like he hates me, disrespectful, doesn’t want to hug me or say goodnite, when he used to be a mamas boy. I attributed this behavior to his age, he turned 13 8 mos ago, puberty, I have been trying to let friends come over when they want on wkends, give them the tv in living room, buy takeout, and when I ask my kid for a hug goodnite, he rejects me while his best friend hugs me. I have been accused of alienating by my ex, and it was suggested by my sons counselor, so I decided to educate myself to see how I could be better. if I have been alientating my son subconsciously. What I found was the behaviors my son is exhibiting toward me. I am willing to do whatever it takes to get my son out of pain, even admitting my faults..any advice?

    • http://sincemydivorce.com Mandy Walker

      Dear Caroline – first kudos to you for recognizing that your own behavior may be contributing to your son’s behavior AND for being willing to change. From what I’ve read about PAS, the alienating parent typically has some deep rooted, untreated psychological problem and changing the behavior isn’t possible without treating the issue. Based on what you’ve written, I’d be surprised if this was your case (but I’m not a therapist.) That would be good news because I think it’s more likely that you can change your behavior, what you’ve been saying and hopefully your son will respond. As you note, your son is going through the teenage years and that could certainly account for some of his behavior. Some parenting resources that I like are the Love and Logic classes and also the programs offered by Empowering Parents (http://www.sincemydivorce.com/affiliate/TotalTransformation – affiliate). I’d also offer a complimentary 30-minute consult which we could use to talk about how to avoid subconsciously bad-mouthing your ex. If you’re interested in setting this up please use the contact form.

  • Alexandra Shipula

    I am the target. My children wanted to come home (to me) and talk to me on the phone, since 8/18/2009 however they have been with some master manipulators. AND now they don’t answer the phone when I call. …. They told me in the past that their father (and others) told them not to answer the phone. I have nothing to live for now… Hope that I can see them….

    • http://sincemydivorce.com Mandy Walker

      I feel for you with all my heart. I hope that you can keep loving them, keep telling them that you love them and that one day you will be reunited. Take the higher road, don’t play your ex’s games and most important, don’t give up

    • Crystal Bkd FosterDotson

      i know how you feel. my children were adopted this way. i still have hope & faith..

  • amanda

    My oldest daughter said she doesn’t want to talk to me anymore and now my youngest daughter said the same thing tonight after a great weekend together. When they talk to me, they regurgitate the same nonsense their dad has said to me. They say its their own feelings, not their dads even though I’ve never even said it was. My youngest daughter tells me he says mean things about me daily. I keep texting them every day I love them. My son is completely cool with me adn still sees me and talks to me though he and his dad have always had a difficult relationship. Its most just my daughters that have the issues against me. They know way more than they should for being children. Their dad says they deserve to know the truth: his truth. It breaks my heart and I have no idea what to do or how to resolve this issue. I’m completely at a loss.

    • http://sincemydivorce.com Mandy Walker

      Dear Amanda,
      I’m sorry you’re going through this. Do you have a good psychologist? It might be helpful to you in helping you to understand your daughters’ feelings and also the actions of your ex. You need to draw very clear boundaries between you and your ex – this will help protect you emotionally and do keep taking the high road. Don’t be tempted to respond to what he’s sharing with the children …. “I understand how your dad feels. I don’t agree with him but it’s not appropriate for me to discuss that with you …”
      And do keep reassuring your children that you love them.

      You have a difficult road ahead and I wish you strength and courage,

      Mandy

  • Natalie

    Is parental alienation possible by a parent who only sees their children 7% of the year (by his choice)? This is a farely new thing for me. My ex husband has always tried to make the children feel bad for him…over the years, saying things like “your mom takes all my money (meaning child support) and so I can’t do anything with you”. Then he married a woman who takes care of him financially. Quit his good paying job for better hours and got fired, stayed on unemployment for 2 years and then took a job that paid half he was making prior. Keeps taking me back to pay less support (which I never ever discuss with my kids), but I just recently found out he has been bad mouthing me to our oldest daughter, calling me names and even saying we can’t support them or pay our bills. We meaning myself and my husband. None of this is of course true. He sent my daughter all of this is texts, which she sent to me. He also started buying expensive things and sending pictures of them to our kids to which I don’t understand. Then he said he actually wanted to take them on his vacation and told me which week it is. I told him we have family coming in that week from AZ, which we do and asked him if he could go another week. He said he work won’t let him and that since they can’t go, I can tell them it’s my fault. Then he told them about the trip and told them i won’t let them go. I have always kept him involved i every aspect…invited him to school functions, conferences, etc. Even my son had sugery last week and i invited him. He comes to nothing…not even the surgery. Yet, the kids think he is this wonderful dad and of course I never make them think otherwise. It seems though that when they are there now, he is making them think badly of me. Of course my children do not show any signs of having any hate toward me, but I feel he is getting worse and do not know how to stop it.

  • Eydie Emory Preston

    My Ex has intensionally come between my family and myself. He runs and complains to them if we have a court date, adjusted support etc. He also shows my kids the texts I send him about the way they are treated with him and his inability to understand the visitation schedule.. How do I get that stopped?? Mind you we have a court order not to speak disparagingly about each other.Every week I get yelled at by my daughter about how he tells her things we’ve discussed. she is 14.

    • http://sincemydivorce.com Mandy Walker

      Eydie – you are in a difficult situation. How does your family react when your ex complains to them? Do they sympathize with him, get involved in the dispute? Have you tried asking them to support you by not getting involved and staying neutral?

      Re: your ex sharing your messages with your daughter. If you have evidence of this happening then you can discuss this with your attorney and see if they would recommend going back to court for enforcement. Another alternative is to look for an email communication program that makes it harder for your ex to share your communications. What do you do you when your daughter yells at you?