Despite affecting millions of families around the world, parental alienation has been largely unacknowledged or denied by legal and health professionals as a form of family violence. This complex form of aggression entails a parental figure engaging in the long-term use of a variety of aggressive behaviors to harm the relationship between their child and another parental figure, and/or to hurt the other parental figure directly because of their relationship with their child. Like other forms of family violence, parental alienation has serious and negative consequences for family members, yet victims are often blamed for their experience. In order to be recognized as a form of family violence and to secure protection for victims under law and social policies, a formal review and comparison of parental alienating behaviors and outcomes to child abuse and intimate partner violence has been sorely needed. The result of this review highlights how the societal denial of parental alienation has been like the historical social and political denial or other forms of abuse in many parts of the world (e.g., child abuse a century ago). Reframing parental alienating behaviors as a form of family violence also serves as a desperate call to action for social scientists to focus more theoretical and empirical attention to this topic.
Public Significance Statement
This article presents parental alienating behaviors as a form of family violence with serious consequences for children and families. Professional recognition of parental alienation and the alienating behaviors that cause it is a necessary first step toward stimulating much needed research in this area and in the development and testing of effective clinical, educational, and legal interventions to prevent and mitigate the damaging effects of this form of family violence.
Human aggression involves behaviors directed toward another individual with the proximate (immediate) intent to cause harm. Some psychologists have argued that in order to be considered aggression, there must also be a belief that the behavior will cause harm and that the target of the aggression is motivated to avoid it (Anderson & Bushman, 2002). Human aggression has traditionally been characterized as hostile or instrumental in form, with hostile aggression being thoughtless, unplanned behaviors committed while angry in reaction to a perceived provocation, and instrumental aggression describing aggressive behaviors that are premeditated and expressed as a means to obtain some goal other than hurting the target. With instrumental aggression, the target is essentially hurt in the process of the aggressor trying to obtain their goal (Berkowitz, 1993). Several theories have guided most research on human aggression including cognitive neoassociation theory (Berkowitz, 2012) and social learning theory (e.g., Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1961), and human aggression can take many forms, such as gossiping, bullying, physical assault, genocide, and war. The goal of the current article is to describe and characterize a specific and complicated form of hostile and instrumental human aggression that has been controversial and largely overlooked by many social science researchers: parental alienation.
Parental alienation refers to a child’s reluctance or refusal to have a relationship with a parent (referred to here as the targeted parent or TP) for illogical, untrue, or exaggerated reasons (Bernet, Wamboldt, & Narrow, 2016). Clinicians and researchers have outlined numerous symptoms that are indications that a child has been or is being alienated from a parent (Spruijt, Eikelenboom, Harmeling, Stokkers, & Kormos, 2005), including using a campaign of denigration against the TP, making frivolous rationalizations for their complaints about the TP, using borrowed scenarios created by the alienating parent (AP) such that the child’s stories about past events are nearly exactly the same as the AP’s version (even using identical words), and spreading animosity about the TP to other people. When the child rejects a parental figure, their behavior is often accompanied by a lack of overt ambivalence, guilt, or remorse for their rejection (Baker & Eichler, 2016; Jaffe, Thakkar, & Piron, 2017), and the child will automatically side with the AP in any argument or conflict.
Parental alienation is the outcome associated with alienating behaviors (Baker & Eichler, 2016). While alienating behaviors will not always lead to severe parental alienation, which is the complete rejection and refusal of contact with the TP (Warshak, 2013), they still impact the child and the other parental figure in many negative ways, even in the mildest of circumstances (e.g., Johnston, 2003). These outcomes include, but are not limited to, the child feeling abandoned and experiencing anger and/or rejection of the TP for unjustifiable reasons. There are also potential negative effects in psychological (e.g., depression), educational (e.g., academic decline), legal (time, expense), and physical (e.g., high blood pressure) domains (Harman & Biringen, 2016).
The behaviors that cause parental alienation to occur fall along a broad continuum ranging from mild and subtle to severe and explicit. Parental alienating behaviors are not discrete one-time events; in order to be considered a parental alienating behavior, it is typically enacted over time (Verrocchio, Baker & Marchetti, 2017) and alongside other clusters of behaviors with the intent of hurting, damaging or destroying the child’s relationship with that parental figure, and/or to hurt the parental figure themselves (Baker & Darnall, 2006; Gottlieb, 2012; Harman, Biringen, Ratajack, Outland, & Kraus, 2016a; Kelly & Johnston, 2001; Lorandos, Bernet, & Sauber, 2013; Warshak, 2015a). These behaviors are intended to harm the other parental figure and their relationship with a child, and the TP is motivated to avoid them. For example, the AP may badmouth the TP to a child and also interfere with the TP’s contact with the child (e.g., blocking phone calls when in their care; Reay, 2011). Children are often used as instruments of the AP in these campaigns (particularly among severely alien- ated children; Warshak, 2013), and they are subsequently directly and indirectly hurt in this process. Parental alienating behaviors are therefore both hostile and instrumental forms of aggression.
Although parental alienating behaviors can occur in intact families (Baker & Verrocchio, 2013; Moné & Biringen, 2006), they are reportedly used more frequently in nonintact families, particularly those that are litigating child custody disputes (Baker & Verrocchio, 2015; Hands & Warshak, 2011). To date, the majority of research on parental alienation has studied it as occurring between two biological parents; however, the AP and TP could be any parental figure in a child’s life (step-parent, coparent, grandparent, etc.), and it does not discriminate: Few gender differences have been found in terms of who is the target of alienating behaviors (Harman, Leder-Elder, & Biringen, 2016b). Experts have found that custodial status, rather than gender, is a more important predictor of who is likely to alienate (for a review, see Harman & Biringen, 2016). The prevalence of children who have been alienated from a parent has been challenging to calculate due to the need to accurately diagnose this outcome, but some estimates point to around 29% of children from divorced homes as being alienated from a parent to some extent (Hands & Warshak, 2011). Parental alienating behaviors are quite common depending on the type of behavior that is being reported (Johnston, Walters, & Olesen, 2005). For example, between 5% and 42% of parents recruited from an online sample report doing at least one alienating behavior themselves; the behaviors that parents report at higher rates (e.g., yelling at the other parental figure in front of a child) occur more frequently than other behaviors consistent with the concept of parental alienation (e.g., moving the child out of state) because there are more opportunities to engage in the former behaviors (Harman et al., 2016b). Although some of these behaviors occur because of routine conflict (e.g., yelling at the other parental figure in front of the child) or because of necessity (e.g., moving out of state), it is the persistent and strategic use of these behaviors that results in parental alienation.
Extant published literature on parental alienation indicates there is consensus among affected family members and mental health professionals about the types of behaviors that APs use to alienate children (Saini, Johnston, Fidler, & Bala, 2016; Templar, Mat- thewson, Haines, & Cox, 2017). However, there has yet to be an explicit professional recognition in the social sciences of these behaviors as a form of family violence. Indeed, Ron Berglas, a citizen of the State of California, addressed the California Board of Behavioral Sciences on March 3, 2017, with a request that parental alienation be required training for all mental health professionals across the state. At the conclusion of his presentation, a board member stated that parental alienation first needs to be established in the peer-review literature as a form of emotional abuse and domestic violence. After that criterion has been established, then training and education could be required of their practitioners (Berglas, 2017).
Therefore, the purpose of this article is to provide a review of selected literature and research on parental alienating behaviors and their associated outcomes using professionally recognized legal and public health definitions of family violence. This review is the necessary first step before harms to victims can be indexed and assessed. We will discuss intent in a later section of the article because individuals who have denied the existence of parental alienation or minimized its scope have used intent to fuel debates about and to justify the use of this form of family violence. This review is necessary so that greater research attention can be focused on understanding and finding solutions to prevent and treat parental alienation (e.g., allocated funding for basic research, theoretical advancement, and intervention).
Inaccuracies in how family violence has been conceptualized have led to great variability in legal and clinical definitions around the world. It is outside the scope of this article to review the multitude of ways legal and clinical definitions have varied (see legal reviews such as Cutland, 2012 and Meyersfeld, 2004 for some examples), so we will describe here how family violence has generally been defined. The World Health Organization has defined violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation” (p. 4, Krug, Dahlberg, Mercy, Zwi, & Lozano, 2002). The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines family violence, also known as domestic violence, as any violent act inflicted by one family member onto another, a term encompassing both child abuse and intimate part- ner violence (IPV). Violence here includes physical, sexual, emo- tional, and economic violence, as well as neglect (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2013).
Legal definitions of family violence have specified several types; for example, the U.S. Department of Justice identifies physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions as forms of violence that can intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone (Office of Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice, 2017). State statues in the United States individually define what violence is, and the majority (42/50) of U.S. states have family violence defined within their criminal or penal codes (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2017).
In addition to there being great variability in how family violence has been defined, who is considered a victim of family violence also varies greatly across legal jurisdictions and countries (United Nations Office on Drugs & Crimes, 2010). For example, in the U.S., “victims” are often only those individuals who are harmed by specific offenses such as a felony or misdemeanor (National Crime Victim Law Institute, 2011). International law has traditionally not paid significant attention to victims and there is not an international concept of what characterizes one (Romani, 2010). The General Assembly Resolution 40/34 of the United Nations defines “victim” as a person who has suffered harm “including physical or mental injury [and] emotional suffering . . . through acts or omissions that are in violation of criminal laws . . . including those laws proscribing criminal abuse of power” (United Nations General Assembly, 1985). Importantly, this definition has included family and dependents of the direct victim who have suffered harm in assisting the person in distress or in trying to prevent victimization (Romani, 2010).
Legal jurisdictions also vary as to whether children who witness family violence are considered victims. Children can be exposed to violence either directly or indirectly by witnessing violence in their family, community, and/or school (Hillis, Mercy, & Saul, 2017). Child victims exposed to family violence (intimate partner vio- lence or IPV) experience many harmful effects and significant emotional impairments (Ayoub, Deutsch, & Maraganore, 1999; McTavish, MacGregor, Wathen, & MacMillan, 2016). These effects can occur either by witnessing the violent behaviors, being in the home where such events are happening (Hines & Douglas, 2016b) or even just being aware of them (MacMillan & Wathen, 2014). The term child affected by parental relationship distress (CAPRD) appears in the most recent edition of the DSM–5, and it encompasses a wide range of parenting relationship issues that have negative consequences for children, including intimate part- ner distress and violence and parental alienating behaviors (Bernet et al., 2016). Children who have been exposed to intimate partner conflict and aggression have poorer psychological and social ad- justment, poorer academic performance, and higher incidences of behavioral disorders (Amato, 2001; Douglas & Hines, 2016a, 2016b). Parental alienation specialists have argued that severe parental alienating behaviors are a form of child abuse (Templar et al., 2017), and severe parental alienation is an extreme manifestation of both CARPD and “parent-child relational problem” in the DSM–5 (Warshak, 2015a).
Despite the negative consequences that witnessing family violence has on children, only 24 states in the U.S. have recognized that children who witness family violence are collateral victims and have child protection laws written to address this in their criminal or civil codes. In contrast, the Australian Family Law Act, 1975 Sect 4AB specifies that children are exposed to family violence when they see, hear, or experience the effects of family violence (Commonwealth Consolidated Acts, n.d.). Australian courts have applied this definition of family violence to family law cases with alienated children because parental alienating behaviors are recognized as a form of family violence that causes harm to children (e.g., Federal Circuit Court of Australia, 2015).
In 2010, Brazil passed a law criminalizing parental alienation because it was labeled as a moral abuse against a child or adolescent, is a violation of the child’s fundamental human right to have healthy family interactions and family life, and is considered a breach of parental duties stemming from parental custody (Brazil- ian Law No. 12 318, 2010). The examples of parental alienating behaviors described in this law include organizing campaigns to discredit the TP, the undermining of the TP’s parental authority, prevention of contact and visitation between the child and the TP and/or extended family, hiding personal information about the child (e.g., school records) from the TP, making false claims of abuse, and changing the residence or contact information for the child without notifying the TP. The law allows judges to prosecute APs for their abusive behaviors toward the child and the TP, even reversing custody if it is in the best interests of the child.
Despite the implicit and explicit recognition of parental alien- ating behaviors as being a form of family violence in countries like Australia and Brazil, it has not received legal recognition in other jurisdictions, such as the U.S. There has also been wide- spread and persistent denial by some researchers, practitioners, and policymakers in the fields of domestic violence and child abuse (e.g., Bruch, 2001; Dallam & Silberg, 2016) about the reality (Clemente & Padilla-Racero, 2015) and prevalence of parental alienation (Rowen & Emery, 2014), particularly con- cerning whether the problem can be considered a psychological “syndrome” (Parental Alienation Syndrome or PAS; Gardner, 1999; Warshak, 2015a). This denial is reminiscent of the societal-level denial of the existence and prevalence of domes- tic violence and the abuse of children in the United States and Canada at the start of and throughout the 20th century (e.g., Pleck, 2004; Roy, 1977).
Due to the resistance to accept the reality that parents engage in behaviors to hurt another parental figure and that parental figure’s relationship with their child(ren), parental alienation and the behaviors that cause it have been unacknowledged, treated as an “anomalous” form of aggression. In addition, parental alienation is sometimes described as a story that only abusive fathers use to obtain custody of their children and to abuse the other parent (e.g., Ellis & Boyan, 2010). This denial detracts attention away from a serious public health crisis (Fidler, Bala, & Saini, 2013; Vezzetti, 2016) that is affecting an estimated 22 million or more fathers and mothers and their children in the U.S. (Harman et al., 2016b), and likely millions more across the world.
State of the Research on Parental Alienation
Before we outline how specific parental alienating behaviors map onto professionally recognized (legal and clinical) forms of child abuse, IPV and their associated outcomes, it is important to address the current state of research on parental alienation. To date, more than 1,000 books, book chapters, and articles have been published in mental health or legal professional journals on the subject of parental alienation (Vanderbilt University Medical Cen- ter, 2017). However, the majority of documentation regarding the presence and sources of parental alienation are drawn from legal case reviews, expert opinions, clinical case studies, and qualitative research-based accounts (Saini et al., 2016). Conducting research on the prevalence, etiology, diagnosis and assessment, and treatment outcomes of parental alienation is resource intensive. The funding necessary to conduct such research has not been ear- marked because parental alienating behaviors have not yet been recognized as a form of family violence. For example, even though there is cross-sectional evidence from surveys and legal cases that greater amounts of parental alienating behaviors are associated with greater hostility and rejection of a parent (Baker & Eichler, 2016; Burrill, 2001), a longitudinal study of a diverse sample of families is necessary to inform causality. Such a study is not possible without substantial funding. Consequently, the majority of empirical studies to date published on parental alienation have been drawn from convenience samples, rely on retrospective reports of TPs and adult children, and utilize cross-sectional designs, often without comparison groups. Professional and public denial of this phenomenon has hindered research progress on this topic because it has blocked researchers’ access to funding.
In a recent review of the published research on parental alienation, Saini, Johnston, Fidler, and Bala (2016) used a stringent set of criteria to identify studies (published prior to 2015) that reported sample sizes and methods of selection, the methods of data collection, information about data analysis procedures, and a report of the findings. Their search resulted in 45 published articles and 13 doctoral dissertations published in English. Unfortunately, many of the studies identified had design limitations (e.g., small sample sizes, lack of comparison groups) which limits their generalizability, leading the authors to conclude that the state of the research on parental alienation is in its early stages (Saini et al., 2016). Despite these limitations, it is important for our purposes that the authors found a very high consensus in the finding that “mothers, fathers, children, young adults, and counselors have been able to describe the explicit behaviors that may be perpetrated by one parent and have the capacity to distance, damage, or destroy a child’s relationship with the other parent” (p. 418), as well consensus as to what outcomes are associated with different levels of severity of parental alienation in children (Saini et al., 2016). This consensus is found across many different studies using different methods and samples. Therefore, there has been noteworthy professional agree- ment about the types of alienating behaviors that APs use, and research has demonstrated reliable identification of clusters of symptoms in children who have been alienated (Saini et al., 2016).
In our review, we will draw as much as possible from empirical research studies published on parental alienation to date. However, in areas where less research has been conducted, we will refer to clinical, legal, and expert opinion publications. We will also draw from summarized details of legal cases where parental alienation was identified (Lorandos, 2013), published testimonies of thou- sands of adults who attest to having suffered through it as children, and extensive personal interviews conducted by the first two authors of this article with alienated parents (some of which have been referenced in Harman & Biringen, 2016). These sources offer valuable insight into causes and consequences of parental alienation and provide examples of parental alienating behaviors and their outcomes which are important building blocks for an emerg- ing field of inquiry. Whenever possible, we will cite multiple sources for our examples from different perspectives (parent, child, mental health or legal professionals) as independent obser- vations derived from different forms of methodological inquiry demonstrate consensus and can provide greater confidence in the findings.
Parental Alienating Behaviors as Child Abuse
Due to the many ways that child abuse can be perpetrated, defining it has proved to be challenging. Indeed, there are many different and sometimes incompatible definitions of child abuse, and there are often disagreements about the meaning of the term itself (Cameron, Hazineh, & Frensch, 2010). There is also debate about whether child abuse can ever be precisely defined (and therefore measured; Trocmé, Akesson, & Jud, 2016). Child abuse is generally defined as a specific form of harm to children that is significant and may be attributed to human agency (Cooper, 1993) that is proscribed, proximate, and preventable (Finkelhor & Korbin, 1988). The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (1995) defines child maltreatment, which is an even broader term incorporating child abuse and neglect, as behaviors that a caregiver does that result in a child feeling worthless, unloved, and only valued for meeting the caregiver’s needs (Bing- geli, Hart, & Brassard, 2001).
Many writers have indicated that using parental alienating be- haviors to cause parental alienation is a form of child psycholog- ical abuse (for a brief review, see Verrocchio, Baker, & Bernet, 2016) and some specific behaviors have been mapped to child outcomes in a qualitative analysis by Baker (2007). Indeed, the tactics used by APs in their alienation are often tantamount to extreme psychological maltreatment of children (Baker, 2010). It is important to note that while some behaviors may be, at face-value, inherently associated with parental alienation (e.g., psycho- logical aggression), other behaviors (e.g., physical aggression) may be only associated with the concept. While empirical evidence and greater theorizing is needed to determine whether this distinc- tion can be made, we believe that regardless of the centrality of specific aggressive behaviors to the concept (e.g., frequency, im- pact), the behaviors we will review are described and documented as being done to hurt the relationship between the child and the TP, or to hurt the TP directly. Therefore, the reported behaviors are all important for our understanding of this complex form of aggres- sion. Our review here is the first step toward classifying behaviors that have been documented by researchers and experts in the field using a child abuse framework.
Thorough reviews of child abuse behaviors have identified several different forms (e.g., Fakunmoju et al., 2013). We will first review the psychologically aggressive child abuse behaviors that APs use with their children, and then review other forms of child abuse behaviors.
Emotional/psychological aggression. Psychological aggression involves the use of verbal and nonverbal communication with the intent to harm the other person mentally or emotionally. This is the most common form of child maltreatment; it involves attacking a child’s emotional and social well-being, and can in- clude spurning, terrorizing, isolating, corrupting or exploiting, and denying emotional responsiveness (Binggeli et al., 2001). Com- pared with psychological aggression between intimate partners, child abusive forms have not been as clearly differentiated. Alien- ating parents are extensively documented as using this form of aggression, yet it is one of the more challenging ones to observe directly because they often occur in privacy.
Alienating parents terrorize their children by derogating the TP and creating fear in children that the TP might be dangerous or too unstable to be around (e.g., Baker & Verrocchio, 2013; López, Iglesias, & García, 2014; Verrocchio et al., 2017). Alienating parents will often reject, shame, or make their child feel guilty for showing any loyalty or warmth toward the TP or the TP’s extended family (e.g., step-siblings, grandparents; Baker & Darnall, 2006; Harman & Biringen, 2018), or ridicule them for showing the TP affection (López et al., 2014). They may also withdraw love and affection when the child talks positively about the TP (Baker & Verrocchio, 2013, 2015), leading the child to fully and openly reject the TP, or to compartmentalize their feelings and show one “face” to the AP and another to the TP (Dunne & Hedrick, 1994; Garber, 2014). Some APs force and reward their children for rejecting the TP (e.g., not say hello at a sporting event; López et al., 2014; Verrocchio et al., 2017), or for using the same derogatory labels that the AP uses to describe them (Warshak, 2015b). The AP will interrogate children for information after visits with the TP (Baker & Darnall, 2006; López et al., 2014), and even make them throw away all clothing, gifts, or reminders of the TP after they return from visits with them (Harman & Biringen, 2018).
Alienating parents also attempt to corrupt their children and reject part of their own identity by calling another adult mother or father (to replace the TP; Verrocchio et al., 2017), and even change their last name to fully reject the TP (Baker & Verrocchio, 2013; Warshak, 2015c). In one extreme example, Dunne and Hedrick (1994) reported an AP as having conducted a “burial ceremony” with the children to “bury” symbolically their living father in order to start their “new” family. The AP may also allow the child to refer to them by first name in order to make it seem they are their equals in order to create an alliance. Alienated children may even use their AP’s surname (e.g., maiden name) socially if it is differ- ent from the surname of the TP in order to publicly reject the TP (Harman & Biringen, 2018). Children are asked or even paid to keep secrets from the TP (Reay, 2011; Verrocchio et al., 2017), and are pulled into a state of dependency on the AP that makes them even more susceptible to their manipulations (Gottlieb, 2012).
Alienated parents will also corrupt their children by using gaslighting techniques to accomplish parental alienation. Gaslighting refers to the presentation of false information to the victim with the intent of making them doubt their own memory or perception. Alienating parents will rewrite past history, or use events that the child recalls and then exaggerate or fill in with details that never happened in an attempt to distort the child’s memory about the TP and the TP’s relationship with them and/or the AP (e.g., brain- washing; Baker & Darnall, 2006; Harman & Biringen, 2016; Reay, 2011; Warshak, 2015a). The AP creates conflict between the child and the TP by telling them false, incomplete, or misleading information about the other parent. For example, the AP may tell the child that the TP was supposed to be picking them up at a certain time (when no such schedule was arranged) to make the child believe the TP rejected them (“your mom/dad forgot about your visit today;” Harman & Biringen, 2018; Lorandos, 2013). The AP will often make the child choose between parents (“you can either live with them or me, not both;” Harman & Biringen, 2018; Verrocchio et al., 2017).
Alienating parents will manipulate their children to help in their campaign against the TP (Smith, 2016). For example, they will put the child in the position to spy on the TP, such as searching a TP’s computer for bank account information (Baker & Verrocchio, 2013; Harman & Biringen, 2018; Stahl, 2004; Verrocchio et al., 2017). Alienating parents adultify or parentify one or more of the children such that as child caregivers, they serve and provide for the needs of the AP (Moné & Biringen, 2012; Garber, 2011). In this role, APs often share inappropriate information about financial and legal matters with their children (Balmer, Matthewson, & Haines, 2017; Gottleib, 2004; López et al., 2014; Moné, MacPhee, Anderson, & Banning, 2011).
Parenting time is often based on a stipulated agreement or is court ordered, and yet APs will give or force their children to make a “choice” as to whether they want to visit the TP (Baker & Darnall, 2006; Baker & Verrocchio, 2013). By doing so, the AP deflects responsibility for violating court ordered visitation (“my child just doesn’t want to see them. I cannot force them to go”). This deflection of responsibility for noncompliance of court orders is placed inappropriately onto a child, who is thereby encouraged to act in an antisocial manner (Joshi, 2016). Adolescents have a greater vulnerability to external influences such as parents and peers, and are highly suggestible, making them willing to fill such adult roles (Warshak, 2015c) and be manipulated to act on behalf of the AP.
Child neglect. The World Health Organization (1999) has defined neglect as failure to provide for the development of the child in all spheres of life. Therefore, neglect can include behaviors such as not caring for a child’s basic needs (food, health care, clothing, education) or leaving a child with an abusive caretaker. According to Erickson and Egeland (2011), psychological or emo- tional neglect occurs when parents fail to meet their child’s basic emotional needs, such as not comforting children when they are injured. This form of abuse cannot be identified from one specific incident, as it is chronic neglect that has significant impact on a child’s development (Hornor, 2014). Neglect can result in physical and psychological harm, and it is the most common and deadliest form of child abuse (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2012). Unfortunately, this form of child abuse has not been well studied (Stoltenborgh, Bakermans-Kranenburg, & van Ijzendoorn, 2013).
Neglect is a fundamental element of parental alienation because the AP’s needs are placed ahead of those of the child, and the AP fails to recognize the need for the child to be loved and cared for by the TP (Baker & Verrocchio, 2013; Garber, 2011). Children are simultaneously infantilized (lives are dependent on the AP) and parentified. Parents who alienate their children do so regardless of the impact it has on the child, which demonstrates serious neglect of their basic emotional needs (Johnston, Walters, & Olesen, 2005). Indeed, many APs fight hard to have full custody and control of their children, with little desire to be with the children themselves (Baker, 2006b). The AP will opt to have third party caregivers for the children rather than allow any parenting time for the TP, and they are emotionally unavailable to the child due to their own psychological pathologies (Garber, 2011; Harman & Biringen, 2016).
One common form of child neglect is factitious disorder im- posed by another (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), which occurs when a parent fails to seek medical care, seeks out exces- sive and/or inappropriate care, or is noncompliant with care (al- ternatively known as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, Grace, & Jagannathan, 2015; or medical child abuse, Yates & Bass, 2017). Factitious disorder imposed by another is more common among mothers who have had a history of abuse and who have personality disorders (e.g., borderline personality disorder), and the abusive behaviors increase during times of separation with the child (Yates & Bass, 2017). Some parents will make false allegations of abuse and fabricate illnesses in an attempt to get custody of (Dauver, Dayan, & Houzel, 2003; Lorandos, 2013) and to alienate their children from the TP (De Becker & Ali-Hamed, 2006). In order to make the TP appear incompetent, the AP may also give the TP inaccurate medication treatment information for the children while in the TP’s care. The AP then harasses the TP if they do not comply with what are known to be false instructions, and tells the children that only they (the AP) know how to care for their needs (Harman & Biringen, 2018).
Alienating parents are also described by TPs as neglecting the academic needs of the children, such as allowing excessive ab- sences from school to attend appointments that could easily be scheduled outside of school hours (Harman & Biringen, 2018). By appearing busy in attending to the “complex” needs of the children (López et al., 2014), the AP gives the appearance to others as being the “better” and more “concerned” parent, while the child’s actual needs are not being met. Alienating parents frequently utilize mental health professionals to “help” their children cope with the alleged behaviors of the TP. If the professional becomes suspicious of parental alienation, or seeks details from the TP to make better sense of the child’s real issues, the AP typically fires them and finds another therapist who is more sympathetic and not a threat to the fiction they are trying to maintain about the TP. “Therapist shopping” results in the children’s psychological needs not only being neglected, but being exploited and used against them (Camp- bell, 2013; Harman & Biringen, 2018).
Targeted parents have reported that APs will restrict and control the types of friends or later dating partners that their children have, or in more extreme situations, isolate their children from peers and social networks. For example, the AP may not support a relation- ship between their teenager and a healthy romantic partner because the romantic partner may question the child’s rejection of the TP or because the romantic partner was seen speaking to the TP (Baker & Darnall, 2006; Harman & Biringen, 2018). Limiting the children’s social networks in these ways neglects the child’s need to develop their own individuality that is separate from the identity of the AP.
Legal and administrative aggression. This form of aggres- sion refers to a partner manipulating legal and administrative systems to hurt the other partner, such as making false claims of abuse to child protective services about the parent (Hines, Doug- las, & Berger, 2015; Kruk 1993, 2011). While this form of aggression is primarily used against the TP, APs have had their children testify against the TP in court or to mental health profes- sionals and teachers about false events (e.g., abuse) and perceived or unsubstantiated fears (Harman & Biringen, 2018). Some children are convinced by the APs to tell social workers, teachers, medical providers, and other mandatory reporters about events that never happened, or are exaggerated by the APs to create perceptions of danger to the children, which prompts unnecessary third- party intervention (Dunne & Hedrick, 1994).
Physical and sexual aggression. Physical aggression inflicts pain on a child and has the potential of causing injury or impairment to development. This form of aggression can include slapping or hitting a child, throwing objects at the child, banging a child’s head on an object (e.g., wall), or dragging a child on a floor as punishment (e.g., Straus & Hamby, 1997). Sexually aggressive behaviors include exposing a child to sex- ual behaviors of adults (e.g., having sex or masturbating in their presence), videotaping or viewing a child naked for sexual pleasure, allowing a child to watch pornography, asking the child to perform sexual acts with an adult, and engaging in sexual conversations with a child for sexual pleasure. There is some clinical and survey evidence that children are physically abused (e.g., hit) when they tell the AP they want a relationship with the TP (e.g., Rand, 1997) and that adults who were alienated as children have experienced physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the AP (Baker, 2005). It remains unclear whether this behavior is an inherent component of PA, or whether it is correlated with its occurrence. The AP may also select new partners who put the child at risk for physical or sexual abuse. The TP is often physically and legally prevented from being able to help the victimized child in these situations, and the AP does not intervene. For example, the first author has interviewed several TPs who learned the new romantic partners or spouses of the AP had histories of sex offenses and did not have any legal means to protect their children from harm (Harman & Biringen, 2018).
Parental Alienating Behaviors as Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)
Parental alienating behaviors do not just contribute to child abuse; they are direct and indirect attacks that an AP makes on the TP. Intimate partner violence (IPV) describes aggressive and abusive behaviors perpetrated by a current or former inti- mate partner (i.e., spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, coparent, dating partner, or ongoing sexual partner; Breiding, Basile, Smith, Black, & Mahendra, 2015) and, like child abuse, has been a difficult form of violence to define due to the many forms it can take. In 1999, the National Center for Injury Prevention (NCIP) at the Centers for Disease Control published a report intended to outline a clear definition of IPV (Saltzman, Fanslow, Mc- Mahon, & Shelley, 1999). Since that time, the NCIP has pub- lished updated definitions in order to account for behaviors that have long been documented but were not easily categorized before (e.g., stalking; Breiding et al., 2015). The most commonly used form of IPV by APs is psychological aggression, so we will focus primarily on this form here. We will then briefly review other IPV behaviors that APs use in their aggression toward the TP.
Psychological aggression. This form of IPV includes at- tempts to control the partner or the relationship, demonstrate power, and/or damage the victim’s sense of self (Williams, Rich- ardson, Hammock, & Janit, 2012). Perpetrators intimidate, emo- tionally wound, express anger, restrict, and coerce a partner (Follingstad, 2007). Psychological aggression can also include threats to damage property and falsely accusing a partner of having an affair (Doherty & Berglund, 2008). Most parental alienating behaviors directed at the TP are examples of psychological ag- gression (Mason, Lewis, Milletich, Kelley, Minifie, & Derlega, 2014). The most recent NCIP report (Breiding et al., 2015) pre- sented numerous types of psychological aggression, and we will provide examples of how APs use this type of IPV in their relationships.
Expressive aggression entails the use of name-calling, degrading the target of the behavior, humiliation, and behaving in a physically dangerous manner.
Nearly all TPs report that the AP has used some form of badmouthing and derogation, either directly or indirectly, and often in front of a child (Baker & Darnall, 2006; Godbout & Parent, 2012; Harman et al., 2016b; Kruk, 2011; López et al., 2014; McMurray & Blackmore, 1993). This form of psychological aggression is common because it is a “potent technique to undermine the child’s love and respect for parents and other relatives” (Warshak, 2015b, p. 13). Alienating parents will go to great lengths to destroy the TP’s credibility (Gith, 2013; Lowenstein, 2015). For example, APs have told their children, friends, neigh- bors, teachers, and other involved adults that their child’s father is a “deadbeat,” “dangerous,” or “inappropriate,” or that their mother is “crazy,” or only cares about her career (Harman & Biringen, 2016; Rand, 1997; Warshak, 2015b). Belitting of the TP often occurs at parenting exchanges or at children’s activities (e.g., sporting events) in front of others. When talking to their children, some APs refer to the TP using their first name in order to undermine the TP’s role as parent to the child (Warshak, 2015b), or even use third person pronouns (e.g., “s/he is here to pick you up now”) to create a sense that the TP is not worth recognizing as a parent (Baker & Darnall, 2006; Harman & Biringen, 2016; Kruk, 2011). Alienating parents may even forbid or limit all mention of the TP in the AP’s presence. This “erasing” of the TP is an extreme form of degradation.
The AP will also use humiliation to hurt the TP, such as mocking their hobbies, personality, job, friends, or family (Baker & Darnall, 2006; Harman & Biringen, 2018), and focusing the child and others on the TP’s flaws and mistakes they have made (Warshak, 2015c). For example, a TP reported to one of the authors that the AP in his life put him on speakerphone when he called to speak with his children, and the AP mocked him during calls to make the children see him as a joke.
Much of the yelling and name-calling behaviors that APs use are designed to make the TP seem angry and dangerous. Alienating parents frequently will yell angrily at the TP in front of the child and others, slam doors, and throw things at them (e.g., shoes, rocks; Harman et al., 2016a). These behaviors are intended to scare the TP, particularly because the TP does not want their children to see them in the way the AP portrays them at such times. Unfortunately, this behavior can result in the child subsequently not wanting to see the TP because they become afraid of them, or they want to avoid exposure to the aggression that occurs during such interactions.
Coercive control refers to a wide range of behaviors designed to minimize the power of the target by control- ling their behaviors. Controlling behaviors include limiting access to transportation, money (financial abuse), friends, and family; manipulation of others to accomplish their goal to control; excessive monitoring of a person’s whereabouts and communications; monitoring or inter- fering with communication (e.g., social media, texting) without permission; making threats to harm the self; and making threats to harm a loved one or a possession. (Breiding et al., 2015)
Having the loyalty of children (and typically legal control over them) affords the AP a considerable amount of power to wield over the TP (Baker, 2006b; Harman & Biringen, 2016; Reay, 2011), and APs use their children as weapons to a great extent when they exercise coercive control. The limitation of access to children, or postrelationship gatekeeping (Saini, Drozd, & Olesen, 2017), is a commonly reported behavior, with as many as two out of three of APs doing it (Baker & Darnall, 2006; Harman & Biringen, 2016; Kruk, 2011). The AP will often prevent visits (e.g., arguing the child is too “sick;” López et al., 2014; McMurray & Blackmore, 1993), change pick-up and drop-off times and locations to make parenting exchanges difficult to coordinate, and put their children in daycare or with another service provider rather than cooperate with the TP to coparent the child (Kruk, 2011). Studies report that APs schedule children’s activities (e.g., sleepovers, excessive after school activities) during the TP’s par- enting time in order to minimize the TP’s time with the children (Harman & Biringen, 2018; Reay, 2011).
Similarly, APs will withhold information about the children from the TP and will make the child’s medical or academic records nearly impossible for the TP to access or obtain (Baker & Darnall, 2006; López et al., 2014). For example, the AP may change emergency contact information for the children at school so that the TP and/or the TP’s family are not informed when their child is ill. Alienating parents often fail to send parent–teacher communi- cation to the TP or tell them about school events, resulting in the child believing the TP does not care about their academic success or involvement in afterschool activities (Harman & Biringen, 2018; Reay, 2011). Alienating parents sometimes do not commu- nicate to the TP that their child is receiving an award at school or provide them wrong information (date, location) about an event, leaving the child disappointed and angry that the TP was not present. The AP will follow up this contrived situation by reinforcing the negative feelings the child has toward the TP (“your mom/dad cares more about work than being here for you,” “tell me everything that happened . . .”). Even though most TPs have a legal right to medical information about their children, APs often instruct medical providers to only communicate with them about their children’s care, sometimes using their court-appointed sole medical decision-making authority as their rationale (Harman & Biringen, 2018).
Financial abuse is another example of coercive control reported by TPs. Excessive attorney and court fees expended to litigate custody disputes, defend against false accusations of abuse, and modify child support and/or alimony (see legal and administrative aggression below) leave many TPs financially destitute (Giancarlo & Rottman, 2015; Kruk, 2010, 2015). Alienating parents also hide or delay notifying the TP about changes to their employment or educational enrollment status as a way to continue obtaining money from them (e.g., alimony, child support), or are dishonest about extraordinary expenses spent on their children as a way to extort money from the TP (Harman & Biringen, 2018).
Alienating parents will also limit the TP’s access to family and friends. Through the use of derogation and lies about past events, APs typically turn friends, neighbors, teachers, coaches, and other important adults in the child’s and TP’s lives against the TP (Gith, 2013; Harman & Biringen, 2016; López et al., 2014; Rand, 1997). Nonresident TP fathers have reported that the extended family of the mother of their children often contributed to or drove the conflict that they experienced in trying to parent their children (Lehr & MacMillan, 2001). Many of these adults believe the stories told by the AP about the TP, and fail to consider that there may be another side to the story (Harman et al., 2016a). When TPs try to reach out for support, or act on behalf of the child (e.g., contacting teachers about homework), they are met with a “cold shoulder” and treated with hostility (Harman & Biringen, 2016; Kruk, 2015). In other words, the AP manipulates these adults into acting aggressively toward the TP on the AP’s behalf.
The monitoring of the TP’s whereabouts and communication is a strategy that TP’s report APs have used, and it is quite similar to stalking. For example, APs are reported to have discovered the TP’s Internet passwords and subsequently hacked into their ac- counts to learn details that can be used against them, such as who they are dating, what they are communicating about to their attorneys, and bank account information. Some TPs have reported that their AP has hired spies or enlisted family members to monitor the TP’s behaviors. For example, neighbors are asked to inform the AP if the TP is entertaining a new romantic partner and whether the TP is home (Harman & Biringen, 2018). As described earlier, the AP can have the child monitor the TP on their behalf as well.
Alienating parents interfere with contact and communication between the children and the TP (Baker & Verrocchio, 2013). The AP reads the text message and e-mail exchanges between the child and the TP, listens to their voice messages, makes the child communicate by phone while they are in the room to overhear their conversations, and even force the child to communicate with the TP on speaker phone to listen to both parties on the call (e.g., Harman & Biringen, 2016). Targeted parents have reported that their messages (e-mails, voice mails) are not relayed by the AP to the child, and that the AP impersonates the child via text or e-mail to the TP so they do not always know if the communicator is their child or the AP (Harman & Biringen, 2016). The AP will also interfere with symbolic communication between the TP and child, such as throwing away or hiding gifts sent to the child by the TP, or not allowing pictures or mention of the TP in their home (Baker & Darnall, 2006; Reay, 2011; Verrocchio et al., 2017). The AP may also restrict or prohibit contact with the TP’s extended family, thereby alienating the child from the TP’s social network (Baker & Verrocchio, 2013; Worenklein, 2013). Many TPs have not seen or spoken to their children in many years (even decades), due to the interference of the AP.
Interference of communication also occurs when the child is in the care of the TP. During the TP’s parenting time, the AP often texts or calls the child incessantly (López et al., 2014), sometimes sending pictures of their animals or other loved ones who “miss them” to pull their attention away from their time with the TP, or even asking the children whether they are feeling “safe” to imply that they should be concerned for their safety when with the TP (Harman & Biringen, 2018). The interference of parenting time with the TP detracts from the quality of their parenting time, and does not allow the child to be fully present and emotionally available to the TP.
Some APs will threaten to hurt themselves as a strategy to make the TP comply with their wishes. For example, an AP may threaten suicide or say they will become depressed if the TP seeks court intervention to enforce court orders. The TP rarely wants the children to lose a relationship with the AP, even with the amount of abuse that the AP has subjected them to, so the TPs are often coerced into compliance with such threats (Harman & Biringen, 2018). Alienating parents also threaten to harm loved ones or possessions of the TP, such as telling the TP that the children will be financially destitute or psychologically traumatized by a TP’s actions in order to control the TP’s behavior (e.g., if you file that motion, your children will be traumatized to be away from their mother/father). Alienating parents threaten to hurt new romantic partners or family members of the TP (e.g., spread rumors about them), or threaten to call the TP’s employer to get the TP fired should the TP not comply with the AP’s wishes (e.g., stay away from the child, give them money; Harman & Biringen, 2018).
Threat of physical or sexual violence is a form of psychological abuse that entails the use of words, gestures, or weapons to communicate the intent to cause death, dis- ability, injury, or physical harm.
Alienating parents use these types of threats to coerce the TP to stay away from the children or create the illusion of danger. For example, APs are reported to have had an intimidating adult present (step-parent, friend, even hired help) at parenting time exchanges to be their “bodyguard” (Harman & Biringen, 2018). The presence of a bodyguard conveys the message that the AP needs protection from the TP, and communicates that the TP is in physical danger for being there to see their children. Another example is documented in a legal case from the U.S., in which an alienating father blocked the targeted mother’s car in his driveway so she was unable to leave his property while he read the mother’s court motion to the children out loud (Lorandos, 2013). Intimidation and threats made by the AP to hurt the TP are often so scary that the TP will have other adults pick up their children when they exercise their parenting time in order to avoid an altercation with the AP or their proxy (Lehr & MacMillan, 2001).
Control of reproductive or sexual health is a form of psychological abuse that includes behaviors such as re- fusing to use birth control or coercing a pregnancy termination.
While this type of abuse is not as commonly used by APs due to the fact that many TPs are no longer in an intimate or sexual relationship with them, these behaviors can happen before the relationship dissolves. For example, a TP interviewed by the first author reported to having been coerced undergo a vasectomy because their AP did not want more children. Immediately after this procedure, the AP filed for divorce and restricted all contact between the TP and his children. While there could be many reasons for the AP’s behavior, the TP was devastated because he later wanted children (Harman & Biringen, 2018). More research is needed to determine how common this form of psychological aggression is among TPs.
Exploitations of victim’s vulnerability is a form of psychological abuse that entails exploiting the target’s liabilities or vulnerabilities, such as their immigration status, a disability, or an undisclosed sexual orientation that the target is motivated to remain hidden.
The AP often exploits any misstep or mistake that the TP makes (Smith, 2016). Targeted parents have reported being blackmailed by APs to sign court documents or “agreements” out of fear that the AP will share negative information about them (e.g., a prior criminal record) that would hurt their reputation or perceptions of their children. In order to limit the TP’s access to the child, APs sometimes exaggerate or inappropriately share medical or mental health information (that has very little to do with their ability to parent) about the TP with others. If an AP moves with the child to another country, the TP may relocate in the hopes of continuing to have a relationship with their child. When this has occurred, APs have made false reports of visa violations as an attempt to have the TP deported. Alienating parents in these situations also exploit the TP’s alien status in court, which often has very different rules and procedures than the court from their native land (Harman & Biringen, 2016; Lorandos, 2013).
The amount of parenting time that has been allocated or court ordered to the TP can also be used as a liability by the AP. For example, if a court’s temporary order assigns only alternating weekends of parenting time to a TP, APs often use the time period between the temporary and final orders (which can be months or years) as “proof” that they should be the primary custodial parent (Harman & Biringen, 2016; Kruk 1993). This strategy is even encouraged by lawyers to obtain full custody for their clients, because many American and Canadian judges base final parenting orders on what the “normal” distribution of parenting time was prior to the final hearing. Creating an extended temporary order period with imbalanced parenting responsibility provides the AP with power to exploit the TP’s limited parenting time in their favor (Kruk, 2011).
The full report of this Psychological Bulletin by Harman, Kruk, and Hines is available via E-mail: email@example.com