The Pathology of “Parental Alienation”

As already indicated, PA has been defined as

“A process, and the result of, the psychological manipulation of a child into showing unwarranted fear, disrespect or hostility towards a parent or other members of the family”[1]

The phrase ‘Parental Alienation’ was first coined in the 1980s by Dr Richard Gardner, although Dr Craig Childress opines that Gardener merely gives a label to a pathology that psychologists had been aware of for years before – Childress’s idea is that PA is nothing more than an attempt by the Alienating Parent to wreck the part of the brain that governs/manages the part of the child’s brain that deals with ‘attachment’.

For a comprehensive analysis of the pathology, see this

For now, the symptoms to look out for in the child are these – these symptoms are manifested only in alienated children – not in any other psychological pathology:

1   Suppression of the attachment to the Targeted Parent (‘TP’);

2   Narcissistic Fingerprinting – the child is not a narcissist – these symptoms appear only in relation to the TP – with other people the child’s behaviour is non-pathological.  What is going on here is that the narcissistic traits of the Alienating Parent (‘AP’) show up, like fingerprints, on the child’s behavioural presentation in the following ways:

a   Grandiose judging of the TP;

b   A sense of entitlement of certain behaviours from the TP;

c   No empathy towards the TP;

d   A haughty arrogance towards the TP

e   ‘Splitting’ – a demonisation of the TP

3   False sense of victimisation from the TP

So, rather than referring to ‘Parental Alienation’ (which, in essence, doesn’t exist) we should talk about Attachment-Based Parental Alienation ((AB-PA) which does, and has, since the mid 70’s – ten years before Gardener) – although, even here, we should think of Childress’s use of ‘Parental Alienation’ as a term of art, that is, he senses that we need a ‘hook’, and, as the hook already exists we should use it – but really only for convenience – Childress does not concern himself with labels really – as he says, ‘let’s just call it ‘Bob’).  AB-PA is a pathogen (a disease) that passes from one generation to the next.  It is almost always practised by narcissists or people with Borderline Personality Disorder.   And essentially, if you are a narcissist, chances are that one of your parents was too.

Sometimes it is called a syndrome.  Let’s suppose, for the moment though, that these distinctions don’t matter.  We do not wish to be drawn into fancy arguments about the precise manifestations and pathologies.  That is something for professionals and academics.  We simply note this:

1   All seem to agree that there is such a thing as ‘pure’ alienation – that is where there is one parent who is blameless, and where the alienator consciously and deliberately sets out to destroy the child’s relationship with the other (usually absent) parent – some experts, correctly in UKAP’s view, feel that all cases are like this – others think that these cases comprise only a proportion, and that sometimes people alienate without realising it. They are wrong. But for now, this distinction is not important.  If we can make a start on PA by just getting these ‘pure‘ cases right we can worry about the ‘rest’, if any, later.

Having said that, UKAP agrees with the Childress analysis, that PA is an extremely unpleasant, toxic practice carried out by narcissists bent on wrecking a good, loving relationship between the child and its other parent.  Other ‘collateral damage’ includes the child rejecting the TP’s new partner, the grandparents, aunts and uncles, and maybe even the football team that the TP supports!  The child rejects everything associated with the Targeted Parent.  The toxic parent ‘recruits’ the child into its little army, and then recruits others – family members, teachers, police, social workers…

Others indicate that to characterise PA like this is a mistake, because it means that a lot of cases of ‘soft’, ‘hybrid’ or ‘accidental’ alienation will go undiagnosed.  This is wrong, and dangerousPA requires a deliberate campaign.  An odd thoughtless comment here and there is NOT any kind of alienation.   This kind of behaviour is better thought of as one parent being thoughtless/careless, or it could even be just a part of the banter of everyday family life (“God, your mother only has to look at a computer and it blows up!” or “Your dad’s off again fixing the car…shall we call the mechanic now?!” – and so on).  To think about these kinds of comments as PA is to devalue PA and make it look vaguely ridiculous, and people that do this are part of the problem, not part of the solution.  PA is NASTY.

2   UKAP has noticed that judges just do not care for these labels and are mostly ignorant of these distinctions. They have to judge matters on a case-by-case basis, looking at the facts of that individual case…Judges see PA all day every day in the courts (whether or not they like to call them ‘PA’ cases, cases of ‘parental manipulation’ or whatever), and a good judge (like Mrs Justice Parker) who is enlightened and robust can spot the tell-tale signs a mile off.  So we repeat our advice – don’t use the term “Parental Alienation” or use phrases like alienating parent, targeted parent, false empowerment, enmeshment and so on.  Remember that there is only one ‘clever dick’ in the courtroom – and it ain’t you!  Just tell the judge what is happening and let her form her own conclusions.  In 9 cases out of 10, a claim of “Parental Alienation” will ensure that you lose your case.

3   PA has been going on since humans first fell out of the trees onto the Savannah. It’s just the label that’s new.   Labels are unhelpful and very counter-productive.  A few years ago judges and social workers were asked if they recognised that some parents ‘turn’ their children against the other parent.  They replied ‘Of course, happens all the time’.  They were then asked what they knew about ‘Parental Alienation’…lots of blank stares…Then, they didn’t know.  Now, they don’t want to know.

For a comprehensive, and in our view correct, analysis of the pathology, see this.

[1] Lorandos, D., W.Bernet and S.R. Sauber (2013)