The term “parental alienation syndrome” originated in a 1985 paper by child psychiatrist Richard Gardner. Gardner had worked extensively in the early 1980s with children of divorced parents and was struck by the observation that, for no apparent reason, kids would occasionally utterly reject the parent whom they spent less time with.
They’d refuse all contact with the rejected parent, declining to answer phone calls, or even letters. They would conceive hatred and/or fear towards this parent, even if – as was often the case – there was no evidence that the rejected parent had been abusive or neglectful as has been seen in the cases of reunification in Seattle, WA.
Gardner proceeded to publish his conclusions, and in doing so he coined the term parental alienation syndrome. He asserted that a primary parent can (and often does) misuse their emotional power, and will literally brainwash a child to hate and fear the child’s (formerly loved) other parent. In most of the cases documented by Gardner, the mother had primary custody of the child, and the child was taught to fear and reject the father.
Gardner’s thesis was controversial. His work had not been peer-reviewed. Parental alienation was not (and still is not) a diagnosis formally accepted by the American Psychological Association or American Medical Association. Also, there was no evidenced-based way to measure or establish the existence of parental alienation.
Still, the types of behaviors that Gardner observed continued to appear conspicuously often, especially in the context of high-conflict custody cases. In 2001, research psychologists Joan Kelly and Janet Johnston published a peer-reviewed paper in Family Court Review that contained observations similar to Gardner’s.
This paper, entitled “The Alienated Child: A Reformulation of Parental Alienation Syndrome,” replaced the term “parental alienation” with “child alienation.” The reason for the substitution was that the authors believed a focus shift was necessary to better describe the syndrome and its causes (or influencing factors). They argued that the correct emphasis is on children’s behavior, not on parental manipulation, because previous research had indicated that:
- children might alienate one parent even absent “indoctrinating behaviors” by the other parent; and that
- children do not usually reject their second parent even if their primary parent engages in indoctrinating behaviors to turn the child against that other parent.
The authors also asserted that alienation exists on a continuum of types of child-parent relationships that may take shape after a parental separation or divorce.
The Continuum of Child-Parent Relationships
In their paper, Kelly and Johnston present a diagram of the post-divorce child-parent relationship continuum. On the “healthiest” end of the continuum are relationships wherein the child is (by preference) fully engaged with both parents and desires to spend significant time with both parents. As we edge into the murkier zones of the continuum, we see relationships wherein a child has positive feelings for both parents but has a distinct preference or “affinity” for one over the other.
This is still considered healthy since, as the authors point out, “By reason of temperament, gender, age, shared interests … children feel much closer to one parent than the other … [and] … such affinities may shift over time with changing developmental needs and situations.” They offer the example of an 11-year-old girl who states, quite naturally, “I want to live with my mom a bit more than my dad, but I really want to see him, too.”
Closer to the middle of the spectrum are children who are “allied” with one parent over the other. Not only do these children prefer one parent, but they also have ambivalent feelings about the other parent. They don’t want to disengage entirely from the other parent, but because they have taken sides with their preferred parent, they probably want to limit their contact with the “opposing” parent. Such parent-child alliances generally arise from a child’s perception of who was “right” and who was “wrong” – or who was most hurt by whom — in the context of their parents’ marriage and separation. In the words of Kelly and Johnston:
Such alliances between children and parents might arise from intense marital conflict … in which children were encouraged to take sides or carry hostile messages …. More often, alliances arise in older school-age children in response to the dynamics of the separation, involving children’s moral assessment and judgment about which parent caused the divorce, who is most hurt and vulnerable, and who needs or deserves the child’s allegiance and support.
Next on the spectrum, we have “estranged children,” who are either very deeply ambivalent about, or completely rejecting of, one parent because of that parent’s behavior in the past that the child has witnessed and/or endured. Such behavior may have included emotional abuse, severe neglect, drug addiction-related behaviors, or even violence.
Child estrangement is a cause-and-effect phenomenon. The child reacts to the parent’s behaviors and is quite reasonably estranged. The child may even be afraid of that parent for a good reason. Depending on the depth of the estrangement, the child may prefer either to strictly limit contact with this parent or avoid this parent entirely, as has been actively seen in Reunification Therapy in Bellevue, WA.
On the darkest end of the continuum, we find the alienated child.
The Alienated Child
Alienated children are not ambivalent. They want nothing to do with the parent whom they reject. They are resolute and strident in their dismissal of the rejected parent, refusing all contact. They may insist that they never want to see or hear from that parent again. Or, if they are forced to spend time with the rejected parent (for example, if the parents have shared custody), they will scorn, insult, and ignore that parent, and may even destroy property in that parent’s home.
They will broadcast their disdain for the rejected parent both to their favored (or “aligned”) parent and to the world at large. According to Kelly and Johnston, when children are in their rejected parent’s home, they “prefer to be in contact constantly with their aligned parent by telephone, at which times they whisper hostile observations about the rejected parent’s words, behaviors, meals, and personality.”
Alienated children often idealize the parent whom they favor. The idealized parent can do no wrong in the child’s eyes; she or he “walks on water” and wields absolute moral authority. Often, the child will adopt this parent’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and even terminology. The child may parrot the aligned parent’s words and phrases, without even truly understanding what they mean.
The psychological term for this pathological form of over-identification is “borrowed scenarios.” Also, when the children adopt the characteristics, expressions, judgments, and perceptions of a favored parent, they start to idealize themselves as well. In their minds, they become a second parent, and the rejected parent becomes the child.
This type of over-identification with a favored parent also makes a child far less transparent with a counselor or therapist than the child would be otherwise, because the child is so aligned with that parent that the child’s words and stories come out “scripted” and “without underlying substance.” (Kelly and Johnston). Rather than accessing their own experience or perceptions, the alienated child is busy protecting and advocating for the aligned parent.
In cases of Reunification Therapy in Seattle, WA, it has been observed that the child will speak highly of that parent, and vigorously refuse to countenance any hint of criticism directed at that parent. In a therapeutic setting, the child may even testify passionately about how poorly treated their favored parent has been at the hands of the rejected parent.
In some cases, the child may be getting coached by the aligned parent regarding what to say to various authorities. Therefore, the child will not – indeed cannot – be entirely honest with a psychologist or a court-appointed guardian ad litem. (Therapists often find it necessary to administer a personality inventory test, such as the Brickland Perceptual Scales or the Family Apperception Test, to determine if a child is pathologically alienated.)
Another quality of alienated children is that they are very angry, but not anxious. They are extremely hostile and they seem to lack all empathy for their rejected parent, yet they are apparently not conflicted or tormented about this. They have found a place to land; they have solidified their belief system. In contrast, non-alienated children who go back and forth between high-conflict parents tend to be very anxious, though not usually so angry.
According to Kelly and Johnston, most rejected parents “have no history of physical or emotional abuse of the child.” While in some cases “there may be some kernel of truth to the child’s complaints and allegations … the child’s grossly negative views and feelings are significantly distorted and exaggerated …”
Therefore, they deem alienation to be a “pathological response” by the child in the absence of significant abuse or neglect. Nonetheless they also identify circumstantial factors and conditions that are conducive to, if not entirely causative of, child alienation.
Factors that Can Contribute to the Development of Child Alienation
One type of circumstance that can result in child alienation is when a parental separation is experienced as deeply humiliating by one parent, and that parent displays or communicates their sense of humiliation and rage to the child. The child subsequently aligns with the injured/humiliated parent in order to “protect” that parent.
For example, we know of a father who was unhappy in his marriage and wanted to end it. So while his wife and kids were off on vacation, this man and his pals rented a couple of U-Haul trailers and ransacked the family home. When the mother returned, she was shocked.
She called the police, thinking that the house had been robbed by strangers. But her husband called her and told her that it had been him, and that they were getting a divorce. She was devastated. Then, adding insult to injury, this man began posting unflattering details about his wife on social media.
The children saw all this and essentially said, “How dare you, Dad! Screw you! We’re staying with Mom!”
In an analogous situation, a father was having multiple affairs, which the mother learned off after he had contracted an STD and transmitted it to her. Then, rather than abjectly apologize, he proclaimed that he was a strong believer in polyamorous relationships, and that he was going to continue to sleep with other women. This was extremely humiliating as well as hurtful to the mother, and her child aligned with her for this reason, alienating from the father after the parents separated.
High-conflict divorces during which children are pulled into bitter legal proceedings can also result in alienation. Children get “triangulated” within the post-marital dispute, used as pawns in the divorce proceedings. Sometimes, parents may unskillfully (some might say “unscrupulously”) place their child in the role of a confidante, “venting” to the child about the other parent.
This kind of thing tears a child apart emotionally. The child may cope with the stress by ceasing all contact with the “bad” parent, thereby resolving their inner turmoil and anesthetizing their inner pain.
Significant individuals outside the family unit may also contribute discord and stress that factor into alienation. For example, perhaps one parent has a new partner and the other parent feels betrayed, or the child feels betrayed and doesn’t “take to” the new partner. Professionals such as attorneys, custody evaluators, and even therapists who “make a case” for one parent over the other – which can include inflammatory accusations of abuse and child neglect – may also play a triggering role if court papers or other documents or overheard conversations should enter into a child’s awareness, inducing the child to rigidify and alienate.
Kelly and Johnston also identified several qualities and conditions that may render children vulnerable to becoming alienated, including:
- Cognitive confusion and/or black-and-white thinking on the part of the child
- Poor self-esteem, which “makes children especially susceptible to promises of enduring love”
- A fearful or passive nature that compromises a child’s capacity to “withstand the intense pressures of a custody battle” and makes it “psychologically easier for them to choose a side to avoid crippling anxiety”
- Longstanding, entrenched emotional dependence on the aligned parent
- Lack (or scarcity) of supportive adult figures outside the nuclear family, such as aunts or uncles or therapists
A Process of Elimination — When Is Parental Gaslighting Responsible for Child Alienation?
Though Gardner was incorrect in asserting that psychological manipulation, coercion, and brainwashing by the aligned parent is the only or most common cause of child alienation, he was accurate in identifying it as one frequent cause.
So how do we determine if gaslighting is the “culprit” with child alienation? Essentially, we do so by eliminating the other known recognizable causes.
If we have a situation wherein a child completely hates and rejects one parent – and that child was not drawn into the drama of high-conflict divorce proceedings, and the parental separation did not involve some deeply humiliating experience for the aligned parent, and there is not any evidence (material or anecdotal) that the rejected parent was severely abusive or neglectful, and there were not any external influences that heavily bore on the child to side with one parent over the other – in other words, if there is no apparent basis for alienation, then we might say that parental gaslighting is probably “what’s behind the curtain.”
There are numerous ways that an aligned parent can gaslight a child into alienating the child’s other parent. As noted in our previous chapter, gaslighting is a sustained campaign. The most obvious tactic is to continually denigrate the other parent in the child’s presence, magnifying the other parent’s flaws and expressing extreme negative judgments of the other parent’s character.
According to Kelly and Johnston, “The effect of the continued drumbeat of negative evaluation of the parent is to erode the child’s confidence in and love for the rejected parent and to create intolerable confusion.”
The gaslighting parent may also, subtly and/or overtly, discourage contact between the child and the rejected parent. Again, according to Kelly and Johnston:
Although aligned parents might insist that the child is free to visit, the rejected parent’s attempts to visit or contact their child frequently are seen as harassment. Phone calls, messages, and/or letters often are not passed on to the child. Information about school, medical, athletic, or special events are not provided to the rejected parent, in effect completely shutting that parent out of the child’s life. In the most extreme cases, all references to the rejected parent are removed from the residence, including pictures (which might be torn apart in front of the child to exclude that parent).
Moreover, gaslighting parents will bestow warm approval on a child’s own expressions of disdain or criticism of the rejected parent.
Finally, the gaslighting parent will often act as if the rejected parent is a clear and present danger to the child, whether or not there is any valid historical basis for thinking this. Any previous episodes of disharmony between the child and the rejected parent will be repeatedly invoked and reified as definitive evidence that the rejected parent is emotionally unstable, potentially violent, and/or sexually abusive.
Stories of the rejected parent’s bad behavior or faulty decision-making, even from long ago, become touchstones that “prove” that parent’s inadequacy and/or defective character. If the child has to go to the rejected parent’s home (because of a shared custody agreement), the gaslighting parent might tell the child to “call me immediately if tries to touch you” or simply to “check in” by phone every hour or two to report on the rejected parent’s behavior.
The gaslighting parent may also draw a network of professionals into the character assassination crusade. Per Kelly and Johnston, “A campaign to protect the child from the presumed danger is mounted on multiple fronts, often involving attorneys, therapists, pediatricians, and school personnel.”
As Gardner originally observed, the favored parent is usually the mother, and bogus allegations of sexual abuse occur often. Yet, in some families, it is the father who has been the resident gaslighter for years, often preceding parental separation.
In one family we know of, the father repeatedly oversaw wrestling matches in which his three sons would gang up on his wife. Even when his wife protested that she’d had enough, that she was being really hurt, etc., it was the father who had the authority to “make the call” as to when the wrestling matches ended. More often than not, he would tell his sons to continue “practicing their moves” on their hapless mother.
Over time, the sons came to view their mother as an inferior person, unworthy of respect. This abuse extended into all areas of their family life, with the boys displaying little or no consideration towards their mom. In the end, when the parents separated, the sons were completely aligned with their dad, who was their role model of a powerful person. This father, in addition to being a gaslighter, was an authoritarian tyrant, the family “strongman.”
The Authoritarian Narcissist: One Common Profile of a Gaslighting Parent
Developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind defined four different basic parenting styles, which she called authoritative, authoritarian (disciplinarian), permissive (indulgent), and neglectful (uninvolved). We will not go into detail about each of these styles here, other than to note that authoritarian parents are generally cold and distant from their children.
They are strict about rules, and they back up their demands with phrases like, “Because I said so.” Authoritarian parents place premium value on controlling their children. They parents employ coercion rather than communication or persuasion to direct a child’s choices and behaviors.
In 2016, the German research psychologist Martin Pinquart performed a meta-analytic review of parenting styles, studying over 1,000 cases. He found that the authoritarian style, far more than any other, led to very negative outcomes for children.
Gaslighting is consistent with the authoritarian parenting style, as it too employs tactics of control and domination. Yet not all authoritarian parents – harsh, military style notwithstanding – are gaslighters per se.
The “added ingredient” that generally turns an authoritarian parent into a gaslighter is narcissism, the implicit assumption that the world revolves around oneself, and that one’s own experience is all that matters, and no one else’s experience or perception counts for much. (We discussed narcissism in the previous chapter.)
Narcissistic personality traits combined with an authoritarian parenting style form one common profile of a gaslighting parent (though not the only one).
And just as with any other delusional disorder, once the authoritarian parent edges into gaslighting, they actually believe that what they are doing is justified and correct. They never question themselves. We can assume that the father who exhorted his sons to beat up his wife over and over again was complacent in the belief that he was exercising his rightful authority for perfectly valid reasons.
Common Missteps of Alienated Parents
Though the behaviors of an alienated child are generally far out of proportion to any (alleged or actual) offenses committed by the rejected parent, and though a trained therapist or other neutral professional observer might state with conviction that the rejected parent has done little or nothing to “deserve” such treatment, Kelly and Johnston also itemized several common pitfalls that rejected parents often fall into – behaviors that only serve to entrench their alienated status.
A natural response to rejection is “counter-rejection,” and parents – being only human – may feel resentful of their alienated child. In turn, they may become cold or harsh toward the child whom they feel has unreasonably shunned and vilified them. Of course, this only alienates the child further.
An alienated parent may also simply give up on trying to communicate with their child, because they feel helpless. But this only reinforces the narrative that they are a neglectful parent and that they don’t really care. The rejected parent may abandon therapy with their child, because they lack faith in the process, or they have become dispirited, or they cannot financially afford to continue sessions. Again, this withdrawal can easily be interpreted by the child as an expression of the “bad” parent’s callousness or apathy.
Then there are particular parenting styles and real characterological defects that may have the impact of pushing a child away emotionally. Parents with a perfectionist streak – who demand that their children always excel at school and who set high expectations for their children in all areas of life – run the risk of contributing to alienation, particularly if the favored parent is more permissive and provides the child with less conditional expressions of love and approval.
Or a parent may simply be immature, placing their own needs and desires ahead of the child’s in large and small ways. For example, the parent may miss a school event, choosing instead to watch a movie with friends. According to Kelly and Johnston, “[I]n the custody battle, these behaviors are focused on, exaggerated, and come to symbolize the parent’s disinterest in the child.” However: “[T]he rejected parent’s behaviors are not necessarily different from many average married families and do not warrant the extent of furry and denigration typical of the alienated child.”
Finally, a terrible mistake that is tragically easy to make for a rejected parent is to simply discount the validity of the child’s feelings, to assume that these behaviors and attitudes have all been “programmed” by the aligned parent and are not authentic at all to the child.
There may be a kernel of accuracy in this assumption. Still, it fails to recognize and honor the child’s essential agency. It is a diminishment of the child’s autonomous personhood as has been noted in several cases of reunification in Bellevue, WA. “This lack of empathy or even subtle dismissal of the child’s feelings can lead to intensified fury in the child and can further deepen the alienation.” (Kelly and Johnston)
As we noted in the previous chapter, the wisest course of action for a rejected parent is remain calm, stable, and consistent, and try to do the best that they can for their child – and never fight with the favored parent in front of the child.
Of course, maintaining such poise and grace is not going to be easy, but it will normally pay dividends over time for the alienated parent. In our clinical experience, we have seen numerous cases in which the children, having grown into a young adults, develop the ability to see their childhood family dynamics from a mature perspective. At this point, they often “come home” to the rejected parent, reestablishing relationship, expressing respect and appreciation.
Also, they often turn their ire upon the parent who gaslit them when they were young. In therapy, they’ll say things like, “I knew something was ‘off’ in my home when I was a kid, but I didn’t quite get it. Now I think I understand. I was 12 when my parents got divorced, and at that time I hated my mom. I thought she was beneath me. But as I got older, I started to realize …”
Short- and Long-Term Risks to Alienated Children
According to Kelly and Johnston, “Overall, the most common age range of the alienated child is from 9 to 15, although some older adolescents and young adults can become alienated.”
They note that it is unusual for younger children to harden into alienation — to become “loyal soldiers,” so to speak, of the aligned parent — because small children are not yet at the stage of cognitive development and ego maturity (i.e., Piaget’s concrete operational stage, described in our previous chapter) that enables the formation of intractable moral judgments.
Small children cannot easily take a side or a position and stick with it, summoning the furious force of moral certitude that comes so naturally to an adolescent. “Younger children often forget their scripts, let go of their anger, and have inconsistencies in their presentation.” (Kelly and Johnson)
So, to an extent, younger children’s innocence “protects” them from becoming alienated. Nonetheless, there is considerable danger to small children in being gaslit and indoctrinated to reject a parent. They are at risk for “developing a more consolidated alienation as they get older” according to Kelly and Johnston, especially if they have older siblings who are susceptible to alienation and who exert an influence on them. Also, “some well-rehearsed younger children whose older siblings are alienated might appear to be alienated as they parrot the language and ideas of the older sibling and are kept in the mode of parental rejection by the vigilant monitoring of their sibling.” (Kelly and Johnston)
Based on our clinical experience, our own prediction is that small children of gaslighting parents, as they move into the concrete cognitive operations stage at ages 9 or 10 or 11, will likely experience a rupture in their emotional and mental development. In many cases, depending on how aligned with one parent and alienated from the other they have become, they may regress to a childlike egocentrism (in Piaget’s terminology, the preoperative cognitive stage). Children who have been gaslit at the ages of 9 through 11 are in danger of the same rupture and regression.
This reversion to a preoperative state may not be evident at age 9 or 10, but due to the blossoming psychological contamination, it can take effect in early adolescence, at age 14 or 15 or 16. Thus the child may ultimately follow in the footsteps of their narcissistic parent right at the time that they should begin emerging into socially competent young adulthood. What we see, as clinicians, are adults who have begun to realize that they were gaslit as children, and who now come to therapy with narcissistic personality traits and other disorders.
Also, sadly, gaslighting is often an intergenerational phenomenon. The alienated child often replicates their aligned parent’s gaslighting behaviors in their own adult relationships, and with their own children.
Speaking more generally, according to research, most people unconsciously tend to marry (or form intimate relationships with) not necessarily someone who is like their parent of the opposite sex, but rather someone like the parent who presented them with the greatest challenges as they grew up. Most of us are drawn, at some point, to relationships that mimic the most difficult relationships of our childhood.
What this means for gaslit and alienated children is that, even if they don’t become gaslighters themselves, they are far more likely than most people to marry one, absent unusual self-insight and (perhaps) therapeutic support.