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Parental Alienation: Child Abuse? Reportable? by Robert A. Evans, Ph.D.

Parental Alienation: Child Abuse? — Reportable?
by Robert A. Evans, Ph.D.

Florida, as virtually every state, has a law that pertains to abuse of children. In Florida, it is referred to as Chapter 39 Proceedings Relating to Children. Within Chapter 39 is section 39.01(2) which provides the definition of Abuse, and it includes, among other things:

“Abuse” means: any willful act or threatened act that results in any physical,
mental, or sexual abuse, injury, or harm that causes or is likely to cause the child’s physical, mental, or emotional health to be significantly impaired.

Those of us who have been working within the field of Parental Alienation recognize that Parental Alienation is in fact a form of abuse, and toxic stress resulting in trauma. So, doesn’t it logically follow if the professional field recognizes alienating behaviors and the consequences of those behaviors, as maltreatment or child abuse, then, by definition, it should be reportable to child protection and law enforcement organizations?

The research on Parental Alienation suggests that elements of Parental Alienation, that is favored parent behaviors, can be found in 86% of litigated family law cases as reported by the authors of the book Children Held Hostage: Identifying Brainwashed Children, Presenting A Case and Crafting Solutions (Clawar & Rivlin, 2013) published by the American Bar Association.

This article strongly suggests that child protection agencies, mental health and legal professionals should be trained about the significant, long-term, and abusive consequences that Parental Alienation can have on children, our next generation.

Parental Alienation
Parental Alienation is a mental condition that includes a child, usually one whose parents are engaged in an adversarial separation or divorce, displaying a strong alignment with one parent while rejecting or resisting a relationship with the other (Warshak, 2015; Lorandos, et. al, 2013) The rejection of one parent is unwarranted based on a child’s actual experiences with that parent. Prior to the child’s rejection of the parent a normal, loving, warm relationship with the rejected parent existed.

A child need not act out for Parental Alienation to be present. For instance, Parental Alienation includes the tactics or strategies by the favored/alienating parent to manipulate a child, but the child has not yet overtly rejected the other parent (Darnell, 2010). In these instances, the child may maintain a relationship with the targeted parent while with that parent but when the favored parent is present the child’s behavior reverts to one of rejection. Also, as the negative manipulation/influence continues uninterrupted, the child’s rejection is sure to follow (Lorandos, Bernet, & Sauber, 2013). The reason for this lies in the fact that the child cannot continue to be responsive, affectionate, and overtly loving to the targeted parent for fear of being rejected by the favored parent (Clawar & Rivlin, 2013) and their strong need to stay attached to the favored parent.

Parental Alienation refers to specific behaviors that the favored parent engages in that are intended to disrupt and even terminate the relationship between a parent and child (Warshak, 2015). These behaviors have been described by a number of authors as brainwashing, programming, indoctrination, etc. (Clawar & Rivlin, 2013). As the “brainwashing” process persists in the presence of a child, the child begins to accept the programming thoughts as his or her own (Clawar & Rivlin, 2013). According to Dr. Stephen Ceci (1995) in his book Jeopardy in the Courtroom, young children “are vulnerable to source misattributions when they are repeatedly encouraged to think about or visualize events that never occurred. Many of them appear to think that they actually experienced everts that they had only imagined (p.222).” In addition, Dr. Ceci (1995) discussed scripts in children’s reporting. He stated, “…if children are persistently interviewed [as in multiple DCF investigations], they may actually acquire facts or scripts about the alleged event, even if they had no previous knowledge of this information prior to the series of interviews” (p. 257), the result will be the same – a false memory.

The alienating behaviors include forms of visitation blocking or interference, false allegations of abuse, harm, or neglect; which result in a noticeable deterioration of the relationship between the targeted or rejected parent and child; and a child’s exaggerated fear of the alienating parent (Bone & Walsh, 1999). The exaggerated fear of the alienating parent can include a fear of being rejected by that parent, a fear of displeasing in some extreme cases, a fear of physical harm (Clawar & Rivlin, 2013).

The specific strategies or tactics a favored parent may employ were alluded to earlier; Baker and Fine (2013) identified the strategies listed below in Working with Alienated Children and Families by A. J. L. Baker & P. R. Fine (2013). These are simply listed due to limited space.

  • Badmouthing
  • Limiting contact
  • Interfering with communication
  • Interfering with symbolic communication
  • Withdrawal of love
  • Telling the child that the targeted parent is dangerous
  • Forcing the child to choose
  • Telling the child that the targeted parent does not love him or her
  • Confiding in the child
  • Forcing the child to reject the targeted parent
  • Asking the child to spy on the targeted parent
  • Asking the child to keep secrets from the targeted parent
  • Referring to the targeted parent by first name
  • Referring to a stepparent as “Mom” or “Dad” and encouraging child to do the same
  • Withholding medical, academic, and other important information from targeted parent/keeping targeted parent’s name off medical, academic, and other relevant documents
  • Changing child’s name to remove association with targeted parent
  •  Cultivating dependency/undermining the authority of the targeted parent

Children who are alienated from one parent often speak of the favored parent as if that parent were perfect, exceptional, and in every way above reproach. They also behave as if they are dependent on that parent in a way that is not necessary or appropriate given their age and life experience. Favored parents develop a dependency on their children rather than help their children develop self-sufficiency, critical thinking, autonomy, and independence. At the same time, they undermine the authority of the rejected parent in order to ensure that the child is loyal to only one parent, them. Examples include instituting rules that the child must follow even when with the rejected parent and mocking or overwriting the rules of the rejected parent. The alienating parent becomes elevated in the eyes of the child while the targeted parent becomes less important and less meaningful.

As the assimilation of these alienating behaviors proceeds, the symptoms of Parental Alienation emerge. These will be briefly cited here and for more detail the reader is referred to the National Association of Parental Alienation Specialists website ( These are:

1. The campaign of denigration
2. Weak or frivolous rationalizations for the deprecation
3. Lack of ambivalence
4. The “Independent Thinker” phenomenon
5. Reflexive support of the alienating parent in the parental conflict
6. Absence of guilt over cruelty to and/or exploitation of the rejected/target parent
7. Presence of borrowed scenarios
8. Spread of animosity to the extended family of the rejected/target parent

In a study entitled “Unseen Wounds: The Contribution of Psychological Maltreatment to Child and Adolescent Mental Health and Risk Outcomes” (2014), conducted by J. Spinazzola,, psychologically maltreated children exhibited equivalent or greater levels of behavioral problems, symptoms and disorders compared with physically or sexually abused children.

The “Practice Guidelines” of The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC) (2017) defines Psychological Maltreatment as Child Abuse. According to the Practice Guidelines, “child maltreatment” is a precise synonym for “child abuse and neglect.” The Practice Guidelines points to the Center for Disease Control-which focuses more on the caregiver’s behavior. “Child maltreatment is any act or series of acts of commission or omission by a parent or other caregiver that results in harm, potential for harm, or threat of harm to a child” (p. 14). Child Abuse and neglect means “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, or any act or failure to act (emphasis added) which presents an imminent risk of serious harm” (p. 15). In 2007, alienation was considered a well-documented form of Psychological Maltreatment, which caused emotional disturbances in children and even greater harm as they matured (A. Baker, 2007).

The APSAC guidelines define the term Psychological Maltreatment as a “repeated pattern or extreme incident(s) of caretaker behavior that thwart the child’s basic psychological needs (e.g., safety, socialization, emotional and social support, cognitive stimulation, respect) and convey a child is worthless, defective, damaged goods, unloved, unwanted, endangered, primarily useful in meeting another’s needs, and/or expendable (p. 147).” “Psychological Maltreatment includes acts of commission (e.g., threats by a caregiver toward a child) and acts of omission (e.g., repeatedly ignoring a child’s bids for attention or for comfort when distressed) (p. 147).” While there are six subtypes of Psychological Maltreatment, the most relevant to Parental Alienation are Exploiting/Corrupting, Terrorizing, Isolating, Mental Health, Medical, and Educational Neglect.

Exploiting/Corrupting is when a caregiver’s acts encourage a child to develop inappropriate behaviors and attitudes (APSAC, p. 147). Encouraging a child to unjustifiably reject another parent or the persistent use of specific alienating strategies would fall under this form of maltreatment (APSAC, p. 148). Included in this form of maltreatment is the restricting, interfering with, or directly undermining the child’s important relationships (APSAC, p.148). Restricting communication with the rejected parent or telling the child the lack of communication is due to the other parent’s lack of love for the child are specific Parental Alienation examples (APSAC, p.148).

Terrorizing is when a caregiver threatens or is likely to physically hurt the child or place the child’s loved ones in recognizably dangerous or frightening situations (APSAC, p. 148). Specifically cited under this form of maltreatment is placing the child in a loyalty conflict by making the child unnecessarily choose to have a relationship with one parent or the other (APSAC, p.148).

Isolating is when the caregiver’s acts consistently and unreasonably deny the child opportunities to meet their needs for interacting/communicating with adults inside or outside the home (APSAC, p.149). An example related to Parental Alienation is placing unreasonable limitations or restrictions on social interaction with other family members.

Some professionals believe the phenomenon of Parental Alienation is not legitimate because it is not in the DSM-5. Depending on the individual characteristics of the child and family this condition may be diagnosed as a Parent-Child Relational Problem (V61.20) or Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress (V61.29). In some cases, the behaviors of a caregiver may be defined as Child Psychological Abuse (995.51). (APA, 2013, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-5)

Consequences of Parental Alienation
The consequences of Parental Alienation are very significant and not very well recognized by either mental health or legal professionals. According to Clawar and Rivlin (2013), “the influence and impact of programming/brainwashing on children and their families is never benign” (p. 162) The authors cite possible effects of this dynamic as: conflicts with parents; loneliness; memory loss; school dysfunction; conflict with peer relationships; anxiety; regressive behaviors; social identity problems; diminished attention span; heightened fantasy life; sibling conflict; lack of friends; increased technology use as an escape; feeling of isolation; psychosomatic disorder; diminished activity; poor executive functioning; disheveled living space; weight issues; eating disorders; poor eating habits; poor body image; sexual promiscuity; speech problems; substance abuse; sleep problems; and depression (p. 163).

Other research has identified increased clinical emotional and behavioral problems in alienated children as well as risks to a child’s psychological and emotional development. Alienated children may display anger, withdrawal, aggression, defiance, and rigidity at a level that is higher than those children who maintain a relationship with both parents. Depression, somatic complaints, and sleep disturbance have also been identified. Children may exhibit symptoms of anxiety or panic reactions when asked to spend time with a rejected parent and there may be a fear of leaving the favored parent or concerns for the future and safety of this parent. Severely alienated children may act out being rude, swearing, attacking a parent, destroying property, or stealing. Conduct disorder or oppositional defiance may be evident (Baker, 2005; Baker & Darnall, 2007; Clawar & Rivlin, 2013; Dunne & Hedrick, 1994; Fidler & Bala, 2010; Gardner, 1985; Johnston, 2003, 2005; Johnston, & Campbell, 1988; Kopetski, 1998; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980a).

In addition, research has identified that children who experience alienation are more likely to have an impaired ability to sustain effective, healthy relationships throughout their life-course, including work, social relationships, and an increased prevalence of mental health and psychiatric disorders and substance misuse (Baker, 2005a; Baker & Verrocchio, 2013; Bernet, 2010; Cartwright, 1993; Johnston, 2005; Johnston, Walters & Olesen, 2005).

Given the toxic stress alienated children experience, one can also expect some of the consequences that have been identified as a result of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Among the most severe outcomes of ACEs is that individuals who had experienced a number of ACEs, on average, live 20 years less than persons who do not have such experiences.

Parental Alienation has been conceptualized as existing on a continuum from mild to severe, with therapeutic and legal interventions, in response, reflecting the severity and complexity (Burrill, 2006; Fidler, Bala & Saini, 2012; Rand, 1997; Rand & Kopetski, 2005). Alienation is often exacerbated in cases involving third parties, such as social care, therapists, support agencies and the legal system. Lack of knowledge and understanding by these practitioners can lead to inadvertent collusion with the alienation process, particularly where information and history is garnered from one parent’s perspective only (Garber, 2007; Johnston & Kelly, 2001; Kopetski, 1998).

Ultimately, the solution to this problem is education. Those who receive reports of abuse and investigate those allegations need to be educated about Parental Alienation. Without specialized training child protection investigators will frequently make inadequate recommendations. Courts, who hear motions and pleadings and, in the end, order litigants to participate in ineffective resolutions need to be educated. Parental Alienation is a counter intuitive phenomenon. That is, what is presented to the Court is not what is actually going on in a case. This misperception and misrepresentation often lead to failure at the children’s expense. Mental health professionals who are often the recipients of these cases need to be trained because their clinical training can mislead them in a direction that often exacerbates the dysfunction.

So, in the end, is Parental Alienation child abuse and as such is it reportable? The evidence is clear but we’re a long way from supporting these families and addressing their trauma.


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Robert A. Evans, Ph.D.
Dr. Evans is a Florida licensed school psychologist and has been practicing Forensic Psychology for over 25 years throughout the U.S. His forensic services include expert testimony in family law cases with a focus on Parental Alienation (PA), including allegations of parental rejection, child abuse, sex abuse, and estrangement. He is trained as a Family Divorce Mediator, Parenting Coordinator, Guardian ad Litem, Collaborative Law Practice, and Child Custody Evaluator. In 2011, he co-authored the book, The Essentials of Parent Alienation Syndrome, and a number of articles for bar association journals and publications. He has testified as an expert on PA in numerous courts across the U.S. as to what Parental Alienation is, how to identify it, and how to rehabilitate it. He has conducted in excess of two-hundred child custody evaluations in his career thus far. Dr. Evans’ company, The Center for Human Potential of America, Inc., is an approved sponsor of continuing education for psychologists by the American Psychological Association. He is the co-founder of the National Association of Parental Alienation Specialists ( In addition he has been approved by many legal bar associations to conduct continuing legal education on a variety of topics, including Litigating Family Law Cases with Parent Alienation, Critiquing and Reviewing Child Custody Evaluations and An Overview of Established Rehabilitation Programs.