BRIEF ON PARENTAL ALIENATION
Primary VAWA 2021 Bill Sponsors:
Representative Sheila Jackson Lee
Senator Dianne Feinstein
Brief Produced by:
A consortium of experts representing a large network of international organizations
April 6, 2022
6. Parental Alienation and Other Forms of Family Conflict
6.1 There can be several reasons why a child would resists contact with a parent. The nature of
this resistance, and other factors in the family dynamic, help to determine the reason for the
6.2 Children who have been moderately to severely alienated from a parent frequently,
persistently, and consistently reject them and refuse to communicate with or see them. In milder
cases, this resistance is most often seen when the child is with their preferred parent, and less so
when in the care of the less favored parent. Over time, and as parental alienation becomes more
severe, the child’s resistance increases.
6.3 Children who have been estranged from a parent, meaning they have a justified reason for
resistance such as in cases of child abuse, do not often reject the parent persistently, consistently
and frequently. Rather, children who have been abused in other ways tend to have considerable
ambivalence about their abusive parent and many children minimize the abuse they experienced.
These children often protect and make excuses for their abusive parent---they are not likely to
reject them. This feature is an important differentiator for alienated and estranged children.
6.4 Some children are pulled into their parental conflicts and get “stuck in the middle.” In this
case, the child experiences what is called a loyalty conflict. This family dynamic is different than
parental alienation because in this case, the child wants to maintain a positive relationship with
both parents. The child is in a difficult situation because both parents try to influence the child to
pick their “side,” which can make the child withdrawn and less close to both parents. Sometimes,
the child will eventually pick a side in this conflict and reject their other parent in order to stop
being in the middle. In such cases, the child eventually becomes alienated from a parent.
6.5 Children who have been alienated from a parent manifest several behaviors that scientific
and clinical research has found to be unique for them, meaning that these behaviors are not as
likely to be found among children who are in a loyalty conflict or who have been estranged.
These manifestations are:
• Campaign of denigration: The child repeatedly complains about the parent over and
over again to anyone who will listen. The child has internalized the negative attitude of
the alienating parent towards the alienated parent.
• Frivolous rationalization for the complaint: Irrational or silly reason given for not
wanting to see the rejected parent (e.g., mom or dad is “boring”). Children who are
alienated will also hold a grudge against a parent far longer than most children (e.g., if
they were disciplined for a rule violation) and use it as justification for their rejection. For
example, a child may claim mom or dad is “abusive” because they suspended social
media use for a week and therefore refuse to spend parenting time with them for weeks or
• Lack of ambivalence: Good relationships always have ambivalence because no person is
all good or all bad. Alienated children do not typically show signs of this: rather, they show splitting
uch that the rejected parent is all bad and evil, and the preferred parent is
perfect, idealized, and all good.
• Independent thinker phenomenon: The child goes out of their way to tell people that
their opinions are their own and that their mom or dad did not tell them to think or
believe what they do.
• Borrowed scenarios: The child will repeat phrases used by the alienating parent nearly
word for word or describe stories or past events that they would have had no independent
knowledge of (e.g., who the primary caregiver was as a baby, reasons for their parent’s
divorce). Some children will also use language to describe the targeted parent that would
not normally be used by a child their age, indicating that they have borrowed the phrases
from the alienating parent (e.g., a 4 year old saying that mom or dad needs “anger
management classes or an 8 year old who informed a psychologist that her “voice under
UNCRC Article 12 must be heard”).
• Automatic support/reflexive support: The child will automatically choose to defend the
alienating parent in any disagreement or argument. This automatic support is often most
evident among children whose personal identities are lost due to being fused
(alternatively referred to as “enmeshed”) with the alienating parent, as any perceived
criticism of the alienating parent is perceived by the child as being a criticism of the self,
and it challenges the child’s idealization on the alienating parent.
• Absence of guilt: The child is very disrespectful and hostile towards the rejected parent
with no visible qualms or guilt. The child shows no concern for the feelings of the
rejected parent and the impact of their behaviors on them.
• Spread of animosity: The negative feelings the child has for the targeted parent spreads
to other people associated with them: step-parents, extended family, friends, even pets.
Even though these individuals have done nothing wrong, the children ‘hate’ them with
the same amount of hostility as the rejected parent. From the child’s perspective, if the
rejected parent is so bad, then everyone associated with them must be bad as well.
6.6 The more severely alienated a child becomes, the more behavioral manifestations the child
has been found to express.
6.7 The differentiation of parental alienation from other forms family conflict can be done
reliably using what is referred to as the Five-Factor Model. When there is evidence of the
following five factors in the family, then it is unlikely that the child is estranged or experiencing
a loyalty conflict:
1) The child rejects a parent or resists contact for unjustified reasons;
2) The child previously had a positive attachment/relationship with the rejected parent;
3) The child does not have a history of abuse or deficient parenting with the rejected
4) The child has a preferred parent who has engaged in patterns of parent alienating
behaviors over time; and
5) The child has several or most of the manifestations of parental alienation (6.5 above),