How to Identify Parental Alienation

Involving children in marital conflicts is a cruel way of hurting the other spouse. It is also an underhanded way of mistreating our children.
How to Identify Parental Alienation

Last update: 17 April, 2022

When parents separate, it’s important to identify the existence of parental alienation. This problem frequently arises after conflictual separations and could explain the fact that children reject one of their parents.

This syndrome doesn’t appear overnight due to divorce, but when one of the two spouses introduces the children into the litigation. For example, by speaking ill of the other or directly, through insults and disqualifications.

In this way, the children accept these beliefs as their own and deny external influences on their conception of their parent. As a consequence, they reject the possibility of spending time with their “alienated” parent.

Here, we’ll tell you all about it so that you can detect this situation in time.

What is parental alienation?

Parental alienation syndrome is a term coined by psychiatrist Richard Gardner in 1985 and refers to the rejection that a child feels towards one of their parents as a result of the manipulation exercised by the other parent. The aim of this action is to influence the thoughts and beliefs of children, in order to damage the image of the spouse with whom they’re in dispute.

We can’t forget that a child’s brain is like a blank sheet of paper and some adults use it to their advantage to sow unjustified hatred toward the other parent. In these cases, the one who’s really harmed is the child, both psychologically and physically.

Couple conflicts are only the responsibility of the couple, not of the children. For them, both are their parents, and no one should damage the image of either of them.

At this point, it’s important to differentiate between parental estrangement and alienation.

Estrangement is a separation, either by distance or loss, that’s realistic and consistent with the circumstances. In contrast, alienation is the separation of children from one parent, induced by the other parent’s willful attitudes and behaviors.

Scissorts cutting a paper cut-out of a familly in half.
Separation and divorce result in a real estrangement, which requires a restructuring of family dynamics. But parental alienation goes beyond this.

How to identify parental alienation

In the study Reliability and validity of the four-factor model of parental alienation, Amy J.L. Baker wanted to demonstrate the validity and reliability of the four-factor model for determining the presence of parental alienation. In this way, it could help professionals to detect it early on.
Here are the four fundamental conditions that define this condition.

1. The existence of a positive relationship between the child and the rejected parent prior to the marital conflict

This factor prevents absent fathers from showing themselves as victims of parental alienation. For this, it must be demonstrated that before the rejection began, the parent in question maintained a loving and close bond with their child.

2. The absence of abusive situations by the rejected parent

If there’s no history of abuse or poor parenting of the child by the rejected parent, we can consider parental alienation.

It’s also important to make clear, for therapeutic and legal reasons, that the child was exposed to negative behaviors and attitudes by the alienating parent.

3. The persistence of alienating behaviors by the recipient parent

The recipient parent attempts to condition their child’s beliefs and perceptions of the other parent, regardless of the child’s actual experiences with them.

Baker identified some of the negative behaviors most frequently used to alienate the rejected parent:

  • Restricting contact and interfering with visitation with the other parent
  • Criticizing the other parent in front of the children
  • Telling the child that you don’t love them because you show love to the alienated parent
  • Tearing up pictures showing the other spouse
  • Telling the child that the other parent doesn’t love them
  • Forcing the child to choose between parents
  • Using a derogatory name to refer to the other parent
  • Asking the child to spy on the other adult.
  • Creating a fantasy in the child that the other parent is dangerous
  • Talking to the child about unpleasant behaviors of the other parent
  • Forcing the child to reject them
  • Telling the child to call their stepparent “dad” or “mom”.
  • Denying the other parent in the child’s documents (medical, academic, and other information).

Injured adults may save messages, emails, or any other document certifying that they’re victims of parental alienation by their ex-partner and present it in court as evidence to support that information.

4. The existence of alienating and rejecting behaviors and attitudes on the part of the child toward the victimized parent

Children suffering from parental alienation have very different behaviors and attitudes than children who are truly estranged from a parent. Some of these behaviors include the following:

  • Defamation of the targeted parent
  • Use of phrases or words taken directly from the favored parent
  • Absence of remorse for the harmful treatment of the other parent
  • Use of absurd and unsubstantiated reasons for rejecting their parent
  • Determination of roles in parents as “good” and “bad”
  • Denial regarding outside influences to alienate a parent
A teenage boy angrily walking away from his dad.
Rejection toward one parent after a marital conflict could be a consequence of parental alienation.

About identifying parental alienation, we can say that…

Faced with conflicts in couples with children, it’s important to identify the presence of parental alienation. This is because children are those who are harmed the most in this situation and we must take care of them above all things.

In this article, we’ve talked a little about this syndrome and how to identify it in time. Likewise, it’s crucial to know if that child feels rejection because they’ve been a victim of abuse or because the parent has never been present. This will help to draw the boundaries between the different issues that affect the child’s well-being.

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  • Segura, C., Gil, M. J., & Sepúlveda, M. A. (2006). El síndrome de alienación parental: una forma de maltrato infantil. Cuadernos de medicina Forense, (43-44), 117-128. En internet: https://journals.copmadrid.org/apj/archivos/102994.pdf
  • Linares, J. L. (2015). Prácticas alienadoras familiares: el “Síndrome de Alienación Parental” reformulado (Vol. 141636). Editorial Gedisa.
  • Baker, A. (2018). Reliability and validity of the four-factor model of parental alienation. Journal of Family Therapy. Disponible en: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-6427.12253