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Parental alienation

Parental alienation syndrome

Richard Gardner, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, coined the term “parental alienation syndrome” (PAS) in the mid 1980s. Gardner described a condition wherein a child was brainwashed or programmed by one parent through a “campaign of denigration” against the other parent that sometimes included a false sex-abuse accusation and automatic parroting of the brainwashing parent’s views. PAS arises primarily in the context of high conflict child custody disputes. Few mental health professionals considered it to be a mental health disorder and it has been highly criticized for a lack of scientific validity and reliability.

Parental alienation

However, parent alienation (PA), as opposed to PAS, has been widely recognized as a grouping of behaviors that often accompanies high-conflict marriages, separation and/or divorce. These behaviors can result in alienated children, alienated parents, and targeted parents. A child who strongly attaches to one parent (the alienating parent) and rejects the other (the targeted parent) in the false belief the targeted parent is bad or dangerous is a recognized problem.

The alienated child & symptoms of parental alienation

An alienated child may display characteristics including: unreasonable anger, intense negative portrayal of the target parent, lack of conflicting feelings toward parent, use of adult language by the child, and the child says things which appear rehearsed.

Dr. Douglas Darnell identifies symptoms of parental alienation including:

  • Giving child a choice when they have no choice about visitation.
  • Telling the child “everything” about the marital relationship or reasons for the divorce.
  • Refusing to acknowledge the child has property and may want to transport possessions between residences.
  • Resisting or refusing to cooperate by not allowing the other parent access to school or medical records and schedules of extracurricular activities.
  • One parent blaming the other parent for financial problems, breaking up the family, changes in lifestyle, or having a girlfriend or boyfriend.
  • Refusing to be flexible with the visitation schedule in order to respond to the child’s needs, or scheduling the child in so many activities that the other parent is never given the time to visit.
  • Assuming that if a parent has been physically abusive with the other parent, it follows that the parent will assault the child. This assumption is not always true.
  • Asking the child to choose one parent over the other.
  • The alienating parent encouraging natural anger the child has toward the other parent.
  • A parent or stepparent suggesting changing the child’s name or having the stepparent adopt the child.
  • When the child cannot give reasons for being angry towards a parent or gives reasons that are vague and without any details.
  • Using a child to spy or covertly gather information for the parent’s own use.
  • Arranging temptations that interfere with the other parent’s visitation.
  • Reacting with hurt or sadness to a child having a good time with the other parent.
  • Asking the child about the other parent’s personal life.
  • Physically or psychologically rescuing a child when there is no threat to their safety.
  • Making demands on the other parent that are contrary to court orders.
  • Listening in on the child’s phone conversation with the other parent (this is generally illegal in North Carolina).

These behaviors, whether conscious or unconscious, may cause a child to be mentally manipulated into believing the targeted parent is the enemy.

North Carolina’s recognition of parental alienation

Under North Carolina law, only two appellate cases mention PAS or PA. In Kilian v. Kilian, 175 N.C.App. 420, 623 S.E.2d 367 (2006), the father introduced a child care application which did not list him as a parent, but rather listed mother’s new husband as the child’s father/guardian as evidence of parental alienation. In a criminal rape case involving the rape of his daughter, Donald Fuller attempted to use evidence of parental alienation syndrome unsuccessfully in his criminal defense. See State v. Fuller, 160 N.C.App. 250, 584 S.E.2d 109 (1993).

Even though NC appellate courts have not fully addressed the PA issue, our trial courts here such evidence frequently. One district court judge in North Carolina recently wrote an article in which she detailed dialogues with children involved in custody disputes such as this one:

Judge: “Did you and your mother talk about coming to court today?”

Minor: “No.”

Judge: “Has your mother ever told you what this case is about, and what happens when she comes to court?”

Minor: “Well your Honor, I don’t think it would be in my best interest to have dinner with my dad. I realize there is a court order in place and that I cannot unilaterally change the order, but my mom should not be held in willful contempt for not making me go to dinner.”

Judge: “Now you’re sure you and your mom haven’t discussed this case?”

Call to action

If you suspect parental alienation, you need to take appropriate action. Even if your spouse or ex-spouse is acting badly, don’t talk to your child about any pending litigation and don’t allow your child to see any of your court documents. Talk to your child custody attorney and a licensed mental health professional about how to best handle the issue. At Rice Law, we often work with Denise Scearce, MSW, LCSW and Bridge Builders Counseling and Psychotherapy in Wilmington.


The above is presented as general information on parental alienation syndrome and parental alienation. It is not exhaustive coverage of the issue but only a general explanation from a child custody attorney’s perspective. Seek help from a licensed mental health professional and an attorney for more information.

11 Responses

  1. Great overview. Thanks for raising the visibility of this issue and helping to educate parents, judges and other legal and mental health professionals.

    Feel free to share the resources on our site with your audience — http://www.afamilysheartbreak.com. We’ve got a lot of good information that will help parents dealing with this destructive family dynamic.


    mike jeffries
    Author, A Family’s Heartbreak: A Parent’s Introduction to Parental Alienation

  2. Stephanie White

    Great resource, but how do you get legal help with this if you have no money and legal aid in your county won’t take the case? My husbands ex has not allowed him ANY visitation in almost 3 years and he calls legal aid in Gastonia every other week to be turned down. His ex has charged him in the past with abuse, trespassing, destruction of property–all of which got tossed out due to it being a lie.

    He is on disability which barely pays the bills. I have little income that goes toward food, gas and school. We have tried to save money, but things happen and it has to be used to fix a car and such.

    1. Mark Spencer Williams

      Legal aid will help in some counties but not others with family law issues. That is why we started the Virtual Law Office. We help people who can’t afford a full service attorney by preparing the paperwork that you can file yourself. You represent yourself in court and we provide coaching to help you do it!

  3. lisakillmon@hotmail.

    Thanks for this resource. This topic needs so much for Awareness. Having fought and still fighting this for 5 years now, I am finally at a place were I feel it is my duty to study it, become knowledgable of it,and create awareness around it for others. I would guess that most times it creeps up on you before your aware of what is happening and potentially life changing effects it can have on the parent as well as the children. Money can play a factor in the alienation process and therefore this is a very helpful site. Thanks for putting it up!

  4. Thank you for the article. Unfortunately, because Gardner coined this phrase at a time when the Tender Years Doctrine was still recognized and mothers tended to be primary custodians, PAS became known as a “Mean Mom” syndrome. At the end of his practice, Gardner even admitted fathers are just as likely to engage in these behaviors as are mothers. I’m mom who is dealing with my ex-husband, who has been on a vicious campaign to alienate my son from me since I remarried. We had a custody evaluation and I was certain the evaluator would pick up on these behaviors in my ex, but she didn’t. So the report makes it appear as thought I’m a bad mother for absurd reasons (our son told her I make him eat macaroni every day, which isn’t true but is an example of one of the “frivolous” and unsubstantiated things that alienated children say). The evaluator didn’t read our pleadings or answer the psycholegal questions, which I assumed she would, so since I didn’t tell her in person that my ex was alienating our son as I thought she would read the pleadings for specific examples, she recommended he have primary custody since the child doesn’t like me, said negative things about me, and since he’s more closely bonded (enmeshed) with his father. It’s an uphill battle but I’ve got a national expert to help with this. The truth will come out in court! Thank you for addressing this problem on your blog and please remember that fathers are just as likely as mothers to engage in these behaviors, and even more likely to get away with them due to gender bias! custody-evaluation.blogspot.com

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