- Parental alienation is real and supported by a legitimate and trustworthy foundation of scientific study. Tweet This
- The more types and frequency of alienating behavior a parent engaged in, the more severely alienated their children. Tweet This
- Mothers and fathers are targets of parental alienation. Tweet This
A woman who rejected her mother for five years sought help from an advice columnist:
I’m so ashamed. I don’t even know how to make it up to my mom,
who through all of this always told me she still loved me, even with
all the hard words I threw at her. I’m beating myself up now wondering
why I chose to believe my dad when there were so many signs I was wrong.
This woman—who signed her letter “So Ashamed”—was victimized by her father’s toxic manipulation of her relationship with her mother and suffered a heartbreaking situation known as parental alienation.
In most parts of the world, the law offers no protection for children and parents harmed by this type of psychologically damaging manipulation and persuasion. And in the U.S., some activists are trying very hard to prevent family courts from offering such protection.
These activists argue that no solid science backs the idea that children can be manipulated to turn against a loving parent—a phenomenon known as parental alienation. They admit that some parents bad-mouth and bash their ex’s in exactly the manner I described in the now-classic, Divorce Poison. But skeptics argue that we don’t know if bad-mouthing and parental manipulation are enough to cause children to reject a loving parent.
How does this square with the reality that children come to dislike, hate, or reject certain people (such as those of a different race) based on how their parents or other guardians talk about and act toward others? It doesn’t. Parents have such strong influence, they can convince their children to remember events that never actually happened. Science has been clear on this for decades. (Click here for a systematic review.) The most extreme examples are when children are coached to accuse a parent of physical or sexual abuse that never occurred. (See Susan Becker’s law review article for examples.)
If, as critics contend, parental alienation does not exist, then why have so many family court judges ruled that it does? A 2020 study found in nearly 1,200 trial and appellate cases between 1985 and 2018, judges agreed that evidence of possible parental alienation was relevant, admissible, and worthy of discussion. Were these judges right?
To find out, my colleagues, Jennifer Harman, Demosthenes Lorandos, Matthew Florian, and I took on the challenging task of reviewing the empirical studies on parental alienation, including those published in languages other than English. We reported the results in our new article, “Developmental Psychology and the Scientific Status of Parental Alienation,” which was recently published in the American Psychological Association journal, Developmental Psychology.
What did we find? Of the more than 200 empirical studies we reviewed, 40% were published since 2016. This means that many of the reviews published before 2016—such as the ones critics rely on to argue that parental alienation research is in its “infancy”—are hopelessly outdated. Our study leaves no doubt that parental alienation is a valid concept supported by a robust and well-developed scientific literature. This literature sports several hallmarks of a maturing scientific field. First, the number of studies is increasing each year. Second, the type of studies increasingly favors quantitative (e.g., statistical analysis) over qualitative (e.g., descriptive) methods. Third, the studies increasingly test hypotheses and situate the design and results in a theoretical and explanatory framework.
Our laws and practices should recognize the harm caused to children who fall victim to parental alienation and allow judges to do what is necessary to spare children from this injury.
The studies we reviewed provide a wide range of reliable information for judges, lawyers, legislators, therapists, and parents—information such as the prevalence of parental alienation, the strategies parents use to undermine their child’s relationship with the other parent, how to identify a child who rejects a good parent, and about how courts can help families suffering this problem. The more types and frequency of alienating behavior a parent engaged in, the more severely alienated their children. And some types of behavior, such as interfering with the child’s contact with the other parent, were related to more alienation.
Who engages in alienating behavior? For many years I have written that fathers and mothers can and do foment their children’s rejection of the other parent. (See Ten Parental Alienation Fallacies That Compromise Decisions in Court and in Therapy.) Our review provided confirmation of this observation. Ten studies found no gender differences in who was likely to be an alienating parent. Ten other studies, using smaller sample sizes, found more mothers than fathers were identified as the alienating parent, with fathers constituting a significant minority (e.g., 1/3) of alienating parents. In other words, mothers as well as fathers are targets of their children’s irrational rejection. Far from being a misogynist’s weapon, as some activists claim, parental alienation is an equal opportunity offense.
An interesting side note is that many studies of interparental conflict assume that children caught in the middle will react the same way with each parent. For example, when they witness parents’ arguments, children worry that a parent—either parent—will walk out. But this assumption does not hold for alienated children. They generally respond to parental conflict by taking sides. They appear eager to cement their relationship with one parent and end contact with the other. This means that scientists who study the impact of parental conflict should include measures that can reveal when a child aligns with one parent and behaves poorly only with the other parent.
What is the key takeaway message for judges, lawyers, legislators, therapists, parents, and others involved in custody decisions? Parental alienation is real and supported by a legitimate and trustworthy foundation of scientific study. Advocates who claim otherwise are wrong and either through ignorance or design are ignoring scientific advances in the field and spreading misinformation.
Legislators should not be fooled by claims that research in parental alienation lacks scientific status. For decades, judges have found a clear link between a parent’s alienating behavior and the child’s subsequent rejection of the other parent. Our laws and practices should recognize the harm caused to children who fall victim to parental alienation and allow judges to do what is necessary to spare children from this injury.
Richard A. Warshak is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. He is the author of Divorce Poison: How To Protect Your Family From Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing, and Welcome Back, Pluto: Understanding, Preventing, and Overcoming Parental Alienation. For an overview and additional resources on the identification, prevention, and treatment of parental alienation, see "Parental Alienation: The Psychology of Fractured Parent–Child Relationships" at the Child and Family Blog and warshak.com.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.