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What is parental alienation and why it hurts everyone

Evan Koslow

Evan Koslow

Parental alienation is perhaps the worst experience any family can go through while also going through a divorce or separation.

Parental alienation is defined as one parent turning a child or children against the other parent through disparaging remarks and sometimes keeping the child away from the other parent for no reason. As a matter of fact, parental alienation puts a child’s well-being at risk, as they bear the agony of choosing between fighting parents.

Maryland judges understand and easily recognize when a parent is “alienating” the other parent from the children. Because parental alienation is not diagnosed as a mental disorder, Maryland courts do not consider expert testimony in order to label a situation as parental alienation; rather, they accept expert testimony on the negative effect on a child who is prevented from having access to a parent without proper justification.

The term “alienation,” which is commonly thrown around in a high-conflict divorce, is frequently misunderstood and misused. At its core, alienation is about a child’s behavior, not about a parent’s behavior, and it involves a profound change in a child’s reaction to a previously loved parent. This reaction typically occurs in the context of an acrimonious divorce in which the child has been exposed to a great deal of anger and conflict and suddenly begins to reject one parent and become intensely aligned with the other parent. The child’s anger at the parent is not based on the reality of what has actually happened between the parent and the child, despite what they may claim.

In the most severe cases of alienation, the relationships in the family become completely polarized. There is a good, loved parent and a bad, hated parent. The child has lost the freedom to love both parents.

It’s equally important, however, to understand what ISN’T alienation. Hostility, denigration, and other expressions of anger by one parent toward the other during a high-conflict divorce is common. Parents in these cases frequently attack one another and say nasty and vindictive things. Accusations of alienation quickly follow. While this behavior is far from optimal, it is not alienation. Alienation is about the disturbed behavior of a child and the transformation of the parent-child relationship. When a child rejects and refuses contact with a parent, THIS is alienation. When a parent becomes hostile and attacking, it is bad behavior but not alienation.

There are times when children reject a parent for good reasons, such as when the parent has been violent, abusive or neglectful or has demonstrated other parenting deficiencies. In these cases, the child’s rejection of the parent does not reflect unreasonable or unfounded anger toward a previously loved parent. Rather, the rejection is a healthy response to the parent’s damaging behavior.

Early identification is absolutely necessary in every family. Time is of the essence and delays in identifying alienated children, or those at risk, reduces the likelihood of successful intervention. A child’s refusal to visit or the suspension of visits is a “red flag,” particularly if the parent and child previously did things together before the separation and if there are no clear indications of realistic estrangement. Careful inquiry and prompt intervention is crucial.

Attorneys with an alienation case should move early in the case for orders which insure that contact between the rejected parent and the child continues.


  1. What we call parental alienation is really a form of domestic violence by proxy, wherein a coercively controlling abuser uses the children to control and punish the other parent. If the abuser fails to alienate the children from the other parent, he will frequently punish them for disloyalty and to illicit an estranged response, which he then uses to make false parental alienation accusations. In reality, he is the one doing the alienating, but with reverse affect. Either way, the children end up in the hands of the abuser. Both PA and false accusations of PA are forms of DV by proxy. So how can the courts distinguish between them? The current framework for identifying PA is flawed in that it assumes PA in every case a child resists a parent. The more the nonabusive parent or child complains of abuse, the more they are viewed as alienating or “coached”. Children are ending up in the hands of the abusers. I would suggest instead that we look for signs of coercive control –domination, lack of regard for the rights or boundaries of others, manhandling or physical restraint, isolation, authoritarian or alternatively, overly permissive parenting styles, lack of previous involvement in the childrens’ lives, history of abuse or violence, etc. Regardless, in no event should children be completely and drastically removed from a parent they are attached to. No parent who truly loves their child would subject their child to such trauma such to punish the other parent. Unfortunately, the courts, lacking understanding of the mechanisms of domestic violence, frequently reverse custody in favor of the abuser.

  2. Alienation is junk science and shouldn’t be admitted in Maryland. Any lawyer representing a client who is accused of alienation should file a motion in limine requesting a Frye/Reed hearing to keep it out.

  3. Why is the Daily Record helping to promote parental alienation, which has been repeatedly rejected by the APA? I hope, instead, the Daily Record looks into the undue influence of AFCC in our family courts. The AFCC educates it’s unwitting members to disbelieve or discredit allegations of abuse and to view it as evidence of alienation, which is then used as an excuse to award more custody to the abusive parent and to get more AFCC affiliated experts involved as the abuse victims fight to be heard.

    The legal standard in Maryland is still best interest of the child. But thanks to misinformation about parental alienation and the AFCC, it’s now about parent’s rights, prolonging conflict for financial gain, and ignoring abuse.

    There’s a lot of money to be made in divorce/custody cases and no accountability, which attracts the worst and most unethical elements. Our family law court is broken. Children are paying the price.

  4. Parental alienation is a scam pushed by unethical and unqualified “experts” with sketchy backgrounds to help abusers win custody when they fail to alienate the children. These “experts” do not care about the children and they are essentially paid to dismiss evidence of abuse and discredit the victims. Their reunification therapies and programs are not only cruel and traumatizing for the children, they are ineffective in the long run. The alienated” parent may “win” custody, but after a lot of money spent, the children don’t want anything to do with them once they become adults. Frequently, the children end up with PTSD and have little or no with either parent.

    It is sad and unconscionable that these parental alienation “experts” create and prolong the conflict just for their own financial gain. They are truly worthy of our contempt.

  5. To the above said commentates Paul and the not so intelligent “voice of Reason”

    Parental Alienation is real and I have been a victim of it. Despite what you may think “experts say” I have lived this in real life. to much to go into details but I will state with judicial staff who do not understand when a parent has vindictive or nefarious ways/intentions. I have been unjustly put on supervised visitation, i had child support raised on me with out me being in court, i have judgments made with out my attendance, i have been denied access to me child. More importantly i did have several changes were judicial staff granted me a new trail and awarded me new visitation which was still not up held by the other parent. Please do not state things are a hoax when you yourself have never experienced it. I have a had CPS called on me twice which both cases were thrown out because the where lies that showed to be inconclusive. You have no idea the harm and ramifications that this has not only on the parent but on a child as well. I could state more but this should be enough to prove this is real. It is completely a crime for this behavior to be allowed and should be treated as a felony such as attempt of murder but because essentially that is exactly what it is!

  6. The last three commenters are flatly incorrect. Attachment-based parent alienation is not junk science. In fact, the behaviors described by the author of this piece are well-documented and well-accepted and well-defined by the professional psychology community. In a nutshell, the cross-generational coalition (parent-child teams) resulting in an emotional cutoff (alienation) between the teaming child and the other parent as a result of delusioned beliefs and feelings caused by the teaming parent IS doctrine accepted and studied by every student of professional psychology. The great master researchers whose works are enshrined in the doctrines studied in psychology textbooks for decades – works by Bowlby, Minuchin, Beck, Haley, Ainsworth – are standard clinical constructs used by all professional psychologists and mental health professionals. All of these masters describe the pathologies of attachment-related parent alienation.

  7. Nice piece, thank you for writing it.

  8. I have a modestly different perspective on some of the points:

    1. A child can be alienated even if they do not reject or refuse contact. And, a rejecting or refusing child may not be alienated.

    2. A hostile or attacking parent may be the targeted parent of the alienation. The hostile or attacking parent may be responding to a radically defiant child (symptom of attachment-based parent alienation (see Dr. Craig Childress)). The parent’s behavior may not be appropriate, but, the behavior may be the result of domestic violence perpetrated by the child against the parent, all provoked by the aggressor parent – difficult to comprehend, yet easily accomplished by a pathologically-oriented parent. It’s pretty much an adult taking advantage of their ability to psychologically control a child.

    Yes, in other words, the child is the WEAPON of choice of the abusive parent, used to emotionally injure the targeted parent. Again, in other words, the hostile parent may be a victim of emotional domestic violence via attachment-based parent alienation and needs help, as does their child. And, the aggressor parent needs to be assigned a protective order against themselves in favor of the child, followed by psychological assessment and treatment for all involved.

  9. Those propagating the junk science of parental alienation make obscene amounts of money. Every domestic abuser and child abuser I’ve litigated against has cried “alienation.” Don’t want your kids to avoid you? Quit beating them or their mother.
    It is junk science, which is why it has been rejected by most every objective, respected organization that has reviewed it.

  10. Parental alienation does not have to always be between a husband and wife. My husband passed away ten years ago, and my sister, whom I trusted and gladly shared my only child (she is childless) stepped in as “another mom.” Little did I know that the questionable behaviors she was exhibiting (violent outbursts of temper, need to control, to name two) were symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder and a fear of being abandoned. When my daughter graduated college and started her life in NYC, I supplemented her income for two years, with the understanding that it would end after two years. When my money stopped, my daughter panicked and went to her aunt for help. My sister, instead of encouraging her niece to work it out with her mom, began telling my daughter that I was trying to push her out of my life and that she would take care of her. That was six years ago. My daughter has not responded to any of my attempts to talk with her, and went I went to NYC to try and talk with her, she sent me an email telling me that she “needed to take a break from me.” In the meantime, my daughter, 29 years old with a job in an advertising agency, is living in a $4000/month apt. in the financial district of Manhattan. Her aunt, who inherited a large sum of money from her deceased husband, told her that she will be the heir of her estate, I suspect. So a loving mother/daughter relationship has been destroyed, and it remains to be seen if it can be restored. And my daughter thinks that her only remaining parent does not love her.

  11. Due to accumulating scientific evidence of parental alienation causing short and long term damage in children, World Health Organization has placed “Parental Alienation” on its diagnostic index of ICD-11, they announced on May 25th. It is a form of psychological abuse and domestic violence. It rein of narscissitic and borderline ex-spouses using children as a weapon/pon is coming to an end. And the minor counsel not protecting their clients from this form of child abuse should be prosecuted for colluding with child abuse.

  12. Example: An abusive father toward the mother of the children wins custody because his mother paid big money for lawyers and had a bunch of liars on the stand. Mother get visitation but is constantly having dss called on false allegations of sexual abuse! how low and it was on a Christmas Eve for two years and they were thrown out of course. The children claim on aa visitation with mom that mom mom/Grandmother is going to get you put in jail mommy! as they cry and beg to stay with loving mommy.. Mom was so scared she did not see her kids for 5 years… Mom of children was afraid of aligations and waited until they were old enough to speak for themselves but the daughter was so brainwashed she thinks her mom touched her in a private part at 11 years old! Heartbreaking to know people can coach and turn children into robots to love only one parent and dispose the other parent. Then the mom hears in court how she was not there for the children for 5 years well who wants to take the chance of going to jail and losing them forever. This is alienation when your kids reject to visit with the loving mom who normally had a great relationship with the children and still could if people and courts would step in and nip these people in the butt for screwing up lives in the worse degree.

  13. While there are probably abusers that cry alienation, as stated above, there are also parents who are not abusive that are being falsely accused and it’s traumatizing to the children and sickening. Don’t make ignorant comments about something you clearly know nothing about.
    On that note, our experience is that judges in Maryland do indeed NOT care about the children being victims of this behavior. Does anyone know of any lawyers and/or therapists in Maryland that specialize in this?

  14. When a parent turns a kid against another parent, it hurts the kid. Any court that doesn’t recognize that and act to help is stuck in the dark ages. Unfortunately today, that’s most courts.