Parental Alienation as Child Abuse and Family Violence

Two new articles, “Parental Alienating Behaviors: An Unacknowledged Form of Family Violence” (Harman, Kruk, & Hines, 2018), appearing in Psychological Bulletin , and “Parental Alienation as a Form of Emotional Child Abuse: Current State of Knowledge and Future Directions for Research" (Kruk, 2018), appearing in the Family Science Review , have sought to shed light on the latest research pertaining to parental alienation as child abuse and family violence, and as a form of human emotional aggression.

For violence and abuse to occur, two conditions must be met: there must be a significant human injury; and it must be the result of human action. Parental alienation fits that definition in relation to both child and partner abuse. Two core elements of parental alienation that are central to parental alienation as a form of emotional human aggression and abuse are the behaviors of the perpetrator and the effects of these behaviors on victims.

The articles describe the core elements of parental alienation as a form of child abuse and family violence, and a specific and complex form of hostile (thoughtless and unplanned) and instrumental (premeditated and intended to harm) human aggression. Parental alienation is manifested through a child’s reluctance or refusal to have a relationship with a parent for illogical, untrue or exaggerated reasons. It is the result of a parent engaging in the long-term use of a variety of aggressive behaviors that harm, damage and destroy the relationship between a child and the target parent, whereby the target parent is demonized and undermined as a parent worthy of the child’s love and attention. Parental alienating behaviors lie on a continuum from mild and subtle forms of badmouthing to more severe forms of aggression and coercive control that result in the child’s complete rejection and refusal of contact with the target parent. They also span the range from isolated events to an ongoing pattern of abuse aimed at the target parent. There are no gender differences in regard to who is the perpetrator and who is the target of parental alienation; custodial status, however, is a strong predictor of who is likely to alienate a child from a parent. Custody and legal possession of a child are fertile ground for abusive parents to act at will against the target parent, and witnessing such acts of violence by children constitute a serious form of emotional child abuse.

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Previously unacknowledged as a distinct form of abuse, the publication of the two articles signals a shift in psychological science toward the identification and categorization of parental alienation as a form of both child abuse and family violence. This is a significant response to the scientific discovery that parental alienation is more prevalent and damaging than is commonly assumed, affecting millions of children and parents around the globe. Given the previous lack of acknowledgement of alienation and denial of the phenomenon by many legal and mental health professionals, the articles provide a call to action toward the development and testing of effective educational, mental health, and legal interventions to prevent and mitigate the effects of parental alienation as a form of intimate terrorism.

Both articles provide a comprehensive literature review and research roundup relating to the behaviors of alienating parents, and the impact of these behaviors on children and target parents. Alienating behaviors and impacts are measured by current public health and legal definitions of child abuse and family violence, and provide an index of parental alienating behaviors (a classification of the abusive behaviors of perpetrators), and an categorization of parental alienation effects on victim children and target parents. Finally, implications for policy and practice in both the legal and mental health fields are discussed, including preventive and treatment strategies. The articles provide a comprehensive overview of parental alienation ongoing in regard to identification, etiology and intervention.

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Finally, the articles discuss the paradigm shift that is occurring in parental alienation prevention and intervention, address professional misunderstandings, and examine practice implications for mental health professionals. First and foremost, the widespread assumption that many cases of parental alienation are nothing but self-estrangement, with victims responsible for their own fate, implies that the actions of the alienating parent are the targeted parent’s fault, and are an example of professional victim blaming. Interventions that seek to modify the targeted/victimized parent’s behavior are tantamount to only treating a victim of violence, whereas the perpetrator of the abusive action is allowed to continue acting aggressively and abusing power in the family dynamic. Blaming and treating victims alone is not the solution.

We conclude that it is unethical practice to ignore parental alienation as a form of child abuse and family violence. Reducing the severe and substantial harm to children, parents and extended family members caused by parental alienation should remain the main focus of professional intervention. Stopping parental alienating behaviors is imperative for the promotion of the best interests of children and the health of families. Parental alienation as a form of family violence and child abuse warrants a wide range of interventions: a child protection response, in recognition of the safety needs of an affected child; immediate family reunification between the child and targeted parent, the focus of family reunification programs; the provision of family therapy and a range of low-cost and accessible therapeutic options; and legal enforcement, as family violence is also a form of criminal behavior, and warrants a criminal justice response.

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The publication of these articles in Psychological Bulletin and the Family Science Review , as well as the recent publication of von Boch-Galhau (2018), signals a major advance in our collective understanding of parental alienation not only as a widespread phenomenon that needs greater attention by the psychological community, but as a serious form of child abuse and family violence that warrants an urgent response at the highest levels of professional practice and socio-legal policy.