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Parental Alienation: What exactly is it?

What is alienation?

Many parents might say, “What is parental Alienation? …I’m not alienating my child…I’m in total agreement that my children should see their father/mother!…”

In relation to the above, the meaning of Parental Alienation can be explained as follows, according to Warshak (2013): Most children would like to be in contact with both parents on a regular basis. On the other hand, some children might not want and crave time with an absent parent.  Therefore these children would resist, even reject, contact and blatantly show reluctance to be with this specific parent, meaning these children are alienated. In relation to this, in some cases, children might have good reason for rejecting a specific parent.


What alienation is not.

Parents should be cautious not to conclude that all parent-child relationship problems are caused by alienating behaviour. When there is true abuse, it is the natural defence of a parent to want to protect her or his children. This is not alienation. On the other hand, the parent is expected to cooperate with investigators and consider alternative explanations that would either validate or rescind the allegation.


How do I identify Alienation?

To prevent the effects of Parental Alienation, the parent needs to identify the symptoms of Parental Alienation. Many of the symptoms or behaviours focus on the parent. When the children exhibit hatred and vilify the targeted parent, then the condition becomes parental alienation syndrome. After reading the list, a parent should not be discouraged when he/she notices that his/her own behaviours have been alienating. This is normal in even the best of parents. Instead, let the list help to sensitize the parent and to behave and react in a different manner which doesn’t alienate. Below are the symptoms of Parental Alienation according to Darnall (1997):

  • Give children choices as to when they have no choice about visits. Allowing the child to decide for him/herself to visit when the court order says there is no choice, sets the child up for conflict. The child will usually blame the non-residential parent for not being able to decide to choose whether or not to visit. The parent is now victimized regardless of what happens; not being able to see the children or if he/she sees them, the children are angry.
  • Telling the child “everything” about the marital relationship or reasons for the divorce is in a fact alienating. The parent would usually want to be “honest” with the child. This practice is destructive and painful for the child. The alienating parent’s motive is for the child to think less of the other parent.
  • Refusing to acknowledge that children have elements/comforts and may want to transport their possessions between residences.
  • Refusing to cooperate by not allowing the other parent access to school or medical records and schedules of extracurricular activities.
  • Parents blaming each other for financial problems, breaking up the family, changes in lifestyle, or having a girlfriend/boyfriend, etc.
  • Refusing to be flexible with the visitation schedule in order to respond to the child’s needs. The alienating parent may also schedule the children in so many activities that the other parent is never given the time to visit.
  • Assuming that, if a parent had been physically abusive towards the other parent, the parent might assault the child.
  • Asking the child to choose one parent above another parent, is a very stressful event for the child.
  • Children will forgive and want to be forgiven if given a chance. Be very suspicious when the child calmly says they cannot remember any happy times with you or say anything they like about you.
  • Be suspicious when a parent or stepparent raises the question about changing the child’s name or suggests an adoption.
  • When children cannot give reasons for being angry towards a parent or their reasons are very vague without any substantiating details.
  • Parents who have secrets, special signals or words with special meanings are very destructive and reinforce an on-going alienation.
  • When a parent uses a child to spy and gather information for the parent’s own use, the child receives a damaging message and victimises the other parent.
  • Parents setting up temptations that interfere with the child’s visitation.
  • A parent acting hurt or sad towards the child having a good time with the other parent will cause the child to withdraw and feel guilty about having fun with the other parent.
  • The parent asking the child about his/her other parent’s personal life causes the child to experience tension and conflict. Children who are not alienated want to be loyal to both parents.
  • When parents physically or psychologically rescue the children when, in fact, there is no threat to their safety. This will cause the child to feel threatened or scared for no reason – therefore reinforcing alienation.
  • Listening in on telephone conversations between the child and the other parent.
  • One way to cause your own alienation is making a habit of breaking promises to your children. In time, your ex-spouse will get tired of having to make excuses for you.



Types of Alienation

  • Naïve alienators are parents who are passive about the children’s relationship with the other parent but will do or say something that can alienate. All parents will occasionally be naïve alienators. It is a natural response: “…Daddy has more money than I do, ask him to pay for the ballet classes…”
  • Active alienators may project their intense hurt or anger which causes them to impulsively lose control over their behaviour or what they say. Later on, they may feel very guilty about how they behaved. “…I don’t want you to tell your mother that I’ve won some money. She would be jealous and expect me to pay extra maintenance, and therefore we won’t be able to go to Mauritius. You remember what happened the last time when we wanted to go away with Grandma to Thailand…”
  • Obsessed alienators have a burning desire to destroy the targeted parent. The obsessed alienators will combine the previous two types, but rarely does the obsessed alienator have enough self-control or insight to blend with the other types.


These three patterns of alienating behaviours are not intended to be used as a diagnosis. The types have not been validated sufficiently for litigation. “…I love my children. If the court can’t protect them from their abusive father, I will. Even though he’s never abused the children, I know it’s a matter of time. The children are frightened of their father. If they don’t want to see him, I’m not going to force them. They are old enough to make up their own minds…”

***Bear in mind that these types of alienating behaviours can come from mothers, fathers, stepparents, relatives, and even babysitters, “best friends” of the parent, the parent’s attorney, or a therapist.

Marise Boessenkool is a qualified social worker in Krugersdorp. Her areas of focus consist of individual, marital, couple and adolescent counselling as well as parental guidance. She can be contacted on 0795170971 or [email protected].

Also read our article about six possible signs of Parental Alienation.

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