There are many reasons that children may not want to see a parent after a separation or divorce. Using Johnston’s 2005 Children of Divorce article, Baker (2013) makes a cogent point that most authors make a distinction between “estrangement” and “alienation.” Estrangement refers to a child’s rejection of a parent that is justified “as a consequence of the rejected parent’s history of family violence, abuse and neglect” (Johnston, 2005).

In contrast, alienation refers to a child’s rejection of a parent that is unjustified. With that distinction in mind, estrangement is not a diagnosable mental condition because it is normal behavior. Alienation, on the other hand, is an abnormal mental condition because it consists of maladaptive behavior (refusal to see a loving parent) that is driven by a false or illogical belief (that the rejected parent is evil, dangerous, or not worthy of love).

According to Lewis (2009) this maladaptive behavior is the result of the child being used by the alienator as a relationship weapon in an effort to “destroy the child’s psychological connection with the other parent.” Warshak calls this “pathological alienation” and defined it as:  

“a disturbance in which children, usually in the context of sharing a parent’s negative attitudes, suffer unreasonable aversion to a person, or persons, with whom they formerly enjoyed normal relations or with whom they would normally develop affectionate relations.”

He made a cogent point that this recognition, that a child once had a secure attachment to the now rejected parent, notwithstanding personality or parenting flaws, is of particular relevance for accurate assessment. Johnston (2005) also refers to this distinction in cases of parental alienation when indicating that the child’s rejection of the previously attached parent is based upon “unreasonable negative feelings and beliefs … that are significantly disproportionate to the child’s actual experience with that parent.”

In the standard text concerning PA: Parental Alienation: Handbook for Mental Health and Legal Professionals the diagnosis of PA is described:

Diagnosing parental alienation is based upon the level of symptoms in the child, not the symptom level of the alienator. The primary behavioral symptoms involve the following two criteria:

  1. Campaign of denigration against the target parent.
    • The child often presents complaints in a litany, some trivial, many false or irrational.
    • The child often denies ever having experienced good times with the target parent when that is clearly not the case.
  2. Frivolous rationalizations for the child’s criticism of the target parent.
    • The child’s reactions of hatred or disdain are unjustified and disproportionate to the circumstances they describe.
    • They may claim to be fearful, but they do so easily and without typical fear reactions.

When a child exhibits both of these criteria along with two or more of the following, it is parental alienation.

  • Lack of ambivalence:
    • The child manifests all-or-none thinking, idealizing the alienating parent and devaluing the target parent.
  • Independent-thinker phenomenon:
    • The child proudly states the decision to reject the target parent is his or her own, not influenced by the alienating parent.
  • Reflexive support of the alienating parent against the target parent.
    • The child immediately and automatically takes the alienating parent’s side in a disagreement.
  • Absence of guilt over exploitation and mistreatment of the target parent.
    • The child may be oppositional, rude, disrespectful, and even violent toward the target parent and shows little or no remorse for those behaviors.
  • Borrowed scenarios.
    • The child makes rehearsed statements that are identical to those made by the alienating parent.
    • Younger siblings may mimic what they have heard their older sibling say.
    • They usually are unable to elaborate on the details of the events they allege.
  • Spread of the child’s animosity toward the target parent’s extended family.
    • Expressed feelings and hatred often include the extended family or friends of the target parent, even when the child has had little or no contact with them.
    • Occasionally, the child’s hatred extends to pets of the target parent.