How To Identify Parental Alienation Syndrome And Seek Help

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated May 11, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Divorce and separation are hard on everyone in the family, especially children who likely don’t have the information or capacity to truly understand what’s happening. When the split isn’t amicable, things can get messy, and your child may react adversely to the tension between you and your former partner. Mental health implications are common for a child affected by parental relationship distress (CAPRD) in divorced or intact families, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

While some disruption is expected, if it feels like you’ve noticed your child’s other parent attempting to turn them against you, there may be a more significant problem. If your ex is using parental alienation strategies to manipulate your child into actively harming your bond, you may soon notice your relationship take a swift dip and have difficulty recovering as the distance between you grows. 

If your child’s attitude and treatment toward you have changed dramatically toward the negative since the split, consider speaking to mental health practitioners to determine if you are both being manipulated. Read on to learn about parental alienation syndrome (PAS), how to recognize it, and what you can do to seek help if your child is experiencing PAS.

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Is parental alienation syndrome keeping you from your child?

Parental alienation (PA) occurs when one parent intentionally uses strategies to create parental conflict or distance between the other parent and the child they discuss. It generally refers to the alienating parent’s behavior. A child whose parent is engaging in alienating behaviors may establish negative emotions toward the targeted parent, and their relationship often deteriorates as the child rejects them. This treatment may also be called brainwashing, programming, or deliberately sabotaging the parent-child relationship. Parental alienation may be considered a form of emotional abuse, and during legal child custody evaluations, custody evaluators often look for signs of brainwashing or alienation, which may indicate an abusive parent.

What is parental alienation syndrome?

Parental alienation syndrome happens when the situation escalates, and the child demonstrates irrational fear or anger toward the target parent, causing significant harm to a formerly healthy parent-child bond. Psychiatrist Dr. Richard Gardner first introduced PAS in 1985, defining it as “a childhood disorder that arises almost exclusively in the context of child custody disputes.” However, it is not a diagnosable medical condition. These feelings are often encouraged by the alienating parent, who continues to manipulate both their former partner and child actively. 

How PAS can affect your child

Recent studies show that parental alienation can be a form of complex child abuse. PAS cannot occur when the targeted parent has abused, neglected, or exhibited any behavior to justify the child’s animosity. 

Some of the effects of parental alienation syndrome for the child may include
  • Difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships throughout their lives
  • Decreased self-esteem and damaged self-image
  • Loss of self-respect
  • Growing guilt, anxiety, or depression over their role in destroying the relationship with the targeted parent
  • Lack of impulse control and potentially increased aggression
  • Disruptions at school and suffering educational performance 

“Research suggests that exposure to parental alienating behaviors in childhood can have a profound impact on the mental health of those children later in life, including experiencing anxiety disorders and trauma reactions,” said the authors of a paper about the long-term effects on children of parental alienation.

All the adult participants in the quoted study reported impacts on their mental health because of exposure to parental alienation during childhood, and a further 90% reported specific mental health difficulties. 

The same study suggested that alienating parents prioritize their needs over their child’s and may present with mental health conditions such as paranoia, narcissistic personality traits, and a lack of resilience, among others. Alienating parents may also have experienced a dysfunctional family dynamic as a child and developed unhealthy attachment issues. Targeted parents may present as passive, emotionally constricted, and over-accommodating to the alienating parent’s demands. Targeted parents may avoid a relationship with their children out of fear of their child's rejection, after exhausting all avenues for resolution with the alienating parent, or out of a desire to spare their child from additional stress from a high-conflict divorce.

Recognizing parental alienation

The end of a relationship—for whatever reason—can be a challenging time emotionally, and it can be essential to think of how your child will react to the apparent tension between their parents. If it feels like your child’s other parent is deliberately turning them against you to the detriment of your relationship with your child, it may be helpful to know how to recognize parental alienation.   


A child’s symptoms of PAS can be varied, but often include the following.

  • Your child may feel comfortable constantly and unfairly criticizing the targeted parent. This behavior is sometimes called a “campaign of denigration.”
  • Despite a lack of solid evidence, justifications, or specific examples, your child presents only false claims and reasoning for their criticisms of the targeted parent. 
  • Your child shows no guilt over mistreating or hating a parent they previously loved.
  • While mixed feelings may be expected when parents separate, your child shows only negative emotions for the targeted parent, which may be called “lack of ambivalence” in the clinical setting.  
  • Your child’s contempt for the targeted parent extends to other related family members such as grandparents, cousins, or that whole side of the family.
  • Despite claiming their ideas as original thoughts, your child repeats familiar criticisms likely “programmed” by the alienating parent. 
  • Your child displays unwavering support for the alienating parent. 
  • Criticisms of the targeted parent may include situations that occurred before the child’s memory or never happened at all, and your child may use words or phrases that seem too “adult” for their vocabulary and previous language usage. 

Gardner later noted that for a situation to qualify as PAS, it must occur amid difficult custody transitions after a divorce or separation, the child previously had a strong bond with the targeted parent, should currently have a strong bond with the alienating parent, and display overtly negative behaviors and attitudes toward the targeted parent. 

Examples of parental alienation

Whether you or your former partner is the alienating parent, here are some signs that your child may be experiencing parental alienation. This is by no means a complete list. Speak to your therapist or family lawyer to learn more about what constitutes PA.


Blaming the targeted parent for financial issues or using the other parent as a reason the child can’t participate in an activity. For example, the child may hear, “I’m sorry you have to quit karate lessons. Since your father left us, we have no money to spare.”

Argument encouragement

The alienating parent takes the child’s side in disagreements, encourages them to argue with the targeted parent, and provides no help in finding solutions. 


The alienating parent may tell the child the other parent is “not interested” or “too busy” to spend time with them while preventing the targeted parent from seeing or speaking to the child. 

Excessive control

In a bid to assume as much control over the child and, by extension, their former partner, the alienating parent may insist all the child’s personal items, including necessities, be kept at their home, regardless of how much time the child spends with the targeted parent. 

Forcing your child to choose between parents

The alienating parent may disregard their ex’s parenting time by planning fun, exciting activities to tempt the child to stay “home.” For example, your child may hear, “I know it’s your mom’s weekend, but I thought it was the perfect time to go see that movie you were so excited about and maybe stop for ice cream on the way home.” Alienating parents may also ask the child who is more fun or which house they like more, putting them in an awkward position. 

Discussing too much information with the child

Your child may receive unnecessary, often inappropriate details about your relationship from the alienating parents, such as information about infidelity. 

Tips to prevent parental alienation

Here are some things you can do as a parent to try and combat or prevent PAS.

  • Encourage open communication between all family members.
  • Seek family counseling to help all of you through the transition with support and guidance. 
  • Remain an active participant in your child’s life after establishing a separate household. 
  • Involve extended family to create a vast and varied support network for your child. 
  • Do not belittle your former partner or complain about them to your child. 
  • Speak to your lawyer if you are concerned about parental alienation. It can be grounds for a change in custody in some cases. 
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Is parental alienation syndrome keeping you from your child?

Find help for working through PAS

If you are the alienating parent, start by accepting responsibility for your actions and the harm caused by your manipulation, particularly to your child. Find healthy ways to manage your emotions and allow your child to rebuild the relationship with their other parent. Therapy can be a valuable tool to identify and correct unhealthy thought and behavior patterns. 

If you are the targeted parent, start by reaching out to your lawyer and therapist. Educate yourself about PA and PAS and how they are likely to affect your child. Therapeutic treatment options may include family therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), play therapy, and group therapy. 

How therapy can help you overcome parental alienation syndrome

While there is no specific treatment for PAS due to the highly individual nature of the condition, therapy can be a neutral setting to help reestablish the parent-child bond and help you and your child recover from parental alienation syndrome. Online therapy may be useful for parents seeking to reconnect with a child with PAS. Virtual therapy platforms like BetterHelp offer the distance that may make the child more comfortable and the expert support and guidance of a licensed therapist with the flexibility of phone, online chat, or video call appointments. 

Family therapy and CBT may be effective treatments to help you and your child overcome the effects of parental alienation syndrome, and you may be able to find a therapist who specializes in working with divorced families. Attachment-based family therapy has been effective in the online setting, according to recent studies, as have virtual CBT treatments, particularly for younger patients who are comfortable in the online environment. 


Parental alienation can be traumatic for your child and the targeted parent. No matter which side you fall on, the information outlined in this article may help you understand the long-term effects parental alienation can have on your child and understand how to recognize the warning signs.
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