Parental Alienation and Empathy

In the following paragraphs I would like to explore parental alienation and empathy.

The definition of parental alienation is simple. One parent, (in most cases the resident parent) deliberately damages, and in some cases destroys, the previously healthy loving relationship between the child and the child’s other parent (the non-resident parent). A key tell-tale sign of parental alienation is when the alienating parent prevents their children from having any relationship with the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins on the alienated parents’ side of the family. For a more detailed definition of parental alienation see here.

The English word empathy is derived from the Ancient Greek word empatheia, which means “physical affection or passion”. This, in turn, was derived from enpathos, when broken down is seen as en, meaning “in, at” and pathos meaning “passion” or “suffering”.  The term was adapted by linguistics to create the German word Einfühlung (“feeling into”), which was translated by Edward B. Titchener in 1909 into the English term empathy.


Empathy describes ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. Not to be confused with sympathy which is defined as ‘feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune’. Simply put,  it is how we as individuals understand what others are experiencing as if we were feeling it ourselves. It is a key characteristic of emotional intelligence, which itself is the ability and capacity to be aware of, to have control of and to appropriately express one’s own emotions. This in turn allows us to navigate our way through interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. Ultimately,  as is the same for numerous other personality traits, some of us are more empathic than others.

“Parental alienation as a form of abuse should be viewed within the context of mental health to ensure an effective and robust assessment process.”

A lack of empathy is all too prominent in the presenting behaviours of alienating parents. Some alienating parents will suffer from psychopathy and it is these parents that are a particular threat to children and need to be identified as soon as possible (Lowenstein, 2010). In my opinion as both an alienated parent and a psychiatric nurse, this point lends itself to the argument that parental alienation as a form of abuse should be viewed within the context of mental health to ensure an effective and robust assessment process. There are only three disorders that have an underlying absence of empathy; autism, narcissistic personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder. I would argue that without an assessment of the alienating parent’s presenting behaviours by a practitioner with a clinical understanding of mental health, any personality traits and/or related psychopathy will be missed.

A lack of empathy is also present in some alienated children. Of all the presenting symptoms expressed by an alienated child, the absence of empathy is the most disturbing (Childress, 2016). Any absence of empathy in an alienated child should be cause for extreme concern. However as stated above, due to the lack of understanding of mental health by the relevant services, such presentation in affected children is missed or underestimated.

Empathy, albeit a lack of, also plays a key part in the behaviours of those that enable parental alienation. Most enablers all too often act out of weakness rather than spite. However, this does not by any means justify their behaviours. The alienating parent will rely on these enablers to not provide any support at all for the targeted parent. Unfortunately, enablers will often go a step further and shun the targeted parent. The alienating parent will capitalise on the lack of empathy enablers have for the targeted parent.

To conclude, among the players within parental alienation there is inextricably a link between them and a lack of empathy.

In Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, her character Atticus states “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

btg dad

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The Peace Not Pas Team

10 thoughts on “Parental Alienation and Empathy

  1. Q: would a practitioner with a clinical understanding of mental health necessarily diagnose correctly? What I’ve read suggests that sociopaths can be adept at hiding their symptoms; in my case the alientating parent may be a sociopath and is certainly EXCELLENT at simulation.


    1. You make a very good and valid point. In my experience as a psychiatric nurse based on an assessment ward, I assess peoples mental state, the psychiatrists I work alongside diagnose them. However all the clinical presentations, behaviours etc are discussed and decided upon within a multi-disciplinary team approach. I know childrens social services in US, UK, Oz etc are far from this approach, but my argument is that such an approach would be better than what we have now; which is social workers with little to no understanding of mental health.


      1. Unqualified social workers is exactly what happened here and resulted in my eldest son making statements in a report that he’d seen me commit horribly violent acts that simply never happened.

        I’m relying on the long slow, statutory complaints process to rectify this.


      2. My sympathies are with my friend. Although my case isn’t as extreme as yours, childrens social services seemed to think it is in my children’s best interest to give them time. My children are being told by their other parent that I have abandoned them, hence my children rejection of me! Social services told me my children may feel ‘undervalued’ if we force the issue! Seriously?!?! Always take care of yourself, becos without that you won’t be able to carry on fighting. That’s the best advice I was ever given.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I just keep complaining. It has some effect, I’m chipping away at the system little by little. But we shouldn’t have to fight so much to simply be parents.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. There’s a parliamentary committee on this right now in Australia. I agree with you, we shouldn’t have to. I guess this happens in complex society- groups have their rights taken and must fight to get them back (eg our indigenous Australians).

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I do believe there will be social change, the question is when. We can’t give up hope, we are all in this together my friend.


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