What is Parental Alienation?

Parental alienation is a term used to characterise the breakdown of what was previously normal and healthy parent-child relationships during divorce and child custody cases.

Parental alienation is an abusive set of behaviours carried out by one parent (in most cases the resident parent) who 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.

In 2007  the term parental alienation, was defined by Douglas Darnall (a U.S. psychiatrist) and Dr Amy Baker (a U.S. developmental psychologist) as follows: “an unwarranted rejection of the alienated parent by the child, whose alliance with the alienating parent is characterised by extreme negativity towards the alienated parent. This happens when the actions of the alienating parent (deliberate or unintentional), adversely affect the relationship with the alienated parent.” 

In 2014 Dr Craig Childress introduced an improved model of parental alienation, based on attachment theory. It is sometimes referred to as ‘pathogenic parenting’. Its definition and basis is arguably based within a more psychological context than the Gardner Model. Childress argues that severe parental alienation is simply a manifestation of standard and established forms of pathologies. Childress’ argument is that his Attachment Based Parental Alienation model is not a theory, nor does it describe a mental illness. Instead its intention is to describe a specific set of symptoms in a child which lead a psychologist to a clinical diagnosis of Child Psychological Abuse.

Article 9 from The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (separation from parents) states that:

  • Children must not be separated from their parents against their will unless it is in their best interests (for example, if a parent is hurting or neglecting a child).
  • Children whose parents have separated have the right to stay in contact with both parents, unless this could cause them harm

Terms such as ‘alienating behaviours’ are certainly used in the writing of fact finding assessments and reports. Numerous court and social services based professionals will both admit and acknowledge that the problem of one parent alienating the children against the other parent is common and damaging to the well being of the effected children.

Parental alienation has now been acknowledged by CAFCASS in the UK who are apparently developing a range of diagnostic tools and procedures for addressing the symptoms in children. However the acceptance of PA has not yet filtered down to front-line services and it is yet to be recognised by wider social services.

It is very rarely acted upon by the courts due to it currently not being fully recognised by any government authority in the UK despite an overwhelming and fast growing body of case evidence worldwide.

The following is a TEDx talk given by Dr Jennifer Harman on parental stereotypes and parental alienation. Dr Harman is considered an expert in power dynamics in human relationships. She has undertaken research that has found that parental alienation is similar to what’s known as “intimate terrorism.” 


I am an alienated parent of three. Part-time psychiatric nurse, part-time writer. I am also an online activist against parental alienation. I use my knowledge of mental health and lived experience of parental alienation to promote awareness of parental alienation.