Parental Alienation: An Insight into Emotional Child Abuse in Family Law


Parental alienation, a term increasingly encountered in family law, refers to a dynamic where a child becomes estranged from one parent due to the psychological manipulation by the other parent. This phenomenon not only affects family dynamics but also raises significant concerns about emotional child abuse. This article delves into the nature of parental alienation, its legal implications, and its impact on children, offering guidance for custody evaluators and family court judges.

Understanding Parental Alienation vs. Parental Alienation Syndrome

Parental Alienation and Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) are often conflated, yet they hold distinct meanings. PAS, a term coined by Dr. Richard Gardner in 1985, describes a child’s denigration campaign against a parent, often influenced by the other parent, absent any abuse or neglect. PAS is seen as a childhood disorder, while parental alienation refers to the deliberate actions of one parent to distance the child from the other parent. The clarity between these two is crucial in legal contexts, where the focus is on the specific individuals involved.

Parental Alienation as Emotional Child Abuse

The strategies employed in parental alienation are diverse, ranging from overt criticism to subtle manipulations, aiming to degrade the child’s relationship with the targeted parent. This manipulation can be seen as emotional child abuse, significantly impacting the child’s mental health. Parental alienation leads to specific behaviours in children, including:

  • The child expresses a relentless hatred for the targeted parent.
  • The child’s language parrots the language of the alienating parent.
  • The child vehemently rejects visiting the targeted parent.
  • Many of the child’s beliefs are enmeshed with the alienating parent.
  • Many of the child’s beliefs are delusional and frequently irrational.
  • The child’s reasons are not from direct experiences but from what has been told to him or her by others.
  • The child has no ambivalence in his or her feelings; they are all hatred with no ability to see the good.
  • The child has no capacity to feel guilty about his or her behaviour toward the targeted parent.
  • The child and the alienating parent are in lockstep to denigrate the targeted parent.
  • The child can appear like a normal healthy child. But when asked about the targeted parent, it triggers his or her hatred.

These behaviours profoundly affect the child’s emotional development.

Legal Considerations and Court Responses

Family courts approach parental alienation with varying degrees of understanding and response. The legal system has seen a range of reactions, from imposing criminal charges for severe cases to adjusting custody arrangements and mandating therapy. Statutory definitions of emotional abuse differ across states, but most recognize the detrimental impact of such alienation tactics. Judges and custody evaluators must navigate these complexities, balancing the need for protection with the rights of both parents.

Effects of Parental Alienation on Children

The repercussions of parental alienation on children are multi-faceted. In the short term, children may exhibit behavioral problems, emotional distress, and academic difficulties. Long-term effects can be more profound, influencing their ability to form healthy relationships and maintain a positive self-image. The child’s social and emotional development is at risk, necessitating timely and effective interventions.

Role of Custody Evaluators and Family Court Judges

Custody evaluators and judges play pivotal roles in identifying and addressing parental alienation. They must discern between genuine estrangement due to abuse and alienation tactics. Their approach should be informed, sensitive, and unbiased, ensuring the child’s best interests are prioritized. They are tasked with recognizing early signs of alienation, understanding its dynamics, and implementing appropriate legal and therapeutic responses.

Prevention and Treatment

Preventing parental alienation involves educating parents about its harmful effects and promoting cooperative parenting post-divorce. Treatment for affected families often includes therapy focused on rebuilding relationships and addressing the underlying issues contributing to alienation. Specialized interventions may be necessary in extreme cases to address the deep-seated emotional damage.

Case Studies and Legal Precedents

Several case studies highlight the complexities and varied outcomes in parental alienation cases. These cases offer insights into effective judicial approaches and underscore the need for informed, nuanced responses from the legal system.


Parental alienation presents a challenging and often heartbreaking scenario in family law. Understanding its dynamics, legal implications, and impact on children is crucial for effectively addressing this form of emotional child abuse. As awareness grows, so does the responsibility of legal professionals to protect the best interests of children caught in these situations.

Parental Alienation Can Be Emotional Child Abuse by Ken Lewis, Director, Child Custody Evaluation Services of Philadelphia, Inc.