The 8 Symptoms Of Parental Alienation

parental alienationApril is Parental Alienation Awareness Month. DadsDivorce has spoken with a number of parental alienation experts and survivors about the factors that contribute to a parent being alienated and what affect that can have on families.

Today, we’re featuring a guest article from Dr. William Bernet, who is president of the Parental Alienation Study Group and Professor of Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University.

Dr. Bernet reviews the eight criteria for diagnosing parental alienation that were originally developed in 1985 by Dr. Richard Gardner. These eight symptoms all occur in the child rather than in either parent.

Although Dr. Bernet cautions that the symptoms still need to be studied further, he says they have held up well as indicators of parental alienation.

Check back next week for an interview with Dr. Bernet about the work being done by the PASG.


The campaign of denigration is when the child repeatedly complains about the parent over and over again.

In fact, that’s often the first thing the child says when he or she comes into my office. They will say, “Dr. Bernet, let me tell you some things about my father that he did wrong.”

That’s the campaign. Even though they have these complaints, the justification for the complaints are frivolous.

Cordell & Cordell understands the concerns men face during divorce.

Frivolous rationalization for the complaint

That’s the second symptom. The child will give some silly reason for not wanting to ever see the targeted parent again.

Lack of ambivalence

A really interesting symptom is called lack of ambivalence.

When we have relationships with people, they’re usually ambivalent in the sense that there are some good points and some bad points, and that’s normal. For almost everyone we know we can think of some good qualities and not-so-good qualities about the person.

These children have a lack of ambivalence, meaning they see one parent as totally good. I talked with one child who said, “My mother is an angel and my father is a devil.” And he meant it.

Independent thinker phenomenon

This symptom is a bit controversial. It’s important to note that we’re not criticizing children for thinking independently. That’s not what this is about.

There are some children who come in and they spontaneously say, “Dr. Bernet, these are my ideas about my father or mother. I thought of this all by myself. Nobody influenced me. No, my mom didn’t tell me what to say, but this is what I think about my father.”

In other words, the child goes out of his or her way to say they thought about these ideas without being influenced by the alienating parent.

Automatic support/Reflexive support

This symptom involves the child always choosing the side of one particular parent in any given argument or disagreement.

A typical situation might involve a family meeting. Regardless of the topic that comes up, the child will automatically side with the preferred parent and automatically disagree with the targeted parent.

Absence of guilt

Another symptom is absence of guilt. These children can be very disrespectful and say or do horrible things with absolutely no qualms.

They show a disregard for the parent’s feelings and emotions and it does not bother them at all to do or say these horrible things about one of their parents.

Borrowed scenarios

Borrowed scenarios refers to how a child tells a story about something that happened. Their story will be the exact same story their preferred parent has described.

In other words, if we’re doing an evaluation we might interview the preferred parent. They might tell us about something that happened with the targeted parent. Then later, we interview the child and the child gives exactly the same story and will sometimes even use identical words.

Spread of animosity

The final symptom refers to the spread of animosity to other people.

In other words, if the father is the targeted parent, the child’s hate spreads from the father to his family members such as aunts and uncles and grandparents. Even though these relatives have done nothing wrong, the child will suddenly hate them and never want to see them because of their connection to the father.

In extreme circumstances, this animosity can even extend to the targeted parent’s pets.

Check back throughout the next month for various articles and interviews about parental alienation. 

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40 comments on “The 8 Symptoms Of Parental Alienation

    So you are telling me that basically there is no way that the victim child and their mother ARE telling the truth??!! Because in my past experiences, if two or more people’s stories match, THAT is what the truth is. For example: a father is a narcissist and very controlling. He is emotionally and sometimes physically abusive to his wife and child on a daily basis, ALL. DAY. LONG.. The mother and child finally become brave enough to ask for help and get it temporarily. But then the father says it’s all lies and he claims he is the perfect parent and blames everything on the mother. You are telling me that since the mother and daughter both have the same “story” that it is not the TRUTH??!! explain then, how do you get the court to believe the truth???

    No – what Shawn said is when the stories over lap very precisely, then be suspect. If I separate you and your daughter and ask what you did yesterday, I expect nearly the same answer but worded differently with different perspectives.

    If the overlap is nearly identical with similar words and perspectives, then suspect “Borrowed scenarios “

    You’re right to answer this so emotionally. I’ve been through a nasty divorce with the same issues and now, 10 years later I’m fighting in court for custody over our 15 yo. The manipulation and harassment is very difficult to prove. On the other hand, this article is helpful to me for a friend of mine, male, that is being neglected and mentally abused by his soon to be ex-wife. She’s withholding their young kids and basically torturing him with it. I think every case has its very distinct unique circumstances and none fit into one “category”. I hope you are doing what You need, to be well. <3

    Jen D.

    Parental alienation happens to mothers, too. I tried to make a marriage work after I received care with our children at a domestic violence shelter 8 years ago. Before you write me off as a doormat, I held him accountable with concrete achievements on the way to rebuilding our marriage (which was nearly destroyed at the time because of his substance abuse, which I regarded as a special circumstance that changed his behavior 180 degrees relative to the first 6 years of our marriage which were good and peaceful).

    What I failed to realize through the next 7 years of marriage, divorce, and year of attempting to coparent is that he was setting up dynamics to manipulate our children by being largely unavailable (and unwilling) to engage in parenting behavor (rule setting, telling them no, etc) but lavished them with toys, junk food, whatever they wanted one day a week. His word is gold, and they are under his spell.

    While I was making sure they called their daddy twice a day and told them to behave and respect daddy when he picks them up, he was telling them that he wants to see them more, but mommy won’t let him in the house to “watch” them, that daddy can’t afford his own place (in a cheap, rural area when he makes 83k/year) so poor daddy has to live in the truck, and that my house according to the MSA is “his” house and “their” house (and not my home) .

    Mommy took away your Nerf gun? I’ll buy you two more on Sat. Mommy wants you to clean your room? Go ride your bike. Mommy won’t let you have air conditioning? I’d let you have air conditioning and get one of those fancy refrigerators for you. Mommy won’t let you play video games all day? I’ll take you to the water park on Sat and then we’ll go to the arcade and play as much as you want. Daddy works hard to give you everything, just ignore her…

    My ex used to refer to our kids as objects that he “gave” to me, and he has found a way to take them away. I relinquished my rights to the house and called my ex on his bluff. I wrote a statement that we signed in front of a notary that the kids want to live with him in the house.

    It has been 4 months, and though my heart is broken, things are starting to show the first signs of change. My daughter now is quick to respond to my texts and calls (though she still lies to cover her father and brother). My son’s attitude is starting to crack (when this came to a head, I clearly saw the possibility of having to call the cops on my own son within 5 years). My son invited me to his concert at school, and in September said “no” when I offered to pick him up from the bus to see him.

    They are getting a big dose of reality about their dad, and my ex is unclogging the toilets and picking up after the pets that he got for the kids and never lifted a finger to care for until 4 months ago.

    Our kids are safe, and I’m watching them closely through my mom friends and neighbors. When I talked to my lawyer all she had to offer was to put new paperwork in place, not the emotional damage (and therapy was not helpful for our kids, I tried–i am currently in therapy to deal with my grief).

    Hang in there, alienated parents. This is not a fight that can be won by conventional means. Hang in there for your children. You ARE important to them. Learn about narcissism and how to deal with narcissists… Be the gray rock. The hardest part is pretending the war the narcissist has waged against you doesn’t hurt. Don’t give them the juicy nectar of your pain, that’s what they want.

    I cry A LOT (in private) . I hurt A LOT. I have moments where I want to give up because it is so painful. I am consistent, hold my kids accountable, tell them I love them and when they are hurtful tell them I feel sad. Stick to “I” messages and let them know how their behavior makes you feel.

    I don’t know if the fight I’m in will take 2 years or 20 years. These situations require out of the box thinking, and prayer doesn’t hurt. Don’t give up 💟

    I am struck by the people who claim to provide a service in this case. The supposed psychology expert says with shock and disbelief: “The child acts with utter lack of ambivalence and inconsideration, saying terrible things without caring how they might hurt their parents.”

    These are children who are hurting. They have not come of age. Their view of the world, of relationships, and of the rules that shape those realms, are still evolving. The primary people to whom they are looking to for guidance on that evolution have taken their lives and irreparably changed it. What sort of ambivalence or altruism can these adults, the parents of these suffering children, reasonably expect from their own offspring?

    The well-meaning experts to whom these suffering parents of children in great pain pay a lot of money are failing their jobs. It is one thing to aim, as the ultimate goal, to show these children that their parents’ divorce would not erode the love their parents have for them. It is quite another to tell these children that, from the get-go, they are supposed to put themselves aside, and feel pure compassion for their divorcing parents. By assuming that the kids owe their parents such a thing, neither the experts nor the parents are modeling the compassion that these children are supposed to feel. Where in the world can they learn it except through the adults?

    Let us not act this way if we can at all help it. We are the adults. It is within the core of our love for our children to be there for them even if we are hurting badly. It is not their job to care for us, at least not until we have cared for them.

    He never condemned the children in the article, just pointed out that it was a sign of what was happening to them. I am seeing this happen to my brother and he is devistated. The custodial parent cannot have the best interest of the children in mind when they tell their children the other parent does not care for them and actively prevents that parent from seeing the children. My brother is 17,000 in debt in trying to get her to follow the divorce agreement. She ignore it and comes up with one excuse after another to prevent him from seek g his children. He cried so hard on the phone with me he could barely breathe one night after she wouldn’t let him see them – again.

    A bit of hope I cannot agree more. I feel we are in the midst of a great shift. I understand that once the rights were granted primarily for the mother and the father was left out. Now it’s 50/50 for Father’s rights. Either parent, it makes no difference if it is mother or father, truly need to continue to build the relationship. Live About has an insightful article on Parental Alienation vs Estrangement. The entire family experiences a great loss through divorce and as all humans we find solace and comfort in those we trust, those who value us, accept us for who we are, are interested in us. If a parent decides to not go to school functions, has no idea of their social life or friends, tells a child they have a voice no choice, they tell their child they are busy building their new life, only see the child when it is convenient, manipulate the child through bargaining for their own gain, then naturally that will not evoke feelings of comfort within the child. More importantly, the child’s response to that behavior is correct!
    We as adults would most often not sustain a relationship that lacked interest in us, lacked trust and confused us. It is bewildering when a parents actions are not fostering a healthy dynamic the kids are told by specialists or Parent Coordinators that you have to be with them it’s the law, it’s your parent. Who is their advocate when they intrinsically feel something is off? I hope the shift comes from knowing that while we would love 50/50 in an ideal world, that may not be the reality in all families. Especially in the beginning, but may be the ultimate goal. We must teach kids to understand their intuition instead of turning it off. Self awareness can be cultivated to know what they feel is correct and also to understand a parent still loves them although their parent is struggling now too. The parent who is struggling is the one who would be guided for healing and to understand the consequences their hurt has on their children and have accountability. You are correct, that is not for our children to bare and we must show them compassion and how to learn better ways of dealing with loss or change. If the children express the behaviors in the article we must first believe them until explored otherwise. Their voice matters and we want to teach them that it will always matter throughout their lifetime.
    I appreciate Dr. Bernet cautions the symptoms need to be studied more. People are unique and each situation must be evalutaed with fresh eyes. Although patterns are present, black and white does not exist in treating families. I hope we shift towards opening our hearts and eyes to truly hear what kids are saying. Their perception may surprisingly be the most clear, as they are the outsiders looking into their parents dynamics. They are always watching and learning and listening, more than we give them credit for.

    I have always encouraged my daughter to love and honor her father, even when she did not want to foster that relationship. I have never bad mouthed him nor have I told my daughter any of the grievances I had with him during our marriage. Those are my burdens to bare not hers.

    It would have been detrimental to her welfare. But with that said, my ex had other ideas. He has told her things that only him and I have been privy to… non of which were related to our daughter. Non of these issues should have been shared with her. She has even told me how “sorry she was for my upbringing”… how would she know about my upbringing??? My point is, if you give a child the opportunity to champion your cause against one of his or her parents, they might take the bait, due to his or her immaturity. It is cruel to do this to your own child… and the ramifications run deep. It’s very sad. I know I have a broken heart and pray for reconciliation.

    It is cruel to do this to a child. I am currently suffering loss of contact with my child as is her brother and stepmum who loves her like her own. My daughter ticks every one of the categories above and her mother ticks every symptom of Malicious Parent Syndrome. Trying to get the courts and social workers to accept this and take positive action is very difficult and trying. It is a fight I will not give up though as I refuse to give up on my child.

    Hi Cara, I’m about to go to family court to sort out a child arrangement order. My 12 year old is very bright and although I don’t want her to be with her father I certainly do encourage her by saying ‘why don’t you go into the lounge and sit with your dad’ or simple things like ‘say hello to your dad’ or ‘say bye’ – unfortunately her father is a non-communicative and I feel that my daughter is now giving him a taste of his own medicine. My worry is that she will tell the court that ‘he doesn’t say anything to me so why should I say anything to him’ – she’s quite right of course and he is the adult but I just wonder what a court would make of such a comment! I want her to have a relationship with her father but if I’m honest, they have nothing in common and I feel that just every weekend would be enough otherwise I don’t think she will want to see him. Intellectually they are miles apart and I know she’s aware that he will buy her things but then she’s just using him! Perhaps I just keep encouraging her to be civil.

    Parental alienation is alive and well. Sadly, the courts are woefully ill-prepared to handle such cases, and most parties cannot afford the expert witness(es) required to establish the prima facie case. I have had no contact (him to me) now with my 18-year-old son for almost 4 years. I have texted him and left messages on his cell phone for years with no response. No infidelity, no abuse, etc., – just very poor judgment resulting in a child. I am now remarried, have 4 other kids who love me, yet I am the devil incarnate to my oldest from the previous relationship. Makes no sense, yet perfect sense in light of the symptoms of PAS. All of the symptoms are present. At age 18 I wrote him my last text, “Son, you are 18 now, you are a man now and will make your own decisions. I will always love you, and you know where to find me.” Now he is almost 19 and people always tell me he will come back. I hope so, but I’m afraid the poison runs deep. We miss him.

    It’s sad how much of these things I see in my relationship with my daughter. She still comes to see me but refuses to join me on trips to see my father. She rarely joins me on trips to visit my mom. Reading the symptoms I saw a lot of my childhood. Which is why I have gone out of my way to reinforce to my daughter that her mom and her mom’s family are good people. Even when they have done things that hurt her.
    It’s hard dealing with the aftermath of their actions.

    This is totally spot on with my 6 yo Daughter. Its heart wrenching and I can’t afford an attorney to even begin to address this issue. I fought in court and won custody of my 13 yo daughter and can’t afford to go to court again. I get my 6yo every other weekend. It’s clear she’s being brainwashed by her mother. I hear stories that her mom tells her about me that are completely untrue. Even when family on her side tells her its untrue she believes it with her whole heart. All I can say is Juvenile Court Judges in my County are clueless. Family Court Judges dealt fairly but Juvenile Court in Montgomery County Ohio are negligent. They Will be Judged themselves one day by the only TRUE Judge The LORD GOD ALMIGHTY.

    I don’t know why children would get alienated against a parent for no good reason. If you are a good and loving parent there will be no reason for this reaction. If you cheat, lie, and abandon your family, then what do you expect? You reap what you sow. The guy who is so hung up on the kids alienation is probably also the guy who was so hung up on himself that he had to go out and cheat on his wife because she wasn’t paying attention to him 24/7 – probably taking care of the kids, house, all the details etc while he was feeling unappreciated. think about it.

    What if the complete opposite is true? What if the husband allowed the wife to do whatever she wanted, often at the expense of family time just to find out she tested positive for an STI while pregnant with their son and claims to not cheat, even after admitting to it in counseling? And yet somehow still, the wife is able to get a no contact order claiming abuse and withholds the children? Is it the man’s fault then? Get over yourself, lady.

    Yea, I also don’t understand why adults sell everything and join cults. Like people sympathizing with their kidnappers. Or some Americans are convinced to travel abroad to join radicals who cut people heads off.. Well same concept here. If the adult mind can be tapped into and taken over so can a child. Women stay in abusive situations strongly believing its their fault. Kids are resilient they say because they will adapt to survive any situation.

    What you say makes sense in many cases I’m sure. But when the mom sleeps with your 10 year olds football coach, yet your older daughter alienates the father then what?

    Wrong…. I never cheated on my wife in fact she’s the one who cheated on me left me for another man and then attempted to take the kids from me…..

    And it doesn’t matter if anybody cheated on anybody else there’s two people divorcing they are not divorcing their children and it’s very wrong to alienate a child against the parent it doesn’t matter what the parent did to the other parent.

    Obviously except in cases of physical or sexual abuse.

    and no offense you sound like a bitter woman who is cheated on and is now going through a campaign of trying to make your children hate their father.

    If you are in fact doing that it will only backfire on you and your children will end up hating you.

    I understand what you are saying. But sometimes the parent being targeted might be the one holding the kids accountable for his or her actions. Teens don’t like that very much and tend to be attracted to the parent giving into their demands. Remember sometimes it’s the good parent targeted… think back when you were a teen and where you would want to live. I love both my parents very much but would have picked the more liberal one any day vs the other who watched me like a hawk…

    I am a good loving parent but my narcissistic EX has targeted me for her hate because I ask her to follow the parenting plan. I ask a lot because she has only 2 things on the whole separation agreement under compliance. She composes fictional points to it and claims to follow court order. L.S.S….my daughter has been trained, very effectively, with lies to hate me. That’s how that happens.

    If I may offer some hope. I pass this on every chance I get because it has helped us so much to limit the damage being done to the children and have hope that their long-term will be better than their short-term. Check out Ryanthomasspeaks on youtube. He is a formerly alienated child who found his way back to his dad and now helps alienated parents reconnect by teaching how to get through to them. I found was very helpful, too.

    It happens, Becky. If you’re willing, check out ryanthomasspeaks on youtube and look for a video called “they ambushed my dad” and you’ll get an idea how a good parent can be totally thrown under the bus and alienated.

    I’m going through PAS right now with my 13 year old daughter. It’s so painful to be treated like trash by your own child. Does it ever get better? Do they ever wake up and see through the false narratives and lies?

    This article so parallels the alienation from my daughter that I have been forced to suffer from these past 17 years. It was even noted in our court ordered GAL report that was first published on July 21, 2000 in which it specifically states – “her (my daughter’s) statements about Bob (me) were riddled with evidence of having uncritically accepted much of her mother’s statements and agendas” and in this very same report it was even stated – “I tried to get the daughter into an adolescent group but mom acted ineffective and it didn’t happen. Plus, mom was talking to Mika (daughter) about what was going to happen, how they might lose the house because of Bob (me). She was using her as a sounding board”. But even at that, this very same GAL person later stated – “It would be counter-productive to mandate contact between Mika (daughter) and her father. She should make her own decisions in this regard.” So here’s my complete story of how the Family Court system dragged out my case which indeed cost me several thousand dollars in legal expenses and tried to silence me. All the lies, misrepresentations of my character, unsubstantiated as well as uncorroborated documents that summarize the entire nightmare including the loss of my fatherly rights to see my own daughter that I was faced with and continue to struggle from 17 years later.

    Divorce Proceedings Part I:
    Divorce Proceedings Part II:
    Divorce Proceedings Part III:
    Divorce Proceedings Part IV:
    Divorce Proceedings Part V:
    Divorce Proceedings Part VI-A:
    Divorce Proceedings Part VI-B:
    Divorce Proceedings Part VI – A:
    Divorce Proceedings Part VI – B:
    Divorce Proceedings Part VI – C:
    Divorce Proceedings Part VI – D:
    Divorce Proceedings Part VII-A:
    Divorce Proceedings Part VII-B:

    This type of behavior comes from people justifying any sort of wrong behavior- including affairs. Change the word child to cheating spouse and the supposedly unduly influencing parent to the other man or woman and you have the same type of gaslighting and rationalisation. It’s all relative. People caught up in affairs somtime’s cannot see anything good or worthwhile about their partners and even their children and will say anything to justify their behaviour. It strikes me that if the Divorce was truly mutually agreed on and amicable and there was no betrayal involved, this type of alienation wouldn’t be happening. If there was some shoddy behaviour on the part of either parent (eg if dad had had an affair) the kids would interpret it as a personal betrayal and the’offending’ parent would need to be a lot more compassionate, humble and patient if they were truly sincere about wanting a relationship.

    Wow, this hits home JoJo15. When my wife cheated on me multiple time, she would say those things to her friends. After the divorce (why after) her friends would tell me what she said about her affairs and the reasoning behind it.

    This article is interesting, but I feel it relies to heavily on what a child says, and how it is not of concern. My children are starting to feel the disinterest of school activities by their mom, and wants me to help them with their homework even when at her house. They feel neglected. I listen to their concerns, never trying to make excuses for mom, but not dismissing their thoughts either. I listen, give compassion, and we work on a plan on how we can better work on things, with or without mom’s help. I often tell them they should talk about this with their mom but they say it doesn’t help. But I will always still encourage them to talk with their mom, no matter what.

    yuh, my feelings EXACTLY. This is what I experienced with my ex when he snuck off and got married without telling anyone at all. Then was upset at me for letting the kids know I was upset. If you pretend everything is fine between you and the ex-spouse who did heinous things to your family, no one is going to GET the reality of the financial, emotional and logistical fallout from that kind of behaviour. It isn’t good for the family – there are many studies to show this. people are poorer, kids do less well in life, and have more anxiety and health problems etc etc etc. No rocket science here. It is just reality for people who aren’t millionaires and can’t walk away and start a life over again easily. It is painful and expensive for everyone. And the cheater sulks because people are affected by their poor judgement and not as loving as they used to be. ?!?!?!?!?!

    This not only occurs with children, but also with adult children. During my divorce, my adult children stopped talking to me as well as the young teenager. I hope that someday they will realize what has happen. It has been five years. The good thing is, they don’t ask for anything because they don’t communicate with me. That is about the only good thing about the adult children. For the younger one, it is very sad.

    Although Gardner pioneered parental alienation and much progress has been made in his name, the push now is to contextualize it in terms acceptable to the APA. Without their blessings further progress will be stymied by ideologically-driven factions. In this regard much attention is given to Childress as we petition the APA to revise its position. Basically, using existing APA diagnostic categories, parental alienation is being defined and diagnosed as Child Psychological Abuse.

    Gardner was chosen for discreditation by courts who saw his suicide as a mental defect…plus, alienation takes away their bid for bias that works well when it comes to grant funding. Hopefully you’ll be successful with the APA…but don’t be surprised if their funding has its own caveat towards the bias.

    I have witnessed all of these actions towards me and my family in the last 7 years. The alienation process was successful with two of my children but the youngest still holds on to what she believe it is surprising that alienation is so successful in the court system and with professionals but it happens and it is real and it hurts. mostly the children who are scarred for life.

    The court system sees so little of real life, that they easily interpret things wrong. Its why shared parenting is so important. It is the most effective means of preventing parental alienation.

    But they lose funding. View “Deconstructing America”, parts 1 & 2 on YouTube. “Real Life’ to the courts is gaining statistics to gain funding. That’s the reason few, if any, court decisions, EXCEPT the funding angle, makes sense.

    Wow, I’m sorry you have to deal with that. I can’t imagine alienating my son from his father… I’m trying to get him to be involved. I’ve been trying for 3 years with no luck. And my son is special needs… he won’t have anything to do with him, he alienates himself from our son… and here you are, you want the relationship with your children and that right has been ripped from under you… it’s just wrong… I pray they see the truth one day…. no parent should do anything to cause a child to have negative feelings for the other parent. If the parent is “bad” let the child find out on their own, through their own experience. Allow them to form their own opinion of their own parent. And always tell the to have respect for the other parent…. that just makes me so angry…

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