Warring Parents, Divorce And Parental Alienation Syndrome

In simple terms, parental alienation syndrome (Gardner, 1985), refers to the psychological effects on the child when one parent (in custody of the child) manipulates this child into rejecting the other parent (not in custody of the child) during or after separation and/or divorce proceedings.

At its worst, it involves the parent with custody of the child actively and maliciously attempting to programme and brainwash the child into hating the other parent.

At the other end of the scale, however, it can be that the parent with custody does not realise the effect their negative comments about their ex-partner are having on the child (i.e. causing the child, too, to develop a negative attitude towards the non-custodial parent).

In any event, the result is, according to parental alienation theory, that the child internalises the custodial parent’s negative view of the non-custodial parent.

In extreme cases, the custodial parent may even brainwash the child into believing that the non-custodial parent is guilty of having abused him/her (the child) even when this is untrue. A famous example of this is American writer/director Woody Allen’s allegation that his ex-partner, Mia Farrow, was guilty of such malicious manipulation of their daughter (although it goes without saying that nobody knows the truth but those directly involved). The case has attracted much controversy given the nature of the allegations against Mr Allen, even though charges were never brought against him due to lack of evidence and he is therefore presumed innocent).

Darnell’s Three Types Of Alienating Parent :

According to Douglas Darnell (1998), there are three types of alienating parent; these are as follows :

  • Naive
  • Active
  • Obsessed

Let’s look at each of these in turn :

1) Naive :

Darnell suggests that the vast majority of parents will occasionally act as alienators by inadvertently and non-maliciously deprecating the other parent to the child. However, in the case of these naive alienators, such occurrences are aberrations in the context of the parent’s overall attitude to the child’s relationship with the other parent, which is supportive and non-undermining.

2) Active :

Darnell states that active alienators tend to have good intentions and realise the importance of supporting the child’s relationship with the other parent but fail to always act according to these intentions due to losing control of their behaviour as a result of feelings of intense anger and/or extreme hurt.

3) Obsessed :

Obsessed alienators convince themselves that the other parent is inherently bad and a danger (psychologically or physically) to the child and then undertakes a ‘campaign’ to turn the child against this parent.


What Are The Effects Of Such Manipulation Upon The Child?

Gardner suggests the manipulated child who develops parental alienation syndrome may be affected in the following ways:

– idealisation of the custodial parent

– demonisation of the non-custodial parent

– belief that his/her (the child’s) feelings of unequivocal hatred towards the non-custodial parent stem from his/her judgement alone and have not been influenced by the custodial parent

– absence of any feelings of guilt about his/her (the child’s) expressions of hatred towards the non-custodial parent

Initially, Gardner proposed that, in the vast majority of cases, it was the mother who alienated the child from the father. However, he later retracted this hypothesis and stated that both mothers and fathers were equally likely to practice such malicious manipulation of the child’s feelings, beliefs and behaviour.

Gardner also stressed that parental alienation syndrome only applies when the castigated parent is not guilty of any child abuse.


It should be noted, however, that the validity of Gardner’s theory of parental alienation syndrome is disputed amongst mainstream psychologists and is not an officially recognised childhood psychological disorder at the time of writing.

However, that does not change the fact that such manipulation of children, and such manipulation’s harmful psychological effects, are very far from uncommon.



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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).


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About David Hosier MSc

Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.

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