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A Mental Health Roadmap for Attorneys Who Represent Alienating Parents

Alan Blotcky and William Bernet


  • Parental alienation is a harmful phenomenon where one parent intentionally undermines the child's relationship with the other parent.
  • Children who experience parental alienation suffer short-term and long-term psychiatric consequences, and exhibit specific characteristics, such as obsession with hatred, lack of ambivalence, lack of guilt, and mimicking the favored parent.
  • Alienating parents employ various strategies, including bad-mouthing, limiting contact, interfering with communication, and making false allegations of abuse.
  • Attorneys of alienating parents have an ethical responsibility to detect and correct parental alienation.
A Mental Health Roadmap for Attorneys Who Represent Alienating Parents
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Parental alienation is a pathological phenomenon seen in some high-conflict separations, divorces, and post-divorces. It is where one parent intentionally sabotages a child’s relationship with the other parent for no legitimate or reasonable purpose. If successful, the child rejects the targeted parent as unloving, unworthy, and even dangerous. Total rejection of a parent is considered severe alienation. Partial rejection of a parent is considered mild to moderate alienation.

Parental alienation cases almost always end up in protracted, contentious legal proceedings. As such, alienating parents always hire an attorney who represents them in their ongoing legal action. This roadmap will be useful in these complicated cases.

Correcting Parental Alienation Is Vital

It must be recognized that children who totally or partially reject a parent due to parental alienation suffer short-term and long-term psychiatric consequences. This is not exaggeration or hyperbole. This is a fact that places a child’s welfare and wellbeing in jeopardy. Research shows that an alienated child is at high risk for the development of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, lack of trust, problems in relationships, and re-enactment of alienation in future relationships. In many cases, parental alienation of a child is considered a psychiatric emergency that calls for immediate intervention.

Attorneys Can Play a Pivotal Role with Alienating Parents

Attorneys of alienating parents are in an important position to make a difference in these high-conflict cases. But to do so, attorneys must have a strong understanding of parental alienation dynamics and a committed desire to intervene in the pathological process. In fact, it is posited that attorneys have an ethical responsibility to detect and correct parental alienation when confronted with it. Turning a blind eye to an alienating parent is unacceptable because it only serves to enable and even condone his or her harmful behavior. Just like with physical abuse and sexual abuse, attorneys have a duty to stop their clients from engaging in further destructive behavior. Zealous representation of clients must be overridden by an all-out attempt to cease a family phenomenon that is profoundly injurious to a child.

Basic Mental Health Principles in Alienation Cases

An attorney cannot possibly intervene with an alienating parent if he or she does not understand the intricacies and nuances of parental alienation. Let us begin with some basic mental health principles in parental alienation cases. First, all children naturally want to love both of their parents freely and equally. A child’s normal psychological development is enhanced when loving both parents is possible. Second, children refuse contact with a parent for one of two reasons. Sometimes children refuse contact with a parent for a very legitimate reason, such as harsh physical discipline, uncontrolled substance abuse, neglect, or serious mental illness. This is called estrangement. At other times, children totally or partially reject a parent for a weak, frivolous, or absurd reason, and this is the definition of parental alienation. Third, a child’s long-term adjustment depends on having a good relationship with both parents, even if the parents do not get along. Finally, cutting-edge research shows that shared custody is preferable to sole or primary custody on most if not all dimensions of functioning. Taken together, it is quite clear that both mothers and fathers are vitally important to a child’s adjustment, happiness, and normal development. Total or partial rejection of a parent by a child for a non-legitimate reason is extremely toxic.

How to Determine if a Child Is Alienated from a Parent

Research and clinical work tell us that there are eight major characteristics of an alienated child:

  1. The child becomes obsessed with hatred toward the other parent and marches forward in a campaign of denigration.
  2. Weak, frivolous, or absurd reasons are given by the child for his or her rejection of the targeted parent.
  3. There is a lack of ambivalence in the child, so that the favored parent is idealized and the targeted parent is demonized.
  4. There is a lack of guilt in the child for treating the targeted parent so poorly.
  5. Independent thinker phenomenon becomes prominent, whereby the child claims to have developed hatred toward the targeted parent on his or her own without negative influences by the favored parent.
  6. The child reflexively supports the favored parent regardless of the issue or topic at hand.
  7. The child begins to mimic words and phrases of the favored parent.
  8. The child cuts off the targeted parent’s family members.

Further, it is important to discuss the Five-Factor Model for the diagnosis of parental alienation that was developed by William Bernet. These are the five basic conditions required for parental alienation to be diagnosed:

  1. The child avoids, resists, or refuses a relationship with one of the parents.
  2. The presence of a prior positive relationship between the child and the now rejected parent.
  3. The absence of abuse, neglect, or seriously deficient parenting by the now rejected parent.
  4. The use of multiple alienating behaviors by the favored parent.
  5. Manifestations of behavioral signs of alienation by the child.

How to Know if Your Client Is an Alienating Parent

Alienating parents engage in some of the following 17 strategies to turn their children against the targeted parents:

  1. Bad-mouthing.
  2. Limiting physical contact.
  3. Interfering with communication.
  4. Not mentioning the other parent.
  5. Punishing the child for caring about the other parent.
  6. Implying the other parent is dangerous.
  7. Making the child choose the favored parent in all contexts.
  8. Cutting off the other parent’s family members.
  9. Encouraging the child to call the favored parent’s spouse “mom” or “dad.”
  10. Changing the child’s name.
  11. Asking the child to keep secrets from the other parent.
  12. Asking the child to spy on the other parent.
  13. Confiding in the child about adult and/or court matters.
  14. Cultivating dependency in the child.
  15. Having the child call the other parent by his or her first name.
  16. Eliminating the other parent’s name from medical and school records.
  17. Forcing the child to reject the other parent.

It is important to add a number 18 to this list: Lodging a false allegation of abuse against the other parent. This poisonous strategy is highly disruptive because it tries to throw the other parent under the bus, especially if it reaches the level of a criminal charge. In our experience, alienating parents frequently up the ante by making additional false allegations. Multiple false allegations during a legal proceeding are a huge red flag for parental alienation. For example, one alienating parent said the other parent had beaten and choked their children hundreds of times, although no report had ever been made to a therapist, pediatrician, or child protection worker.

Alienating parents typically engage in many harmful strategies rather than just one or two. Bad-mouthing alone, for example, does not indicate parental alienation. But alienation is in full force when the parent engages in many of the harmful strategies. It is not unusual for an alienating parent to engage in 10 or more of these toxic strategies.

Avoiding the Trap of False Assumptions in Alienation Cases

Because parental alienation is known as a counterintuitive phenomenon, many false assumptions can be made in a case. Here are some of the salient ones that must be avoided:

  • Relying on one’s intuition about a parent or a child—while easy and comfortable—can lead to a major mistake from the get-go. Gut-level decision-making should be avoided.
  • Both parents are not equally responsible for the conflict between them in most cases. Many times, one parent is more responsible than the other in creating and sustaining the conflict.
  • Outward demeanors can be quite deceiving. Alienating parents are usually calm, cool, and convincing whereas targeted parents are angry, agitated, and afraid. Alienating parents can appear to be healthier, but they are not. Targeted parents seem psychologically disturbed, but they are not.\Alienating parents often accuse the targeted parents of being the aggressors. This is projection on their part with the goal of portraying themselves as victims and garnering sympathy.
  • Taking what a child or teenager says at face value is a recipe for disaster. It is important to recognize that all youngsters are highly suggestible because of their young ages. They can be easily swayed, cajoled, manipulated, bribed, coached, and brainwashed by a parent or other authority figure. In parental alienation, a child’s attitude and perceptions are manifestly distorted and tainted.
  • An alienating parent will never admit to his or her offending behavior. There is never a Perry Mason moment when the alienating tactics of the parent are confessed. Alienating parents are typically in massive denial about their problematic behavior.

Practical Suggestions if Your Client Is an Alienating Parent

With these definitions, principles, and diagnostic criteria in mind, here are some practical suggestions for an attorney whose client is an alienating parent.

An attorney should be open and sensitive to the possibility that their client is an alienating parent. In every high-conflict case, it is crucial for the attorney to interview his or her client multiple times, with the goal of collecting as much detailed information as possible. Observing the parent with his or her child should be a priority as well. If parental alienation is indeed apparent, the attorney should feel compelled to name it and to communicate the diagnosis to all parties, including the court.

Once parental alienation is exposed and diagnosed, the attorney is in an excellent position to intervene in a decisive way. To begin with, the attorney’s communication with the alienating parent must be direct and even confrontational about the need to recognize and stop the parental alienation. Unfortunately, our experience is that some attorneys shirk their responsibility and take the easy way out by putting blinders on. Some attorneys even encourage an alienating parent to continue in his or her destructive way because it may make “winning the case” more attainable. In mild cases of parental alienation, the attorney’s admonitions may be enough to cease the alienating behavior by their client. In moderate or severe cases, the attorney must insist on a structured intervention plan.

There is a treatment template that we know is effective and successful in parental alienation cases: individual therapy or coaching for the alienating parent, and reunification therapy for the alienated child and the targeted parent. Keep in mind that reunification therapy will not work until the alienating parent has stopped his or her offending behavior. And both therapies must focus on reversing the alienation process. In cases of severe alienation, it is usually necessary to remove the child from the home of the alienating parent, at least temporarily if not longer, while simultaneously instituting the above therapies.

Final Thoughts

Parental alienation is a pernicious phenomenon that gains steam over time. As a rule of thumb, parental alienation is easier to reverse when it is caught early. Indeed, mild alienation is far easier to correct than is moderate or severe alienation.

Attorneys for alienating parents can exert a major impact on their clients. Zealous representation of an alienating parent must be suppressed in favor of doing the right thing for an alienated child who is being harmed by his or her parent’s actions. The addition of a mental health expert can make the attorney’s job easier since their collaboration may result in a united, comprehensive approach to the problem. Together, the alienating parent’s attorney and the mental health practitioner can interact with the child’s attorney and the targeted parent’s attorney to successfully reverse the parental alienation. Although high-conflict cases are adversarial and complex, the attorney for an alienating parent can hold the key to resolving this psychiatric emergency in a family.