Parental Alienation: Definition, Signs & What To Do About It

Divorce is hard all by itself, but divorce with children is even harder. There is a situation that “tops” the stress of divorce and custody issues, though: parental alienation.

The term “parental alienation” describes a situation where one parent makes an intentional choice to speak negatively of the other. They encourage their child to dislike or disrespect their other parent.

If you are trying to navigate the tricky waters of divorce and find yourself on the receiving end of parental alienation, read along for more tips and resources. 

Signs of parental alienation

Though not always well understood or noticed, parental alienation may be identified if any of the following behaviors are recognized:

  • A child rejects a parent with whom they once had a positive relationship 
  • A child begins to refuse or avoid spending time with or having a relationship with a parent
  • One parent calls the other parent names or says negative things about them in front of the child
  • A parent prohibits their child from visiting the other parent
  • A parent makes a child feel bad or unloved if they demonstrate signs of love or affection toward the other parent
  • A parent tells their child to misbehave or be disobedient while with the other parent

If a once-positive relationship between a parent and child shifts toward a more negative one, especially if there is no evidence of abuse, parental alienation may be suspected.

Parental alienation is most commonly seen during or after divorce or separation. Behaviors may include negative verbal statements, brainwashing, and manipulation tactics. 

How parental alienation affects children

Children need a strong, stable relationship with both parents whenever possible; it can be vital to their growth and development. Alienating a child from a parent can promote a poor relationship with that parent, and it can negatively impact their mental and emotional growth. 

Suppose a child is made to feel or believe negatively about their other parent. They may consequently feel unloved or unwanted themselves. These internal feelings threaten the child’s mental and behavioral development. What’s more, an uninterrupted pattern of parental alienation could lead to estrangement. 

What to do if your ex attempts to alienate your child from you

Adults cannot control the actions and behaviors of other adults. This means that, for some families, parental alienation is a challenge. 

However, it is vital to remember that your children see and hear more than you may realize. By maintaining a positive attitude and speaking positively about your ex around your child, the hope is that children will catch on to seeing how their parents may differ. 

Parenting is about what serves the best interests of the child. Regardless of how an ex may behave, children will notice the parent who remains calm and positive and provides them with the most safety and stability … eventually. Emotionally stable and mature adult parents usually want their children to feel happy, safe, and loved. And statistically, most professionals would recommend a united front from all parents to help achieve the goal of stability. 

Unfortunately, not all parents are emotionally, mentally, or psychologically mature or available. Many may have unresolved past trauma or issues that prohibit them from being able to acknowledge or recognize the problems their behaviors may be causing their children. So, what can you do if you suspect (or know) your ex is spewing negative things about you to promote alienation?

Positive things you can do include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Remain honest and transparent.
  • Regardless of how false and hurtful the things said about you are, do not allow your child to see or hear you responding in a negative way.
  • Maintain a positive and neutral attitude.
  • Show up for your child.
  • Reinforce your love for your child and the hopes and goals you have for them as they grow.

All of these will demonstrate over and over again that you not only love your child, but you also put them, and what’s best for them, first. This can be tough, but consistency and perseverance will pay off.

Document everything

Divorce is always a challenge, especially if things get ugly. If your ex is making the situation harder and attempting alienation, keep track of everything. The family court system operates with the mentality that the child’s well-being is paramount. If you follow the steps mentioned above, it will get noticed. 

Screenshots of texts, social media posts, or anything that demonstrates your ex’s negative behavior will be helpful to keep. Another option is to look into co-parenting apps. Some are court-approved and can provide a centralized way to manage all communication, documentation, and calendars for visitation purposes. 

Exes often opt to deviate from these apps and try to communicate in person or by text. If this occurs, maintain your boundaries, and don’t engage. Revert to the agreed-upon communication methods to maintain consistency. 

Seek legal help

Sometimes, couples going through a divorce can remain courteous, fair, and professional. In this case, their legal affairs may be easily handled among themselves or with simple mediation. However, whenever parents cannot agree or there are other issues, seeking legal help is the best recommendation. 


What is parental alienation syndrome?

According to experts, parental alienation syndrome is when a child has become programmed to dislike a parent by their other parent. This is typically only seen in children who have been involved in a child custody battle. 

Why does one parent attempt to alienate the other?

It is not always known or understood why a parent would want to alienate their child from the other parent. However, it is believed to be a result of the alienating parent having mental and/or emotional illness and narcissistic traits. They may also suffer from unresolved issues regarding loss or separation. 

Is it child abuse?

Parental alienation can be considered to be a form of emotional abuse. 

Final thoughts

Divorce and child custody battles are brutal for everyone involved. The separation of two individuals who spent a portion of their lives together is sad and upsetting, and the challenge becomes even harder when children are involved. 

Most parents have an innate desire to want their children to grow up healthy, happy, and loved. Parents don’t typically go into parenthood thinking of the “what if we get divorced” scenario. Therefore, divorce can be hard to plan and prepare for, and forethought into how the scenario could be played out is unlikely. 

The best thing that can be done in these situations is to do what is best for the children. Adults should seek out legal counsel and therapists, both for themselves and for their children. 

Read: Understanding and Protecting Kids' Mental Health in Divorce

Hello Divorce offers a wealth of knowledge and resources right at your fingertips.


Parental Alienation Can Be Emotional Child Abuse.
The Impact of Parental Alienating Behaviours on the Mental Health of Adults Alienated in Childhood. Children (Basel).
Health Content Specialist
Communication, Relationships, Mental Health, Physical Health
Krystle Maynard is the creator of Innovative RN Solutions and has been a nurse for over a decade. She has specialized in medical-surgical and critical care nursing, in addition to having a long-standing history of being an adjunct faculty member for a college of nursing. Innovative RN Solutions focuses on healthcare content writing (such as blogs, E-books, emails, academic coursework, and educational content for healthcare personnel and patients). Krystle also offers tutoring and mentor services for undergraduate and graduate nurses. She lives in Kentucky with her husband and children. If you would like to connect, you can reach her on LinkedIn or visit her website at Innovative RN Solutions.