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I Hate Them “Just Because”

Those who work with children and families recognise the scenario. A separated parent presents with the ‘problem’ that their child will not see the other parent. The favoured parent may report a history of conflict in the couple relationship and a sympathy for the child’s position given the abuse they witnessed while overtly encouraging the child to accept contact. There has often been or continues to be an acrimonious family law dispute.

Parental alienation, a child’s rejection, or refusal to have a relationship with a parent on the basis of untrue, illogical, or exaggerated reasons is the consequence of behaviours by the preferred parent intended to create a fracture with the targeted parent. Direct and indirect aggressive behaviours are repeated over time to generate distance. It often occurs in families with a marked power differential between parents, where the more powerful parental figure engages in abusive and damaging behaviours intended to destroy the relationship for both the less powerful person and the child. Where parents have similar levels of power, and both contribute to arguing and fighting the outcome for children is a loyalty conflict rather than alienation. It should be clearly differentiated from estrangement where abuse and neglect provide understandable reasons to be frightened of or anxious about the parent and a legitimate wish to avoid them.

Children show a range of responses including ‘a campaign of denigration against the targeted parent; weak, frivolous, or absurd rationalizations for the deprecation; a lack of ambivalence; an “independent-thinker” phenomenon in which the child denies being influenced to feel negatively about the targeted parent; an apparent absence of guilt for actions and attitudes toward the targeted parent and borrowed scenarios about past events’ (Harmen et al 2019)

Alienation is not contained in the immediate family but may extend to rejection of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and long-term family friends on the ‘wrong’ side. School and extracurricular interest groups can also be drawn into the fracture further narrowing the child’s world.

The fracture has also extended to the professional world where the concept has been contentious, and debate has raged as to its legitimacy as a syndrome. It mirrors the struggle at the heart of the issue with one side claiming ‘nothing to see’ while the other labels it as a serious form of family violence. In all cases the child at the heart of the dispute suffers the most.


Harman, J., William Bernet, W. and Joseph Harman, J. Parental Alienation: The Blossoming of a Field of Study Current Directions in Psychological Science 2019, Vol. 28(2) 212–217


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