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Robbed of More Than a Parent

Holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries are times where the absence of a child is powerfully experienced, and opportunities lost cannot be reclaimed. While attention is often directed to parents where estranged partners alienate a child to the extent that they refuse all contact, there is less focus on the consequences for the child into adulthood. One theory is that the child’s experience of being forcibly emotionally disconnected from one parent with the explicit or implicit threat of loss of the remaining parent disrupts the attachment system producing long term negative sequalae. Attachment theory suggests early parent-child interactions impact the ability to emotionally regulate, integrate a sense of self, and foster secure relationships in later life.

A study by Bentley and Matthewson (2020) in The American Journal of Family Therapy explored the consequences for adults alienated in childhood through a semi-structured interview and the responses thematically and inductively analysed. Most participants described their experience as abuse, with parenting described as ‘unpredictable, intrusive, rejecting, self-referential, role-reversing, or otherwise frightening and neglectful.’ Other consequences included anxiety, depression, low self-worth, guilt, attachment problems, difficulty in other relationships, and reduced or delayed educational and career attainment.

While this is a small sample study with obvious limitations it directs our attention as clinicians to the very damaging consequences of parental alienation that do not resolve when a child turns 18 and parents no longer exercise unilateral control. The hurt done in this generation may manifest years later both in the adult child and their family.


Caitlin Bentley, C. and Matthewson, M. (2020) The Not-Forgotten Child: Alienated Adult Children’s Experience of Parental Alienation, The American Journal of Family Therapy, VOL. 48, NO. 5, 509–529

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