How to Recognize the Signs of Parental Alienation

July 19, 2021 | J. Benjamin Stevens | Share:

Over the years, my family law practice has developed a focus on handling cases that are considered “high conflict” or “complex” child custody cases. These cases often include allegations of “parental alienation” by one or both parents on either side of the case.

It’s no secret that divorce has become a much more common part of our society, but also more common is unwed couples having children together and then “breaking up” when the relationship doesn’t withstand the pressures of parenthood. Both of these societal changes have led to ever-increasing parental alienation cases.

But what exactly is parental alienation, and how will you know if your child is being affected by this detrimental behavior by the other parent in his or her life?

What is Parental Alienation?

Parental alienation has been defined as “[a] childhood disorder that arises almost exclusively in the context of child-custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent’s indoctrinations and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent.”

How Does Parental Alienation Affect My Child?

The one thing the science and family court professionals will agree on is that the effects of parental alienation can be devastating, and they can last a lifetime. Even with the best counselors and therapists helping the children and the alienated parent, it often takes many months, or even years, to completely overcome the effects left after a successful parental alienation campaign.

Every child is different, and every parent-child relationship is different, so the specific effects you may see may vary. However, it is important to understand some of the common signs and symptoms so that you will know when to get a professional counselor and/or an attorney involved in your situation:

  • If your children are being told the details of the litigation or the intimate details that caused the marriage to fall apart, they are likely being alienated. When a parent begins divulging this type of information to the child, they will often use the excuse of “being honest” with the children about what has happened to cause the changes in their life or what may be happening, which will create change in the future. However, the damage caused by placing these burdens, regardless of the faults in the marriage, is difficult to reverse. Putting this child in such a position also forces the child to feel as if he or she must “take sides” or “defend” one parent from the other’s alleged behaviors or bad acts, which leads to feelings of confusion (at best) or feeling as if they must “demonize” the “at-fault” parent (worst case).
  • If the parent asks the child whether he or she wants to exercise the visitation schedule with the other parent, alienation is probably occurring. Divorced or separated couples have usually put a great deal of time and effort into developing a schedule which they each agree will be best for their children and allow them each to maintain their parental bonds with the child. When one parent begins to allow, the child to dictate “when” or “if” that schedule will be followed, trouble is bound to happen. This is especially true with very young children who do not have a true concept of time and who often make decisions in the moment, especially if they have to leave a fun activity to go with the other parent. They are unable to see the big picture about how much time they need with each parent in order to maintain the natural parent-child bonds. Allowing children to dictate the parental visitation schedules also erodes and often destroys the authority the parents have in the parent-child relationship.
  • If the parent makes the child feel guilty or tells the child how lonely they are when the child is at the other parents’ home, alienating behavior is occurring. The child should be allowed to enjoy his or her time in both homes without fear that their enjoyment or happiness makes one of their parents sad, anxious, or lonely. Most children innately want to please both of their parents in every possible situation. When they are made to feel that something they are doing is hurting or harming one parent, it will create resentment and anger in them, which will affect their relationship with the parent they are visiting.
  • If your child becomes angry at one parent for no specific reasons or is unable to articulate his or her reasons for anger towards the parent, parental alienation may be occurring in the other home. Just like adults, children have “good” days and “bad” days. However, if there seems to be a significant and uncharacteristic rise in the child’s anger, especially if it’s directed only at one parent, it’s probably time to consult with a trained counselor to help the child verbalize what the situation is and pinpoint whether the anger is legitimate or part of an alienation campaign. Not all child therapists are specifically trained in areas of parental alienation, so be sure to get a recommendation from an experienced family law professional or from your child’s doctor to make sure your child gets the best support possible.

What Other Resources Are Available?

While this list is far from inclusive, you can read much more about parental alienation and alienating behavior, as well as ways to prevent it, in great books like:

How to Get Help?

Ben Stevens has provided exceptional legal counsel and support to families throughout South Carolina for over twenty-five years, handling all matters of family law, such as child custody, child support, and divorce. He has handled hundreds of cases involving parental alienation and provided his clients with the necessary referrals and expert collaboration to support their case when it is determined their child has been a victim of parental alienation. Our firm is well-equipped to handle all divorce and family law matters, no matter your circumstances. Contact us at (864) 598-9172 or to schedule an initial consultation.

Contact our office at (864) 598-9172 or to schedule an initial consultation.



Aggressive, creative, and compassionate are words Ben Stevens' colleagues freely use to describe him as a divorce and family law attorney. Mr. Stevens is a Fellow in the prestigious American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the International Academy of Family Lawyers, and is a Board Certified Family Trial Advocate by the National Board of Trial Advocacy. He is one of only two attorneys in South Carolina with those simultaneous distinctions. He has held numerous leadership positions in the AAML, and he currently serves as one of its National Vice Presidents. Mr. Stevens has a statewide practice and regularly appears all across South Carolina.  His practice is focused on complex divorce and child custody cases.

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