What Is Parental Alienation Syndrome?

Children and teens of divorced or separated parents sometimes develop parental alienation syndrome as a result of one parent (or, occasionally, another relative) pitting the child against the other. Parental alienation syndrome can cause a lot of emotional trauma that will follow the child well into adulthood. In addition, it causes emotional trauma to the parent who is being alienated. Read on to learn more about this syndrome and what can be done about it.


How Does It Begin?

In many cases, parental alienation syndrome begins around the time that a teen’s parents get divorced or decide to get divorced. It might occur when one parent has an affair or is abusive to the other. The wronged parent might talk to their teen about the issues that have come up and the teen might take that parent’s side in any disagreements that arise. Usually, this is done intentionally as a way to manipulate the teen and harm the other parent. Occasionally, it is done unintentionally.

As time goes by, the teen’s mind begins to be poisoned against the “offending” parent. In some cases, the parent deemed offensive has not actually done anything wrong; it could simply be that the favored parent feels upset, betrayed, disappointed, and angry about the breakup. The teen begins to think that his or her negative feelings toward their non-favored parent are not a result of their favored parent’s manipulation but instead their own bona fide feelings and thoughts.

Of course, sometimes, parental alienation begins when a teen is traumatized or abandoned by one of his or her parents. The difference here is that there is no manipulation on the part of the remaining or favored parent. In these cases, the teen often needs counseling to help them get through the trauma of being deeply hurt by their parent.

In some cases, parental alienation syndrome is started by a grandparent, aunt, or some other adult in the teen’s life. For example, the maternal grandmother might say a lot of negative things about the teen’s father, causing the teen to become angry and cynical toward the father. This can happen even if the teens’ parents are not divorced.


What Are the Signs?

Parental alienation syndrome often comes on gradually, so the signs can be difficult to notice until the teen is at an advanced stage of alienation from the non-favored parent. Here are some of the signs to watch for:

  • While many teens feel closer to one parent or the other, parental alienation syndrome causes them to blatantly favor one parent to the complete exclusion of the other.
  • Sudden dislike. If a teen has had a good or fair relationship with one parent but suddenly seems to dislike them for no apparent reason, this could be a sign of parental alienation syndrome. Note that it is common for teens to become angry for no apparent reason, but if the anger continues over the course of days or weeks, this can indicate a problem.
  • False accusations. If the teen is accusing a parent of physical or sexual abuse and there have been no indications previously, it is possible that they have parental alienation syndrome.
  • Taking on their favored parent’s speech patterns and phrases. Often, one parent will describe the other with specific phrases. While it is normal for teens to pick up patterns of speech from their family members, if they are using specific derogatory phrases against one parent, it is worth considering whether they are getting them from their favored parent.


Effects of Parental Alienation Syndrome

The effects of parental alienation syndrome are difficult for all involved parties. It has been established that parental alienation is a form of child abuse and that it can lead to a loss of self-esteem, self-hatred, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Teens often suffer from extreme guilt over alienating one parent as well as guilt for not being completely loyal to their non-alienated parent. Studies have also shown that children who become alienated from a parent often see the cycle repeated as they become alienated by their own children later in life.

Another effect to keep in mind is that if the parental alienation is brought up in court, it is likely that a judge will be reluctant to award custody to the alienating parent. That parent might be seen as unfit and abusive. Any parent who is tempted to encourage their child to alienate the other parent should be aware of not only the mental health issues that could affect their child but also the very real risk that they will lose custody altogether.


Treatment for Parental Alienation Syndrome

There are various types of treatment for teens dealing with parental alienation syndrome. Some of these cases started early in childhood and by the time teenagers receive help, they might already be struggling with various mental health issues like depression, self-harm, a loss of trust in any adults, and substance abuse and addiction. Cognitive behavioral therapy and talk therapy are often used to help a teen open up and to learn new thought and behavior patterns.

Often, a teen with parental alienation syndrome benefits from residential treatment. They are in a “neutral” area where neither parent has the upper hand, and they will be able to access mental health care during their stay. This time away from their alienating parent can give them the mental and physical space needed to process their thought patterns. It also gives them the chance to reconnect with their alienated parent without them having to see and hear their other parent’s thought on the matter.

Parental alienation syndrome is serious and can affect a teen for a lifetime, but it can be treated and overcome. The destroyed relationship with their parent can often be restored with therapy, time and understanding.

If you are concerned about your teen and think they might have parental alienation syndrome, contacting their primary care doctor can help you get connected to a therapist or specialist who can help.