Article: Are You To Blame for Your Child’s Alienation?

By Richard Warshak, Ph.D.

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Part 1

Parent-child conflicts and estrangement develop for many different reasons. A child’s estrangement from a parent is sometimes a reasonable and proportionate reaction to the rejected parent’s behavior. An example would be a child who avoids a parent in order to escape abuse. In other instances, the child’s rejection of a parent is not justified by that parent’s behavior and it is not in the child’s best interests to avoid the parent.

Most psychological disturbances in childhood result from a combination of factors. Thus it is not surprising that multiple threads form the tapestry of a child’s irrational aversion to a parent. Therapists, custody evaluators, and courts may face difficulty identifying the roots of a child’s conflict with a parent. It is important to explore alternative explanations for a child’s reluctance or refusal to relate to a parent and that parent’s extended family. My books discuss common errors rejected parents make in the face of their children’s vehement contempt. But it is a mistake to begin the inquiry by assuming that both parents contribute equally to their child’s alienation.

My paper, “Ten Parental Alienation Fallacies That Compromise Decisions in Court and in Therapy,” published in a peer-reviewed journal of the American Psychological Association, lists several questions to explore before reaching conclusions about each parent’s contributions to children’s alienation. The answers to these questions can help determine the extent to which a child’s alienation reflects a reasonable, justified, and proportionate response to a parent’s behavior versus an irrational or disproportionate treatment of a parent.

In this and subsequent posts, I will elaborate on the questions from my Ten PA Fallacies article. Those interested should read the article in its entirety. The manuscript may be purchased and downloaded here:…/ten-parental-alienation-fallacies…/


1. Did the presumed flaws of the parent emerge just before the child’s alienation, such as might be the case with a newly acquired closed-head injury, or have the parent’s offensive traits and behavior coexisted in the past with cordial parent-child relations?

Generally the children and the parent with whom they are aligned attribute the cause of the children’s estrangement solely to the other parent’s behavior or personality traits. For instance, the children may complain that their mother is too strict or their father is too preoccupied with his work. Unless the rejected parent has undergone a personality change after the separation—such as might occur if the parent is in an accident and sustains a head injury—it is reasonable to ask why the children were able to maintain a loving relationship in the past with this parent, despite the parent’s flaws, and now the children show no love, interest, or respect. It is possible that traits and behaviors that were tolerable in the context of a two-parent home, take on a different and more negative complexion when the second parent is not in the home. But frequently the children and their aligned parent rationalize the estrangement by complaining about behaviors and traits that were never an impediment to a loving relationship.

Coming up: Question 2: Would the rejected parent’s weaknesses result in the child’s alienation under normal circumstances regardless of the favored parent’s attitudes and behavior?



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