What is the Prevalence of Parental Alienation?
by Robert A. Evans, Ph.D.
Children live in many family configurations. Some live with a parent or parents who have never been married. Others live with grandparents or guardians when their biological parents are not functional caregivers in their lives. Still others live in family units that have reconfigured through divorce. Census data are not available about the construction, deconstruction, and remaking of these family units. Further, each state within the United States handles family law uniquely. State court systems are not uniform in their record keeping of divorces, with and without children, and are not aware of the possible family configurations in children's lives. This poses a serious difficulty for any calculation of the incidence and prevalence of Parental Alienation (PA).
Stanley Clawar and Brynne Rivlin (1991, 2013) conducted one of the largest studies into the prevalence of PA over a 12-year period. They reported, in their book entitled Children Held Hostage, published by the American Bar Association, that in 86% of the 1000 cases they studied there was some element of parental programming and brainwashing in an effort to implant false and negative ideas about the other parent, with the intention of turning the child against that other parent. Their published findings break down as follows:
Percentage of Parents Who Program/Brainwash
23% more than once a day
22% about once per day
12% more than once per week
8% once per week
14% no detection of programming-and-brainwashing
The frequency of alienating behaviors, once or more than once per day, was also found to be at a level of 45% by Johnston and Campbell in their 1988 study where they reported alienation occurring approximately 40% of the time. Other important studies followed, indicating that PA was prevalent in approximately 25% of custody disputes (Bernet, 2008). Bernet (2008) outlines this history in his article Parental Alienation Disorder and DSM-V as follows:
Bernet (2010) reported that 10% of children (7.4 million) in the United States live with divorced parents and 10% of these (740,000) are involved in custody or visitation disputes of which 25% (185,000) develop PA.
Gardner (2001) conducted a qualitative follow-up of 99 children from 52 families he had previously diagnosed with Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). He reported, when the court chose to restrict or eliminate the children's access to the alienator for 22 of the children, there was a significant reduction or even elimination of PAS symptomatology in all 22 of these cases. In the 77 cases where the court chose not to reduce access or transfer custody, there was an increase in PAS symptomatology in 70 cases (90.9%).
Studying false allegations of sexual abuse and alienation, Kopetski (1998a, 1998b) reported one-fifth (20%) of her sample engaged in alienation. Kopetski's work on alienation began in the 1970s and was fully developed by the time she learned of Richard Gardner's work. In 1991, Kopetski presented her work on PAS at the Fifteenth Annual Child Custody Conference in Keystone, Colorado. While unaware of Gardner's work, she simultaneously arrived at observations and conclusions that were remarkably similar.
The Hetherington and Clingempeel “Study of Divorce and Remarriage” (1992), E. Mavis Hetherington studied divorced parents and their children and commented:
"As obviously destructive as conflict is to all involved in this dilemma, it was surprising to discover that six years after divorce, 20 to 25 percent of our couples were engaged in just such conflictual behavior; former spouses would make nasty comments about each other, seek to undermine each other's relationship with the child, and fight openly in front of the child. Aside from being damaging, constant put-downs of the other parent may backfire, producing resentment and a spirited defense of the criticized parent by the child. …Conflictual co-parenting distresses children and undermines their well-being, and it makes parents unhappy, too. They feel guilty about fighting in front of the children, but their preoccupation with their anger and lingering resentment makes it difficult for them to begin focusing on a new, more fulfilling life and on the pain they are causing their children."
In 2003, Johnston reported on an "alignment" study. She defined alignment as the
"child's behavioral and verbal preference for one parent with varying degrees of overt or covert negativity towards the other parent."
She found that 15% of children from a community sample of divorcing families and 21% in child custody cases experienced either "some" or "much" alignment with one parent or the other. Bernet's group (2006) calculated Johnston's percentages using her raw data and found that 18% of the children in the community sample and 27% in the contested custody cases experienced some degree of alignment.
In 2005, Johnston, Walters, & Olesen (Johnston et al., 2005a, b) reported rates of PA of about one-fifth (20%) of high-conflict populations. Two years later, Amy Baker (2007) reported research wherein she surveyed 106 mental health professionals who conducted custody evaluations. The respondents reported that PAS occurred in as many as 55% of their cases. An average rate over all respondents, whether skilled or unskilled in the differential diagnosis of PAS, was 11.2% (SD = 13). Baker found that the evaluators who identified PAS more frequently were:
1. more familiar with the concept of PAS,
2. were more likely to assess for PAS,
3. were more likely to believe that one parent can
turn a child against the other parent, and
4. were more confident in their evaluations.
Bow, Gould, and Flens (2009) reported PA was an issue in an average of 26% child custody cases in their survey of 448 mental health and legal professionals. Bala, Hunt, and McCarney reported in 2010 that between 1989 and 2008, alienation was found by the court in 106 out of 175 cases raising the issue (61%). The mother was the alienating parent in 72 cases (68%), and the father was the alienating parent in 33 cases (31%). It seems that in this study, the alienating parent had sole custody of the children in 89 cases (84%), and joint custody in 14 cases (13%).
A recent study (Baker, 2010) revealed that about 28% of adults in a community sample (i.e., not selected because of a precondition related to divorce or custody) reported that when they were children, one parent tried to turn them against the other. This data is striking in that a significant portion of the sample was probably raised in an intact family. Not surprisingly, the proportion that reported that they had been exposed to parental alienation was higher in the subsample of individuals who had been raised by a stepparent, at 44%.
To learn more about PA and specific strategies to address this issue in the courtroom, go to www.NAOPAS.com and for more continuing legal education on this topic go to: https://naopas-learning-center.thinkific.com/
Robert A. Evans, Ph.D.
Dr. Evans received his Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and Evaluation from The Catholic University of America in 1982, MS from St. John’s University, and BA from Long Island University. He became licensed in Florida as a School Psychologist in 1987. He is trained as a Family Divorce Mediator, Parenting Coordinator, Guardian ad Litem, Collaborative Law Practice, and Child Custody Evaluator. Since 1993 Dr. Evans has practiced Forensic Psychology exclusively. In 2011 he authored the book, The Essentials of Parent Alienation Syndrome and number of articles for bar association journals and publications. He has testified as an expert on Parental Alienation (PA) in numerous courts across the U.S. as to what PA is, how to identify it and how to rehabilitate it. He has conducted in excess of a hundred child custody evaluations in his career thus far in various states across America. Dr. Evans is an approved sponsor of continuing education for psychologists by the American Psychological Association and has been approved by many legal bar associations to conduct continuing legal education on a variety of topics, including Litigating Family Law Cases with Parent Alienation, Critiquing and Reviewing Child Custody Evaluations and An Overview of Established Rehabilitation Programs.
Baker, A. J. L. (2010). Adult recall of parental alienation in a community sample: Prevalence and associations with psychological maltreatment. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 51(1), 16-35.
Baker, A. J. L. (2007). Adult children of parental alienation syndrome: Breaking the ties that bind. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Bala, N., Hunt, S., & McCarney, C. (2010). Parental alienation: Canadian court cases 1989–2008. Family Court Review, 48, 164–179.
Bernet, W. (2010). Parental alienation, DSM-5, and ICD-11. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher
Bernet, W. (2008). Parental alienation disorder and DSM-V. American Journal of Family Therapy 36(5), 349–366.
Bernet, W. (2006). Sexual abuse allegations in the context of child custody disputes. In R. A. Gardner, S. R. Sauber, & D. Lorandos (Eds.), The InternationalHandbook of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Conceptual, Clinical and Legal Considerations (pp. 242-263). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher.
Berns, S. (2001). Parents behaving badly: Parental alienation syndrome in the family court—Magic bullet or poisoned chalice. Australian Journal of Family Law 15(3), 191–214.
Bow, J. N., Gould, J. W., & Flens J. R. (2009). Examining parental alienation in child custody cases: A survey of mental health and legal professionals. American Journal of Family Therapy 37(2), 127–145.
Clawar, S. S., & Rivlin, B. V. (1991). Children held hostage: Dealing with programmed
and brainwashed children. Chicago, IL:American Bar Association.
Clawar, S. S., & Rivlin, B. V. (2013). Children held hostage: Identifying brainwashed
children, presenting a case, and crafting solutions. Chicago, IL:American Bar Association.
Gardner, R. A. (1992). The parental alienation syndrome: A guide for mental health and legal professionals. Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.
Gardner, R. A. (2001a). Parental alienation syndrome (PAS): Sixteen years later.
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H. Bray (Eds.), Non-residential parenting: New vistas in family living (pp. 109–135). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
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disputes. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 5, 191-220.
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A Judge’s Dilemma: A Worldwide Concern
By Robert A. Evans, Ph.D.
I was in a courtroom the other day waiting to testify in a family law matter that included total rejection of a parent by the children. The new judge, who recently inherited the case of ongoing litigation, listened to the family therapist’s failure in reuniting the children with the rejected parent. This is a typical outcome and, as in this case, the situation got worse (Evans & Bone, 2011). The judge uttered, “I’m only a judge, what am I supposed to do?”
This frustrated judge was faced with what appears to becoming more common, not only in the United States but across the globe. This includes the countries which are represented in The International Handbook of Parental Alienation Syndrome (Gardner, et al, 2006): The United Kingdom, Israel, Germany, Australia, and The Czech Republic. To demonstrate the magnitude of this global issue, The First International Conference of Parental Alienation Study Group was held in Washington, D.C. this October and included representatives from The European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners.
With greater frequency, family law cases are showing up in which children are rejecting a parent. While there may be some situations where a child may be hesitant to be with a parent, these high conflict family law cases typically include outright rejection and severe expressions of hatred for a parent without genuine justifications.
These phenomena are variously described as pathological enmeshment, pathogenic parenting, attachment-based parental alienation, hostage taking, cross-generational coalition, and brainwashing. More commonly, it is called Parental Alienation. Regardless of what it’s called, the courts have been frustrated and stymied by it for over two hundred years!
Parental Alienation is a psychological condition in which a child demonstrates strong attachment to one parent (the favored parent) and unjustified rejection for the other (the target parent). The child frequently refuses to see a parent and is usually accompanied by strong language of dislike or hatred. The child’s adamant protests, without rational justification when investigated, are commonly consistent with the favored parent’s negative attitudes. Judges, parenting coordinators, counselors/therapists, and others commonly report being frustrated and stymied by the child’s resistant behavior that is frequently in total disregard of court orders.
Frequently heard in courtrooms is that The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – 5th Edition (DSM-5) does not mention the words “Parental Alienation,” therefore, it is only a theory, pseudo-science, not real, etc. and should not be given weight in a case. But the DSM-5 does include a number of diagnoses that describe the essence of Parental Alienation. These include: Parent-Child Relational Problem, Child Psychological Abuse, Child Affected By Parental Relationship Distress, Factitious Disorder Imposed On Another, and Delusional Symptoms In Partner Of Individual With Delusional Disorder. Each of these DSM-5 conditions covers various aspects or essence of Parental Alienation and, therefore, warrant serious consideration by a court.
Very conservative estimates of the incidence of alienated children are between two and four percent of those whose parents divorce. More than one million U.S. children experience their parents’ divorce each year; which does not include those whose parents were never married. This means each year at least 20,000-40,000 children reject their parents. This often includes grandparents and other relatives, who join the ranks of those who suffer from this problem.
In 2013, the American Bar Association published a book Children Held Hostage, authored by S. Clawar and B. Rivlin. In analyzing 1,000 cases, the authors concluded that many mental health and social problems of older children of divorce may be related to programming and brainwashing during earlier periods of their social development which relates to the findings of research known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).
Alienated children have polarized views of their parents. They often rewrite the history of their relationships and fabricate negative events including allegations of physical and sexual abuse. They come to believe that they experienced ACEs.
The fabricated experiences of alienated children often resemble the types of ACEs that were identified in a study conducted by Dr. Vincent Felitti. Dr. Felitti researched the connection between childhood experiences and lifelong health. In the study, a questionnaire administered to over 17,000 participants asked about certain negative childhood experiences. Respondents indicated that either they experienced an event or didn’t. The ACE questionnaire asked about emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, drug abuse, alcohol, or mental illness in their home or was someone in prison, etc.?
The researchers were stunned when they calculated their findings. Respondents indicated that 21% were sexually abused as children, 19% grew up with someone with mental illness, 28% were physically abused.
What’s even more amazing is the findings showed the greater the ACE Score the higher the likelihood of chronic physical or mental health problems, social dysfunction, involvement with the criminal justice system, drug and alcohol abuse, and death. An ACE score of four has twice the risk of cancer and heart disease. Someone with an ACE score of five had eight times the risk of becoming an alcoholic than someone with an ACE score of zero. An ACE score of six or more had a 20-year lower life expectancy.
As Barbara Goiran, Esq., a child support hearing officer in the 6th Judicial Circuit, wrote in the Spring issue of The Florida Bar Family Law Section Commentator, high ACE scorers “are also more likely to practice the same poor parenting techniques on their own children, often necessitating the intervention of the juvenile justice system or child welfare authorities. They are more likely to have multiple marriages, thereby impacting the family courts. …Children with four or more ACEs were 32 times more likely to have learning or behavior problems in school than those with no ACEs. Failure to thrive in school leads to a lack of learning, frustration and acting out, which often leads kids into the juvenile and ultimately criminal justice system. A lack of learning results in a low socioeconomic class.”
Alienated children will frequently come to believe that they have been abused, both physically and sexually and can be led to convincingly report such occurrences. The favored parent will often pursue therapy for abuse which inadvertently reinforces the belief that abuse has actually occurred. They can also be lead to believe that one of their parents is a substance abuser and neglected them in their formative years, often before the child can even remember details of any such events. Frequently alienated children witness a parent being arrested, taken away by law enforcement and incarcerated. Favored parents convince their children to believe the other parent has a mental illness.
Considering Parental Alienation as an Adverse Childhood Experience with its actual cognitive, physical, and emotional consequences, it is important for all professionals involved in child custody cases to be more aware of the potentially negative and long-term effects of a child rejecting a parent.
To assist with a judge’s dilemma the following is respectfully offered:
Severe cases of Parental Alienation, where children lose their relationship with a parent, present unique challenges. These cases have long frustrated professionals who try to assist these families with this difficult and tragic problem. Fortunately, there are educational materials for professionals (see NAOPAS.com) and specially designed interventions that provide an antidote.
As Dr. Richard Warshak (2015) says, “Early identification of children at risk for alienation, and appreciation that divorce poison works swiftly to transform expressions of love into claims of fear and hatred, will help the legal system respond rapidly to protect children from the intensification of alienation. Severely alienated children plead with custody evaluators, therapists, attorneys, and judges to allow them to excise from their lives one of the two people on the face of the planet responsible for their care. Despite weathering cruel treatment and untampered hatred that would drive most people away, many rejected parents maintain a steadfast commitment to their children’s welfare and invest considerable resources trying to restore positive relationships.”
The outcome of cases with severely alienated children spells the difference between potentially living a normal happy, healthy life or one of potential despair and disease. If they don’t find their way back to their rejected parents, when these children grow up and have their own children the next generation is deprived of a legacy.
Robert A. Evans, Ph.D. has testified as an expert witness through the U.S. on the issue of Parental Alienation, co-authored a book and developed Continued Legal Education on this topic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
Clawar, S. and Rivlin, B. (2013). Children held hostage: identifying brainwashed children, presenting a case, and crafting solutions. Chicago: The American Bar Association.
Evans, R. A. and Bone, J. M. (2011). The essentials of parental alienation syndrome, Palm Harbor, FL: The Center for Human Potential of America, Inc.
Gardner. R. A., Sauber, S. R., and Lorandos, D. (Eds.) (2006). The International Handbook of Parental Alienation Syndrome. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, Ltd.
Felitti, V. J. and Anda, R. F. The relationship of adverse childhood experiences to adult health, well-being, social function, and healthcare. In: Lanius R, Vermetten E, eds. The Hidden Epidemic: The Impact of Early Life Trauma on Health and Disease. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press; 2009
Goiran, B. (2017). Everything’s coming up aces, FL Bar Commentator, Spring, pp. 13-18.
National Association of Parental Alienation Specialists (NAOPAS). www.naopas.com.
Warshak. R. (2015). Parental alienation. Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Vol. 28, pp. 181-248.
How Does Alienation Happen?
Robert A. Evans, Ph.D.
As much as I have learned about parental alienation, I am still amazed at how the process of alienation, programming, brainwashing, or whatever you want to call it happens. It seems this dynamic can quickly and tenaciously grab hold of children who have had previous loving relationships with their parents and seemingly destroy their attached relationships. I say seemingly because those relationships are not destroyed regardless of the apparent severity of the alienation.
You see, as newborn infants we begin to recognize and imitate emotions from the very beginning of life. Generally, the first face we see is our mother’s and we immediately begin to mimic what we see, typically, a smiling face with full expressions of love and acceptance. Also, typically, we also immediately get handed off to our father and we continue to see his smiling, loving face. With this process, we begin bonding and attachment to the two most important people to us in the world. This attachment process continues throughout our lives and we find ourselves being attached to other figures in our lives, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. We also know that children are like sponges in how much they absorb information and learn.
What seems to be happening more and more frequently in our world, parent’s breakup, rocking children’s safe and secure existence, threatening their sense of survival. If the separation and ultimate divorce is conflictual, parents initially forget that they are parents and become self-absorbed, ready to defend and protect themselves from perceived threats to their own existence. Frequently, they fight each other, which is frightening and unsettling to children observing the conflict. Initially, children try to stay out of the battle but, all too often, they are drawn into the fray in order to insure their own sense of safety and survival. They are frequently manipulated into choosing sides. How does that happen?
Sometimes a parent is so committed to hurting the other parent and knowing how to hurt them, they attempt to take the children away, prevent him or her from having any time with their children, and communicate to the children how awful the other parent is. Sometimes a parent is so angry with the other parent that all they can seek is revenge as they spew angry behavior. They sometimes do and say things that are meant to get back and hurt the other parent but, in the process, they fail to recognize the harm and damage that they are doing to their children. In one scenario the parent is conscious of what they are doing, manipulating the children in order to get back or even with the other parent. The other scenario is unconscious in that they are unaware their behavior is having any effect on the children. In most cases parents who alienate their children, consciously or unconsciously, do not realize the harm that they are doing to their children.
The children in these conflictual families observe their parents in their battle. From observation comes imitation and the alienation dynamic begins. Sometimes they see one parent as a victim of the misdeeds of the other. Frequently, they are told of the maltreatment the parent received and many times how the children were mistreated as well. Children want to please their parents and will frequently imitate a parent’s behavior, especially the parent with whom they are living. Children do not want their parents to suffer so they do and say things to try to help. Once a child begins to side with a parent in these conflicts, they are frequently reinforced for the loyalty and as a result their behavior increases. This description is but one example of how this process progresses; there can be others.
However, the children are attached to both parents, so how do they turn against the other? Keep in mind parents teach children on a daily basis through words, facial expressions, and body language. Developing nervous systems are primed to take in any and all information and retain it. Hence, the process of learning. However, sometimes children observe and experience things that they misinterpret. They also make conclusions about themselves, others, and the world around them that are simply incorrect. In other words, they frequently form false beliefs about themselves, others, and the world around them. These false beliefs are frequently encouraged by a parent about the other parent.
In addition, sometimes children find themselves being put in a loyalty bind by one parent; that is, loving both parents but being pulled in one direction. Once this process starts they are virtually compelled to continue supporting one parent over the other. More often than not, they are living with the parent whom they appear to be gravitating toward. Frequently, the reality is that the children are in fear of the parent they appear to be supporting and, therefore, attempt to ensure their unconscious sense of survival by demonstrating their loyalty to them by rejecting the other parent. Sometimes, of course, the rejected parent who is confused and at times angry over what is happening to them will behaviorally lash out. This behavior only serves to validate the misinformation communicated about him or her. And, so, this dynamic continues and worsens as time and litigation go by. This process of manipulating children to reject a parent is nothing short of child abuse and have been demonstrated in research that it is at times worse than physical or sexual abuse. Mental health professionals unfamiliar with this dynamic will frequently misinterpret the behavior of the entire family and in trying to be helpful will unwittingly support the alienating parent and validate the children’s false beliefs. Such professionals who do this only strengthen the apparent attachment between the alienated child and the alienating parent. Yes, of course, psychopathology plays a role. The more psychologically disturbed the parents are the worse the situation gets, the more severe the alienation becomes, and the prognosis worsens for the family.
Correcting this dynamic does not include counseling or psychotherapy; these modalities only exacerbate this dysfunctional family dynamic. Reunification includes work that will teach children that things are not always, what we think they are. Children and adults also need to learn that humans are very vulnerable to suggestion leading to misinterpretations, at times inappropriate behavior, and frequently false memories. Reuniting families requires education on communication skills, problem solving, and appropriate family dynamics. Finally, alienated children need to be reunited with their rejected parent in order to re-experience their love and devotion as well as to gain from them everything that that parent has to give to their children. Ideally, a divorced family needs to learn how to reconfigure themselves so that their children can benefit from both parents.
Robert A. Evans, Ph.D.
Dr. Evans received his Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and Evaluation from The Catholic University of America in 1982. He became licensed in Florida as a School Psychologist in 1987. He is trained as a Family Divorce Mediator, Parenting Coordinator, Guardian ad Litem, Collaborative Law Practice, and Child Custody Evaluator. Since 1993, Dr. Evans has practiced Forensic Psychology exclusively. He has co-authored the book The Essentials of Parent Alienation Syndrome and number of articles for bar association journals and publications. He has testified as an expert on Parental Alienation (PA) in numerous courts across the U.S. as to what PA is, how to identify it, and how to rehabilitate it. Dr. Evans is an approved sponsor of continuing education for psychologists by the American Psychological Association and has been approved by many U.S. legal bar associations to conduct continuing legal education on a variety of topics, including Litigating Family Law Cases with Parent Alienation, and Critiquing and Reviewing Child Custody Evaluations. He is the co-founder of the National Association of Parental Alienation Specialists, LLC. (NAOPAS.com).