What is the Syndrome of Parental Alienation?

The Parental Alienation Syndrome (SAP)  consists of that child behavioral alteration, derived from the process of conjugal rupture, especially if it is highly convective. In it the children criticize, reject, ignore or annul one of the parents in an unjustified and / or exaggerated manner.

The SAP arises in a current context where the increase of separations and divorces of couple has skyrocketed.

The traditional family model to which we are accustomed, as it is composed of two people who have contracted marriage and have had offspring, has been modified throughout history, both in its structure and in the intra-family interactions they give inside it.

When a couple with children decides to end their relationship, they do so taking into account both legal and emotional aspects. However, the way to carry this separation can be very different.

Parental Alienation

We meet those families who are aware that it no longer makes sense to continue together, because they do not get along, have different thoughts that lead them to have different opinions, or they are not in love. Then, they decide to end their relationship and do so responsibly and reasonably, maintaining a cordial relationship in the face of maintaining family harmony.

Syndrome of Parental Alienation


However, on the other hand, in most cases, the separation is often conflicting, assuming important changes in the life of the child who is immersed in the problems of adults, taking sides in the conflict and becoming part of the the confrontations between both, supporting one party and rejecting another.

There are other positions, which advocate a more positive view of the process of separation or divorce. They understand it not as a rupture, but as a restructuring of the family.

Historical aspects

The syndrome of parental alienation has not been recognized as a “disorder”, however this does not mean that it does not exist.

It was first described by Wallerstein and Kelly, and they called it “unholy alliance”. These authors studied divorce and its repercussions exhaustively.

It was in the mid-80s when Richard A. Gardner coined the name with which he is currently known. Gardner defined the SAP as a “disorder that arises mainly in the context of disputes for the custody of children.

The first manifestation is a campaign of defamation against one of the parents, by the child, which has no justification. ” The son is worried about seeing one of the parents as “the good guy”, who is loved and idealized and another as the “bad guy”, who is hated and verbally defamed.

The SAP includes other subconscious and unconscious factors (defenses, systematic projections …), through which the alienating parent contributes to the alienation.

On the other hand, Johnston and Campbell, use the concept of alienation to refer to the strong preferences of the children towards one of the parents.

Parental alienation has been supported by some authors and discredited by others.

Factors involved in the appearance of the parental alienation syndrome

Authors such as Cartwright in 1993, studied those factors that they thought could be predisposing to the emergence of SAP.

They concluded that the SAP may appear due to the existence of possible disagreements between the parents in the custody as well as in economic aspects.

In addition, false allegations of sexual abuse as alienation strategies, as well as manipulation of the child’s time, may also be underlying. Tending to use it with the aim of preventing contaminated contact with the alienated parent.

At the same time, it has been seen that aspects related to the judicial aspects influence the decision making in this regard since they can unwittingly encourage the attitude of the alienating parent.

In addition, the intense levels of alienation can cause mental disorders in children.

Characteristics of the parental alienation syndrome

Gardner, principal investigator of the SAP, proposes the presence of the following symptoms:

  • Emergence of a campaign of denigration that is initiated by the alienating parent and subsequently continued by the child. For example: A mother who tells her son every time she has to meet with her father, who in reality does not buy her what she asks for because it really happens from him.
  • Use of light, absurd and cold reasons to disqualify the alienated parent. For example: a child who complains because his father does not let him stay at night watching his favorite show. Or that his father is stupid because he does not let him play the play station.
  • Generalization of the rejection towards the alienated parent , due to the beliefs and learning that he has been absorbing from the situation and due to the influence exerted on him by the alienated parent.
  • The child adopts the role of independent thinker , that is, assumes as his own the disqualifications towards the alienated parent and also denies the influence of others in their beliefs.
  • Absence of guilt towards the alienating parent for the behaviors, attitudes and feelings expressed towards him.
  • Blind and absolute support of the child towards the aligning father , and absence of the questioning of the validity of his judgments towards the rejected father.
  • Extension of rejection towards the alienated parent to all the surrounding context (friends, relatives of the family).

Other authors such as Waldron and Joanis, in 1996, have suggested the presence of other indicators such as the following:

  • They are children for whom everything seems to have a life or death significance.
  • They show a high degree of sentimental restriction.
  • They present a high degree of contradictions between the child’s statements and the narration of historical events.
  • They also have the inappropriate and unnecessary information that the child has about the causes of the breakup of the parents and the legal process.

Classification of the parental alienation syndrome

Gardnet, proposed in 1998, the existence of three types of parental alienation, namely light, moderate and severe.

Lightweight parental alienation syndrome

There is a superficial alienation, and children usually cooperate, so they go to visits with parents, presenting a normal behavior. However, sometimes they are displeased.  The link with the “alienating” parent is strong and healthy, and with the “alienated” parent it is strong, healthy or minimally pathological.

With respect to the 8 symptomatic characteristics that I mentioned earlier, they are not always present.

Moderate parental alienation syndrome

In this case alienation is more important. Children present a more negative attitude towards the alienating parent, just as they are irresponsible. The alienated parent is described as a “bad” person, and the alienator as “good”. In addition, children say they do not feel influenced and show an oppositional attitude. During the visits they present antagonistic and provocative behavior.

They fulfill the 8 diagnostic characteristics, although it occurs to a lesser degree than in the severe SAP. With regard to the previous one, there is the phenomenon of the “independent thinker” that I mentioned previously, the reflexive support to the alignment parent and the extension of the rejection to the social network of the alienated parent.

Severe parental alienation  syndrome 

In this case, the degree of the SAP is extreme. Children are hostile and may even end up in physical violence. Visits are practically impossible, and if they occur the developed behavior is destructive and continually provocative. The father-alienator-child bond is completely pathological, and sometimes even comes close to touching the paranoid.

The 8 symptoms are met, reaching a high severity.

Course of parental alienation

Authors such as Bone and Walsh suggest the existence of a progressive course in the SAP.

In the first place there is a blockage motivated by the alienating parent, of access and contact between the child and the alienated parent. As underlying reasons we can find the supposed protection towards the child by the altered, pathological and abusive behaviors of the aligned.

In the second place, false or unfounded accusations of abuse against a parent originate. Generally they are accusations of sexual abuse because they are the ones that are more difficult to demonstrate.

Third, there is progressively a deterioration in the child’s relationship with the alienated parent. This contrasts with the previous relationship between the two.

Finally, there is the manifestation of intense fear of the child towards the alienated parent, as well as the rejection of their contact.

People involved in the syndrome of parental alienation 

In the syndrome of parental alienation involved the alienating parent, the alienated parent and the victim of alienation.

From the moment a separation or divorce occurs and one of the parents is in charge of the custody of the child, the process of alienation begins.

The alienating parent

Underlying the motivation of the aligning parent to take away the children of the other parent we find precipitating situations such as the following:

  • Inability in the alienator to accept the rupture of the couple and attempts to maintain the relationship, even through conflict.
  • Desires for revenge, control, self-protection and over protection of the child, avoidance of pain, as well as feelings of guilt, fear of losing children or losing the main parental role.
  • Existence of jealousy towards the alienated parent and desires to obtain advantages in the decisions regarding the distribution of goods or economic pensions.
  • Existence of a pathological picture.
  • Existence of a personal prior history of abandonment of their parents, alignment, physical or sexual abuse and loss of identity.

The alienated parent

With regard to the alienated parent, it is emphasized that the latter usually has an authoritarian personality with his children, with a marked rigid and distant educational style. This contrasts with the permissiveness and indulgence of the alienating parent.

In addition, they tend to be people with a deficit in their parental skills, a lack of sensitivity to the needs of the child, a history of difficulties with their own family of origin, and fears of a relationship with their children. They also have a history of previous life in which they have assumed the role of victim.

Usually, they are usually more concerned about the manipulation of the other parent than how they are contributing to the problem. For example, Johnston and Rosebay claim that this contribution can be made based on a reactive and persecutory hostile character to the child in the form of phone calls, letters or unforeseen presences in their activities.

Victims of alienation

Children who are involved in these conflict situations often experience a sense of loss due to the break between their parents, and in the face of this feeling and the vision of one of the parents as weak and another strong, they end up developing a distorted view of the situation.

At the beginning of the break, when they feel abandoned, they develop fantasies and try to reconcile their parents. Then they begin to be anxious in the moments that precede visits to parents. This exchange is quite disturbing.

Because they are aware of the existence of a high tension of the parents, the children try to attract their attention, either in the form of disruptive behavior, getting bad, complaining …

In the face of their fear of affective rejection, they try to maintain the esteem they feel for them. In some cases, they maintain a neutral position and avoid reinforcing the conflicts of the parents, expressing the desire to stay with both parents at the same time.

Children make efforts to protect their parents’ self – esteem to ensure they are not emotionally abandoned by them.

They are people who suffer a feeling of emotional shock, intense fear and deep confusion. In addition, they present negative consequences at a psycho-emotional and behavioral level.

They frequently experience feelings of abandonment and guilt, feel rejection towards the alienated parent, as well as impotence for being in that situation. They are helpless, insecure.

They are usually subjected to states of anxiety and depression and present regressive, disruptive behaviors and school problems.

Psychological intervention

In the syndrome of parental alienation, only one therapist should participate in the intervention. In addition, it is advisable to inform from the beginning that the confidentiality in the sessions will be altered, in this way secrets that may affect the child, victim of the alienating syndrome, will be avoided. The psychologist will inform of the existence of sanctions for non-compliance or obstruction of treatment.

Both the alienating parent and the child will receive treatment. For its part, the alienated parent must be informed of what the parental alienation syndrome consists of.

Lastly, family mediation will be used, in which all the members of the family will participate, with the aim of getting the parties to the conflict to reach fair, just, stable and long-term agreements for the resolution of the problems already started, or the avoidance of these.


When starting a separation or divorce and there are children involved, it is important to be aware of what this process may mean for them.

Also Read: Infant Stress: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

It is convenient to think about the implications that this situation can have on them and how they can influence their personal aspects (personality, feelings, thoughts, inferences) and social aspects (relationship with their peers, relationship with parents, couple relationships).