Parental Alienation

*The research featured in this blog comes from a recent AFCC conference.

One of the numerous threats that plague contentious divorces is the risk of parental alienation.  Parental alienation is defined as when a child whose parents are engaged in a high-conflict separation or divorce “allies himself strongly with one parent (the preferred parent) and rejects a relationship with the other parent (the alienated parent) without legitimate justification.”1  Doctor William Bernet, M.D., states that causing parental alienation is child maltreatment, and questions whether there are diagnostic tests to determine the existence of parental alienation in a family.  Doctor Bernet highlights several criteria necessary for the diagnosis of parental alienation, including:

  • campaign of denigration;
  • frivolous rationalizations for criticism of parent;
  • lack of ambivalence;
  • independent-thinker phenomenon;
  • reflexive support of alienating parent;
  • absence of guilt over exploitation of target parent;
  • borrowed scenarios;
  • and the spread of animosity toward target parent’s family.2

Doctor Bernet also specifies the difference between alienation and estrangement, noting that the former features very strong rejection and the defense mechanism of splitting, while the latter includes ambivalent feelings toward the rejected parent and does not feature the defense mechanism of splitting.

Doctor Bernet uses a number of studies to question the existence of diagnostic tests for the determination of parental alienation.  The first study utilized is Richard Gardner’s 1985 test “Recent Trends in Divorce and Custody Litigation,” performed for the Academy Forum.  Gardner states that “another symptom of the parental alienation syndrome is the complete lack of ambivalence…The hated parent is viewed as ‘all bad’ and the loved parent is ‘all good.’”3  Next, Dr. Bernet cites his own study entitled “Child Custody Evaluations,” a work he completed for the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics in 2002.  Doctor Bernet explains that in order to complete this study, he conducted a series of tests with children of divorcing parents and intact families and asked them questions regarding their likes and dislikes of each parent.  He then compared the responses and found notable differences between the children’s answers.

Next, Dr. Bernet uses data found in Dr. Barry Bricklin, Ph.D.,’s book entitled The Custody Evaluation Handbook.  This book features Dr. Bricklin’s own perceptual scale (BPS) and its application in the questioning of children regarding their perception of their relationship with their parents.  This 32 question test included questions such as “If you had a pet, how well would Dad do at taking care of it if you had to go away for a few days?”4  Doctor Bernet also includes part I of Dr. Bricklin and Michael H. Halbert, P.A.’s study entitled “Can Child Custody Data be Generated Scientifically?

Doctor Bernet’s presentation also includes the 2012 Journal of Divorce & Remarriage article “Differentiating Alienation from Not Alienated Children:  A Pilot Study” by Amy J.L. Baker, Barbara Burkhard, and Jane Albertson-Kelly.  Baker et al.’s study incorporated data from children ages six to 17 referred for problems related to high-conflict divorce.  The study included the Baker Alienation Questionnaire (BAQ) and concluded with a four factor assessment for parental alienation.  The four factors established included: positive relationship with rejected parent in the past; lack of abuse or neglect by rejected parent; favored parent employed many of the 17 alienating behaviors; and child exhibits behaviors, ideas, or feelings typical of alienation.5

This study also includes a 2017 Journal of Forensic Sciences paper known as “An Objective Measure of Splitting in Parental Alienation:  The Parental Acceptance-Rejection Questionnaire,” by Dr. William Bernet et al.  This paper featured another method of testing parental alienation that examined whether certain criteria applied to each parent.  Doctor Ronald P. Rohner, Ph.D. conducted a second Parental Acceptance-Rejection Questionnaire and concluded that the PARQ “is useful for clinicians and forensic practitioners in evaluating children when there is a concern about the possible diagnosis of parental alienation.”6

From an attorney’s perspective stepping away from the academia for a moment, you know it when you see it.  There is a pattern of isolation and parental manipulation from the alienated parent.  So then comes the question: “how can we prevent parental alienation?”  The most difficult issue is to have your voice heard in the court as the alienated parent.  The best way to do this is to write down specific examples of alienating behavior with exact dates and times.  Consult with your attorney as to which expert would be most appropriate to tell your story at trial.  Someone who is familiar with alienation and/or custody evaluations.


1 William Bernet, M.D., Vanderbilt University, Are There Diagnostic Tests for Parental Alienation?, slide 2, June 2018.

2 See id. at slide 4.

3 Slide 7

4 Slide 18

5 Slide 27

6 Slide 35

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