Parental Alienation vs. Parental Estrangement

August 23rd, 2023

Parental Alienation vs. Parental Estrangement

By: Andy Scholz and Heather Rooney McBride

Parental alienation and parental estrangement are two concepts that often arise in the context of family conflict or divorce. While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they refer to distinct phenomena that have different causes and consequences.


Parental alienation occurs when one parent actively seeks to damage or destroy the relationship between a child and the other parent. This can take many forms, such as bad-mouthing the other parent in front of the child, limiting or blocking the child’s contact with the other parent, or making false allegations of abuse or neglect against the other parent. The goal of the alienating parent is to turn the child against the other parent, often to gain leverage in a custody dispute or just out of spite.


Parental alienation can have serious negative effects on children, including emotional and behavioral problems, low self-esteem, and difficulty forming healthy relationships in the future. It can also result in long-term damage to the parent-child relationship that may be difficult or impossible to repair. The alienated parent may feel helpless and frustrated and may struggle to maintain a relationship with his or her child in the face of the other parent’s efforts to undermine.


In contrast, parental estrangement occurs when a child chooses to limit or sever contact with a parent voluntarily and without manipulation or coercion. This may be due to a variety of factors, such as the parent’s behavior or actions, the child’s own personality or developmental issues, or external factors such as distance or time constraints. Unlike parental alienation, which is often deliberate and intentional, parental estrangement may be a natural consequence of the child’s own choices and/or circumstances.


While both parental alienation and parental estrangement can result in damaged relationships between parents and children, parental alienation is considered a form of emotional abuse, as it involves one parent manipulating the child’s feelings and behavior towards the other parent. Parental estrangement, on the other hand, may be influenced by a variety of factors outside of the parent’s control, and may reflect the child’s own preferences and needs.


It is important for parents to be aware of the difference between these two phenomena, and to take steps to address parental alienation, if it is occurring, while respecting the child’s autonomy and agency in the case of parental estrangement.  If you have an estranged child and want to improve your relationship with them, there are several steps you can take:

  • Respect your child’s boundaries: It is important to understand that your child’s decision to limit or sever contact with you may be due to factors outside of your control, such as his or her own personality or developmental issues. While it can be difficult to accept, respecting your child’s boundaries and avoiding putting pressure on your child to reconcile before your child is ready is key to the preserving the possibility of a better relationship in the future.


  • Take responsibility for your actions: If your child’s estrangement is due to your behavior or actions, it is important to take responsibility for your mistakes and make amends. This may involve apologizing, seeking counseling or therapy, or making tangible changes in your behavior.


  • Listen to your child: When you do have the opportunity to communicate with your child, it is important to listen to your child’s perspective and validate his or her feelings. Avoid being defensive or dismissive, and make an effort to understand your child’s point of view.


  • Be patient: Rebuilding a relationship with an estranged child can take time and effort. Be patient and persistent, but also respect your child’s pace and boundaries.


  • Seek professional help: If you are struggling to improve your relationship with your estranged child on your own, consider seeking the help of a counselor, therapist, or mediator who specializes in family conflict. A professional can help you navigate the complex emotions and dynamics involved in estrangement and provide guidance and support as you work toward reconciliation with your child.

If you are not dealing with estrangement, but instead believe that your ex-spouse is engaging in parental alienation and attempting to turn your child against you, there are several steps you can take:

  • Document the behavior: Keep a record of any incidents in which your ex-spouse denigrates you in front of your child, limits or blocks your contact with your child, or makes false allegations of abuse or neglect against you. This documentation can be useful in legal proceedings or custody disputes.


  • Communicate with your ex-spouse: If possible, try to communicate with your ex-spouse and express your concerns about his or her behavior. Avoid being confrontational or accusatory, and instead focus on the best interests of your child. If your ex-spouse is willing to listen, you may be able to work out a mutually acceptable arrangement for co-parenting.


  • Focus on your relationship with your child: While it can be frustrating and painful to feel that your ex-spouse is turning your child against you, it is important to focus on your relationship with your child. Make an effort to spend quality time with your child, validate his or her feelings, and avoid speaking negatively about your ex-spouse in front of your child. By strengthening your bond with your child, you may be able to counteract some of the effects of parental alienation.


  • Involve a mental health professional: A mental health professional, such as a counselor or therapist, can be useful in addressing parental alienation. A therapist can work with you, your ex-spouse, and your child to identify the underlying issues and help repair the relationship between you and your child and also help you work toward an amicable co-parenting dynamic with your ex-spouse.


  • Seek legal help: If your attempts to communicate with your ex-spouse are unsuccessful, or if you believe that your child is in danger, you may need to seek legal help. An attorney can help you petition for a modification of custody or visitation arrangements, or file a motion to hold your ex-spouse in contempt of court, if your ex-spouse is violating a court order.

If you are interested in meeting with an attorney that is experienced in parental alienation and parental estrangement, please contact the lawyers at Rooney McBride and Smith, LLC, to set up a free, initial consultation.