a stepparent’s guide to parental alienation

Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) is an insidious problem that occurs in more blended families than anyone probably realizes. Yet, for all its devastating impact, overwhelming challenges, and indescribable heartbreak, the conversation about how parental alienation affects stepparents and impacts the process of blending your family is practically nonexistent.

Not to imply that parental alienation is strictly a stepparenting problem—it's not. PAS is a blended family problem that negatively impacts every member of your household, adults and kiddos alike. Even extended family members like grandparents can be affected by parental alienation.

And while, sure, yes, there's always gonna be some degree of conflict between households after a divorce, parental alienation takes high conflict to a whole new level of misery and pain—as my husband Dan & I can personally attest to, lucky us. 🙌🏼

Here's some answers to FAQs on parental alienation:

What's Parental Alienation?

Parental alienation syndrome is a term coined in the 1980s by child psychiatrist Dr. Richard A. Gardner to describe what happens when one parent programs their child into rejecting their other parent, and the kid becomes a willing participant in this brainwashing campaign.

More recently, Dr. Craig Childress has argued that PAS isn't anything new in terms of child psychology; it's just a particular type of attachment disorder. The attachment system is the brain system that controls all aspects of love & bonding throughout our lifetimes.

I love this updated definition because it explains how parental alienation interrupts a kiddo's normal mode of forming emotional attachments at a developmental level. So literally the part of my stepdaughter's brain that should have been able to create loving bonds did not function correctly as a result of her mother's alienation tactics. (Which explains sooooo much about why it's a massive challenge to become a stepparent to an alienated stepkid.)

Is Parental Alienation a Real Thing?

Those of us who've experienced parental alienation can 100% vouch for its existence based on the devastating impact PAS has had on our kids'/stepkids' personalities and our own lives. Yet, AWESOMELY, the identification of parental alienation as a syndrome remains fiercely debated and controversial.

Those who attack parental alienation claim it gives abusive parents a free pass, suggesting that alienated children are not alienated at all but are genuinely scared of an abusive parent; any allegations of abuse or neglect are legit. PAS (they claim) is an excuse abusers use to keep abusing their kids without supervised visitation.

But PAS is very specifically defined as the sudden and unwarranted rejection of a parent. There's child abuse going on, sure—but it's coming from the alienating parent. Also, how many kids do you know that actually do reject an abusive parent? Even in instances of severe abuse children defend their parents. So an alienated kid's staunch rejection of one parent only backs up Dr. Childress's theory that PAS is, at its core, an attachment disorder. A normally bonded child (even an abused child) is capable of seeing both good and bad in each parent (even an abusive parent).

Detractors of PAS also like to base their rejection of parental alienation’s existence on their claim that Dr. Gardner was pro-pedophilia. He wasn't, but if you cherry-pick juuuust the right quotes from his scholarly works and deliver them out of context, you sure can make him seem like he was.

Is it possible that some abusers hide behind false claims of PAS so they can continue abusing their kids? Yes, it's possible. But that doesn't mean parental alienation doesn't exist, any more than some jerk crying wolf means wolves don't exist.

Is parental alienation child abuse?

Bet your sweet patootie it is.

Dr. Amy J.L. Baker, author of my absolute fave book on parental alienation, explains that parental alienation tactics cause the affected child to feel worthless or unloved; alienated kids measure their value only in terms of how they meet the alienating parent's needs by rejecting their other parent. Dr. Baker says this means PAS meets the same definition as emotional abuse as it's outlined by the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC).

The emotional abuse from parental alienation ranges in severity, from a child's mild reluctance to spend time with the targeted parent to their complete refusal interact with you. Alienation can occur as an isolated event, but an ongoing pattern of abuse is what truly constitutes parental alienation syndrome. 

AND YET, PAS remains wholly unrecognized by the DSM (aka the bible of psychiatric diagnoses). Finding any objective data or statistics is practically impossible, and so finding effective treatments and support is also practically impossible. Who's gonna waste research dollars curing something that doesn't exist?

PS, Don't get me started on what the courts think about PAS.😡

What Kind of Behavior Is Considered Parental Alienation?

Dr. Gardner listed 8 manifestations that constitute parental alienation syndrome:

  1. A smear campaign. The kids' formerly normal relationship with you turns on a dime, and they become suddenly fearful or stop showing affection toward you.

  2. … that's based on ridiculous rationalizations. Ask the kid why the emotional switcheroo and they'll give you a complete nonsense answer—like "You're just mean! You didn't let me have ice cream!" (Sure, saying you don't want to come to our house ever again is a completely proportionate response to no ice cream.)

  3. Everything's black white. The alienating parent is perfect; you're the bad guy. If asked, your kid couldn't list a single flaw in the alienating parent… and couldn't list a single good thing about you. 

  4. "I am NOT being brainwashed!" Even without you asking, the child will reassure you that their decision to reject you is theirs and theirs alone. They'll insist the targeting parent isn't influencing them.

  5. Total absence of empathy. Alienated kids act cold, distant, and whatever the opposite of empathetic is. Guilt does not exist. Gratitude for any positive traits you have or contributions you've made as a parent or stepparent also doesn't exist in alienated kids.

  6. Absolute support of alienating parent. Any time there's any disagreement between houses, the alienated child will always, ALWAYS side with the "good" (alienating) parent. They won't even try to pretend they're being impartial or fair, and they don't care about the targeted parent's point of view.

  7. Kid becomes a parrot. The alienated kid will repeat verbatim every argument you've already heard from the alienating parent's mouth… or in their emails, as was the case with us. My stepdaughter (10 at the time) would say things like how moving away would mean she was "growing up in a better environment" or that she'd have "so many more opportunities." Yeah sure, that sounds like normal 10yo thinking.🙄

  8. You're rejected! YOU'RE rejected! Everyone's rejected!! Rejecting behavior doesn't stop at the biological parent, no siree! An alienated kid will reject formerly beloved stepparents, siblings (blood or step, either way), grandparents, aunties or uncles… virtually anyone they view as a threat to the alienating parent's narrative.   

So those are the primary signs of PAS you'll see in an alienated kid. But what brings the kid to that point? What constitutes alienating behaviors in the other parent? So many red flags to choose from!

  • Consistent & intentional interference with visitation – Alienating parent withholds visitation, excessive calls/texts/emails/other interruptions from other parent during your time with child, parent plans child's activities on your time without notice or consent.

  • Empowering the kid to reject the other parent – Alienating parent says the child can choose when to see you, for example, or that the child doesn't have to stick to the visitation schedule if they don't want to.

  • Consistent & intentional interference with communication – The alienating parent doesn't respond to your calls/texts/emails when the child is with them, nor do they encourage your child to respond to or initiate communication with you.

  • Consistent & intentional failure to inform you of important information of events related to the child—school events, extracurriculars, medical appointments, therapy sessions, the fact that the child is even in therapy, etc.

  • Parental replacement – The alienating parent actively encourages your kid to call their partner/stepparent "Mom" or "Dad" and call you by your first name.

  • Claims that child wants to see you less - "It's not ME who thinks Kiddo should see you less! It's Kiddo's idea!!"

  • Unfounded accusations of abuse or neglect – Despite zero evidence or history or symptoms of abuse/neglect in the kid, the other parent suggests, implies, or accuses you of abuse/neglect—either formally, in court or with child protective services, or informally in interactions with you. Or both!

  • Encouraging child to keep secrets from you or lie to you – Alienated children become willing spies for their alienating parent, reporting back to their parent on every detail of what happens at your house. Simultaneously, the child is 100% close-mouthed about anything that happens at the alienating parent's home.

That's just a fun handful to get you started. In Divorce Poison (my other fave book on PAS), Dr. Richard A. Warshak shares a very comprehensive checklist of parental alienation symptoms and behaviors.

Remember, parental alienation syndrome includes the child as a collaborator. In other words, one parent smack-talking the other isn't by itself parental alienation… unless the kid buys into it and starts rejecting the targeted parent. An alienated child develops Stockholm Syndrome and creates a co-dependent relationship with the alienating parent; rejecting the targeted parent becomes the primary way the kid can please the alienating parent. 

Ugh. It just feels gross to even write that. Wtf is wrong with people.

Parental Alienation & Stepparents

Parental alienation doesn't just affect biological parents—alienation against stepmoms & stepdads absolutely happens. It's also possible for the alienating parent to primarily target the stepparent rather than the biological parent. Yayyyy 🎉 Even if we're not a direct target, parental alienation is definitely a stepparent issue as well as a biological parent issue.

As stepparents, we start out as outsiders—which makes it easier for us to recognize existing dysfunction in our blended families when we see it. Because of this, stepparents are often the first ones to recognize the signs of parental alienation. Heck, we're already out there researching like crazy to find out why blending our family is so hard, right? And one rabbit hole leads to another and then boom, suddenly you're reading some parental alienation checklist going "Me, me, me, me, totally me, yep, yep, HOLY SHIT THIS EXPLAINS EVERYTHING." That's how it happened at our house, anyway. 

In our case, HCBM's parental alienation efforts didn't kick up in earnest till around the time we got married, about 4 years after I met Dan. While my relationship with my SD wasn't smooth sailing before that, that’s when our entire blended family took a sudden and sharp nosedive like someone flipped a switch.

Oh, I guess someone did kinda flip a switch: HCBM. She went from "some high conflict plus casual parental alienation" to "DESTROY" in approximately 36 hours: the length of time it took for her to suggest moving 500+ miles away, have Dan consider her offer, and have him decline to give his permission.

As hard as it was for me to accept my stepdaughter’s cold shoulder, once I understood that it wasn't only me she was rejecting—it was our entire family, including the dad she'd been absolutely crazy about just weeks before—I felt somewhat better. Before, I just could not get why my SD acted the way she did. After I found more parental alienation resources and learned more about PAS, the way my stepdaughter acted made sense to me. I still didn't like it. But at least I could finally stop blaming myself.

We have this idea as stepparents that we must be doing something really wrong if our relationship with our stepkids is less than ideal. In reality, blending a family is insanely complicated for millions of reasons, not least of which is because we typically have very inaccurate ideas about how life in a blended family should be.

Recognizing my stepdaughter was being alienated from us—actively turned against her dad, actively turned against me—helped me put her behavior in perspective, helped me realize that my stepdaughter wasn't responding emotionally the way a typical child would. I'm positive that without her mother's alienation, our relationship would have self-corrected in line with the normal process of becoming a stepparent.

Why stepparenting an alienated stepkid is so much harder

Parental alienation syndrome affects your stepkid's ability to form loving bonds—including bonding with a new stepparent. Alienated kids have a specific set of characteristics that also make them pretty damn hard to warm up to:

  • Acting cold & distant

  • Insulting and denigrating their biological parent in front of you (this is particularly hard to take when you know firsthand just how friggin' hard your partner works to maintain their relationship with that kid)

  • Saying (or acting as if) they don't want to be part of your family

  • Reporting every single little thing that happens in your house back to the alienating parent

  • Lying to the alienating parent about what happens in your house

  • Making false claims of abuse or neglect (again, super hard to watch when you know your partner is an amazing parent)

  • Telling the court they don't want to live with you or be part of your family

So if you're beating yourself up for not loving your stepkid the way you think you should—please stop! Alienated stepkids make themselves unlovable on purpose so they can reinforce the narrative they're telling themselves: that you don't like them, the targeted parent doesn't really love them, they're unhappy at your home, you're bad parents, etc.

11 delightful examples of parental alienation taken from our own blended family

  1. My stepdaughter repeated robotically to us in person every single argument her mom made via email—word for word—about why she should move away.

  2. SD was all in favor of a long-distance custody schedule when her mom proposed a move, and completely against a long-distance schedule when Dan & I were the ones moving to a new city 2 years later. 

  3. HCBM called and texted SD constantly during SD's time with us, including tracking her phone to see where we were at all times. If Dan did not answer his phone immediately, HCBM would send follow-up threatening emails. On SD's time with HCBM, neither HCBM nor SD would answer or return Dan's calls for days, then reluctantly SD might have a terse, sulky, 2-minute call with him.

  4. HCBM complained about specific details of SD's time with us—for example, which shoes she wore while hiking—while we would never even hear about big picture stuff SD did with HCBM, like going out of town or SD joining orchestra.

  5. Speaking of going out of town, HCBM called it kidnapping when Dan left town with SD, but HCBM never felt the need to inform us if she and SD took a trip.

  6. And speaking of kidnapping, Dan required the help of a police officer to pick SD up from her volleyball game because HCBM refused to let SD go with him—and SD later described this as Dan "trying to kidnap" her.

  7. One time I joked to the kids that Dan & I had found a perfect summer vacation rental but the kids would have to stay in a tent outside 'cause it was too small for all of us—then HCBM's lawyer actually brought that up that in her official motion to reduce Dan's visitation time: "a tent is not acceptable living conditions!" (You can't make this shit up.)

  8. HCBM filed a motion to reduce Dan's visitation time, and stated in the motion it was at SD's request. SD also insisted it was her own request. SD was 12.

  9. SD said she didn’t like coming to our house because she was always unhappy. Dan asked then how come we have so many photos of her laughing and having fun. She said she was faking it. Well not EVERY time, we said. Yep, she insisted. Every single time. She never had fun with us.

  10. HCBM claimed I refused to help SD with homework. What really happened: SD & I agreed that she'd research in her book and I'd research on my computer, then in 1 hour we'd meet back up to work together on her paper. SD took her book into her room, then called her mom crying, saying no one was helping her. 

  11. Dan took SD to get a haircut, then HCBM screamed at SD that the haircut made her look so ugly that HCBM couldn't stand to look at her. Bonus points: this example of parental alienation does double duty as standalone emotional/verbal abuse while simultaneously making it clear to SD that her father was parenting incompetently.  

I legit have enough personal parental alienation examples to type lovely stories like this all day long. But since I now feel like I need to go take a shower after reliving this garbage, I'll just stop here.

What's the best way to deal with parental alienation? Can you stop it? Reverse it?

Raise your hand if you skipped right down to this section. 🙋🏻‍♀️ The number one question on every alienated parent/stepparent's mind is how can we stop it.

I don't think anything made me feel as powerless as trying to figure out how to fight back against parental alienation. Because what are you supposed to do? If you explain to the kid what the alienating parent is pulling, then aren't you yourself badmouthing that parent? Which is exactly what you’re saying you don't want them to be doing? Plus how are you supposed to defend yourself to an alienated kid when they shoot down everything you do or say that goes against the alienating parent's narrative?

Parental alienation feels like a no-win situation. Of all the challenges you can run into as you're blending your family, PAS is the absolute worst shitstorm. But as helpless as you feel right now, there are some steps you can take to combat the effects of parental alienation:

  • Educate yourself. Read every book on PAS you can find, scour every online article on parental alienation you can find. (I put together a list of PAS resources for you in the next section.) The more you know, the more prepared you are for recognizing PAS symptoms as they arise and nipping them in the bud— or as close to the bud as you can get. Early intervention is always best if at all possible.

  • Document everything. I cannot stress this enough: document everything that the alienated kid says/does or the alienating parent says/does that can be used to demonstrate a consistent pattern. Especially helpful is anything that shows the alienating parent is violating the current custody orders or is actively and intentionally limiting your access to the child.

  • Request help through the courts. Courts really hate any mention of PAS, but you can make strategic requests that help minimize the impact of alienation without using the words "parental alienation." For example, if you've written down (see, all that documentation is already coming in handy!) a log of all the phone calls/texts the alienating parent made to the child during your visitation time, you can demonstrate that they're excessive and request that the communication be limited. You can also request a court-mandated Guardian ad Litem (GAL), Parenting Coordinator, or regular ol' child counselor, any of which will offer a neutral third-party view on the situation that's admissible in court.

Most importantly, never give up.

If you have any doubts whatsoever about whether you should continue fighting for your relationship with your kids/stepkids, please read Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome by Dr. Amy J.L. Baker. The author interviews adults who were alienated from one of their parents as children, and every single interview talks about how underneath all the bullshit, those kids deeply wanted their targeted parent to see through the act and keep trying… even as they continued instigating the alienation tactics themselves.

This book also helped me stop feeling so stuck where we were, like we just had to sit there and drink HCBM's poison and watch her destroy our family. Instead, I started feeling tentatively hopeful about our future, started believing that maybe we could someday still feel like a family… even if that might not be for a while down the road.

Where you are right now, as awful as it may feel, isn't where you'll be forever. My stepdaughter was aligned against us for a decade, and now that she's older and some time has passed and the drama has chilled out, we're seeing real signs of recovery after years of parental alienation. So hang in there. Nothing is impossible, and there's always, always hope. 💕

More resources for parental alienation

PAS BOOKS

ORGANIZATIONS TO FIGHT PARENTAL ALIENATION

ONLINE PAS RESOURCES

PAS ARTICLES FOR STEPPARENTS & BLENDED FAMILIES

PERSONAL PARENTAL ALIENATION STORIES

RESOURCES TO HELP ALIENATED KIDS

  • Alienation Busters collected by Dr. Warshak – this is a list of children's stories and movies that demonstrate brainwashing and offers suggestions for the alienated parent on how to tie those themes into a conversation with their kids.

This list is constantly evolving. If you have a suggestion of a resource you’ve found helpful and would like to see included, please let me know!