Parental alienation is a social dynamic, generally occurring due to divorce or separation, when a child expresses unjustified hatred or unreasonably strong dislike of one parent, making access by the rejected parent difficult or impossible. These feelings may be influenced by negative comments by the other parent and by the characteristics, such as lack of empathy and warmth, of the rejected parent. The term does not apply in cases of actual child abuse, when the child rejects the abusing parent to protect themselves. Parental alienation is controversial in legal and mental health professions, both generally and in specific situations. Terms related to parental alienation include child alienation, pathological alignments, visitation refusal, pathological alienation, the toxic parent and parental alienation syndrome though the last term is a specific formulation of a medical syndrome proposed by psychiatrist Richard Gardner that is not well accepted.
First described in 1976 as "pathological alignment", the dynamic refers to a situation in which a child unreasonably rejects a non-custodial parent.Richard A. Gardner proposed parental alienation syndrome in the 1980s based on his clinical experience with the children of divorcing parents. Since that time, other researchers have suggested focusing less on diagnosing a syndrome and more on what has been described as the "alienated child", and the dynamics of the situation that have contributed to the alienation. In this view, alienation is seen as a breakdown of attachment between parent and child, and may be caused by multiple factors. The behaviors of all family members, including those of the alienated parent, may lead to the family dysfunction and rejection of a parent. The evaluation of all contributing factors and all possible remedies are recommended in evaluating cases where children have estranged from a parent.
Parental alienation lacks a single definition and its existence, etiology, characteristics and in particular the description of the term as a syndrome has been subject to still-unresolved debate. Some formulations of the concept have emphasized the role of an alienating parent, termed variously the "programming" parent and "embittered-chaotic parent". More recent descriptions, influenced the research of Kelly and Johnston, have proposed a more complex analysis, in which all family members may play a role. This "systems-based" view acknowledges that a child may be alienated from one parent without "alienating" behaviour by the other parent. Based on an empirical study, it also suggests that alienating behaviours by both parents is the norm in high-conflict divorces. Rejected parents, generally fathers, tend to lack warmth and empathy with the child, engage in rigid parenting and critical attitudes, and are passive, depressed, anxious and withdrawn - characteristics which may encourage rejection. The parent that the child aligns with - the aligned parent - may engage in alienating behaviours, by undermining the other parent: these behaviours may be conscious and deliberate or alternatively may reflect a lack of awareness on the effect of their actions on their children. Direct alienating behaviours occur when one parent actively undermines the other parent, such as making derogatory remarks about the other parent or telling the child that the other parent is responsible for the separation or the cause of financial difficulties. Indirect alienation behaviours occur when one parent fails to support access or contact with the other parent, or tacitly accepts the child's negative behaviour and comments towards the other parent.