What is Parental Alienation
Low Parental Alienation
Moderate Parental Alienation
    Severe Parental Alienation

The late author and child psychiatrist Richard A. Gardner coined the term Parental Alienation Syndrome more than 20 years ago to characterize the breakdown of previously normal, healthy parent-child relationships during divorce and child custody cases. The definition of parental alienation is heartbreakingly simple—one parent deliberately damages, and in some cases destroys, the previously healthy loving relationship between the child and the child’s other parent.

Many mental health professionals argue over whether the patterns of behaviors that make up parental alienation constitute a clinical “syndrome.” Parental Alienation Syndrome is not in the DSM, the psychology profession’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The manual is the clinician’s guide to symptoms and syndromes and the definitive diagnosis on any legitimate mental health condition.

Whether or not mental health professionals ever classify parental alienation as a clinical “syndrome,” the patterns of behavior that make up this destructive family dynamic are often consistent within families where parental alienation exists.

Unresolved psychological and emotional issues are at the foundation of the alienating parent’s behavior. These issues may lie dormant for years, but when the divorce, the ultimate adult abandonment, becomes real, the alienating parent becomes symptomatic.

Many professionals identify three levels of parental alienation—low, moderate and severe—to describe increasingly more destructive parental alienation behavior. These “levels” are nothing more than identifying marks or labels along a continuum of behaviors. These marks make it easy for people to clarify and compare the behaviors. Both psychologists and lay people need labels to quickly and easily communicate complicated concepts.

Low Parental Alienation

The “Low Parental Alienation” label applies to parents who direct negative behavior or comments at the other parent in front of the child, but who regret the outbursts, worry about their affect on the child, and take steps to explain the inappropriate actions.

Many parents will occasionally engage in low-level alienating behavior, but these parents recognize that the child needs to have a normal, healthy, loving relationship with the other parent. These parents know their occasional outbursts are wrong, and have a healthy enough attitude to correct their mistakes. They may not always want to do the right thing, but they usually do the right thing without regret because they know what’s right is what’s best for their child.

Moderate Parental Alienation

The “Moderate Parental Alienation” label applies to parents who mean well; who believe their child should have a normal, healthy relationship with the other parent, but who also believe that the relationship shouldn’t come at their expense or in any way interfere with their life.

Parents who engage in moderate alienating behavior usually react to some real or perceived slight from the other parent. Moderate-level alienators have a hard time controlling their emotions and will tend to have more emotional issues than someone who falls into the low-level alienator category. The all out assault on the other parent usually lasts as long as their emotional reaction lasts. When these parents get over their anger, they stop the alienating behavior and move on. While they may not go out of their way to facilitate the child’s relationship with the other parent, at least they don’t sabotage the relationship. That is, until the next real or perceived slight from the other parent. Then the alienating behavior begins again.

Severe Parental Alienation

The “Severe Parental Alienation” label applies to parents with a mission – destroy the previous healthy and loving relationship between the child and the child’s other parent. These alienators are obsessed and relentless. They never get tired, stop scheming or pass up an opportunity to reinforce their destructive message to the child. They conscript friends, family members, neighbors, co-workers, the police and social service agencies into their battle against the targeted parent.

When severe alienators are in the throes of an alienation campaign, the child is both a weapon to be used against the targeted parent and a tool to make them feel emotionally complete. They rarely stop to consider how their actions affect the child. If they do consider the child, severe alienators quickly address those thoughts with simple behavior-reinforcing platitudes such as, “I know best,” “Whatever it takes,” and “It’s the other parent’s fault.” Severe alienators are neither aware of, nor interested in, the confusion and conflicted emotions raging inside the child. These parents are only interested in satisfying their own unhealthy internally driven needs.

Once the alienation is complete and the parent/child relationship is destroyed, unsatisfied severe alienators may continue using the child to exact further revenge on the previously loved spouse. Together parent and child can run up unnecessary bills aimed at leaving the targeted parent in debt. They can make false physical or sexual abuse allegations aimed at branding the targeted parent an abusive parent or sex offender. They can make false statements to the police in an attempt to get the targeted parent arrested and jailed. Severe alienating parents tap a bottomless source of creativity that only hatred, obsession and vindictiveness can fuel.

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