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The Legal Recognition of Parental Alienation

Updated on October 29, 2017
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Kerri is a writer and an amateur photographer from Jackson, Tennessee. She's also awesome and 140 characters isn't enough for her bio.

As you may know, parental alienation (PA) or parental alienation syndrome (PAS) is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 or the International Classification of Diseases-11. Furthermore, the American Psychological Association does not recognize PA or PAS as psychological disorders. However, there are arguments you can make to get parental alienation addressed in court.

Parental Alienation results from a serious conflict before, during, or after the separation or divorce of parents. It results in a child failing to have good contact with the now absent parent, despite the fact that the child previously had a good relationship with that parent.

— Ludwig F. Lowenstein, 2013

Implacable Hostility

Many judges refer to the symptoms of PA as "implacable hostility," which leads to children avoiding or resisting contact with a once-loved parent who is now absent due to the hostility between the two parents.

OPINION: This reference is suitable for PAS; However, it is not suitable for PA itself. Parental Alienation can and does occur prior to the child's having diagnosable symptoms. Parental Alienation is the form of abuse used by the alienator in attempts to force a child into suffering from Parental Alienation Syndrome. PA must be addressed and stopped BEFORE the child shows extensive signs of PAS. The goal is to PREVENT-- NOT rehabilitate.

Psychological Maltreatment

Though PA and PAS are not medically recognized, psychological maltreatment is medically categorized as child abuse.

OPINION: Psychological maltreatment is the key to the indirect legal recognition of Parental Alienation.

Parental alienation [is] associated with psychological maltreatment over and above the effects of parenting bonding. Not only is psychological maltreatment wide-spread, but it is also damaging.

— Amy J. L. Baker & Maria Cristina Verrocchio, 2015

The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children defines psychological maltreatment as "a repeated pattern of caregiver behavior or a serious incident that transmits to the child that s/he is worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered or only of value in meeting another's needs."

Psychological maltreatment may also involve "spurning, terrorizing, exploiting or rejecting" the child (Kairys et al., 2002). This type of abuse represents a breach in the attachment relationship between caregiver and child through a lack of emotional nurturance, attunement, and responsiveness and/or overt acts of verbal and emotional abuse that result in harm to the child, disruptions of psychological safety, and impediments to the normative development of essential capacities such as emotion regulation, self-acceptance and self-esteem, autonomy, and self-sufficiency (English & the LONGSCAN Investigators, 1997; Wolfe & McIsaac, 2011).

An important study finds that children who have been psychologically maltreated suffer effects that are equal or greater than children who have been physically or sexually abused.

Discrepancies between governmental and community estimates suggest that psychological maltreatment is underrecognized as a distinct and consequential form of maltreatment.

— American Psychological Association, 2017

The Connection Between PA and Psychological Maltreatment

Research has linked parentally alienating behaviors to poor outcomes in child development as well as to psychological maltreatment.

"The psychological foundation of parental alienation--lack of empathy and the inability to tolerate the child's separate needs and perceptions-- is also the foundation of psychological maltreatment" (Baker and Verrocchio, 2011).

Means of Parental Alienation


If we are to heal the full spectrum of wounds inflicted by childhood trauma — both the visible and the unseen — such efforts must be guided by a clear appreciation for the variability in occurrence, intersection, etiology, developmental context, clinical course and causal consequences of all forms of maltreatment.

— American Psychological Association, 2017

Austin V. Gray (TN), 2013

Elizabeth Timmons Austin v. Benjamin Holt Gray is an appellate case that was heard in the Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Nashville on 15 October 2013. The original case was heard in the Circuit Court for Davidson County (No. 06D63).

The relevant facts of this case in reference to parental alienation are as follows:

  • The Mother had previously been designated the primary residential parent. Four years later, the Father filed a Petition to Modify the Parenting Plan. The court found that the "Mother's attitude and untoward actions directed at Father" was one of the multiple material changes that caused the Circuit Court to designate the Father as Primary Residential Parent.
  • Between the time of the entry of the original Parenting Plan Order and the date the Father filed a Petition to Modify, the interactions between Mother and Father became "increasingly acrimonious," which was due in part to Mother's "overt bitterness and anger toward Father, which impeded her ability to successfully parent, offer a stable environment, and [was] a burden on the child."
  • A psychiatrist believed that the child's growth and development was triangulated to his detriment in his parents' ongoing conflicts.
  • The analysis from the Appellate Court stated that courts are authorized to modify Parenting Plans as necessitated by intervening changes in circumstances and making changes to plans as the exigencies of the cases require.
  • The Mother had "essentially alienated" the son's affections to Father to a significant degree. The evidence used to support this alienation was the unsubstantiated claims that Mother believed the Father did not parent well, was evil, cruel, and verbally abusive.
  • Mother faulted Father for any problems in her own relationship with the child, and she communicated this to the child.
  • Mother was preoccupied with identifying herself as a victim, and she supported her son in a very unhealthy way.
  • Mother encouraged the child's anger and alienation towards Father.
  • The child's well-being was impacted by his Mother's animosity and the triangulation between his parents.
  • Mother's defamatory comments and negative attitude towards Father were relayed to their son in Mother's thoughts and deeds.
  • Mother's abilities were impaired by both her overt bitterness and her emotional issues. The Psychiatrist recommended immediate, urgent intervention, stating that de-triangulating the child was of utmost importance to his mental health.


Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 54:658–667, 2013

Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

ISSN: 1050-2556 print/1540-4811 online

DOI: 10.1080/10502556.2013.810980

Parental Bonding and Parental Alienation as Coorelates of Psychological Maltreatment in Adults in Intact and Non-intact Families (25 December 2014 by A. Baker and M. Verrocchio)

© 2017 Kerri Rowland


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