Parental Alienation: Turning Children Against Their Parent – with Dr. Amy Baker

In my work with ex-cult members, I have been aware of the use of parental alienation tactics for many years. It occurs in situations where one parent leaves a cult, but the other parent remains. In such cases, cult policies usually call for extreme measures to “demonize” the ex-member and turn their children against them. However, until I met Dr. Amy J.L. Baker at a conference many years ago, I was not completely aware of the scope of parental alienation outside of cults, particularly in cases of separation and divorce. She cited my work in her first book on Parental Alienation (PA).

Dr. Baker has a PhD in developmental psychology and is an expert on the subject of parental alienation. She has authored or co-authored nine books and 120 articles and provides training to legal and mental health professionals around the country. She also offers telephone coaching for parents who are the target of alienation attempts. Dr. Baker and I sat down recently to talk about the current state of the field and share strategies for helping both children and parents who are affected by alienation.

Alienation or Estrangement? The Difference

Dr. Baker explained that while the public may use the term “alienation” to cover all cases of a breach in a parent-child relationship, professionals in the field reserve the term for a specific type of family dynamic. Some breaks in the relationship between parent and child are justified. If a parent is abusive and the child does not trust or want to be with that parent, this is a legitimate response by the child and is referred to as “estrangement.” The term alienation is used only in cases where the child is aligned with one parent and unjustifiably rejecting the other.

What Drives a Parent to Initiate Attempts at Parental Alienation?

When parenting is done as a couple, even in cases where parents disagree, compromise may occur because the couple is invested in preserving the marriage. When separation and divorce occur, compromise may seem less important. Parents can easily feel a dramatic loss of control over their children’s lives and respond in negative ways, trying to regain control through the children.

As a developmental psychologist, Dr. Baker is acutely aware of parental alienation’s negative and damaging effects on children. Alienation is particularly damaging when it happens to young children. Several years ago, I interviewed Dana Laquidara who was abruptly separated from her mother and every member of her mother’s family at the age of four during the divorce of her parents. Her story highlights the disastrous effects of such action by one parent against the other.

What Actions Constitute Parental Alienation?

Dr. Baker has identified 17 primary parental alienation strategies. These strategies can be divided into five general categories:

  • Poisonous messages to the child about the targeted parent in which he or she is portrayed as unloving, unsafe, and unavailable.
  • Limiting contact and communication between the child and the targeted parent.
  • Erasing and replacing the targeted parent in the heart and mind of the child.
  • Encouraging the child to betray the targeted parent’s trust; and
  • Undermining the authority of the targeted parent.

Some examples of the 17 behaviors are bad mouthing the parent to the child, encouraging a child to call the targeted parent by their first name, or sharing inappropriate information (even if it’s true) about the targeted parent. Even subtle acts such as eye rolling can be an alienating behavior if it conveys negativity to the child about the other parent. A complete discussion and listing of specific behaviors under each of the five general categories can be found in Behaviors and Strategies Employed in Parental Alienation: A Survey of Parental Experience

Training for Parents and for Legal and Mental Health Professionals is Critical

Both Dr. Baker and I agree that training in how to parent should start as early as high school. Parenting strategies that support the healthy emotional development of a child are not necessarily intuitive or innate but can be learned. Ideas on what some might consider appropriate parenting – but are actually harmful behaviors — may have been passed down through the generations without adequate information on their effects. An example would be the use of corporal punishment. Many cults and religious groups, as well as individuals, unfortunately continue to support the use of physical punishment. Most civilized countries have banned it. Current understanding of child development and systematic and rigorous research clearly show that it is actually more harmful, as well as ineffective. I interviewed David Cooperson who has devoted his life to child protection services.

Equally critical is training both legal and mental health professionals who interface with families affected by parental alienation, such as guardians ad litem, custody evaluators, reunification therapists, and the like. Proving parental alienation in court is difficult, in part because many judges and attorneys do not have a sufficient understanding of the often-subtle tactics used. Courts in general are biased toward letting children stay where they are, and many judges are afraid to change custody arrangements due to concern that the children may be hurt by the move. Custody cases that involve parental alienation can also be extremely expensive, since expert witnesses are often necessary to prove that children were deliberately alienated from a parent. I wrote a blog about Alex Jones hiring scores of expert witnesses because he programmed his children against their mother.

Advice for Parents and Adult Children Who Have Been Alienated

Alienated Parents:  Rock legend Lita Ford, wrote a thoroughly moving song, “I Am Your Mother,” to her estranged two sons. If you are a parent who is currently alienated from a minor child, doing what you can to reach out to them to remind them you love them, even if they are hostile and rejecting towards you, is usually advised. The hope is that love will eventually melt hatred and fear. I often recommend writing letters to the child and keeping a copy (even if the child will not see them). Setting up a website is sometimes a great strategy because so many young people are online. Doing this may be emotionally beneficial for you in the present, and also creates a record that can be shared if contact is restored. It can show your child that you wanted contact even if you were unable to have it. Reach out for support to others who understand your situation, such as the International Support Network of Alienated Families. Dr. Baker actually helps parents reach out to their adult alienated children.

Adult Children: For adult children who are considering reconnecting with a parent they were estranged from, the first step is to be open to the idea that there might be another perspective. The alienated parent might have a totally different story and set of facts than what you have been told. Some adults have discovered this is an empowering choice.

It is also important to think about the extent to which you need to know the details of what happened. Sometimes it works better to stay in the present, to start fresh with a relationship as two adults. It might be tempting to try to recreate or recover the past, but Dr. Baker encourages people to at least consider letting go of the past.

Most important, perhaps, is to recognize that you became alienated from your parent because you were subjected to undue influence. Even competent and intelligent adults are not invulnerable to the pressure of this type of relentless influence. Try to let go of any feelings of guilt or shame you might have.

When I work with ex-cult members, I remind my clients that the past is memory and the future can only be imagined. So be present in your body and mind, open to what is in your control, and live your own truth now. Network with other parents who have suffered alienation, but I strongly urge being wary of receiving guidance from someone who claims to be an expert.

Further information and resources:
http://Dr. Amy Baker (
http://Parental Alienation Syndrome (
Books by Dr. Baker: Amy J. L. Baker: Books, Biography, Blog, Audiobooks, Kindle

http://Parental Alienation Harms Children by Using Undue Influence – Freedom of Mind Resource Center
http://Alienated from her Mother at Age 4, Parental Alienation and Patterns of Cult Mind Control – Freedom of Mind Resource Center
http://Parental Abduction and Alienation: A Discussion with Psychiatrist Nick Child – Freedom of Mind Resource Center
http://A National Initiative to End Corporal Punishment

Parental alienation can happen in the context of a divorce and custody battle.  It is a form of undue influence in which one parent deceives and manipulates the child to feel fear, anger, disgust, or other negative emotions towards the other parent.  The alienating parent may attempt to instill false memories of abuse or phobias about the other parent in the child’s mind.  They may encourage the child to spy and tattle on the other parent.

In other words, parents who unethically alienate their child against the other parent use similar tactics that cults use to distance their members from family, friends, and ex-members.  Please visit the BITE Model page to learn more about these tactics.

We Can Help

We offer consulting for families affected by parental alienation.  Using the Strategic Interactive Approach, we can work with you to create ethical and effective ways to help your child become empowered to form their own opinions without undue influence from others. Steven has been trained by Developmental Psychologist Amy Baker in her Reunification program. Please contact us or visit our Help a Loved One page to learn more.