The Misnomer of Parental Alienation

Parental Alienation is a topic that continues to receive a great deal of attention in both the legal and social services fields. Like many identified forms of emotional trauma and relational conflict, efforts are being made to classify this dynamic as a form of mental illness or mental disorder.

The DSM and Mental Diagnosis 

To-date, however, the DSM5 (Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) does not recognize Parental Alienation as an officially sanctioned mental illness or disorder nor is there an associated diagnostic code for treatment. Which, when viewed through the lens of an emotional trauma perspective of human experience, is a good thing…in my opinion. In short, I am not really sure how pathologizing another form of emotional and relational distress is actually helpful or beneficial for those directed impacted by this familial dynamic.

The Incongruity

It is interesting to note the basic misnomer… which is the tendency to define the term “parental alienation” as the efforts of one parent to damage or destroy the relationship of the other parent with the child. In reality, the term parental alienation is a descriptor of the reaction of the child to the conflict that exists between the parents.

Framing the Child as Mentally Ill or Disordered

Alienated child In short, the ideology behind the developing concept of parental alienation is that the child has developed a mental illness or disorder as a result of the dynamic that is playing out between the parents. Thus the proposed diagnostic disorder, known as parental alienation, represents a focus on the symptomatic child…not the parents. This focus on the child tends to deflect attention away from the parental dyad, which is where the problem actually needs to be addressed.

Framing the Alienating Parent as Mentally Ill or Disordered 

An additional component of the parental alienation debate is the ongoing effort to frame or define the actions of the alienating parent as psychopathic, narcissistic, or indicative or some other form of psychological disorder. With all the effort being funneled into framing this type of familial dysfunction as a form of mental illness to be diagnosed, treated and subsequently included in the next edition of the DSM5, it is not surprising that the real underlying issues that drive this familial dynamic remain largely unaddressed.

The Underlying Problem

Parental conflict is not a new or uncommon dynamic. Nor is it uncommon for conflict in the parental dyad to result in some type of negative impact for the child. However, if you have a symptomatic or reactionary child, it would only make sense to be curious about the catalyst for the reactionary behavior most notably, what the child is being exposed to… in the home, in the school, in the church, and in the community.

Because we know that conflicted parental relationships are often an originating source of childhood emotional distress, an examination of the familial stress to which the child is being exposed seems a reasonable first step in evaluating the child’s symptomology. This work is especially relevant due to the propensity for children, entrenched in parental strife and conflict, to grow into adults with serious relational and emotional problems.

A More Accurate Definition

Targeted ParentParental Alienation, more accurately defined might recognize the dynamic as the emotional or mental trauma response of a child being deliberately alienated from a parent by a parent in an attempt to damage or destroy the child’s relationship with the targeted parent. In the context of such a powerful, mentally painful, and emotionally overwhelming experience, for both the child and the targeted parent, it would seem reasonable to expect some type of emotionally laden reaction on the part of the child (and the targeted parent).

Is Parental Alienation a Form of Child Abuse? 

Attempting to define the dynamic of Parental Alienation as a mental illness seems to set aside, avoid or disallow the most obvious component of the dynamic, most notably…abuse.

Perhaps the most salient aspect of the parental alienation discussion is not the need to identify some new form of mental illness but the seemingly directed effort to reframe an intent to cause harm i.e., abuse… as mental illness.

Readjusting the Focus

Such an omission seems to highlight how reframing deliberate efforts to harm or abuse as states of mental illness can quickly become a form of victim blaming. When parental conflict results in a deliberate attempt by one parent to damage, or destroy the relationship of the child with the other parent, perhaps a more expedient course of action would be to focus on the abuse being perpetrated on the child, by an adult, as opposed to blaming some socially constructed “disorder” in the child.

How Therapy Can Help…If Everyone is Willing 

Working through and resolving the complex issues represented in both the parental dyad and familial system requires the willing participation of all of the family members and a collective desire to address the underlying dynamics that are driving the reactionary actions and behaviors.  Generally, this type of relational work is better addressed in the therapy room rather than the legal, diagnostic or social system.

Parental AlienationPeople Make Sense Within the Context of Their Lived Experience 

Because people make sense within the context of their lived experiences and tend to take actions based on their embedded beliefs, perceptions, and established mindsets, both the alienating parent and the targeted parent must be accurately assessed for possible emotional and relational traumas and experiences that are driving their behaviors and chosen actions.

Once assessed, the parents can then address these issues on an individual or collective basis. Systemically, less reactivity, stress, and conflict in the parental dyad usually results in a less symptomatic and anxious child.

Assessing Outcomes 

If effective co-parenting, mental well-being and reconciliation are the true goals begin sought by those who come alongside these suffering families, perhaps these families would be better served by emphasizing the collective relational healing and wholeness of all the members of the familial system, rather than continuing the current tendency to assign blame, seek legal remedy or apply a diagnostic code.

When addressed as the relational issues they are, parental conflict and systemic dysfunction are resolvable issues that can be addressed through individual, couple and family therapy. It is important to remember that changes in behavior actually originate with changes in beliefs, perceptions, and mindsets.   

To learn more about the relational dynamics of parental alienation and ways to better manage co-parenting, blended family, remarriage, infidelity, and other relational, emotional, mental, behavioral, and spiritual experiences and traumas call the office direct at 317-760-064 or schedule online at

Chrysalis Connections, LLC…where what matters most is what matters to you!

Chrysalis Connections, LLC

Teresa M. Walters, MA. LMFT, LAC

204 Hobbs Street Plainfield, IN 46168

Private, discreet therapeutic services in a cozy, home-like setting.