For the purpose of clarity, I have used the term Parent A to describe the parent the children primarily live with and who is being accused of undermining the other parent’s relationship. Parent B is the parent who believes he/she is being unfairly undermined by Parent A. Any other descriptors (preferred, targeted, alienated, alienator, custodial, non-custodial, etc.) tend to distract from these perceptions. Below is (1) what clinicians must look for in children when a parent is accused of “parental alienation”, (2) the emotional journey children often take when they are alienated, and (3) what treatment remedies are important, regardless of the labels that are used to describe the family dysfunction.


The alienated child, as described by Gardner, Baker, Warshak, and others, displays certain behaviors that are considered “red flags”. One or two may not mean much, but the more that are present, the more it warrants further investigation beyond the norm. Here are the generally accepted signs to look for:

  1. Children cannot remember any good memories (prior to the separation or divorce) with Parent B. When shown photos where they seem happy with that parent, they will often say they were faking it for the camera.
  2. There are no valid reasons for being angry at Parent B. Reasons are shallow or should produce temporary frustration, not permanent estrangement.
  3. They get fixated on one or two incidents, and tell the stories over and over no matter how old they are, to justify their anger toward, or fear of, Parent B.
  4. They have split their loyalties and see one parent as all good and the other as all bad.
  5. They may call Parent B by his/her first name and their step-parent “mom” or “dad”.
  6. They feel the same about Parent B’s extended family as they do about the parent. They see the extended family as guilty by association, without being able to see each person as an individual.
  7. They may act out with Parent B and be a perfect angel for Parent A, bolstering Parent A’s confidence.
  8. They may make false allegations of emotional, physical or sexual abuse against Parent B that sound rehearsed or coached. Child protective services is often involved, and case reports are unsubstantiated.
  9. They experience extreme trust issues, distorted relationship expectations, and unexplainable anxiety and depression, among other possible symptoms that will affect them long term.

These signs are typical, but not comprehensive. Each case is different and other symptoms could arise. It is important to understand HOW a child gets to this point and WHY they display these symptoms. Below is a typical scenario, but it can vary from case to case. What’s most important is to recognize how difficult it is for the child to know who is telling the truth, including the therapist working with them. Eventually, they have to come to their own truth (good or bad) as a matter of emotional survival.


The feelings of children needing to split their loyalties with their parents may begin during the parents’ relationship or marriage. Parent A, possibly starting at the child’s birth, is insecure in the adult relationship and begins to focus only on fulfilling the child’s needs to feel wanted and needed. Early on, these children realize that Parent A needs them for his/her emotional welfare. They may feel this parent’s love is conditional upon their actions and behaviors toward both parents. They may realize Parent B’s love is unconditional, but that also makes them feel free to ignore that parent’s needs and focus on Parent A’s. They begin to see that their parents do not get along well. They may hear or overhear Parent A berate Parent B. Eventually, they may resent Parent B for making Parent A so difficult to please, because all they know and can grasp is that Parent A is not happy, and it seems to be Parent B’s fault.

The child slowly becomes enmeshed with Parent A (a form of co-dependency between parent/child), infantilized (made to feel they cannot exist without Parent A’s assistance – even as teens), or parentified (made to feel responsible for Parent A’s emotions and welfare). These children also feel a connection with Parent A when he/she overshares with the children about the marital relationship and who is at fault. Because of this bond, they learn they are able to make that parent feel better or loved by listening and supporting. This, coupled with Parent A’s need to keep them dependent, puts them on a rollercoaster of emotions that vacillate between feeling responsible for Parent A’s emotional welfare, while at the same time feeling coercively controlled by that parent.

As time goes on, the children know intuitively that their relationship with Parent A is dependent on pleasing him/her, and the quickest way to put a smile on Parent A’s face is to agree the parent is always right, good, and the best parent. They also begin to realize that the quickest way to experience their anger, silence or withholding of affection, is to say good things about Parent B. This is the beginning of resist/refuse attitudes.

Oftentimes, by the time a divorce, legitimation, or modification case has begun, the children know what they MUST do to keep Parent A stable. They may feel some sense of sympathy for Parent B, but children know what they must do to survive the parent they live with full-time. They justify in their minds that it’s a small price to pay to keep Parent A from abandoning them emotionally or otherwise. One or all the children may secretly want Parent B to win the case so they can have some relief from the responsibility of having to be on constant watch with Parent A. But they are often unsure about the facts, and wonder if maybe Parent B is, in fact, a problem, and maybe it’s best to avoid him/her after all. It gradually becomes an easier choice to take the less conflicted route, rather than try to discern the facts. Siding with the parent who is most likely to spin out of control seems the safer route.

This is when Parent B may begin to get really frustrated and angry. Unfortunately, Parent B begins to react in unhealthy ways as he/she sees the children’s love slipping away. If this parent shows anger toward the children for saying or feeling the things they do, it merely reinforces for the children that Parent A is right – the other parent cannot be trusted and can, in fact, be abusive. Although they may have never seen this behavior in Parent B before, they now not only see it, but begin to change history (with the help of Parent A) and “remember” stories differently than they actually happened. “I remember one time when my dad was so mad, he threw his phone against the wall. Mom said just before that, he pushed her to the ground. I think I remember that, too. In fact, I think he was always an angry person. I don’t want to see that again. I can’t be with dad anymore. Yes. That’s what I need to tell the GAL.” And the story gets repeated and repeated, even though we know that it’s not normal for kids to completely abandon their loving parents because they have witnessed a few angry events.

Especially when there is a pending court case, children become more resolute in their reporting of bad behavior on the part of Parent B. There is a lot at stake. If Parent A loses custody or child support, they perceive it will be the end of him/her. Parent A may even tell them, “If I lose, we won’t have a house to live in” or “I don’t know what I would do without you. I can’t live without you in my life.” These are scary statements for a child of any age to hear. They become more committed to their stories and their choice to not want Parent B in their lives.

When it feels that maybe Parent B is beginning to understand what’s going on, or they have relaxed and had a good time with that parent, they may double-down and begin to make false allegations of abuse. This can also happen during a court case if they feel that the GAL may not be believing them. Things can quickly escalate toward children making false allegations or threats of self-harm or suicide. Children become desperate when they think they must control the outcome to survive.

Along the way at any stage, the children’s strong need to not only please Parent A, but to save face for themselves, causes them to engage in behaviors that are not normal for kids who are not alienated. They may start calling Parent B by their first name, refusing to visit with any of Parent B’s extended family, or acting out while with Parent B to stimulate bad behavior that they can then report to Parent A or the GAL. Many of these behaviors, especially if the children are older, begin to have a different goal – it no longer becomes about pleasing Parent A, but it is more important to hold on to their own values of telling the truth. They may internally reason, “It is difficult to keep competing thoughts in my head, so I have to become completely committed to the idea that my other parent is bad, so I can internally accept the lies I have told as truth. Then I can get out of this painful state of cognitive dissonance.”

Once this has happened, Parent A can step back and begin to parent normally, knowing that the damage is done and the emotional work is complete. They will then become model parents for the court to see and claim they are not doing anything an alienating parent does. At that point, they are telling the truth for the very first time. The alienated parent is now emotionally and financially wrecked – sometimes to the point of giving up. The kids have successfully internalized their altered truth. Parent A tells the children it is sad that Parent B is walking away (as predicted), and the children literally believe they have been the victims of Parent B.


Professionals in the field have begun to put aside the phrase, parental alienation, because it is an inflammatory one, sometimes being weaponized by the actual alienators to project negativity onto the other parent for litigation purposes. Reunification therapy can also have a negative connotation for the children, as it may indicate to them that no matter what is going on, the therapist WILL force a relationship between them and Parent B – threatening the relationship they are trying to maintain with Parent A. Instead, describing these cases as having resist/refuse dynamics means there is clearly something going on when the children do not want to spend time with one of their parents. The ordered therapy, then, is to identify and address the barriers that are creating the issue. The therapist can then be less concerned about labeling the problem and more concerned about helping the children to not stay stuck in the milieu. This is a more child-focused approach to a very complex and dysfunctional family dynamic.

Treatment is complex and customized to each situation. Generally, it requires the following:

  1. Therapist must bond with Parent B. One might think this would be easy, however, by the time Parent B gets to the treatment for resistance/refusal dynamics, they are jaded by the system. They have the notion that attorneys, judges, and therapists do not understand what they are experiencing, and they can be either over-eager to influence the therapist, or angry that this is one more professional who will take advantage of them financially and emotionally. This is a lot to overcome, and this parent may need some individual therapy, in addition to the resist/refuse therapy, to get to a healthy point of trusting the treatment and therapist. First and foremost, the therapist must ensure that Parent B is in it for the long-haul, since this therapy is never a quick fix. It takes time and money, something most parents say they are running out of. If it is determined that Parent B has unrealistic expectations (and cannot overcome them), or they have a history of coming in and out of the lives of the children, the therapist may decide to not engage the children in the process, for fear of exposing them to a lot of unnecessary pain or abandonment from Parent B via the therapy. Children are always the top priority, not the unfairness to the parent.
  2. Therapist must bond with Parent A. Until the therapist can bond with Parent A, the children are likely to stay resistant to any idea of spending time with Parent B. This is why it is so important that the court order states that Parent A must be part of the treatment process. Possibly, if Parent A feels heard, he/she may agree to help the children with the process, especially if he/she feels that the therapist is not going to succumb to Parent B’s charms or victim stories. The therapist hopes that Parent A will decide to do the right thing in front of the children, which might translate to a good court testimony or report from the therapist. The therapist can then coach the parent to acknowledge, in front of the children and the therapist, that he/she wants the children to have a separate relationship with Parent B than he/she has, and that they have permission to love Parent B in any way they choose. It is especially important that Parent A can also acknowledge that it is not the children’s job to take care of his/her emotions or to manage the outcome of the court case in any way. Although getting the parent to do this may be an act on Parent A’s part, it is an act the therapist can use later to remind the children what their parent said in the therapy room. This is the first step toward creating a different kind of cognitive dissonance for the children and breaking down their barriers with Parent B. The therapist will then begin to unpack some of the children’s confusion about what Parent A says in the therapist’s room vs. what is said at home.
  3. Therapist must bond with the children. This is a step that everyone involved (often even the court) rarely has patience for and may take many sessions in the beginning. When the therapist is assigned, children view the therapist, or anyone trying to subvert their plans, as the enemy or as siding with Parent B against the one the child is trying to protect. A trusting relationship must be developed, in which the child is able to view the therapist as a helping professional, even if Parent A does not. This takes some intuitive sensing that not every professional possesses. The therapist has to balance giving the child a sense of agency, but also an understanding that they are a child and do not have the final choice on how a parent/child relationship will be executed. This is why number two above is so vital. Another important reason the children must trust the therapist is because a path of desensitization must ensue for the children to experience that being slowly exposed to Parent B does not result in the behaviors they fear. Much like others who possess any type of phobia, alienated children have a real, but often irrational, phobia of their own parent. Exposure over time with caution, compassion and care, is key to their emotional welfare. Instead of affirming the fear, a therapist must provide children with coping skills to face their fear – which is a positive general skill they will be able to take into their adulthood. Many untrained therapists who work individually with children will criticize this practice, saying the children cannot handle it. In reality, children have an amazing ability to overcome fears with the right care and guidance.
  4. Therapist must have a graduated schedule to execute, dictated by the court or a mediated agreement. Therapists in Georgia are not allowed to act as quasi judges and determine custody and visitation, even on a temporary basis. New case law also prohibits them from saying when a child and parent are “ready” to move to a new schedule or pull back from a schedule that was previously agreed upon. This requires attorneys to understand they cannot simply pass off this problem to a therapist to resolve. It also requires those who make custody recommendations to the court (GALs and custody evaluators) to be more specific in their recommendations when it comes to therapy for resist/refuse dynamics. This is important to the therapist because children and parents are less likely to protest, act out, or bring up past events, if they know that a judge has codified a graduated schedule, and they are expected to follow through with it. Sometimes it is good to tell children that it’s better that they execute the schedule with the help of the therapist than to reject the therapist and approach the inevitable alone. That allows the therapist to maintain a position of neutrality with the children, without choosing one parent over the other. The children will then feel free to speak to the therapist more openly and have their true feelings heard.
  5. Therapist should work with a parenting coordinator, who can help the parents learn how to communicate about their children, affirming Parent B as a respected parent. Many children will hesitate to be in the same room with Parent B because of the fear Parent A seems to have of him/her, as well. When the children see that their custodial parent is working with Parent B and a professional, it is more likely they will feel safer being with Parent B. It is another piece of the puzzle that forces accountability on Parent A to put into action the words they often say, but might not mean: “I want my kids to have a good relationship with their other parent.” If so, the behaviors should be evident.
  6. Therapist must have patience. Children who present with resist/refuse dynamics, and the parent who is enabling them, come with a plethora of excuses about why the therapy is not likely to work. They can spend a lot of time talking about past events and argue with the therapist about how the court got it wrong. One of the reasons it takes a lot of time to build rapport with the children is because therapists have to do a lot of listening in the beginning and then slowly begin to remove the excuses that the therapist interprets as barriers. Parent A and the children might say, for example, that they are too busy with activities to attend — to which the therapist must explain all the reasons why it is important for the children to have access to both parents. When Parent A continues to resist, a therapist might provide time on a weekend or evening for the parent to bring the children. Not surprisingly, that parent will somehow find time during the week to comply (since the therapist took away the excuse that there was no time). This is just one example of the many ways a therapist may have to think outside the box and be patient with the process to remove each excuse one-by-one as they arise, until Parent A and the children realize the process is going to happen, and it’s going to be okay. Without patience, a therapist can be perceived as siding with the other parent or having his/her own personal agenda. Neither of those perceptions will serve the children.


There is no definitive research on how often therapy for resist/refuse dynamics, or reunification therapy, is successful because there are simply too many variables. We first have to define success.

  • Occasionally, in less complicated or less entrenched situations, the therapy produces good results in less than a year, and the children have successfully returned to a normal, productive relationship with Parent B.
  • Sometimes, the therapist may discover that the children have very good reasons for resisting or rejecting Parent B, and some therapeutic coaching must be done to help that parent understand how he/she may be contributing to the problem. When this dynamic exists in combination with an alienating parent on the other side, it can be extremely challenging to remedy in a meaningful way.
  • Sometimes, the feelings are more entrenched and the situation is so intractable (especially when it involves teenagers) that the therapist must report that further therapy will not improve the situation. In these cases, the therapist works to help the children make a “soft break” with Parent B so that the relationship bridge is not destroyed, but preserved. This means setting parameters for the children to allow Parent B some access to them on a regular basis (maybe through texting) and getting the children to agree to be kind and respectful toward the parent as they make the attempts. The purpose of this kind of agreed-upon break in the relationship is so that when the child becomes an adult (and hopefully out from under the constant influence of Parent A), they will have an easier time reconnecting with a parent they have stayed in touch with instead of one they had rejected, hurt and abandoned completely. When therapists are able to accomplish this, the children are more likely to thrive as independent adults and often find ways to have an acceptable relationship with both parents when they are older.
  • More often than not, there is enough change to help the child feel heard and decide to spend some time with Parent B. This requires some motivation on the child’s part to accept Parent B at some level, while balancing their need for a relationship with Parent A. They have to have the emotional constitution to be able to manage competing feelings, given what they are having to juggle emotionally with both parents and their own emotional tolerance (dependent on age and other factors in their current situation). This can come with maturation and sometimes with therapeutic enlightenment.
  • Sadly, sometimes success is informing the court that the alienation is so severe or entrenched that the children are being emotionally harmed by Parent A. Then the information is put in the hands of a judge to decide what needs to be done for the children’s safety.

Many parental rights groups complain that the courts fail to recognize parental alienation and should do something about it. That sounds good on the surface, but truth be told, it’s the court-connected mental health professionals the court rely upon on to investigate and uncover what is happening, who need to be more accountable. Attorneys and judges should pay closer attention to and be more mindful of involving professionals who are well-trained to do this most difficult work – not just the last therapist they remember having in a case. Attorneys and judges also should make it a point to seek balanced education about this subject through CLEs and other reputable offerings. As long as parental alienation has this ubiquitous status of showing up in every case, it becomes normalized rather than being treated as one of the most insidious emotional abuses that can ever be foisted upon an innocent child. Everything short of that requires therapeutic intervention, substantial financial resources, and a boatload of patience to address what took years of dysfunction to create.

If you are a court-appointed professional, PLEASE understand these dynamics. They are complicated, take years to formulate, and have long-lasting effects. If you are not trained to deal with this issue, PLEASE do not undertake the work. Chances are, you will do more harm than good for both the children and the alienated parent.