Studies have found that most children of divorce families want to maintain relationships with both parents.
They long to see their non-custodial parent, even if that parent is not interested in them much.
However, a small portion of children, especially those between 9 and 12 years old, refuse to visit their non-custodial parents who are in active disputes over custody. These children seem to perceive them as deserting the family and are aligned with the parents who feel abandoned and rejected in the divorce.
Psychologists have found that these children tend to have worse mental health and share some common characteristics known as the malicious parent syndrome1.
What is Malicious Parent Syndrome
Malicious parent syndrome is a childhood disorder that arises almost exclusively in high-conflict divorces with child custody disputes. The alienating parent engages in a pattern of abnormal behavior intended to cause the child to reject the other parent. They often lie, manipulate, or make false accusations of abuse or neglect.
Also known as parental alienation syndrome, this disorder is harmful to the child’s emotional well-being and their relationships with the alienated parent.
This syndrome was originally called malicious mother syndrome by author Ira Turkat, but researchers later found it gender-neutral. Both malicious mothers and fathers may commit malicious acts2.
Signs of malicious parental behavior
Here are some examples of malicious behavior by parents intended to harass or persecute the other parents3.
- The malicious parent attempts to falsely accuse the target parent of abuse
- Repeatedly program the alienated child to believe that abuse occurred
- Tell children the other parents do not love them to cause damage to parent-child relationships
- Greatly exaggerate target parents’ faults
- Encourage children to use aggression against target parents
- Use excessive litigations to limit the other parent’s visitation or challenge the custody arrangements
- Misinform the other parent about school activities or keep them from being involved in the child’s school life
- Isolate children from extended family and normal social interactions
- Display irrational and extreme behavior when trying to keep children away from the other parents
- Believe that alienated parents are responsible for the rupture entirely, while they themselves have done nothing wrong
Signs of children with malicious parent syndrome
Here are the signs of malicious parent syndrome in children4.
- Older children show Reluctance and refusal of parental visits (especially preadolescents and adolescents)
- Children reflexively ally with the alienating parents while rejecting the target parents without justifiable cause5
- Insist their feelings for the targeted parents are their own independent judgment, not influenced by the vindictive parents
- Believe that aligned parents can do no wrong
- Make false accusations of the targeted parent without supporting details or facts
- Absence of any positive feelings toward the targeted parents
- Lack of guilt about their antagonistic behavior toward other parents
- Use aligned parents’ stories or explanations to articulate why they despise the other parents
- Show despise toward others who are associated with the other parents
Causes of Child Rejection
A note of caution: Malicious parent syndrome has not been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (DSM-V). That means it is not a formal disorder6.
There are debates and a wide range of opinions, comments, endorsements, and denunciations by legal and mental health professionals regarding this issue7.
As of yet, no conclusion has been drawn as to whether malicious parent syndrome exists and to what extent if so.
The more important behavior at issue is why children reject one of their parents.
Psychologists have identified the following as plausible causes of children rejecting parent visitation.
Over the years, debates have raged about what causes malicious parent syndrome.
Malicious parental acts tend to show up in intense child custody battles.
On the one hand, supporters of the malicious parent syndrome argue that such actions are primarily caused by a bitter, divorced spouse who manipulates the child to reject an innocent parent. An offending parent engages in this type of behavior during divorce to feed their own egos and disregards the best interests of their children.
On the other hand, domestic violence victim advocates contend that rejected parents have often abused children and their allied parents, but the family court chooses to overlook or downplay the abuse8.
Children can sometimes make an important contribution to forming this syndrome.
Some children manipulate conflicts between their parents for the power it gives them in a divorced family situation otherwise out of their control.
Some children use this opportunity to get more freedom by complaining about the stricter parents to the more permissive parents and capitalizing on the permissive parents’ desire for validation9.
All Of The Above And More
There is no evidence that parental alienation or child abuse is the major cause of children rejecting one parent.
Rather, children reject one parent after divorce for any combination of the above reasons, as well as other factors, such as10
- Lack of warmth, involvement, and competence in parenting by the rejected parent (whether mother or father)
- Prolonged child custody proceedings
- More emotionally troubled and less socially competent children
Also See: Co-Parenting Tips
Effects on the Alienated Child
In severe cases, malicious parenting can cause a form of harm to children. It can leave emotional scars on the child for life.
Regardless of the cause, children are the ultimate victims of a prolonged high-conflict divorce process.
These children are at greater risk of emotional, behavioral, and learning problems typically associated with marital conflict. They are associated with11
- More depressed, withdrawn, somatic, and aggressive
- Conduct disorder or destructive behavior
- Extreme expressions of hatred, rage, contempt, and hostility
- More prone to mental disorders
- 1.AHRONS CR. Family Ties After Divorce: Long-Term Implications for Children. Family Process. Published online March 2007:53-65. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.2006.00191.x
- 2.Turkat ID. Journal of Family Violence. Published online 1999:95-97. doi:10.1023/a:1022874211739
- 3.Siegel JC, Langford JS. MMPI-2 validity scales and suspected parental alienation syndrome. American Journal of Forensic Psychology. 1998;16(4):5-14.
- 4.Rowlands GA. Parental Alienation: A Measurement Tool. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage. Published online November 22, 2018:316-331. doi:10.1080/10502556.2018.1546031
- 5.Rand DC. The spectrum of parental alienation syndrome (Part 1). American Journal of Forensic Psychology. 1997;15(3):23-52.
- 6.Bernet W, Baker A. Parental alienation, DSM-5, and ICD-11: response to critics. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2013;41(1):98-104. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23503183
- 7.Johnston JR, Kelly JB. REJOINDER TO GARDNER’S “COMMENTARY ON KELLY AND JOHNSTON’S ‘THE ALIENATED CHILD: A REFORMULATION OF PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME.’” Family Court Review. Published online March 15, 2005:622-628. doi:10.1111/j.174-1617.2004.tb01328.x
- 8.Johnston JR. Children of divorce who reject a parent and refuse visitation: Recent research and social policy implications for the alientated child. Fam LQ. 2004;38:757.
- 9.Rand DC. THE SPECTRUM OF PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME (PART II). MERICAN JOURNAL OF FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGY. 1997;15(3).
- 10.Johnston JR, Walters MG, Olesen NW. Is It Alienating Parenting, Role Reversal or Child Abuse? A Study of Children’s Rejection of a Parent in Child Custody Disputes. Journal of Emotional Abuse. Published online November 2005:191-218. doi:10.1300/j135v05n04_02
- 11.Amato PR, Keith B. Parental Divorce and Adult Well-Being: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Marriage and the Family. Published online February 1991:43. doi:10.2307/353132