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What Makes Alienating Parents Tick?

What makes an alienating parent tick? Do they suddenly wake up one day, go into revenge-mode, and begin attempting to destroy their child’s relationship with the other parent? Obviously not. The roots of amputative behavior are present (and sometimes hidden) before the abuse begins.

In psychological researcher Amy J. L. Baker, PhD’s important book, Breaking the Ties That Bind: Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome, the author identifies three family patterns that may be present in cases where parental alienation takes place.

Although we should keep in mind that men too, can be alienating parents, based on the interviews Dr. Baker did with 40 adult children of parental alienation syndrome, two of three patterns she identifies name mothers as the alienating parent. Most professionals believe that the ratio of fathers to mothers who are alienating parents is 50-50. Although some are very passionate and vocal about this being specifically a man’s or woman’s issue, the truth is that parental alienation can be perpetrated by members of either sex.

Also, though the sample of the adult children of PAS that Baker interviewed were interviewed in depth, making for a richer understanding of how PAS occurs, the author acknowledges that “perhaps the worst cases [of PAS] were most likely to want to participate in the research” and might have contributed to sampling bias. In any case, the information on patterns is enormously helpful and mirror what we can report on an anecdotal basis.

Pattern one: Narcissistic Mother in Divorced Family (14 families); pattern two: Narcissistic Mother in Intact Family (8 families), (PAS sometimes does occur in families where the parents are not divorced or separated); pattern three: Rejecting/Abusive Alienating Parent (16 families).

In Dr. Baker’s sample, narcissistic mothers comprised a significant portion of alienating parents. This is important because it implies the presence of a personality disorder in the alienating parent.

Breaking the Ties That Bind also identifies “notable themes and clinical and legal implications.” We will mention only three of them here (there are more). These include co-occurring maltreatment in which the alienating parent hasn’t just emotionally abused the child but has physically/sexually abused them, too.

Also, co-occurring alcoholism. She points out that because alcoholism is often linked with personality disorders, and many professionals believe that personality disorders are often or even usually present in an alienating parent.

In fact, the next theme is co-occurring personality disorder. The author points out that based on the interviews she did, many alienating parents could be considered to have a type B personality disorders (narcissistic, histrionic, anti-social, and borderline personality disorders). C.R. and I strongly agree and even say that perhaps a type B personality disorder must be present in an alienating parent. That’s because the types of behaviors involved are generally included in definitions of type B personality disorders. We should point out that this does not mean that people with type B pds will become alienating parents, but based on our experience, we believe that alienating parents all have at the very least a significant number of traits that are present in type B pds.

For an upcoming article C.R. recently interviewed a twenty-two year old woman who believes she is a victim of parental alienation syndrome.  Of interest is the fact that the family is intact and the alienating parent has character traits which include those found belonging to narcissistic and anti-social personality disorders and are obviously not confined to the parent’s relationship with her children. In other words, these kinds of behaviors are actually present in all of her relationships.

In a description of her parent’s actions, the daughter, who is in therapy without her parents’ knowledge, said: “My mom [who is the editor of a magazine] would think nothing of plagiarizing when she could get away with it. She insists writers include verbatim paragraphs from the Internet, banking on the idea that no reader will ever check and find out. She quotes ten year old scientific studies and says the information is brand new. She does her best to put competing publications out of business and literally spies on them. Publishing is the perfect career for her because she gets a real thrill from the power of controlling what people read and then end up believing. Also she thinks no lie or immoral behavior is really off limits for her, especially when it comes to her “baby” magazine.

“Mom manipulates her employees, plays mind-games with with staff and family members alike and pits editors against each other. It doesn’t matter who it is. It could be my dad, an employee, my brothers and sister or a grandparent or even a friend. The exact moment someone leaves a room, she rolls her eyes or makes a very subtle, minor put down in a kind of disappointed tone about the person. She wants everyone left in the room to agree with her. Her whole thing is to keep people off balance so they live with constant, low level fear. I don’t know if she even realizes what she’s doing–she’s done this as long as I can remember.

“Even though my parents are still married, I see how mom has set up our family into teams depending on what’s going on. There’s the family against the world, there’s mom and my sibs against dad and against his parents. She needs all these secrets and teams because that feeds her ego. By keeping everyone else down, she stays up.”

The newest volume of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DMS-5), due out in spring of 2013, has not yet decided whether Parental Alienation Disorder (which is currently known as Parental Alienation Syndrome or PAS) will be included. The debate is surprisingly controversial. Those who are adult or child victims or mental health and legal professionals involved in the study and treatment of PAS want this problem recognized by the DSM-5. Those who believe that alienating parents either don’t exist or that their actions don’t affect their children, don’t.

Meanwhile, no one can deny that alienating parents do exist. In order to hurt their former (or sometimes, current) spouse, alienating fathers and mothers use their children as pawns in a war that can leave professional psych-ops in the dust.

We’ve received more than the usual amount of email related to our posts on PAS from both adult children and target parents who shared their experiences with us. Some have asked us to include specific PAS stories. In upcoming blog posts we hope to share snapshots of PAS.

Below are some useful links.

Amy Baker, PhD: Web Site and her Links (Resources) Page

Therapy Soup Posts About PAS and Related Topics:

Parental Alienation Syndrome 

Educating An Alienating Parent

When Parents Brainwash

Divorce and Revenge

The Narcissistic Mother’s Game

How To Deal With An Emotional Terrorist


Dr. Richard Warshak, Parental Alienation Syndrome expert and author of Divorce Poison  

Mike Jeffries, Author of A Family’s Heartbreak, Resources Page  for those dealing with parental alienation. It includes lists of support groups, organizations, articles, podcasts, professionals, and more. 

Fathers and Families: Current News on Parental Alienation.

Target Parent Blogs, A Sample: Fearless Fathers, Jim Hueglin, Legally Kidnapped. Many target parents, both men and women, are regularly posting about their experiences with their alienating spouses and their children.

What Makes Alienating Parents Tick?

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2019). What Makes Alienating Parents Tick?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 3, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Mar 2019
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