How Parental Alienation Harms ADHD Families

Parental alienation is a form of emotional abuse with long-term effects — putting children at risk for anxiety, depression, guilt, low self-esteem, impulsivity, and academic challenges.

Child walking alone illustrating parental alienation

When Nadine Vogel* got divorced, she rented a four-bedroom house so each of her children, ages 14, 16, and 18, could have their own room when they came to visit as her custody agreement dictated — one night a week and on alternating weekends. Except her children rarely came. And when they did, they were often angry and suspicious, repeating their father’s accusations about Vogel. That she was crazy. That her efforts to seek treatment for their ADHD — all three kids had been diagnosed with the condition — proved she over-medicated them. That she was trying to cut off the kids from their dad. That she was not to be trusted.

“In his senior year, my son started drinking, doing drugs, and not going to school,” says Vogel, who lives near Washington, D.C. “They didn’t let him graduate. My kids were all suffering.”

What Is Parental Alienation?

What Vogel and her kids experienced is called parental alienation, a form of emotional abuse so profound its effects on children can last a lifetime. Parental alienation happens when a child aligns with one parent and rejects the other, without justification, due to manipulation by the favored parent. This typically occurs during high-conflict divorces. Methods of manipulation include badmouthing the targeted parent, limiting contact, and interfering with communication.

Parental alienation is a complicated topic surrounded by controversy, explains Bill Bernet, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, and founder of the Parenting Alienation Study Group. Some people worry that parents may use an accusation of alienation to mask child abuse, as a tactic to discredit the other parent, who may be making valid allegations of abuse. It’s critical, then, to get the diagnosis of parental alienation right.

“We Don’t Talk About It”

A study, published recently in The Children and Youth Services Review found that more than 3.8 million children were affected by parental alienation.1 These numbers, as devastating as they are, may not reflect the full scope of the problem because “it’s shameful and heartbreaking, so we don’t talk about it,” says Danielle Silverman,* a New York City mother who has been alienated from her three kids, ages 22, 23, and 28, for several years. “It reflects on you, even if you know you did nothing to deserve it.”

Amy J.L. Baker, Ph.D., co-author of Surviving Parental Alienation: A Journey of Hope and Healing (#CommissionsEarned), emphasizes that catching alienating behaviors early, when it’s easier to treat children effectively, is critical. “A mildly alienated child comes back after spending time with the other parent; they may be a little suspicious, cold, wary, but that distrust only lasts an hour. It might take a full week for a moderately alienated child to warm up. Severely alienated children are shut down the whole time they’re with the targeted parent — or they don’t come [to see them] at all,” she says.

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It’s important to note that, to establish whether a child is being alienated, experts must determine that the targeted parent has not committed abuse or neglect, as the other parent may have alleged.

“Your Dad’s in a Cult”

Crystal Shivers was five when her mother told her that her father was in a cult that killed people. She said it wasn’t safe for Crystal to talk to him or any of his family. This story wasn’t true. “I remember being so sad,” says Shivers, who reunited with her father as an adult. “I missed out on relationships with my cousins, aunts, uncles, extended family, grandparents. It was a huge and heavy burden to carry.”

Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., author of The Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict  (#CommissionsEarned), and senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families, says children in alienation situations often suffer from depression and anxiety and have difficulty trusting themselves and others. They also suffer from guilt, low self-esteem, impulse control, and academic challenges. The emotional abuse is usually invisible to teachers, social workers, and even family court judges involved in custody hearings, according to a report by the National Center for State Courts.2

“Your child is out to sea. They’re being pushed underwater,” Coleman says. “You have to be the lighthouse on the shore that’s always on.”

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Parental Alienation: Warning Signs

Examples of parental alienation behaviors include:

  • telling a child that their targeted parent does not love them
  • saying, or implying, that the targeted parent is dangerous
  • asking a child to spy on the targeted parent or keep secrets from them
  • withholding medical, academic, and other important information about the child from the targeted parent

When You’re the Target of Parental Alienation

  • Look at your own behavior: Is there anything you can change about how you’re relating to the co-parent to avoid triggering them?
  • Don’t argue with your child about the lies being leveled against you. Do everything you can to make your time together pleasant.
  • Document every instance of alienating behavior in the event you need to hire a family lawyer, preferably one knowledgeable about parental alienation.
  • Learn about coping strategies from organizations such as the Parental Alienation Study Group and the National Coalition Against Parental Alienation.

Parental Alienation: Next Steps

*Vogel and Silverman asked that their names be changed.

Nicole Kear is Consumer Health Editor at ADDitude.

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View Article Sources

1Harman, J. J., Leder-Elder, S., & Biringen, Z. (2019). Prevalence of Adults who are the Targets of Parental Alienating Behaviors and Their Impact: Results from Three National Polls. Child & Youth Services Review. 106, 1-13.

2 Lewis, Ken. (2020) Parental Alienation Can Be Emotional Child Abuse. NCSC Trends in State Courts

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