Estrangement and Parental Alienation are NOT the Same Thing

In my years of practicing family law and working with all kinds of family structures in my divorce practice, as well as in the other areas of law that we deal with in our office (e.g. special education, mental health law, juvenile law), the words alienation syndrome are often mentioned by clients either during a divorce or in the aftermath and ongoing conflict. It is important to distinguish the phenomena and they are quite different.

Estranged children

The difference between an estranged child and an alienated child is that an estranged child has grown apart from the parent for reasons that are, to be blunt, reasonable and realistic. An alienated child, however, is the victim of one parent’s efforts to destroy the child’s relationship with the other parent.

An estranged child is either ambivalent about the other parent or enraged by the other parent. These feelings are, however, justified by the child’s experience of the separation or by the child’s experience of that parent.

These children are usually estranged as a result of:

  • witnessing violence committed by that parent against the other parent,
  • being the victim of abuse from that parent,
  • the parent’s persistently immature and self-centered behavior,
  • the parent’s unduly rigid and restrictive parenting style, and/or,
  • the parent’s own psychological or psychiatric issues.

The point here is that the child’s experiences make the child’s rejection of a parent reasonable, and are an adaptive and protective response to the parent’s behavior.

Alienated children:

There is an ongoing debate about whether or not parental alienation syndrome even exists. On both sides of the aisle, you will find strident detractors and supporters. The recent research would indicate that alienation is a term that describes a wide spectrum of behavior and attachment by children to their parents.

Whatever the cause or the existence of syndrome, there are families who are damaged by the conduct of the parties in a divorce and in subsequent parenting disputes.

There are no sound bites or easy fixes. Resources exist for parents who are struggling to connect with their children and to navigate a high conflict divorce and its aftermath.


Parental Alienation: The Handbook for Mental Health Professionals, by Lorandos, D.

High Conflict Custody Battle, by Baker, Amy J.L.

AFCC: Association of Family and Conciliation Courts

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About MickiMoran

Micki Moran is the founding partner of The Child and Family Law Center, Ltd. She dedicates her practice to providing legal assistance to children and families who are in need of representation in the areas of special education, disability law, juvenile and young adult criminal law, abuse and neglect, guardianship and mental health issues. Micki's practice is founded on the principle that children and their families require and deserve excellent legal representation with a multidisciplinary approach that works with multiple systems of care and creates communities that support and improve the quality of all peoples' lives.
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