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Parental alienation behaviours: “direct” vs “indirect”

By November 20, 2019February 23rd, 2024No Comments

We recently noted that parental alienation may be considered to be a type of family violence under Australian family law, and over in the US, social psychologists specialising in parental alienation already define it as a form of family violence, describing parental alienation as “aggression”. Researchers there have also clarified a useful distinction between “direct” and “indirect” parental alienation behaviours. Read on as we discuss how these different behaviours may manifest themselves.

Social psychologist Jennifer Harman and her colleagues at Colorado State University have a particular interest in parental alienation, and have recently published new research on the subject, exploring differences in types of alienating behaviours.

What is parental alienation?

Parental alienation is the term given to the situation when one parent’s relationship with their child is deliberately harmed by the other parent. This can lead to the child rejecting the targeted parent without having a genuine reason. In cases where the child has suffered abuse or neglect, the abusive parent may experience “justified rejection or estrangement” from the child, but with parental alienation, the rejection is unjustified and based on “untrue, illogical or exaggerated reasons” and manipulation by the alienating parent.

The term has been controversial in the past and is not included in the mental health diagnostic and classification manual, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). However a new term was added to the latest edition of the manual: CAPRD, which stands for “Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress”, and that classification includes a range of parental alienating behaviours.

Indirect vs direct parental alienation behaviours

The new US research offers a useful, though not necessarily exhaustive, list of parental alienation behaviours, which have been categorised as either “direct” or “indirect” aggressions. In the research, parents are identified to be either the “alienating” or the “targeted” parent.

What are “direct aggressions”?

These may take the form of behaviours such as:

  • the alienating parent assaulting the targeted parent at changeover time in front of the child;
  • the alienating parent blocking the targeted parent from spending time with the child;
  • the alienating parent blocking or changing phone numbers so the targeted parent can’t reach the child; and/or
  • the alienating parent making unilateral decisions about the child, in violation of court orders.

Direct alienation is also said to occur if the child starts to act out “on behalf of the perpetrator”, acting as a proxy for the alienating parent thanks to developing an “enmeshed identity” with that parent.

What are “indirect aggressions”?

Alienating behaviours fitting the category of “indirect aggressions” may include:

  • the alienating parent badmouthing the targeted parent to the child;
  • the alienating parent calling the police to get the targeted parent arrested based on a false claim;
  • the alienating parent turning friends and family against the targeted parent or spreading false rumours;
  • the alienating parent telling children false stories from the past about the targeted parent;
  • the alienating parent telling children details about the court proceedings;
  • the alienating parent yelling at the targeted parent in front of the children; and/or
  • the alienating parent listing a stepparent as the biological parent on school records.

It is clear that indirect behaviours are more subtle, less overt than the direct behaviours. They may also involve exaggeration of partial truths.

Possible gender differences in type of behaviours

The US researchers say their work shows that mothers and fathers appear to use “slightly different tactics” when engaging in parental alienation behaviours:

Mothers used significantly more alienating strategies the researchers label as “indirect,” while fathers used similar levels of both “indirect” and “direct” strategies.

It’s suggested that indirect alienation is more difficult to prove and to document during the family law process, and that therefore there could be a concern over gender bias occurring in court outcomes. In other words, could mothers be less accountable for alienating behaviours if those behaviours are indirect and therefore less easily observable, compared to fathers’ more obvious direct alienating behaviours?

However, the researchers also noted that “a substantial portion of parents in the researchers’ samples – 13.79% of fathers, and 19.61% of mothers – used nearly equal amounts of both forms of aggression”.

How widespread is the problem of parental alienation?

A separate study led by Harman published in Children and Youth Services Review “found that 35.5% of U.S. parents and 32% of Canadian parents felt they were the targets of alienating behaviors by a partner or ex-partner. Nearly 60% of respondents also said such behaviors had resulted in negative effects on their relationships with their children”. Almost half of targeted parents who were moderately or severely alienated experienced suicidal ideation, and there were also significant reports of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression being experienced.

In Australia, there is no clear statistical picture yet as to the prevalence of the problem of parental alienation occurring, though the term is now used more frequently in the court system and remedies to combat it, such as reunification therapy, are more commonly ordered.

Key takeaway

The Colorado State University researchers say the most important aspect of their data is it shows that “not all post-separation conflict is the same… We can’t treat all these families the same. We need a nuanced understanding of what’s going on before we can apply interventions.”


If you need expert assistance with a family law matter, please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Legal Services on (02) 6223 2400.Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Legal Services.


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