‘Child abuse in disguise’: The impact of parental alienation on families

By Scott Gleeson

March 2024

Ingo Weigold, a licensed professional counselor at Centennial Counseling Center in St. Charles, Illinois, sat at his desk as tears rolled down his face. For five years, he had been alienated from his children by his ex-wife, which emotionally harmed his children and prompted him to regularly feel like an unworthy parent. But after a grueling court battle that spanned several years, a judge finally ruled in favor of Weigold to have majority custody of his two children, and his ex-wife was issued to pay child support.

“I’m sitting here reading the judge’s ruling just crying and thinking, ‘This can’t be real.’ All of the anxiousness, the fear, the anger and the suffering just drained out of me,” recalls Weigold, a member of the American Counseling Association. “Throughout this process of fighting for them, the most important thing for me as a man and as a father was to actually be there and be present, to give my kids a chance at being good members of society away from a childhood that was marred by child abuse. Because parental alienation is child abuse in disguise.”

Parental alienation has been defined by experts as a form of manipulative estrangement induced by an alienating parent that causes children to refuse to have a relationship with the targeted parent as a result of exaggerated or false information that dissuades an emotionally vulnerable child away from the targeted parent. 

Although the term is controversial when used in the legal system, counseling experts are fighting to have it included in the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) because of its hidden prevalence and the need to educate clinicians on efficient treatment methods. '

“From a parent’s perspective, I think this is incredibly difficult,” Weigold says. “I see why parents walk away from their families because the easier thing to do is let the other parent have what they want, let them continue to dictate everything. I didn’t have a dad growing up. I could never do that with my kids; I couldn’t let them sit in this manipulation any longer.”

Now, Weigold is helping other parents who find themselves in similar scenarios in his work as a counselor, and he’s helping to spread word on an area that doesn’t receive enough attention in the mental health field.

“I was down to my last few pennies and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of my retirement on legal fees going to court,” Weigold says. “I know I was lucky and other people aren’t. There are people out there who need us as therapists to help, and we can help them by knowing how to be detectives and get to the truth of these situations.”

Whether treating children, working with families or providing care to an alienated parent as a therapist, experts agree that far more needs to be done to bolster awareness and training.

“Parental alienation leads to highly complicated and difficult cases that require far more knowledge and specialization,” notes Amy Baker, a psychologist and parental alienation expert who has written over 65 peer-reviewed articles on the matter. “In other words, even seasoned clinicians with experience in family systems are still, in a way, a novice when dealing with alienation. Humility would be the most important thing for clinicians to have in this regard.”

Seemingly counterintuitive

Baker, director of research at Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection, acknowledges that having clinicians take a humble approach to parental alienation treatment runs counterintuitive to most regular forms of mental health treatment.

“Parental alienation challenges our assumptions about what is happening in the family,” she explains. “It’s intuitive to believe that children side more with the better parent. That the kids know which parent is going to better take care of them, get them to soccer practice. That’s actually not always true. What’s also counterintuitive is this false notion that the stronger a child claims to believe or feel something, the more likely it is to be true. In parental alienation cases, kids can very strongly make their case or be adamant for something that is not actually how they feel.”

Baker advises therapists to keep their clinical “magnifying glass” out a little longer when assessing not only the children but also the parents in suspected alienation cases. Parents will often enter sessions wearing a mask or facade to portray themselves — and the situation — in a deceiving way that caters to them and to paint the other parent as problematic, she notes.

Another way parental alienation cases are counterintuitive, Baker adds, is based on the idea that the parent who seems calmer and more rational is the “better” parent. “This is profound because clinicians are trained to rely on what they feel with a client or parent of a client,” she says. “But how the parent presents to the therapist is not always diagnostically true. Of course, the alienating parents are acting that way because the kids are loving on them as a result of their manipulation; they’ve got everything going their way.”

“The alienated parent, meanwhile, is anxious, agitated and afraid,” she continues. “They have an agenda to try to convince everybody what’s happening to them is alienation. The disposition of a person could be based on the situation, and clinicians should not be making assumptions when the targeted parent is acting out.”

Baker, co-author of Co-Parenting With a Toxic Ex: What to Do When Your Ex-Spouse Tries to Turn the Kids Against You and Surviving Parental Alienation: A Journey of Hope and Healing, says two instrumental goals therapists must strive for if they determine parental alienation is at play are correcting a child’s distortions of the situation and holding the favorite parent accountable in treatment.

The goal for parental alienation is to help the child have a healthy relationship with both parents, Baker stresses. “It’s important for clinicians to know that, in general, children do better when they have a relationship with both parents and that, in general, children do not always know what’s best for them,” she says.

Baker adds that divorces have an unhealthy side effect in overempowering children and that it’s important for parents not to acquiesce to their needs out of guilt. “There’s too often the notion of ‘that’s what the child wants,’” she says. “We don’t let children drink or get married and do all sorts of things when they’re too young. [Adults] have a responsibility to protect children, sometimes from themselves.”

“I do believe we have an obligation [clinically] to try to figure out what’s best for the child, taking their preference into account, but by no means is their say-so the north star,” she adds.

Stephannee Standefer, a licensed clinical professional counselor and program director at Northwestern University’s online counseling program, says the goal of therapists is not to disempower a child’s voice but rather to reestablish the family system that’s been misconstructed. Parental alienation cases often showcase a child having power in an unhealthy fashion, and they can become pawns to the alienating parent who is taking advantage of the fractured family system amid or in the aftermath of a divorce, she notes.

“We can know all of this about how it should be in a family system, but we have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we the ones to rebalance the power and homeostatic situation as therapists?’” says Standefer, an ACA member and president of the Illinois Counseling Association. “It’s important we don’t accidentally as therapists come into the family system or stay there.”

To evade becoming part of the family system, Standefer says it’s vital therapists establish rules that clearly outline what the therapist’s role is. That boundary, in turn, can help put the focus on the parents’ growth.

“An alienated parent, for instance, must be doing his or her own individual work. Because that much powerlessness they’re feeling will impair the parent and the children. And for the alienating parent, we must hold them accountable to be a part of the family system, not their own narrative that caters to them,” Standefer notes. “We can use all the microskills we want to help families with communication, but the macro has to be how each person is fitting into the system.

Avoiding distortion traps

Alienation cases vary, but court proceedings and even 50/50 splits don’t always determine how often the kids will see their parent because the distorted reality an alienating parent spins can prompt a child to remain allegiant to them by refusing to spend time with the targeted parent.

Weigold says in his situation the manipulation of his children (with his ex-wife telling them a false narrative) began as his marriage was ending and before the divorce was even finalized.

“It became this campaign of dad’s bad and everyone should stay away from dad, including you two as kids,” Weigold said of the alienation inflicted on his children. “It’d always be something like [his ex-wife saying], ‘When dad shapes up or stops abusing you, you can see him.’ When in reality that was a projection coming from her.”

Baker says the targeted parent who is being alienated often falls into a “distortion trap” where they frustratingly try to defend themselves or uncover the truth, but this only makes them look worse to the children.

“Clinicians can have the assumption that it takes two to tango or that there’s two sides to every story,” she notes, but “in a parental alienation, the truth is it only takes one parent to trick another parent.”

Susan Heitler, psychologist and parental alienation expert who wrote Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief From Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More, says the alienator’s narrative can fool lawyers, close confidants and even the targeted parent because they’ll often deprecate the targeted parent’s feelings to twist reality. They’ll go out of their way to cultivate a narrative not just to the children and targeted parent but to everyone in their life. One common theme that counselors need to look out for, Heitler says, is that the alienator often needs to be seen as the victim at all times.

“A [targeted] parent will feel sad and say, ‘I miss my kids,’” continues Heitler, who practiced treating families from 1975 to 2020 at the Rose Medical Center in Denver. “Instead of responding with compassion to the other parent, the alienating parent may say, ‘You shouldn’t feel sad’ or ‘You’re being foolish.’ That’s part of the manipulation. It works really well because alienators are usually quite charming to everyone on the outside, she notes.

“In most cases, the alienating parent is acting on feelings of hurt related to the divorce, which are not about the kids. Or that parent more than likely has an undiagnosed personality disorder that they’re inflicting onto other family members,” Heitler adds.

“It’s like getting sucked into a vortex,” Weigold says, describing his own situation with his ex-wife. “Principals, teachers and people in the community would believe her, as if she were the victim, and the people [in the children’s life] throw out logic and act on feelings. It’s why as therapists, even when we get a [behavior] report from a school, we need to do our due diligence because so many people can be duped by the [alienating] parent.”

Heitler agrees that it’s important to corroborate facts in alienating cases as a clinician. “We need to be investigative and gather all the facts and make sure they’re actually truths. One parent may claim the targeted parent is sexually molesting the kids. Well, there are lie detector tests to address this.”

Weigold says he saw the distortion trap he fell into only in hindsight. “I think my biggest mistake was for a time I tried not to acknowledge the lies being told to them. I’d try to stay neutral and be a calming presence to them,” he recalls. “I’d try to tell them, ‘You guys are too little — it’s OK.’ I would allow them to come and say things their mom was saying and I’d never argue back.” About a year and a half ago, he started telling them the truth about what their mom was saying, making it child appropriate, but he says this only distressed them because then they had one parent saying one thing and the other saying another.

That moment of feeling torn between two parents’ version of the truth is where children can get caught in the “loyalty conflict,” Heitler says.

“When a child loves mommy and [the] daddy has made her into a devil, they become dependent on the parent who is the alienator, so they often adopt the alienator’s ways of seeing the situation,” she explains. “It’s loyalty [to the alienating parent] but a loss of the self for the children, forming a symbiotic relationship.”

Writing out these accusations the children often say about the targeted parent can help them sort through what is true or not for themselves. Heitler once worked with two teenage sisters who were alienated from their father. “They had all these negative words to say about their dad,” she recalls. “So we wrote all the words like ‘selfish’ down, and I asked them, ‘Who does this more?’” They all responded that their mom was the selfish one.

Diagnosing parental alienation

Dr. William Bernet, a psychiatrist and professor emeritus at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, says that he and colleagues in the field have made dedicated efforts to have parental alienation included as a term in the DSM because properly identifying and defining alienation from the onset is the best way to combat counselor negligence.

“The problem with not naming parental alienation anywhere in the DSM is that courts can argue it isn’t real, and then, in turn, parents cannot defend themselves legally,” Bernet says. But “if it’s taught to clinicians of all types and accepted into curricula, then mental health practitioners can be held more accountable to identify these cases.”

Bernet, co-editor of Parental Alienation: The Handbook for Mental Health and Legal Professionals, sees therapists making two mistakes with parental alienation. First, they often fail to properly diagnose parental alienation early on in treatment. Second, they rely on traditional clinical approaches for far too long when treating this issue.

“Traditional family therapy approaches can be helpful in mild cases,” Bernet says. “But in more moderate or severe cases, alienation needs to be identified and both parents need to agree to be part of treatment.”

Bernet says that having only one parent attend sessions or offering traditional family therapy without identifying alienation has the potential to worsen the balance and allow an alienating parent and child to continue to target the other parent. If that happens, “therapists actually can make it worse,” he stresses, “because a child is going to be even more narcissistically powerful and won’t do what the therapist asks out of allegiance to the alienating parent.”

Bernet developed the five-factor model, which is an effective method to use when diagnosing parental alienation. This model includes five criteria for diagnosis:

  1. Contact refusal: Is the child refusing contact with a parent?
  2. Previous relationship: Did the child previously have a positive relationship with the rejected parent?
  3. Lack of abuse: Does the rejected parent show signs of being abusive or neglectful
  4. Alienating behaviors: Is the preferred parent engaging in alienating behaviors?
  5. Child symptoms: Is the child manifesting symptoms of alienation?

Although it’s essential for counselors to properly diagnose for treatment, custody evaluators should be the ones making decisions related to parental alienation, Baker cautions. And she advises clinicians to call for a proper custody evaluation if they suspect parental alienation. avoiding counselor negligence.

Avoiding counselor negligence

Heitler finds that counselor negligence is common in parental alienation cases, so she agrees that clinicians run the risk of making the situation worse when they enable the alienator or try to focus on surface tactics such as communicative skills in co-parenting.

“If the clinician doesn’t understand parental alienation and buys into the alienating parent’s story with their treatment plan, they’re participating in child abuse,” Heitler says. “It comes down to beneficence, not maleficence, do not harm in the [ACA Code of Ethics]. The naivete can result in extreme harm if it means backing up a mother or father who is the alienator.”

In a peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage in 2020, Baker, along with two other colleagues, surveyed 120 clinicians in the United States who conducted work as court-ordered reunification therapists, and they found widespread negligence across the board.

“What’s happening in outpatient reunification therapy is not only not helping [but] it’s making things far worse,” Baker stresses. “One major problem in general is that clinicians often let these cases go on and on with middle-of-the-road treatments without getting to the underlying cause. Many therapists let these cases go for years without saying, ‘Gee, I’m not really doing anything good here.’”

“There’s this false belief that it’s impossible to tell what’s really going on,” she continues. But “it’s not impossible to tell if clinicians were trained specifically in this subspecialization.”

Baker stresses the need for therapists to use a timeline, such as six to 10 sessions, to make sure progress is being made. “If nothing good is happening in treatment, write a letter to the court and recommend a higher level of treatment,” such as having the family go to a facility that specializes in parental alienation, she advises.

Bernet says effective approaches, particularly when working with children affected by parental alienation, include the multimodal family intervention, which involves everyone participating in some way in the treatment plan, and family bridges, a cognitive behavioral approach where the main focus is helping a child adjust to living with a parent they claim to hate.

“It’s painful to be caught in between two parents who are fighting each other,” Bernet notes. “Then to make it worse, there’s hidden guilt and shame for the child for feeling like they played a part in rejecting the parent. It’s an unhealthy position to be in.”

Standefer agrees that counselors must hold themselves accountable to limitations and push themselves to be more equipped in helping families. She said one additional layer of negligence she sees is that clinicians may allow parents to dominate treatment time to the point that the children are not receiving proper care.

“What’s at stake here are the children,” Standefer says. “It’s important therapists create a safe space and build an alliance when working with them. They need a voice. … We just have to be careful that voice is not actually the alienating parent’s. It’s our job to bring out their true voice.” creating a team of support.

Creating a team of support

The severity of parental alienation cases can be far-reaching. As Bernet notes, it not only affects children’s well-being but also leaves targeted parents in desperate need of support.

“It can be unbelievably frustrating and agonizing for the targeted parent,” Bernet says. “They’re in need of various forms of support and coaching on how to behave when they see their children. Because I’ve seen some cases where the targeted parent will become so aggravated and retaliate against the child even though the child themselves is just mimicking or representing the alienating parent who is hurting them.”

“In worse scenarios, it’s not just parents giving up on their kids,” he adds. “They give up on life and commit suicide. This is serious on multiple levels.”

As a parent in recovery from alienation, Weigold says that a support system in conjunction with a therapist was necessary in getting his kids back into his life. “I think it’s important for anyone who is going through this to find a supportive person in their life that can help them to pull out the truth of what’s going on,” he says. “You can start to feel crazy and wonder, ‘Am I really this person?’ The narrative becomes so strong from the children and the ex-wife together. You need to have people in your life who can say, ‘This is not real. Those are not truths; trust your gut.’”

This support often needs to come from more than just one person, Weigold adds. “In my situation, therapists along the way would tell me I’m a good father. My friends and mom would say, ‘You’re a good dad.’ God was a big thing for me in the beginning to see myself as not a bad person,” he recalls. “You almost need a whole team of people because this pull is so strong. It’s like a superhero movie, and you need all the Avengers to fight this — for yourself and your children. That’s how powerful the pull in the other direction can be.”

Heitler agrees a support system is vital. Because targeted parents often experience severe symptoms of depression and anxiety as a result of feeling miscast, she is intentional about outlining the difference between warranted estrangement from children (based on prior abuse in the household) and being alienated (based on no factual forms of abuse in the household before separation) to help reality test a client under the spell of manipulation.

“Clients who are alienated are often distraught because they’ve lost their children and they’re asking, ‘Who do I believe anymore?’ They can be habitually anxious,” Heitler notes. One treatment method she finds helpful is having them do a concerns dump. The client writes down all their worries, such as “I don’t know what’s going on anymore” or “I don’t have enough money to go to court” and hands them to Heitler. “One by one, we’ll go through and make a plan of action for all these anxieties swirling around in their head,” she says.

Although leveraging one’s support base is helpful, Weigold acknowledges that overcoming those fears and anxieties must ultimately come from within. And that takes courage. “Someone told me once that the only time you can have courage is when you’re afraid,” Weigold says. “I was afraid when I went back to court. I feared I’d lose everything I have and end up with nothing better for my kids. My son said, ‘Dad, I want you to fight for us.’ That gave me the courage I needed. I just told myself I’m going to show my children I’m fighting for them even if I go down doing it. I hope they can take away that message someday — that their dad fought for them and now he’s not going anywhere.”


Scott Gleeson is a licensed clinical professional counselor in the Chicago suburbs, specializing in trauma and relational dynamics. He spent over a decade writing for USA Today, where he won national writing awards from the Associated Press and NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. His debut contemporary novel, The Walls of Color, and its sequel, Spectrum, will hit bookshelves in 2024 and 2025, respectively.

Editor’s note: Gleeson is colleagues with Ingo Weigold, one of the counselors interviewed for this article, at Centennial Counseling Center in St. Charles, Illinois.

The views expressed in Counseling Today are those of the authors and contributors and may not reflect the official policies or positions of the editors or the American Counseling Association.


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