Parental Alienation or Child Abuse? An Empirical Study of Children's Rejection of a Parent After Divorce

Janet R. Johnston, San Jose State University

The dilemma posed by a child's strident rejection of one parent after divorce, generally accompanied by strong resistance or refusal to visit, has increasingly troubled family courts. Fierce controversy, without the benefit of empirical data, has waged between those who view the problem as the outcome of "parental alienation" by a malicious ex-spouse and those who believe it is the child's expectable response to an abusive parent. This study of family relationships examines the frequency and extent of child-parent alignments and correlates of children's rejection of a parent. The sample consists of 215 children (aged 5-14 years) drawn from the family courts and general community 2-3 years after parental separation. Measures were developed largely from clinical ratings of detailed interviews, standardized psychological measures and parent-child observations, together with some parent ratings. The findings support a continuum of children's attitudes toward their parents, ranging from positive to negative with relatively few extremely rejecting. Children's rejection of a parent is multi-determined: both alienation by the aligned parent and poor parenting skills of the rejected parent contribute to the problem, in addition to vulnerabilities within children themselves. Substantiated abuse by a parent does not appear to be a consistent predictor of children's rejection.

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Updated 05/20/2006