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Signs and Causes of an Alienated Child

What are the signs of an alienated child? Why do alienated children feel so strongly? Does custody make a difference?
(2 minutes 34 seconds read time)

Lori Denman-Underhill
Lori Denman-Underhill uses the power of the press to raise awareness about endless causes.

What are the signs of an alienated child? Why do alienated children feel so strongly? Does custody make a difference? Author Bill Eddy discusses these topics, found upon his site on this page.


Children who are not abused, but are alienated have emotionally intense feelings but vague or minor reasons for them. A child might say: “I won’t go to see my father!” Yet she might struggle to find a reason: “he doesn’t help me with my homework.” Or: “he dresses sloppy.” Or: “he just makes me angry all the time.”

Another child might say: “I hate my mother!” Yet again the reasons are vague or superficial: “she’s too controlling.” “She doesn’t understand me like my dad.” These children complain that they are afraid of the other parent, yet their behavior shows just the opposite – they feel confident in blaming or rejecting that parent without any fear or remorse. Some of them speak negatively of the “rejected” parent to others, then relax when they are with the “rejected” parent. Others run away, rather than spend time with the rejected parent.

All of these behaviors are generally different from those of truly abused children, who are often extra careful not to offend an abusive parent, are often hesitant to disclose abuse and often recant even though it’s true.


Alienated children generally show intensely negative emotions and an absence of ambivalence. New research on the brain suggests that this may be the result of the unconscious and nonverbal transfer of negative emotions from parent to child.

The parent’s intense angry outbursts (even if they are rare), intense sadness, and intensely negative statements about the other parent may be absorbed unconsciously by the child’s brain, without the child even realizing it. The child then develops intensely negative emotions toward the other parent (or anyone the upset parent dislikes), but doesn’t consciously know why. This may explain the vague or minor reasons given by alienated children for intensely rejecting a good parent.

This spilling over of negative emotions from upset parent to child may have begun years before the divorce, so that the child is very tuned in to the upset parent, and automatically and instantly absorbs their emotions and point of view.


If one parent has almost all of the parenting time, then the child will not have his or her own experiences with the other parent to know that he or she is not bad.

Most states expect children to have substantial time with both parents – except in cases of abuse. Ironically, the amount of time is generally not the biggest factor. The biggest factor is if one parent is constantly spilling over intensely negative emotions to the child about the other parent, while the other parent is following court orders and not addressing these issues at all.

For this reason, children can become alienated against either a non-custodial parent or a custodial parent. This can be either the father or the mother. It’s like a bad political campaign, with one side campaigning hard and the other side not campaigning at all.