Parental Alienation: Programming and Brainwashing

Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) and Hostile Aggressive Parenting (HAP) are controversial subjects. The field of Psychology has yet to officially legitimize its existence by including it in the current and upcoming edition of the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) despite there being an ever growing body of research that proves it is a very real, destructive and painful phenomenon for children and the parental target.

Hostile Aggressive Parenting leads to Parental Alienation Syndrome. In other words, hostile aggressive parenting behaviors are the actions and parental alienation is the consequence. Hostile aggressive parenting by the abusive parent causes the alienation or withdrawal of the normal affection a child has for the targeted parent.

Clawar and Rivlin (1991) write about PAS and HAP using different terms. They call it what it is: the programming and brainwashing of children to hate ‘the other’ or targeted parent. Attorneys and mental health professionals who work in the legal system use the terms brainwashing and programming to reference different things including “the manipulation of the actual message content (thoughts and beliefs), negative modeling, coercion of ideas, limiting of choices, and/or the result of a (long) process of programming and brainwashing (alienation)” (Gardner, 1982). Clawar and Rivlin believe that alienation is just one result of a very complicated process and campaign of hatred.

Programming and Brainwashing

Programming. When one parent attempts to alienate a child from the other parent, she’s essentially teaching the child to hate and fear the other parent. Hatred of the other parent is the end goal or program. It’s like installing computer software—there are directions, procedures and instructions for how to organize information. For example, the other parent is late for the scheduled child visitation pick-up. The programming parent comments, “A good parent who really loves his children would be on time.” This is a set of instruction that translates to: “Your father is a bad parent who doesn’t love you.” This is a negative interpretation of what is most likely a neutral event, but the set of directions from the offending parent don’t allow for neutral interpretations like heavy traffic, a flat tire or being held up at work.

According to Clawar and Rivlin (1991, p.7):

  • The programming may be willful (conscious) or unintentional (unconscious).
  • The goal is to control the child’s thoughts and/or behavior.
  • The program usually contains themes intended to “damage the child’s image of the target parent in terms of his or her moral, physical, intellectual, social, emotional, and educational qualities (as well as his or her parenting abilities).”

Brainwashing. Brainwashing is how the alienating parent teaches the child the program of hate. It’s the application of the program. Brainwashing “is a process that occurs over a period of time and usually involves the repetition of the programme (content, themes, beliefs) until the subject responds with (attitudinal, behavioral) compliance” (Clawar & Rivlin, 1991, p. 8).

The alienating parent teaches the child the program via messages that include verbal and non-verbal cues and rewards and punishment. Brainwashing techniques can be used separately or in combination for a more powerful effect. The alienating parent often uses allies such as friends, family, church members, therapists and the court system to help her or him successfully alienate. Programming and brainwashing typically work in tandem. For example:

The program: You should hate your father and be as angry with him as I am.

The brainwashing techniques: Mother makes faces when child is on the phone with father, rolling eyes and grimacing. Mother asks child questions after child spends time with father and makes negative and fear-instilling statements such as, “Did he remember to feed you? Are you scared sleeping there at night? You can come home if you want to–just call me and tell your father to bring you home. You have more fun with me, don’t you? If it weren’t for me making your father take care of us, he’d spend all his money on his new wife and her kids and we wouldn’t have a roof over our heads.” Mother removes all photos of father from child’s room, computer or photo albums. Mother rewards child with special privileges, gifts or affection if child makes negative statements about the father or refuses to see the father.

The child or brainwashing victim may be either an active or passive participant. “In other words, some children are fully aware of the intent of the programming/brainwashing parent and actively participate. Others may not be aware of the desired ends of the programming and brainwashing parent and are unknowing agents and victims themselves in the process” (Clawar & Rivlin, 1991, p. 8).

Brainwashing Techniques: Isolation, the Stripping Process, Repetition, We-ness and Inferior Status

Isolation serves to keep the child from receiving information that contradicts the program. For example, friends and family members who don’t buy into the abusive parent’s program are vilified and cut out of the child’s life. There is often collateral damage when a parent chooses to alienate because the child is often denied access to grandparents, aunts, uncles and other people who love them.

The stripping process can be physical (taking away toys or privileges) or emotional (withholding love and affection). Repetition or repeating the message or program is essential in any kind of learning endeavor. Remember, the abusive parent is teaching the child to fear and hate the other parent ( and anyone who doesn’t collude with her) and disavow his or her normal and natural feelings of love for the other parent.

We-ness is a sociological term used to distinguish an in-group from an out-group. The alienating parent defines all out-group members as unacceptable. For example, It’s Mom and kids vs. the world. It’s just the three of us now. No one understands us. We have to look out for and protect each other. The targeted parent becomes the outsider from whom the children must be protected.

Inferior status involves making the child feel unfavored or less loved. “Children are keenly aware of being less favored by a parent. Lowering of status within the family can be done by exclusion, rejection, or denial of affectionate contact; it is extremely painful, and, in and of itself, may be powerful enough to bring the child in line with the parental programme” (Clawar & Rivlin, 1991, p. 4). For example, a 10-year old boy sees how his sister is rewarded with praise and gets to stay up late with mom to watch TV for rejecting their father and actively being rude to him, so the boy follows suit in order to raise his family status.

How Do You Counter Programming and Brainwashing?

The fact that this often happens unconsciously and unintentionally is bad enough. Adults who consciously and actively engage in these behaviors are reprehensible. This is a form of child abuse for which there are rarely repercussions for the offending parent. In many cases, alienation begins while the marriage is still intact and very early on in a child’s life.

It happens when Mom says something that makes Dad look incompetent or uncaring. Your father can’t be trusted with the simplest task. Mom to the rescue! Or, Your father cares more about his career than us. That’s why he spends so much time at the office. Never mind that Mom refuses to get a job to contribute to the household, which would allow Dad to spend more time at home. Or, Good Christians go to Church, which is why your mother is going to go to hell. The devil has your mother.

If you know this is occurring, you need to do some gentle, but firm reality testing with your kids as soon as possible. Kids typically can’t substantiate the programs they parrot. Gently ask them to give you examples of when you were mean or selfish or never spent any time with them or whatever the accusation is. Show them pictures of you having fun together. Remind them of when you took time of from work to take care of them when they were sick. Ask them if those are the actions of a bad parent who doesn’t love them.

You also need to get your kids into therapy with a mental health professional who understands the reality of parental alienation and how to combat it. The longer you let this go on without intervention, the more difficult it will be to undo the damage. I recommend any parent, man or woman, who’s about to begin the divorce process to insist upon joint counseling specifically to educate both parents about this issue and the lasting psychological damage it can inflict upon children and ‘other’ parents who are the victims of it.

Granted, if your co-parent is hellbent on destruction, there may not be anything you can do to stop her or him right away, but you can get the documentation ball rolling and the sooner the better.

Shrink4Men Coaching and Consulting Services:

Dr Tara J. Palmatier provides confidential, fee-for-service, consultation/coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Shrink4Men Services page for professional inquiries.


  • Clawar, S. S., & Rivlin, B. V. (1991). Children held hostage: Dealing with programmed and brainwashed children. Chicago, IL: American Bar Association.
  • Gardner, R. (1982). Family evaluations in child custody litigation. New Jersey: Creative Therapeutics.

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  1. Jim says

    I think that’s exactly what my last girlfriend did with me. Always with the crap about people she didn’t like. Always on about my inadequacies, always subtly on about how I was a “bad” person. She would also say, “You are my strongest weakness.” As though there is something wrong with me or I’m evil “but” for her grace, she loves me or is just too weak to leave a retched such as myself. Then she put the dagger in deep with a punitive twist. She stepped out, completely justified her move on the count I was all wrong and bad. People do it with people all the time. I’ve done it with people, just in my venting of a particular situation because someone was an asshole or out of line with me. Oh well.

  2. kiwihelen says

    Hi Dr T,

    Another great one. With regards to the joint counselling, there are co-parenting in separated family courses which are part of the process which is expected of separating parents in my own country.

    Seems to me, my SO’s STBX slept her way through this class, or used it for extra training on how to do PAS. :-(

    An additional strategy where there is joint custody, is for friends and family of the victimised parent (VP), who are the same gender as the alienating parent (AP), helping highlight the disonance between their AP “reality” and the kids are experiencing, when they are with their VP.

    In my role as a friend of my SO (which is all the kids know me as, since we are doing this as a long distance thing for now), and another female colleague of his, along with the wife of a close male friend, will all say to the kids in our conversations, why we appreciate and value the SO as a person, so the girls get to hear women saying their Dad is kind, organised, sharing, funny, nurturing, smart, etc

    With Eldest (age 13), when her Dad was having a particularly bad weekend, I ended up talking to her about the balance of her needs as a teen vs. their needs as a family. We’ve also talked about the idea of “changing the script” if there are constant battles on the same topic. She is realising that she has choices, and that is terrific to see.

    I am more worried about Youngest (10 years), who is golden child, and is struggling with transition between parental households, going from being babied and permitted all kinds of liberty, to being in a household where she is expected to follow age appropriate behaviour and rules. There is a LOT of anger in her and no chance that Mom would agree to counselling. We just have to keep working with what we have, acknowledging that she has the right to express anger, and trying to channel it into positive outlets.

    Any advice gratefully received!

  3. 3DShooter says

    Parental alienation is one of the most hideous conducts that one can experience. I say this as a target parent of over five years – my oldest hasn’t spoken to me in that time (didn’t even get a graduation announcement) and the comments from the younger children make it quite clear what has/is going on. The inability/unwillingness of family law practitioners in addressing this problem has become the root of my hostility towards family law.

    As Dr. T points out asking to give examples is, in my opinion, the best/only weapon you have to counter such circumstances. And it can be very effective as far as it goes.

    A problem left unaddressed in the article is the age of the children as a factor. In my case, anecdotally, it appears that pre-teens and teenagers are far more susceptible to alienation tactics. Unfortunately, they can be bought off with a new Xbox, car or unlimited free time with friends (even when it is dad’s parenting time) – and you will be footing the bill for this conduct with full sanction and complicity of the courts.

    The reality as it exists today, in my corner of the world:

    1) Family law practitioners are reluctant/unwilling to pursue parental alienation even when it is clear and obvious.

    2) Custody evaluators (Dr. T’s fellow practitioners) are inadequately trained to recognize the behavior and would be reluctant to note it as they are ‘servants of the court’ (on your dime of course)

    3) The courts don’t care – ‘best interests of the child’, the court couldn’t give a rat’s backside. The court is there to maximize the Title-IVD funding stream – that is their only interest.

    4) Custody evaluators are protected by ‘shield laws’ which allow their report to be the final word. They cannot be challenged and they cannot be sued for malpractice. To me, this is a potential linchpin, remove the shield laws and start dragging these folks into court and there will be a paradigm shift in their conduct.

    For years, my oldest son and I participated in target archery together – he was one of the top shooters for his age in the state. He no longer participates. And, after years of hearing the question “Where’s [son’s name]” I finally stopped going too. If I could find an attorney with a spine I’d go after it in a heartbeat – but it is too late for my oldest son.

    • ChrisH says

      This post breaks my heart. I’m going through very similar things now and while I’m generally an optimist, my ex has exceed all expectations of talent and skill to become an absolute master at this game. It’s just heartbreaking.

      • Dr Tara J. Palmatier says

        Really sorry this is happening to you and the children, ChrisH. I recommend you start visiting and reading father’s rights websites and learn as much about this condition as you can. I also recommend you look into parallel parenting, that is, if you’re still trying to co-parent with your ex.

  4. David M. says

    There are degrees and different types of parental alienation. My ex -started off by saying I could see our daughter and then she would leave the house and not be there. Once I got a court order she was still hostile toward me when I picked up our daughter, but I persevered. Then she moved 200 miles away thinking that would end the relationship with my daughter. The court ordered her to meet me half-way and drive 100 miles. She didn’t like it and continued to be hostile. Then she wouldn’t use my last name with our daughter so I took her to court again. There have been times when my daughter is affectionate and loving with me all weekend and as soon as we get out of the car, at the pick up drop off place, she acts like she doesn’t know me. I know this is so her insecure mother doesn’t get angry with her. It really hurt me in the past but my daughter is becoming stronger and her own person so it doesn’t happen to the degree it did before. $30,000 dollars, 40,000 miles on the car and tons of hostility later I’m still in my daughters life. I’m waiting for the next blindsiding by my daughter’s mom. I feel for anyone who has to go through this. Thanks for the great articles and providing the valuable information you provide. David M.

  5. chris117 says

    Ok, I think I need to play a little devil’s advocate here to show how this can be thrown back at an abuse victim.  This is a real life scenario of a friend of mine although the throw back has not happened yet and pray it doesn’t.  Never the less I can see this happening despite the best intentions.  This is why documenting everything when children are involved is so important at any stage with an abuser.

    The wife is verbally abusive and has a family history of abuse (wife’s mother is a worse abuser than wife).  There are almost daily screaming matches between wife and her mother, and rest of her immediate family.  The child is early school age and is still being taught right and wrong behaviors.  There is a total lack of discipline or morals teaching by the mother and her side of the family.  The abusive side of the family’s stance is that as long as the child is quiet there is no need to watch her/him.

    The child is being taught right and wrong behaviors by the father through good parenting.  As the child begins to put all this information together in her/his mind the truth becomes apparent.  The child realizes that what the mother and grandmother do is wrong and starts to disengage from them.  The child when in their presence and they are screaming hides to get away from it. Or if given the choice often does not want to visit or want to be with them because of the constant screaming that occurs.  The child understands that this is her/his mother and still loves her despite her actions.

    The abusive mother looking for an attack route accuses the father of alienating the child from her and her family.  In reality they did this themselves by being abusive.

  6. 25years says

    Great article.Great comments.This is a great way to receive an education about these cluster B’s.

    I am in the beginning stages of escaping the woman that has abused me and my children for all of these years. It is amazing how she started planting those seeds in my children at such an early age. Now all but one of my kids is in their 20’s, she still tells them what a bum I am. Luckily for me, she has spent the last 2 months in behavior centers for what began as a suicide attempt, mingled with health problems from anorexia. Her bad behavior is well documented and my children are getting educated (although they struggle with processing the information and experiences). Even as she was laying in the hospital, looking like “death warmed over”, she was able to find the strength to tell my children what a bad father and husband I was. Of course when I confronted her, it wasn’t her fault, it was mine.(She also claimed amnesia)

    Now her 2 months at a mental hospital are almost over. My biggest regret? That I had learned of this website before last Friday! All the wasted time I’ve spent in long distant couples counseling, oy! I have this urgent need to act, to be more proactive, to spare myself and my children, especially the on left at home, more pain than they’ve already gone through. I highly doubt that she’ll make it that easy.

  7. Henry Hoover says

    Is there a term when a parent “self alienates”?

    My NPD STBX has been all but uninvolved in our daughter’s life since I filed for divorce, probably longer, but I was too wrapped up in her to notice.

    I have gone out of my way to get her more involved. I read early on in the divorce process about PA and determined that I was not going to do that to my child.

    But despite my best efforts, I can see my daughter and her mother growing more distant. There is no hostility, just detachment.

    Much the same way it was with our marriage.


  8. exscapegoat says

    My mother did things like this a lot when it came to talking about my dad. And it extended far beyond parenting. She tried to make him sound like he was an utter foul up in the military too. But I recently came across his discharge records (he was discharged after an injury). There’s a lot of praise for him and his attitude from his supervising officer.

  9. D says

    3 echoes to things others have said above:

    1) 3DShooter remarks that custody evaluators are protected by shield laws and cannot be sued for malpractice – basically this is both true and it’s resulting in horrible miscarriages of justice that are devastating to the lives of men and children and it has to stop – custody evaluations need to be out in the open, the product of committees not one incredibly empowered tyrant, transparent, standardized and subject to review and even lawsuit, otherwise if this is too much, the should be abolished so that judges are forced to do their jobs and actually investigate and think hard about individual cases

    2) Chris117 points out how this can be turned around against you – this is perversely true. Everything can be turned against you. No matter how well armed you are from sites like this, those determined to cling to stereotype and prejudice have already seen it and already have built-in prejudices and defense mechanisms.

    3) Henry Hoover mentions self-alienation. With cluster-Bs, this would seem like a predictable outcome that we should all be prepared for.

    The scary thing is that the prejudice and stereotypes (i.e.: “he is a male and he’s complaining that she’s abusive and violent … does not compute he must just have it in for her”) + self-alienation (i.e.: “I notice the kids hate their mother but seem to love their father) … comes together to yield a perverse conclusion: dad is alienating the children form their loving mother who most be loving because she cried in my office.

  10. george says

    You mention, “You also need to get your kids into therapy with a mental health professional who understands the reality of parental alienation and how to combat it.” I agree, but how do you find such a person? My son currently has a court ordered psychologist, but he seems unwilling to do anything, even when the evidence is right in front of him. He’s just Dr. WishyWashy. “Well that could be parental alienation or it could just be …..” He just likes to continue to make up excuses for behaviors. It’s like, “Yes, these 1001 bits of evidence and bad behaviors could be accounted for by 1001 disjoint random unrelated excuses, OR more probably they can be explained by the one theme and documented behaviors which is parental alienation!” I feel like even if I had my ex’s alienation behaviors captured on video, he would still make up some abitrary excuse. Why are these professionals so blind or perhaps so afraid to step up and make the proper evaluation when it’s right in front of their eyes?

  11. ChrisH says

    I read this article and I got chills. It’s so very dead-on to my situation it’s startling. I also wonder, as george asks, what’s the best way to find a therapist for the kids who understands and knows how to help us all correct this kind of manipulation?

    • Dr Tara J. Palmatier says

      Start making calls to children’s therapists and ask them if they 1) believe PAS is a real phenomenon (many feminized female and male shrinks don’t) and 2) how do they treat it?

      If they say something like, “by letting the alienating, high-conflict parent have primary custody” keep looking. You don’t stop and reverse PAS by giving the alienating parent more time with the kids. You remove the kids from the alienating parent.

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