Part 2: Parental Alienation, Parent-Child Contact Problems, and Gatekeeping

A Summary of Current Research on Concepts, Issues, Interventions, and Best Practices

By Dr. Julianne Ludlam
This is the second article in a series of three.
Part 1 | Part 2 (here) | Part 3 (coming)

Parental alienation is a controversial concept in mental health and legal fields, despite its continued use in high-conflict family-court disputes. New research and several alternative terms have now been applied to cases of children who resist contact with a parent, and these cases continue to be challenging for courts, clinicians, and attorneys.

This series of articles describes the current research on parental alienation (PA) and parent-child contact problems. The first installment described the overlapping terms and concepts related to PA, such as gatekeeping and parental alienating behaviors (PABs), as well as some of the models used to assess and describe the problem. This second article describes some of the major conceptual and practical issues surrounding alienation, based on recent reviews of the literature. The third will discuss interventions and offer recommendations for attorneys and evaluators involved in such cases.

Current Issues

The Utility of PA as a Concept
Due to the lack of consensus around definition, etiology, and prevalence, many researchers have reported concerns about the continuing use of the concept of PA, particularly in court proceedings (Fidler & Bala, 2020). There are no valid empirical assessment protocols or tools that can reliably measure or establish the presence of alienation nor distinguish it from other types of parent-child problems, such as estrangement or justified rejection (Fidler & Bala, 2020).

For this reason, some researchers have suggested alternative terms, such as parent-child contact problems (PCCPs) and resist-refuse dynamics (Fidler & Bala, 2020). However, others have argued that changing the terms does not resolve the issue, as PA concepts may still be applied loosely and without standards (Johnston & Sullivan, 2020). Fidler and Bala (2020) noted that most professionals involved in these cases are dedicated to the best outcomes for children and families and agree that the goal is to determine if rejection of a parent is justified (realistic estrangement) or unjustified (alienation). Disagreement arises around the utility of the concept of PA. However, there is general agreement that there are different types of PCCPs with multiple contributing factors, and that resisting or rejecting a parent may occur for either justifiable or unjustifiable reasons.

This is an acronym- and terminology-dense area of research and discussion. Note that the following terms have substantial overlap, as they are all essentially attempts to describe the same problem: children who appear to be resisting contact with a parent.

  • Parental alienation (PA)
    A poorly defined but frequently used term usually intended to describe the adverse effects of one parent interfering with the other parent’s relationship with a child.
  • Parental alienating behaviors (PABs)
    An alternative (and preferred) term intended to aid in the reliable measurement and assessment of PA; it refers to a pattern of negative attitudes or behaviors communicated by one parent about the other parent to their child, resulting in that child resisting the maligned parent.
  • Parent-child contract problems (PCCPs) and resist-refuse dynamics
    Alternative terms suggested in the research to describe cases in which a child resists contact with a parent; these broader terms are preferred in the research, as they shift the focus from one parent’s negative attitudes or behaviors to the many possible reasons a child might resist a parent in a high-conflict divorce.
  • Gatekeeping
    Behaviors and attitudes by one parent that either facilitate or restrict contact between the other parent and the child; gatekeeping is a well-researched concept thought to occur on a continuum and to vary in degree and quality as well as across behavioral domains.

Single Factor vs. Multifactor Models
Theories developed to explain PA have been expanded from a single-factor model to a multifactorial predictive model, but beliefs and assumptions based on the single-factor model persist. Johnston and Sullivan (2020) explained that the single-factor model – that the alienating parent is primarily the source of a child’s rejection of a parent – continues to be widely believed despite the actual complexity of the problem. A single-factor model assumes a child is either a victim of abuse or a victim of PA, precluding the possibility of both. It also assumes that any alienation present must be the fault of the favored parent, and that the alienated parent is without parenting deficits if no abuse is found (Johnston & Sullivan 2020).

In contrast, the multifactorial model (initially developed by Kelly & Johnston in 2001) is based on substantial social science research and considers an array of factors that can create an alliance with one parent over another (Deutsch, Drozd, & Ajoku, 2020; Johnston & Sullivan, 2020; Fidler & Bala, 2020). Resistance to contact with a parent may involve, for example, a history of inadequate parenting by the alienated parent, an overanxious and protective favored parent, and/or a child’s discomfort with the custody schedule (Johnston & Sullivan, 2020).

In the multifactorial model, parental alienating behaviors (PABs) are viewed as one factor that may account for a child’s resistance or refusal of contact; many other factors, such as developmental or attachment issues, divorce and step-family transition issues, a previous absence of an alienated parent, problematic parenting by either or both parents, third-party influences, chronic litigation, a history of marital conflict, and psychological disorders in a parent are possible. Fidler and Bala (2020) stated that although some cases of PCCPs may be due to one parent, both parents often bear some responsibility, and “focusing on a single cause is rarely helpful” (p. 576). They listed eight broad contributing factors to PCCPs:

  1. 1
    child factors (age, cognitive capacity, temperament, vulnerability, special needs and resilience);
  2. 2
    parent conflict before and after the separation;
  3. 3
    sibling relationships;
  4. 4
    favored parent factors (parenting style and capacity, negative beliefs and behaviors, mental health, and personality, including responsiveness and willingness to change);
  5. 5
    rejected parent factors (parenting style and capacity, negative reactions, beliefs and behaviors, mental health, and personality, including willingness to change);
  6. 6
    the adversarial process and litigation;
  7. 7
    third parties such as aligned professionals and extended family; and
  8. 8
    lack of functional co-parenting and poor or conflictual parental communication (p. 579).

Reunification in Cases of PCCPs and Abuse
Another issue related to cases of PA, PCCPs, and gatekeeping involves the goal of family reunification or of maintaining contact with both parents, even in situations involving abuse or IPV. Several authors noted there is substantial research to support the idea that children benefit from good relationships with both parents when no safety issues are present, and the law generally follows that presumption (Austin, Fieldstone, & Pruett, 2013; Fidler & Bala, 2020). Some researchers suggest it may still be in a child’s best interest to repair and maintain a relationship with a rejected parent even in cases of abuse, neglect, or poor parenting, and “even when the child has good reasons to be fearful or feel stressed, uncomfortable, hurt or angry with a parent,” as long as safety issues are no longer present (Fidler & Bala, 2020, p. 590; Deutsch et al., 2020). Fidler and Bala (2020) stated:

Developmental research and legal policy in child protection, as well as in custody and access contexts, support children having healthy and safe relationships with both parents; this applies to children who may have been abused and those who may have been alienated (p. 585).

Deutsch and colleagues (2020) agreed that reunification with a resisted parent may be in a child’s best interest even with confirmation of abuse but stated that each case should be evaluated individually to determine the best approach. Both reviews warned that some children who experience abuse do not resist an abusive parent and may seek out contact with that parent. Both also agreed that there are cases in which a relationship between a parent and child should not be supported, such as when safety risks continue despite interventions or when children who have experienced abuse are resisting the parent who abused them (Fidler & Bala, 2020; Deutsch et al., 2020).

Conclusions: Current Issues Related to Parental Alienation
The concept of PA is heavily criticized in the research due to problems with clarity, validity, and reliable measurement. Less ambiguous alternatives, such as parent-child contact problems (PCCPs) or resist-refuse dynamics, have been suggested. PCCPs are now believed to have multiple contributing factors, and resisting or rejecting a parent can be considered either justifiable or unjustifiable. Current issues involve cases of both PCCPs and child abuse. Despite significant research indicating that a child’s rejection of a parent is likely complex and multifactorial, family courts may tend to frame such problems simplistically, as either abuse or alienation. Finally, although research generally supports reunification with resisted or even formerly abusive parents, there are cases in which such relationships should not be supported.

Coming Next

The third article in this series will describe interventions for PCCPs and offer recommendations for attorneys and evaluators.

Want to talk to someone about this? 

Contact Dr. Ludlam: or call 919-493-1975.

Austin, W. G.  (2018).  Parental gatekeeping and child custody evaluation: Part III: Protective gatekeeping and the overnights “conundrum.”  Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 59(5), 429-451. 

Austin, W. G., Fieldstone, L., & Pruett, M. K.  (2013).  Bench book for assessing parental gatekeeping in parenting disputes: Understanding the dynamics of gate closing and opening for the best interests of children.  Journal of Child Custody, 10, 1-16. 

Deutsch, R., Drozd, L., & Ajoku, C.  (2020).  Trauma-informed interventions in parent-child contact cases.  Family Court Review, 58(2), 470-487. 

Drozd, L., Saini, M., Walters, M. Fidler, B., & Deutsch R. M. (2020). Changes in Resist-Refuse Dynamics Checklist (CRDC).

Fidler, B. J., & Bala, N.  (2020).  Concepts, controversies and conundrums of “alienation:” Lessons learned in a decade and reflections on challenges ahead.  Family Court Review, 58(2), 576-603. 

Johnston, J. R., & Sullivan, M. J.  (2020).  Parental alienation: In search of common ground for a more differentiated theory.  Family Court Review, 58(2), 270-292. 

Saini, M. A., Drozd, L. M., & Olesen, N. W.  (2017).  Adaptive and maladaptive gatekeeping behaviors and attitudes: Implications for child outcomes after separation and divorce.  Family Court Review, 55(2), 260-272. 

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