The Difference Between Estrangement and Parental Alienation

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Most parents would agree that their child is the light of their life. When your relationship is permanently damaged, it can be difficult to recover from that pain. But what caused your distance? There could be many factors at play; in divorce, the law has distinct definitions for parental alienation and estrangement. 

What Is Parental Alienation?

Parental alienation is defined as the deliberate attempt by one parent to distance his or her children from the other parent. An example would be the mother who shares too much information about the father's affair with the children in a covert attempt to cause the children to harbor ill will toward the father.

A mother or father may wish to alienate the children to pay back for the pain experienced due to an unwanted divorce. Or they may attempt to alienate the children due to mental illness that keeps the parent from putting their children's best interest before their own.


On the other hand, estrangement follows multiple conflicts and blowouts between parent and child, says relationship expert Irina Firstein. "There are extremely hurt feelings," she says. "There are feelings of betrayal and of disappointment." It's those hurt feelings due to the behavior of a parent that leads to estrangement. 

The father who leaves the family for another woman and neglects time with his children and dismisses the harm done to his children is likely to become estranged from them. It is fair to say that no one responds positively to poor treatment, least of all children. 

Differences Between Estrangement and Parental Alienation

Parental alienation results from a parent actively working at causing hard feelings between a child and the other parent. Estrangement results from a parent behaving badly toward his/her children which, in return causes the children to cut off contact.

It isn't uncommon for a parent who is estranged from their children to blame the other parent for parental alienation. It is easier to blame others for bad behavior than to accept and acknowledge it themselves.

How does one tell the difference between a parent who is a victim of parental alienation and one that is estranged due to bad behavior? The behavior of the parent during the period of alienation or estrangement is a good indicator of what is truly going on in the parent/child relationship.

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Behaviors of an Alienated Parent

A parent who has been alienated from their child will continue to pursue a relationship with the child. The parent will attempt to communicate on a regular basis, sending emails and cards. The same parent will use the court system to fight the alienating parent and retain their legal rights to a relationship with their child.

The alienated parent is not a parent who gives up or gives in. David Goldman has been open with his experience of alienation. His son was taken to Brazil by his mother who refused to return to the United States and pursued a divorce from Goldman in Brazil. 

Goldman says his ex-wife remarried and she, her family, and new husband used their status and influence to keep Goldman away from his son. The Brazilian courts gave the mother custody of the son. Goldman spent five years fighting in the Brazilian courts and finally regained custody of his son. No battle was too big and no expense too great for this father who had been alienated from his child.

Behaviors Common to an Estranged Parent

The parent who is estranged from a child due to their own bad treatment of the child has a "wait and see" attitude. They don't pursue a relationship with the child because in their mind the child is the one responsible for mending the relationship.

The estranged parent will find it hard or impossible to view the situation from their child's perspective. They don't see their own behavior as playing a role in the problem; rather, they feel entitled to behave badly with no repercussions.

More often than not it is the estranged parent that gives up. They will go months at a time without contacting their children because they are wrapped up in an affair or busy building a new life post-divorce. They don't understand why their children aren't waiting with open arms when they do find time to fit them into their schedule.

Parental alienation syndrome is dangerous to the emotional well-being of children and the continued parental bond with a parent. It is too often used as an excuse by bad parents to justify to themselves the results of that bad parenting and hurtful behaviors toward their children.

In both cases, innocent children suffer due to the inability of a parent to put the needs of their children before their own.

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