top of page
Divorce Poison.jpg

Divorce Poison

Dr. Richard A. Warshak

Book club note by Dana Morningstar

Notes on Divorce Poison

What is divorce poison?

Divorce poison is bad-mouthing, bashing, and brainwashing from one person against either another parent or whole sides of a family.  It often leads to some degree of parental alienation which is where the child is so manipulated by one parent that they cut off contact with the other parent.

Different types of alienation:

Parent-driven alienation.  This is where a parent either intentionally or unintentionally drives a wedge between the other parent and the child to the point where the child doesn’t want anything to do with the other parent.

Child-driven alienation.  Where alienation of a parent occurs because the child is hurt and upset and closes themselves off. (Example of mother who remarries and moves out of state to be with her new husband, leaving her teenage son with his father.)

This is not very common, but when it does occur, the most common triggers are a parent’s relocation, remarriage, extramarital affair, or religious conversion of the parent or child.

If a child does alienate themselves, ask a person close to them to intervene—odds are they will be more receptive to the people they respect and like.

Relief from alienation requires an understanding of all the contributing factors. The child may have their own motives, the rejected parent may be responding in a rigid manner that reinforces the negative attitudes, and the favored parent may be actively or passively supporting the rupture of the parent-child relationship.  In addition to the actions of the parents and child, sometimes the circumstances of the marriage and divorce play a key role.

Severely alienated children relate to one parent, but not to the other, in a consistently negative manner.

A child is not severely alienated when the hostility and apparent rejection:

  • Is temporary and short-lived rather than chronic (not to be confused with intermittent alienation that returns when in the presence of the favored parent).

  • Is occasional rather than frequent

  • Occurs only in certain situations

  • Coexists with genuine expressions of love and affection

  • Is directed at both parents


Justified Alienation.  Alienation is justified when a parent is abusive or dangerous and the child needs to cut off contact in order to stay safe or sane.

Child-driven alienation doesn’t just happen from physical or sexual abuse—it can happen if children witness DV, rage, or the aftermath of violence. Severe emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment, or very poor treatment by a chronically angry, rigidly punitive, intimidating, extremely self-centered, or substance-abusing parent can also result in child-driven alienation.In such cases, the children may not be ready to cast aside their resentment merely because the parent has decided to come back into their lives or treat them better.Most abused children never give up their quest for acceptance and love from an abusive parent.


Examples of how divorce poison happens:

  • A common scenario: a wife in an unhappy/abusive marriage files for divorce and the husband exploits the children’s distress by encouraging them to blame mom exclusively for breaking up the family and to reject her unless she will agree to reconcile with Dad.


How to determine whether divorce poison is really going on:

When professionals fail to recognize that a child’s rejection of a parent is far out of proportion to the parent’s alleged misdeeds and they validate the children’s negative behavior, they become part of the problem. In some cases it is difficult to determine whether the child’s rejection is reasonable or unreasonable, whether the child is better off with or without the rejected parent.

Three questions can help:

1. Prior to the rejection, was there a normal, loving relationship between the child and the parent?

2. If there was a prior history of a better relationship, has the rejected parent’s behavior toward the child deteriorated in a significant manner, as might occur, for example, in the case of a parent who suffers a head injury or one who becomes addicted to drugs?

3. Would the reasons the child gives for the newly developed negative attitudes be sufficient to rupture the relationship without the favored parent’s contributions to the problem?

Normal Reactions to Divorce


Occasional hostility from children is normal, and parents should expect more of it in the early weeks following the breakup.  This is a time when children most need their parents’ attention, patience, sensitivity, compassion, and reassurance.

The author recommends that parents regard a child’s first two consecutive refusals of contact as temporary reactions.  Beyond this, parents should take active steps to understand the basis for the child’s refusal and to ensure contact continues.


With phone conversations, children may not like talking on the phone. Don’t jump to the conclusion that they are alienating.Try to communicate with them in ways that they prefer (text, skype, facebook, etc.)


If your child refuses a scheduled visit, let them know that you understand and look forward to seeing them next time.(Unless they live far away, you may want to insist.)Refusing a scheduled contact may be their way of asserting some control as a means of managing the initial anxiety triggered by your separation.


For young children, separation anxiety may play into why they don’t want to go with the other parent.If this is the case, experiment with gradually leaving the child alone with the other parent until they are comfortable.


Young children (children in general) are very sensitive to parent’s moods.It’s helpful to stay calm and reassuring of the upcoming visit.If the child senses anxiety they might absorb that.


When children act on their fears, their fear grows stronger. (Not wanting to have an overnight with the other parent, for example.)


A child might withdraw contact from a parent if there is a lot of conflict resulting in them communicating with the parent or between the two parents. They may withdraw in order to stay safe, and to bring peace into their lives, not because they are being alienated.If tension and conflict is high, set things up to where both parents don’t have to be there at the same time.One parent can drop a child off at school, the other can pick the child up.


Sometimes parents are so upset at the other spouse leaving, that they put the child in the role of caregiver, saying, “I don’t see how I can live without you while you are gone.”The child may cancel the visit out of guilt and obligation to the parent.This isn’t fair to the child, and they sacrifice their own healthy development in order to take care of a parent.


What kind of parent commits Divorce Poison?

Parents that are hurt, angry, emotionally immature or unstable, and/or personality disordered.  Oftentimes it’s intentional, but sometimes it’s not.

The ideal is to be a unified front (if possible)

The ideal is the united front where parents don’t criticize the other parent to the child and instead work together to have rules and guidelines for the child.

However, staying a united front isn’t always the answer. At times children need to hear constructive criticism of their other parent. Before criticizing ask yourself if you are doing this for the child’s welfare or for your own satisfaction.  Two times dropping the unified front:

  1. You are the target of malignant criticism.If the other parent is saying damaging things about you to the children, don’t ignore it.

  2. The other parent is dangerous, destructive, or deadly.


When telling your child things about your ex, ask yourself 5 questions:

  1. What is my real reason for revealing this information to the children?

  2. How will it help the children to hear what I am about to tell them?

  3. Are the children being harmed by the behavior I am about to criticize? Or are they being harmed by not having the information I am about to reveal?

  4. Do the benefits of revealing this to the children outweigh the possible risks?

  5. If I were still happily married to my spouse, and I wanted to protect our children’s relationship with him or her, how would I handle the situation?


How do they do it?

Mainly through bad mouthing and brainwashing.  The message that our spouse is to blame for the divorce, therefore, carries three hidden requests: don’t be mad at me. Pity me. Join me in being angry at your other parent.

Many children are manipulated by the other parent by:

  • Letting them overhear put downs or conversations that portrays the other parent in a bad light

  • Not allowing the child their own feelings about the other parent

  • Coaching the child to say certain things to therapists or the court

  • Being exposed to a relentless barrage of harsh criticisms of the other parent

  • Encouraged to put down the other parent

  • Making their house seem fun which by contrast makes the other parent seem cruel

  • Using words like, “he/she left us” they are lazy, they don’t care

  • Criticizing the other parent

  • Planting false memories

  • Create good parent/bad parent

  • Saying that the rules in the other parent’s home are disrespectful or treating the child like a little kid

  • Talking about all the benefits of living with them (we have a pool, and you can have dance lessons, etc.)

  • Calling the other parent by their first name instead of mom or dad

  • Insisting that their new family is the family now


Bad Mouthing


  • Bad mouthing kills spontaneous displays of affection as children inhibit their behavior toward one parent for fear of disappointing the other, or appearing disloyal. They develop the guilty sense that they must keep their love for the maligned parent a closely guarded secret. This is what parents do to children when they fail to give them unconditional permission to love both parents.

  • Bad mouthing can leave a more severe and lasting impression when the criticism is particularly harsh, the child is very young, and the parent makes no attempt to offset the impact of the ill chosen words.

  • It is not the child’s job to correct the parent doing the bashing or to defend the target of the bashing. Let them know that you will understand their reluctance to show affection for you in the presence of their other parent.Assure them that you will always know they love you, even when they do not show it. Teach the children how to accept the reality of the bashing rather than pretend it does not exist. The healthiest stance is to adopt a matter-of-fact attitude. The bashing exists. It is irrational. It is unpleasant. And they can’t do anything to stop it.…It’s like a thunderstorm.It’s loud and scary and we don’t like getting caught in one, but it happens and we can’t stop the storm.

  • We protect ourselves by taking cover or removing ourselves from the storm’s path.Kids can tell themselves, “uh oh, Dad’s at it again. Let’s get out of his way and find something else to do until the storm blows over.”


How can it be spotted?

  • Change in behavior.


Who all can be poisoned?

Divorce poison often not only focuses on the other parent, but also on their family.

How can it be prevented?

  • Doing nothing is not a solution.

  • Listen to what your children are saying, don’t be quick to deny or defend. Children must know that they care, before they care what you know.

  • Show genuine empathy.


The formula for resisting alienation has 4 key components:

  1. The environment and manner in which the bad mouthing, bashing, and brainwashing takes place.

  2. Your prior relationship with your child

  3. Specific characteristics of your child

  4. Your response to divorce poison


Divorce Poison is easiest to neutralize when three conditions are met:

  1. The child remains in sufficient physical contact with the target.

  2. The child maintains a psychological connection with the target.

  3. The child is not excessively afraid of the alienating parent.


A long history of a good relationship with a loving, involved, parent does not protect a child from divorce poison.Children may be willing to denigrate the parent whose love is easily granted, in exchange for conditional acceptance from a parent who was previously uninvolved or harshly punitive and rejecting. A child who fears a parent may become that parent’s willing ally in order to avoid the parent’s wrath. A child who felt neglected by a parent may welcome that parent’s new found interest and generosity rather than recognize or acknowledge that the parent is attempting to buy his child’s allegiance through overindulgence.A child may feel obliges to show loyalty to an emotionally fragile parent, even when that means participating in a war against the other parent.


Parent-child relationships are particularly vulnerable when children are first informed of the impending separation, or when one parent actually leaves the home.If your spouse manipulates the children to blame you for the divorce, or to believe you have abandoned them, affection can dissolve overnight as their distress and hurt feelings are channeled into hatred. The risk become multiplied if, for any reason, you have no communication or contact with the children after you leave the home. This keeps you from reassuring the children of your love and helping them understand that they do not have to choose between their parents.


When children begin to show signs of succumbing to divorce poison, the target parent’s reactions may play a crucial role in determining the ultimate outcome. They must exercise self-restraint and show empathy for the children’s feelings despite their children’s obnoxious and belligerent behavior. And they must do everything possible to maintain contact with the children.


Brainwashing is not reversed by presentation of reality.


It is the rare parent who grasps the process of alienation early enough to avoid all the mistakes listed above.

Divorce poison often works fast, spreading to not only that parent but to their whole side of the family, leaving the target parent caught off guard and confused about what is happening.

Divorce poison goes far beyond the amount of criticism and complaints that children normally heap upon their parents. You will see a degree of contempt and cruelty reserved for one’s worst enemies. They treat their parents as though they are unworthy of even the smallest amounts of regard and respect. Others may see them as brats.  Some might order the most expensive thing on the menu and then refuse to eat it; some might scream profanities at their parent; some might threaten to kill their parent; so might leave without saying good bye.  It’s a marked change in behavior which shows the sign of alienation.  Normal children who treat their parents with such disrespect understand that they are violating acceptable manners and rules, and feel guilty for their transgressions.  By contrast, alienated children engage in all sorts of sadistically cruel behavior toward a parent without expressing the slightest but of guilt. The children act entitled to receive material benefits from the target parent, while simultaneously treating them with malice and disregarding their feelings and exhibiting no gratitude for past or current contributions to their welfare.  The parent is relegated to a status of subhuman scapegoat and thereby fair game for any mistreatment.



For the family


  • When you see a child act rude and hateful to the parent, you can say that you are sorry to see this, but don’t try to “talk sense” into the child. Don’t criticize them and don’t punish them for their behavior—doing so will only reinforce to the child that you don’t understand them and will reinforce the alienation

  • Divorce poison spreads fast and to not only the other parent, but to family too

  • Children are more receptive to communication when they are in a good mood. Have fun with them and comment to them how much fun you two are having. Reminisce about the past fun times and what their favorite fun time was.Give your understanding of what they say by repeating it back to them, “so you enjoyed planting flowers with me because I let you get your hands in the dirt and we laughed a lot.”The purpose here is two-fold: to get the memory to become more concrete as well as to remind them that you have fun together.


  • Often when confronted with the evidence of a better past relationship with the target, children give excuses such as, “I was just pretending” or “I only was smiling because (the alienating parent was there).”


  • Once you have emphasized the good relationship you enjoy, bring up that sometimes parents want kids to take sides, and that they will become angry with you.The basic idea is to help the child anticipate the pressure that might be brought to bear on her to renounce you, and then give her some tools to help cope with the pressure.


  • Preventing alienation is easier than overcoming it.



  • Create a neutral place.If the child dislikes one parent (say, mom) and you are family of that one parent (mom), then let the child know that you two don’t need to discuss mom while they are there, and don’t criticize the favored parent in the child’s presence.Focus on creating positive experiences with the child.The child needs to know that your home is a neutral zone and that they can enjoy your company without choosing sides.


Getting legal help: The Role of the Court (ask your attorney for help in getting these things set up)

  • Prohibitions against either parent’s taking the child to see a therapist not mutually agreed upon or appointed by the court

  • An exact schedule of contact between the child and each parent that gives the child sufficient time with the alienated parent

  • Prohibitions against encroaching on the child’s time with the other parent by arranging special activities that conflict with this time

  • Clear procedures for how and where the parent-child contacts will take place

  • Neutral transfer sites, such as the school in order to prevent or limit hostility

  • Low-conflict methods, such as email and faxes, for the exchange of important information about the children, such as report cards, schedules of athletic games, and scout meetings

  • Restrictions and regulations on the alienating parent’s contact with the child when the child is with the other parent

  • A procedure to change the schedule as needed

  • A mechanism through which the court can get information about the progress of treatment and the therapist’s recommendations

  • Explicit, specific, and clear penalties for failure to comply with the court’s directives

  • For the court to specify ahead of time how it will deal with violations



Things to consider:

  • There are many professionals that have a poor grasp of these problems. They not only fail to help, they often make things worse.(Therapy isn’t necessarily the solution—good therapy with a knowledgeable therapist can be part of the solution.)

  • It is important to select a therapist that understands that children can be manipulated, that time doesn’t heal all wounds, and that the loss of a parent-child bond is tragic.

Common misconceptions:

  • The common thought is “If your child hates you, look within yourself for the reason.”Not taking into account the child has been manipulated and brainwashed.

  • That children only hate parents or cut off contact for valid reasons.

  • Underestimating how much divorce poison it takes to cause major damage (not a lot).

  • That a counselor will know how to handle the situation best. (Oftentimes they do not—they can actually make things worse.)


  • That if a parent is loving and kind towards their child, that they will be immune towards divorce poison.


  • That the child will eventually see the truth for what it is.


  • That ignoring or not addressing the issue is okay and that it will eventually “blow over.” (“Time heals all wounds.”)


Plan of action:

  • Strive to be a unified front with your ex if at all possible.

  • Do not talk bad about your ex.

  • Make keeping communication open with your child, and having quality time together your top two priorities.

  • If you become aware of your bad mouthing, first acknowledge to your children that you made a mistake and then apologize. Show empathy for the discomfort your remarks caused. Make it very clear that you want them to love and show love to both sets of parents and extended families.

  • If your child begins to show a change in behavior towards you or your family, talk to them about it.

  • (Talk to them from day one about the divorce and feelings that they might have—and that you don’t want them in the middle, and that it’s okay to have a big mix of emotion and for them to never doubt your love for them, and to promise that if something comes up that the two of you can talk about it, let them know that sometimes people say things out of anger)

  • Don’t punish a manipulated child for acting out—this can drive a deeper wedge between you and them. Seek to find out what’s causing this behavior.

  • Spend as much time with them as possible.Missing visits is a big deal.

  • Don’t turn them into a friend or discuss your divorce with them.

  • Cognitive Dissonance and divorce poison.Our thoughts need to be in line with our behaviors.If a child treats a parent poorly, it’s important to address it quickly, as the longer it continues, the more the child will feel justified in their treatment.


Children learn that they must take sides and hide any positive interactions or feelings regarding the other parent.

Manipulative parents can often manipulate counselors—and children don’t have a voice or the words to describe what was going on. It is far too scary for them to speak the truth. 

Bad mouthing may not sever ties but it does strain the relationship and taint the quality and creates unnecessary tension and conflict which may result to children who are more withdrawn and reluctant to discuss their thought and feelings—or children may have less respect for their parent’s authority.

Children identify with both parents.  Bad mouth your ex and you simultaneously bad mouth your child.  If you are the target of bad mouthing, don’t ignore it, but don’t overact.

Even if your children repeat something bad that your ex has said about you, don’t assume that they are turning against you. Children often repeat such comments because they are troubling. Your children may be seeking help from you.  When you know your children have heard your ex bad mouthing you, ask them how they feel about what you heard. Let them know that you understand how disturbing it was for them to hear such unkind words. Showing such empathy helps children face and express their feelings rather than deny and repress them. It gives them the sense that their pain can be understood and resolved than stored up.  If what they heard is true, let them know that you are sorry they had to hear it. If they repeat things that are untrue, simply explain that the other parent is mistaken and clarify the reality. Don’t retaliate. In fact, your best chance of reducing bad behavior may be to consistently acknowledge the specific things that your ex does for the children and express your appreciation. It is far more difficult to bad mouth someone who frequently says nice things about you.


Brainwashing is bashing that goes unchecked. If children are turning against one parent or withdrawing for no reason having to do with that parent, then brainwashing is what’s happening.

Common ways of corrupting reality/brainwashing:

  • Manipulating names to disrupt the child’s identification with the target (calling a parent by their first name instead of by mom or dad)

  • Repeating false ideas until they are assumed to be true and are embedded in memory

  • Selectively directing the children’s attention to negative aspects of the target while ignoring positive aspects

  • Dropping the context of a target’s behavior

  • Exaggerating the target’s negative behavior

  • Telling lies about the target

  • Revising history to erase positive memories of the target

  • Claiming that the target has totally changed

  • Suggestions that convey in a covert manner negative messages about the target

  • Encouraging the children to exploit the target

  • Projection of the brainwasher’s own thoughts, feelings, or behavior onto the target

  • Rationalizations that hide the perpetrator’s real motives and make the target look bad

  • Self-righteous tones intended to ward off careful scrutiny of the programmer’s reality distortions

  • Denunciations cloaked in religious dogma

  • Associating the label “the truth” with the programmer’s implanted scenarios

  • Overindulging the children with excessive privileges, material possessions, and low expectations for responsible behavior to buy their allegiance

  • Encroaching on the children’ time with the target and sabotaging their enjoyment of special activities

  • Instructing children to keep secrets from, spy on, and lie to the target

  • Conspiring with others to reinforce the programming

  • Programming the children to resist attempts to undo their indoctrination


  • If your children are acting out, remember that they are being manipulated to serve as vehicles to express the other parent’s hostility. Don’t punish them for the sins of the alienating parent.

  • The children are primed to see you in a bad light and are looking for excuses to justify

  • Your reactions and/or loss of temper will play directly into the hands of the alienating parent. Even one lapse of judgment can be raised repeatedly in court and exaggerated to create the impression that it is typical of how you mistreat your children. Your behavior will them be mistaken as the cause of alienation rather than an isolated desperate reaction to it.

  • Maintain contact. When children repeatedly complain about being forced to see the alienated parent, many parents make the crucial mistake of telling them, in effect, “If you are so unhappy being here with me, stop coming and return when you have a more positive attitude.”*If the goal is to improve your relationship with your children, ceasing contact will not bring you any closer.

  • Maintaining contact is crucial for reversing alienation.

  • Even if they reject you, if you counter-reject them, on some level they will feel hurt and abandoned and will channel their pain into more anger and alienation.

  • Years later the children remember the perceived abandonment and blame the alienated parent for the ruptured relationship saying, “You didn’t want to see us anymore.”

  • The absence of contact can be distorted in court to argue that you caused the alienation by your rejection of the children.

  • As long as the children are dependent on the alienating parent, they may not be able on their own to resist divorce poison. When you lose contact with them, you lose the opportunity to help them escape or withstand the noxious environment.In too many families, when children are allowed to determine when to contact the alienated parent, they never see or talk to that parent again.

  • Children that were once loving but are now hateful, are much like brainwashed cult members—their thoughts are not their own.Try to not hold it against them.

  • Avoid getting drawn into a debate about their reasons for their hatred.It is tempting to dispute the rationalizations the children give for their newfound hatred. Resist this temptation and instead concentrate on having pleasant experiences with children, because it is a debate you cannot win. They believe their reasons are sound and will the implication that they are being absurd. (CD)

  • Children are sometimes coached to give false reports of physical or sexual abuse

  • False beliefs that are instilled in a child about physical or sexual abuse can have the same results and problems as a child who actually suffered abuse. The child comes to distrust her caretakers in the same way she would if actually abused.Her view of sexuality is corrupted at an early age, and this may lead to problems in sexual adjustment as an adult. Her ability to trust in close relationships is impaired.

  • False memories can be easily implanted into a child by telling them repeatedly that something happened, or by telling them other stories of bad behavior that their parent supposedly did.

  • Just because a memory report is expressed with confidence, detail, and emotion does not necessarily mean that the underlying event actually happened.

  • Exploiting abuse to exact revenge on an ex.If a child does undergo abuse, (a mother’s date exposing himself to her child) then the father may seek to not have the daughter go over there any more, arguing that the daughter was now afraid to see her mother.

  • Positive behavior can awaken positive attitudes.Surround your children with other people who treat you well (and that you also treat well) this will make their behavior seem out of place, and will also plant the seed that other’s like you—and will hopefully get them to question their own thinking and behavior

  • Parroting adults.Children will often incorporate their parent’s words into their own descriptions and catalog of complaints. This is especially obvious when the words go far beyond their normal vocabulary and understanding, or they express attitudes that are very unchildlike. “He buys me too many toys and is trying to spoil me.” “She keeps violating my privacy.”

  • It’s not uncommon for an alienating parent to tone down their poisoning of their child once they’ve realized that the alienation is working.This can be misconstrued by therapists and others as the child not being under the influence of the other parent by that’s not necessarily true—a child doesn’t need to look to another parent (or be coached by them) once the brainwashing is complete.

  • Do not contribute your child’s actions to your ex.The child will think you are trying to be manipulative and/or they will feel dismissed.

  • When most relatives experience the child’s behavior they try to either reason with them or reprimand them.If the children say they’ve been abused or give strange or ridiculous reasons they are called liars and feel misunderstood and resentful and in turn begin to distance themselves from the relatives.

  • Alienation often strikes with vicious speed and little advance warning.

  • When a child is being encouraged to be disrespectful to a parent by the other parent, normal scolding doesn’t help—because in the child’s mind they aren’t being disrespectful, (they are expressing their hurt and anger) they are being protective of the other parent or of themselves


When to have a child evaluated for Parental Alienation:


If children have several of these signs, consider having them evaluated for parental alienation:


  • Unreasonable, persistent, negative attitudes (anger, hatred, fear, distrust, or anxiety ) about a parent who was viewed more favorably in the past.

  • No apparent guilt for treating the parent with malice, contempt, and utter disrespect; exploits parent by accepting money and gifts without gratitude

  • Explanations for the hatred or fear that are trivial, irrational, inadequate, and out of proportion to the rejected parent’s behavior (or false allegations of abuse)

  • One-sided views of parents: children describe the alienates parent in negative terms (sinner), and minimize positive feelings, thoughts, or memories about that parent. By contrast, children describe the other parent as nearly perfect.

  • In any conflict between the parents, the children automatically support the favored parent without exercising critical thinking or considering other perspectives. Some children ask to testify against a parent in court.

  • Parroting adult language. These exceed the child’s normal vocabulary and understanding or concern adult matters such as court motions, evidence, and testimony

  • Preoccupation with the favored parent while in the rejected parent’s presence, including frequent and lengthy phone conversations and texting

  • Declaration of independence—the children profess that their rejection of one parent is their own decision and that the other parent had no influence on the alienation

  • Hatred by association. The children denigrate, and reject relatives, friends, even pets associated with the rejected parent, despite a previous history of gratifying relations


Alienation without divorce poison.  Divorce poison is not the only cause of alienation. Children can reject the other parent when they’ve done little or nothing to foster alienation. Sometimes the alienation is justified. In other cases the alienation reflects a child’s exaggerated response to a difficult situation.


If you have been falsely accused of alienating your child, check the following list of situations that may result in a misdiagnosis of the problem:


  • Your child occasionally criticizes your ex but does not engage in a campaign of denigration and does not refuse to spend time with the other parent

  • Your child is antagonistic to both you and your ex

  • You occasionally criticize your ex but do not engage in a severe campaign of denigration.

  • Even though your behavior is bad, your child doesn’t show signs of irrational alienation

  • Your child’s alienation is a realistic and appropriate response to severe maltreatment at the hands of the other parent

  • You have neither overtly or covertly contributed to, influenced, or supported your child’s alienation at any point in time and have made considerable efforts to foster a healthy relationship between your ex and your child

  • Your child exhibits only temporary or occasional resistance or reluctance to be with the other parent or make the transition between parental homes

  • Your child refused to spend time with the other parent only in certain circumstances, such as in the presence of the parent’s new partner.


How do people have such malignant behavior—bashing and brainwashing their own children?

Blurred boundaries. The parent sees the child as an extension of themselves.  “We don’t need you.” “we don’t want to see you.”

Kids should be able to look to their parents for support and guidance and not the other way around. When they are required to devote themselves to their parents’ emotional needs, they must prematurely surrender a part of their childhood.

If parent-child boundaries are blurred or in danger of being blurred, being a dialogue with your child about similarities and difference in appearance and preferences for food, TV, colors, music, etc. How is your child like and different from each parent?  Challenge them to come up with three ways they are like each parent. Next move the discussion to feelings. How are they alike and different from their parents in these ways?  They are afraid of the dark, you are not. They like cartoons, you like comedy. Then move onto anger.  They may be angry at their sister and want you to be angry too, but you don’t have to be. You don’t have to feel the same as mommy or daddy. You can have your own independent feelings.

Helping children to insulate themselves from a parent’s malignant influence is important, but it is usually not enough. To stop divorce poison, we must identify the specific motives, feelings, personality traits, and situations that drive the perpetrator.  Different motives call for different responses, because a strategy that may end bad mouthing in one parent may intensify it for another.

Ways to help diffuse the divorce poison:

Much divorce poison comes from a person being angry over real or perceived offenses.  Whether they are legal or due to cheating or what have you.  If you did something wrong, that can’t be changed, but you can acknowledge the wrong doing and the pain you caused and ask your ex to not make the children suffer for your sins.  By acknowledging the pain that was caused, you may accelerate the process of healing.

You may want to consider couple’s therapy—even if you are divorced, in order to learn to get along.


When narcissism drives divorce poison:  look for:

  • An overly inflated view of the person’s own importance (a “legend in their own mind”)

  • A tendency to exaggerate accomplishments

  • An excessive need for admiration

  • A noticeable lack of empathy

  • Excessive envy

  • A constant belief that others envy them

  • An imperious, condescending manner

  • A sense of entitlement that pervades interpersonal relationships


Narcissists use divorce poison to compensate for feeling inferior as parents—anything you can do to support their egos in a reasonable manner may lessen their need to put you down.  Narcissists are very concerned about appearances, and it can be helpful for them to retain the title of joint custody even if the child is rarely there.  Stripping them of this title can make brainwashing worse.  Give them contributions they can brag about such as being a scout leader or a participating in school projects.  If the divorce poison continues, take legal action.

Guilt.  Some parents have so much guilt that they try to deflect attention from their own failings by focusing on how much worse the other parent is.

Insecurity.  Some parents may feel insecure and think that their child will become more bonded to the other parent than them.  They do not realize that children have enough room in their hearts to love both parents, despite the limitations of each.  …Take action to avoid appearing competitive against the other parent.  If the children enjoy a special activity with the other parent, don’t duplicate the activity in your home. Let them have unique pleasures with each parent.


Holding on with hate. 

  • Constantly pumps neighbors and friends for information about you and your activities

  • Frequently initiates contact with you: this may take the form of stalking, calling often, leaving long voice-mail messages, or threatening lawsuits

  • Tried to draw you into arguments that rehash old marital grievances

  • Is preoccupied with expressing hatred for you even when you are not around

  • Constantly shows up at places where you are sure to be

  • Makes no attempt to inhibit hostile exchanges in public; provokes embarrassing scenes at children’s school and athletic events

  • Seems to take pleasure in the hostile encounters: for example, when talking about the turmoil he creates, is unable to suppress a gleeful smile

  • Though denouncing you as evil and worthless, periodically raises the possibility of reconciliation. Or gives you the distinct impression that he wants to reconcile.



  • Feel like others are either with them or against them

  • Tend to fill in the missing pieces with fabrications and distortions

  • Take action.

  • Try to keep a paranoid ex informed of relevant matters

  • Communicate clearly in a calm and respectful tone of voice.

  • Avoid any appearance of concealing things

  • Give the paranoid parent time to think about any proposals before expecting a response

  • Set clear and reasonable limits and then stick to them

  • As much as possible, follow through on your agreements and act in a predictable manner.


Re-enacting a childhood trauma.  Some do exactly what their parents did to them and they don’t even realize it.  Have a sibling or their friend talk to them.  Get them to remember how they felt, and then ask them to not do the same to their children.  If you contact their friends or family and they learn about it, they will most likely be upset. Take this into consideration before taking action.

If you have previously had a good relationship with your child, you can attempt to prove alienation by keeping a journal of what’s been going on and your child’s response.  You can also get witnesses and/or written statements from coaches, teachers, and others who would not expect to be biased.

The poisoning parent may try to get the child to write or sign something saying that they want to live with them.  It’s a good idea to talk to the child ahead of time and let them know they don’t have to sign anything, and that this is adult stuff.

Parents who engage in bad mouthing, bashing, and/or brainwashing stand a greater chance at losing their children than parents who do not.

Avoid attorneys who generate unnecessary conflict and hostility.

Choose an attorney with a reputation for amicable resolutions out of court

Try to reduce hostility towards your spouse.

When a former spouse moves on—even if the relationship was good before, tensions tend to flare up again, and you are most risk for bad-mouthing, bashing, and brainwashing.

When a former spouse begins dating or plans to get remarried, a lot of old feelings can surface—similar to the feelings of first going through the divorce.  They may pretend the new relationship doesn’t matter and that they are concerned that it bothers the children so much (when it really bothers them—especially if the children don’t seem bothered by it).  Or they may say that they are fine with them moving on, but then have issues with their new choice of partner.

  • Reaffirm the connection that will always exist between the two of you as a result of having children together

  • Emphasize that your remarriage does not diminish the importance of cooperation in raising the children

  • Acknowledge that the remarriage is an adjustment for everyone; the children deserve both parents’ support in coping with this transition, just as they would expect with other transitions in their lives, such as a change in schools.

  • Ask your ex to put themselves in your place and imagine how he or she would like you to handle it with the children if he or she announced plans to remarry


3 Key factors that often trigger attempts to alienate children:

  1. The wish to erase the ex from the child’s life in order to “make room” for the stepparent

  2. Competitive feelings between the ex-spouse and stepparent

  3. The new couple’s attempt to unite around a common enemy


Checklist of malignant motives

  • Poor boundaries—failure to recognize the distinction between the parent’s thoughts and feelings and the child’s needs

  • Desire for revenge

  • Narcissism—the drive to magnify one’s own importance while diminishing the value of the other parent

  • Guilt—the attempt to deflect attention from one’s own failings as a parent by denigrating the other parent

  • Insecurity—the fear that the children will prefer the other parent

  • Desire to vent anger about the ex-spouse and have feelings validated by friends without taking steps to protect children from exposure to criticisms of the other parent

  • Unwillingness to accept the end of the marital relationship

  • Paranoia—unwarranted belief that the other parent is fostering alienation

  • History of a poor or absent relationship with at least one parent

  • Hostility toward the children—exaggerated efforts to protect the children to cover deep-seated antagonism

  • Involvement in custody litigation

  • Remarriage of one of both ex-spouses and a desire to “replace” the ex with the new partner


Stripping.  A term originally used for cults, in that they require members to strip away all remnants of their former life—and dress and act in the way they want them.  In divorce poison, the parent “strips” the house/life of any traces of the ex.  Sometimes including their last name, or changing the children’s last name.  Or stripping the other parent of their title of “mom” or “dad” and instead calling them by their first name.

As far as the courts (and flying monkeys go) if you know your ex is trying to make you look bad, don’t make it easier.  They will provoke feelings of anger and frustration in you in order to try and get you to react.  If you give in, your behavior will be taken out of context, and will provide additional ammunition for a campaign of hatred.  If your child is behaving in a frustrating and angry way, remember, that no parent ever softened a child’s heart by treating her harshly.

Religion is often used to back up hurt and feelings of self-righteousness, and can be very persuasive as God is often seen as an absolute authority. Children are pressed into alienation as a demonstration of faith.

When poisoning parents coach children, they often say lies and then repeatedly call them “truths.”  It’s important that an attorney or therapist ask them how they came to learn that this was the truth, or ask them if that is what really happened.


How can it be reversed?

To increase the chances of reversing alienation:


  1. Don’t lose your temper, act too aggressive, or harshly criticize your children.

  2. Don’t counter-reject your children by telling them that if they don’t want to see you, you don’t want to see them.

  3. Don’t passively allow the children and your ex to dictate the terms of your contact with them. Don’t wait patiently until the children fee “the time is right” for them to see you. Alienated parents learn too late that the time is never right.

  4. Don’t spend your time with the children trying to talk them out of their negative attitudes. Engage in conflict-free, pleasurable interaction instead.

  5. Don’t dismiss the children’s feelings or tell them that if they’re not really angry or afraid of you. Although this may be true, the children may feel that you don’t understand them.

  6. Don’t accuse the children of merely repeating what the other parent has told them. Again, although this may be true, the children will vehemently deny it and feel attacked by you.

  7. Don’t bad mouth your ex.

  8. Most discussions of divorce poison with children are best conducted when you and your child are relating well.

  9. You can also intentionally say things so that children can overhear them—such as talking to a friend on the phone about how things are so different now between you two.Make sure to not bad mouth the other parent.

  10. If the child and their siblings have all been poisoned, it might be easier to get through to the children one at a time, and to spend time with them separately.Focus on rekindling the relationship with the child who is least alienated. Success with this child will give you more confidence and hope in repairing the other relationships. Also, when the other children seen their brother or sister enjoying the benefits of a happy relationship, it may remind them of what they are missing and motivate them to reconnect.

  11. Don’t pressure the children who you’ve been able to deprogram into deprogramming the other children. This will only serve to fracture their relationship—exceptions might be with older children or young adults who have more influence over younger siblings.

If you’re thinking of walking away:

  1. Let the child know that you love them and are open to talking to them at any point down the road and that you will keep the same phone number and email

Dana Morningstar Thrive After Abuse.jpg

Dana Morningstar is a former psychiatric nurse turned domestic violence educator who specializes in abuse awareness and prevention. Her passion is working with survivors of abuse to reclaim and rebuild their self-esteem, boundaries, confidence, and identity. She is an author of multiple books on the subject, and also has a blog, podcast, and YouTube channel, as well as several online support groups, all of which you can find under the name “Thrive After Abuse.”

  • YouTube
  • Amazon
  • Facebook
bottom of page