Misinformation is not confined to referendums alone: Parental Alienation

by Brian O'Sullivan


Misinformation is not confined to referendums alone – Parental Alienation 

All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed. Secondly, it is violently opposed. Thirdly, it is accepted as self-evident. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860)


I was recently reminded of the potential confusion that misinformation can create in particular about the recent referendums here in Ireland where, certain narratives were put forward by some purporting to create an impression about what the constitution refers to as the “place of women in the home” versus what the constitution actually says about this. The referendum results I would suggest speak for themselves.

I was reminded of the area of parental alienation to include the misinformation surrounding this theme that seems to have resulted in much confusion and misunderstanding with rigid and polarising positions being adopted by some resulting in a deflection away from the children at the centre of the debate. Before I deconstruct some specific themes in this regard, I start by suggesting informed debate and discussion placing child welfare at the centre could be a useful starting point for practitioners, professionals, and researchers.

I suggest the idea that, one parent may turn a child against the other parent in the context of a separation or a divorce is not a new idea. I believe counsellors and psychotherapists are uniquely placed to offer psychoeducation, support and resources with individuals and couples as they commence the separation / divorce process.

The first critique to address may be the point that is often made that goes something like this: "that Parental Alienation is used as legal strategy by abusive parents."

I invite the reader to consider where, there is a finding of fact that one parent has been abusive / neglectful or circumstances where the child has witnessed or experienced domestic violence. It can never be parental alienation. It is contra-indicated to continue an assessment for parental alienation in these circumstances. Parental Alienation can only be considered a valid hypothesis in circumstances where there are no valid rationales for a child to reject a parent (see some examples of rationales provided by children below).

Certainly, some nefarious legal people may frequently advance an argument in courts to protect an abusive parent. Demarcating restricted gatekeeping and protective gatekeeping in these cases is crucial and requires abusive parents to be called out. This requires early intervention and informed evidence-based assessments.

I suggest that just because a lawyer vigorously puts forward an argument regarding parental alienation. This is not a reason to dismiss or deny the dynamic. This is a bit like blaming a car manufacturer every time a car is involved in a road traffic collision.

The second critique often put forward is “Richard A. Gardner, M.D., a child psychiatrist, was the creator and main proponent of a theory called Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). He promulgated the idea in the late 1980s and early 1990s”.

This critique omits the depth and breadth of work before the 1980’s and since the 1980’s. For example, Albert Einstein (1914) was probably the first to use the label alienation when he wrote about the relationship between his son and himself when his marriage ended.


In Ireland the first legal case is cited in the 1830’s where the Earl of Westmeath is said to have alienated his wife the Countess of Westmeath from their child. Interestingly, the Countess of Westmeath relocated to the UK where she collaborated with others to ensure the introduction of the Custody of Infants Act, 1839 allowing mothers petition the Court for custody and access to their children.

Subsequently, the dynamics of alienation formally entered the empirical literature in the 1940’s when a German Psychiatrist, William Reich published his book titled Character Analysis, subsequently, a variety of psychologists and psychiatrists independently documented well known family dynamics remarkably similar to parental alienation from the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s long before Richard Gardner in the 1980’s.


Since the 1980’s forty per cent of the literature has been published regarding the phenomenon referred to as parental alienation. So, we can see how focusing on one contributor in the 1980’s may not be helpful while the wider literature is omitted.

A third critique often cited goes something like this: “Gardner supported paedophilia”.

This critique is an abhorrent allegation, I am reminded of the cliché “it is easy to blame the dead guy” however, fortunately we can look to his peer reviewed publications to seek some clarity around this for example in 2002 Gardner wrote:
I consider paedophilia to be a form of psychiatric disturbance. Furthermore, I consider those who perpetrate such acts to be exploiting innocent victims with little, if any, sensitivity to the potential effects of their behaviour on their child victims. Many are psychopathic.”, “Accordingly, we all need protection from paedophiles. Jail is certainly reasonable place to provide us with such protection”. Yet the critics omit this narrative in their assertions.

Fourth, “It has never been recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), or any other academic association”.

This assertion ignores the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists (1997) who published practice parameters for psychiatrists dealing with custody and access issues. See link here: https://www.jaacap.org/article/S0890-8567(09)62594-6/fulltext Further it ignores the Child and Family Court advisory service in the UK who have acknowledged parental alienation since 2018/2019. See link here: https://www.cafcass.gov.uk/parent-carer-or-family-member/applications-child-arrangements-order/how-your-family-court-adviser-makes-their-assessment-your-childs-welfare-and-best-interests/alienating-behaviours

Fifth is, “it [parental alienation] has never passed the scrutiny of peer review” “The theory of parental alienation is now almost totally discredited by academics” or “Parental Alienation is considered junk science and totally discredited in academia”. These assertions are inconsistent with the findings of Harman et al (2022) who confirm the scientific status of parental alienation.

Additionally, it omits the fact the DSM-5-TR has identified the core elements of parental alienation under the condition of “parent-child relational problem” (including “negative attributions of the other’s intentions, hostility toward the other, and unwarranted feelings of estrangement”).


It ignores the fact that parental alienation has been included as an adverse childhood experience (ACE) for several years now. Furthermore, it is inconsistent with several decisions of the European Court of Human Rights regarding alienation as well as the legislation introduced by several countries aimed at combating parental alienation. See links here: https://parentalalienation.eu/part-2-of-case-note-on-pisica-v-the-republic-of-moldova/ from 2019 as well as here: https://journal.parentalalienation.eu/parental-alienationand-court-inertia-in-the-light-of-the-art-8-%C2%BA-echr-case-study-ecthr17-01-2021-download regarding a Portuguese case in Jan 2023 to name just two examples.

I invite the reader to consider the following rationales provided by children (anonymised) as reasons why they wished to never see or have contact with a parent (or that parents family ever again). Each of these children presented with “he/she abused me”.

I ask you to consider do these rationales strike you as valid rationales for a child to be allowed erase one parent (and that parents family) out of their lives often forever while social, legal and mental health professionals stood by often for several years citing simply “that is the voice of the child”. I suggest there are valid reasons why we do not allow children to smoke, drink alcohol, vote, join the army or drive a car.
• “I do not need her in my life” (10-year-old female).
• “My Mum’s grandparents spoil us”. “It is not good for children to be spoilt” (12-year-old female).
• “Under article 12 of the UN Convention of the Rights of a Child. I do not have to see her again if I do not want to” (11-year-old female).
• “He left us with no money” (seven-year-old female, other parent pays more than 1,000 euros per month).
• “When I was one year of age, she would not change my nappy” (13-year-old male)
• “Before I was born, she wanted me aborted” (seven-year-old female).
• “Mum lets me stay up later than dad”.
• “Dad lets me have more time on my computer games”.
• “He put Avocado on my toast” (nine-year-old female).
• “She makes funny food such burgers out of mince from the butchers”, “I prefer the frozen ones out of ALDI”, “she puts honey on my porridge” (eight-year-old female, no contact with mum for 2.5 years in this case based upon “abuse”).
• “She always invades my space by kissing me” (five-year-old female, no contact for one year).
• “Mum has a set time for me to go to bed and dad lets me stay up late playing on my X-box” (eight-year-old male).
• “Mum will give me a letter for not having my homework done and he won’t” (10-year-old female).
• “Dad gives me chores and Mum does not” (seven-year-old female).
• “She had an affair on us” (seven-year-old female).
• “I was told the Judge was keeping me away from my mam to keep me safe”, (10-year-old female, no safety / risk concerns identified).
• “It would be easier if the Judge told me I had to see mum because I cannot say I want to do this”, (eight-year-old female).
• “I am not allowed to hug mum in front of dad” (six-year-old female).
• “I am only allowed to watch my favourite movie when I am supposed to be with dad, this makes me feel bad” (six-year-old female).

I suggest the time has arrived for informed dialogue among professionals while parking misinformed dominant narratives-based on ideology. I suggest professionals starting point might be collaborating on optimising the outcomes for children.


Written by Brian O'Sullivan M.Sc. (Syst. Psych) MFTAI. PCI College Associate Lecturer

Brian has developed the first academically accredited master’s degree in parental alienation studies across the globe. Graduates include social, legal, and mental health practitioners from Ireland, Malta, Northern Ireland, Russia, Iceland, the UK, Germany, the U.S., Canada, South Africa, China, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand. See the link here: https://parentalalienation.eu/masters-in-parental-alienation-studies/ He can be contacted at brian@changes.ie



Gardner, R (2010) Misinformation Versus Facts About the Contributions of Richard Gardner, The American Journal of Family Therapy, 30:5, 395-416, DOI: 10.1080/01926180260296305 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01926180260296305

Feitor, S (2023) Parental Alienation and Court Inertia in the Light of the Art. 8.º ECHR - Case Study ECtHR 17/01/2021, European Journal of Parental Alienation Practice, Issue 2. https://journal.parentalalienation.eu/parental-alienation-and-court-inertia-in-the-light-of-the-art-8-%C2%BA-echr-case-study-ecthr-17-01-2021-download

Harman, J. J., Warshak, R. A., Lorandos, D., & Florian, M. J. (2022). Developmental psychology and the scientific status of parental alienation. Developmental Psychology.

Harman, J. J., Kruk, E., & Hines, D. A. (2018). Parental alienating behaviours: An unacknowledged form of family violence. Psychological Bulletin.
Kruk, E. (2018). Parental alienation as a form of emotional child abuse: Current state of knowledge and future directions for research. Family Science Review.

O Sullivan. B (2024) The Lived Experiences of Alienated Parents in Ireland An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis, https://journal.parentalalienation.eu/the-lived-experiences-of-alienated-parents-in-ireland-an-interpretative-phenomenological-analysis 

O Sullivan. B, Guildea (2021) Clinical and Legal Aspects of Parental Alienation, Irish Journal of Family Law

O Sullivan et al (2024) Framework Submission to the Department of Justice, Ireland, Public Consultation regarding Parental Alienation, June 2022, European Journal of Parental Alienation Practice, https://journal.parentalalienation.eu/framework-submission-to-the-department-of-justice-ireland-public-consultation-regarding-parental-alienation-june-2022

Sharples, A.E., Harman, J.J. & Lorandos, D. (2023). Findings of abuse in families affected by parental alienation. Journal of Family Violence.


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