Using Family Systems Theory to Explain Parental Alienation

Parents arguing while sad daughter sits at the tableAttachment-based parental alienation is a complex and potentially harmful dynamic whereby a parent manipulates their children to avoid, reject, and disdain their other parent. It can be viewed as a symptom of the narcissistic paradigm and is often of clinical concern regarding the child’s healthy development.

Parental Alienation Characterized

Parental alienation may involve the following symptoms and manifestations:

  • The suppression of the normal-range functioning of the child’s attachment system.
  • A role-reversal relationship in which the child is being used to meet the emotional and psychological needs of a parent (the allied and favored parent).
  • Symptoms of narcissistic and/or borderline personality may also be present in the child and can also of extreme clinical concern for their healthy development.
  • Symptoms in the child can only be the product of “pathogenic parenting” practices and cannot emerge spontaneously or for unrelated mental health reasons.

Roles in the Attachment-Based Parental Alienation Dynamic

In this role-reversal dynamic, the following roles are identified:

  • Pathogenic parent: The parent who psychologically manipulates the child to devalue and discard the targeted parent.
  • Targeted child: The child within a family system who has been singled out for the attention of the pathogenic parent.
  • Targeted parent: The normal-range and affectionately available parent; the “victim” in the story. This is the parent who is scapegoated.

This type of parental alienation incorporates elements of Murray Bowen’s family systems theory, which is based on the dynamics between people in systems.

Bowen believed the family unit was the basic starting point for explaining human behavior.

Bowen believed the family unit was the basic starting point for explaining human behavior. His premise was that “individual behavior seemed determined less by individual choice and more by the individual’s relationship context.” He believed each family member derives their identity from their involvement within the family’s relationship system.

Connecting Family Systems Theory and Attachment-Based Parental Alienation

How is understanding Bowen’s theory helpful for understanding parental alienation? If the targeted parent can understand the underlying dynamics at play, they can use this information to work toward improving their relationship with their alienated child.

Let’s analyze the situation piece by piece, using Bowen’s eight concepts.

1. Triangles

A triangle is a three-person system. It is typically more stable and can handle more tension than a two-person system. A triangle often has one side in conflict and two harmonious sides, and it usually contains an “odd man out,” which can cause anxiety to that person.

Triangulation is a huge part of parental alienation, as the child is triangulated between their two parents, creating a cross-generational coalition. The coalition with the child serves as a vessel for the pathogenic parent to express their anger toward the targeted parent. The pathogenic parenting practices eventually cause the child to reject the targeted parent.

The function of a cross-generational coalition is to direct the pathogenic parent’s anger toward their partner through the child, using the child’s relationship with the other parent to inflict conflict and suffering on the other parent. Through the cross-generational coalition, the child is manipulated into expressing hostility and/or rejection of the other parent for supposed parental inadequacies and failures.

2. Differentiation of self

Part of healthy development involves a differentiation of self. People with a poorly differentiated self are more likely to be dependent on the approval and acceptance of others, to the point that they will try to please or bully others into agreeing with them. A person with a well-differentiated self has confidence and well-established inner boundaries regarding their own values.

Because of the pathogenic parent’s parenting, a child’s psychological boundaries may be compromised, and differentiation from that parent may not occur.

Because of the pathogenic parent’s parenting, a child’s psychological boundaries may be compromised, and differentiation from that parent may not occur. Instead, the child becomes infused with the mindset of the pathogenic parent and alienated from the normal-range parent through covert psychological manipulation on the part of the pathogenic parent.

The ensuing preoccupied attachment with the parent interferes with the child’s development of important ego functions, such as self-organization, affect regulation, and emotional object constancy.

3. Nuclear family emotional process

According to the nuclear family emotional system concept, there are four relationship patterns that help determine where problems develop in a family:

  1. Relationship conflict: As tension rises within the family and each partner gets more anxious, they may externalize their anxiety into the relationship. Both focus on what is wrong with the other, try to control the other, and resist being controlled.
  2. Dysfunction in one partner: One partner exerts control on the other to think and act in certain ways, and the other gives in. Both partners accommodate to preserve harmony, but one does more of it. The interaction is comfortable for both people up to a point, but if family tension rises further, the subordinate partner may yield so much of themselves that their anxiety increases significantly.
  3. Impairment of one or more children: Each partner focuses their insecurities on the children. They may focus either in an idealized or negative way on one or more of the children. The more the parents focus on this child, the more the child may focus on them. This child becomes more reactive than any siblings to the attitudes, needs, and expectations of their parents. This dynamic can diminish the child’s ability for differentiation from the family and make them prone to acting out or internalizing family tension.
  4. Emotional distance: Family members become distant from each other to reduce the relationship intensity but risk becoming too isolated.

The nuclear family emotional process is implicated in the creation of parental alienation. There is obvious relationship conflict and a dysfunctional partner, as well as the impairment of one of the children (the alienated child). Additionally, there is emotional distance between the two parents and between the alienated child and the targeted parent.

4. Family projection process

The family projection process describes the primary way parents transmit their emotional problems to a child. The parents’ fears and perceptions may so shape the child’s development and behavior that the child comes to embody these perceptions. Then the parent tries to “fix” the problem they have diagnosed in the child.

In attachment-based parental alienation, the pathogenic parent projects their views of the other parent onto the child while the child “introjects” these views, believing they are their own.

5. Multigenerational transmission process

This is the process by which differentiation between family members across generations affects individuals and their personal differentiation process. The transmission occurs on several levels involving both conscious teaching and unconscious programming of emotional responses and behaviors. Due to the intricacies of the relationship dynamics, some children develop more of a differentiated “self” than others.

6. Emotional cutoff

This is the concept where individuals attempt to reduce relational tension by cutting off emotional contact with other family members either by physically reducing contact or by simply cutting off emotional connection. Either way, the relationships may look “better,” but the problems have simply gone underground.

The alienating parent and the targeted child both exhibit emotional cutoff to the targeted parent. This can be an abuse of the child’s attachment system, as it is not typically normal or healthy for children to experience emotional cutoff from a parent. This must be taught and is encouraged by the alienating parent.

7. Sibling position

People who grow up in the same sibling position have been found to often share important characteristics. For example, oldest children may tend to gravitate to leadership positions and youngest children might prefer to be followers, while middle children tend to exhibit the functional characteristics of two sibling positions–youngest and oldest. Parents’ sibling positions also have a role in the family interaction dynamics.

Sibling position affects the way a child relates to the world. In general, the targeted child could be of any birth order, but it is commonly the firstborn child. This is the child the pathogenic parent may choose to use as a conduit through which they can deliver abuse to the targeted parent. Using a child in such a manner is abusive (Woodall, 2015).

Once the firstborn child has been fully indoctrinated, they may also work to ensure the siblings eventually follow suit.

8. Societal emotional process

This concept describes how the emotional system governs behavior on a societal level. Cultural forces are important in how a society functions but are insufficient for explaining how well societies adapt to the challenges that face them.

The societal-emotional process is evident in the case of parental alienation. While the targeted parent takes on the role of society, the pathogenic parent takes on the role of the enabling parent. The child begins to disrespect their other parent. The effect is a form of child abuse, as the pathogenic parent is encouraging poor character and behavior in their child. This form of conditioning can be difficult to discern and undo.


  1. Bowen family systems theory. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  2. Childress, C. A. (n.d.). Re: Testimony by a family therapist. Retrieved from
  3. Childress, C. A. (n.d.). Strategic family therapy for a cross-generational coalition. Retrieved from
  4. Childress, C. A. & Pruter, D. (2019). Empathy, the family, and the core of social justice. Retrieved from
  5. Eight concepts. (n.d.) The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. Retrieved from
  6. Woodall, K. (2015). Separating siblings in alienating situations. Retrieved from

© Copyright 2019 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sharie Stines, PsyD

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • KML

    August 30th, 2020 at 5:39 PM

    PA is a legal maneuver, not a psychological phenomenon. It only exists to mitigate the consequences that perpetrators of domestic violence would otherwise face in the context of child custody hearings. Its purpose is to distract the court from the abusive acts committed by the perpetrator (the “targeted” parent, whom defenders of PA will always portray as sympathetic victims), and create confusion about who is the perpetrator of abuse and who is the victim. It’s like when a corrupt political candidate deals with accusations of corruption by calling the other candidate corrupt. It creates the illusion that there is just equal mud slinging on both sides, thereby neutralizing the issue. Hence, there are certain interest groups that try to pressure mainstream mental health organizations to designate PA as a type of child abuse. That will never happen, because PA is roundly considered junk science. Children generally prefer the preferred parent because in most cases the preferred parent was the primary caregiver. The”targeted” parent in many cases showed little interest in the children prior to the divorce, and never had an attached relationship with the child in the first place.

  • Robin

    September 12th, 2020 at 1:38 PM

    I’ve occasionally seen comments like the one above, claiming that all claims of PA are really just used to try to get out of allegations of domestic violence. There are several obvious misstatements in the comment, but I’ll just talk about a couple. First, it’s pretty all or nothing to say that all claims of PA are false. That would be like saying all claims of IPV are also false. That’s just silly. Second, to claim that many targeted parents showed little interest in their children and never had an attachment to their children in the first place shows the commenters ignorance of how attachment works, and doesn’t care about the needs of the child . Also, the commentor has made it all about themself in relation to the targeted parent, without any consideration for the child’s obvious attachment to each parent. It is a severe pathological issue when a child’s attachment to a parent is severed. This causes serious harm to the child and to their future self. But the earlier commentator does not know this and presumably does not care and/or believes that the child’s pathological health will somehow be magically restored later. Pathological parenting occurs that significantly harms children’s mental and physical health. Denying that it’s even possible is being part of the pathology that abuses children.

  • Richard

    June 28th, 2021 at 6:07 PM

    Thank you Robin for an accurate insight. Any parent who is claiming to be the victim of parental alienation is asserting no more than the right to be involved in up to 50% of the parenting of their child. Alienating parents, in contrast, are pushing for 95-100% of parenting for themselves, and would have you believe that this is in the child’s best interest because the other parent, supposedly, is abusive. The paradox at play is that while an alienating parent absolutely wants their account of abuse to be believed, and insist quite accurately that abuse is a real phenomenon, they nevertheless won’t countenance any suggestion that abuse could itself take the form of a fabricated accusation of abuse. Which, moreover, given that the context in question is the family court – where due process is entirely abrogated – means there is a contradiction in their declining to frankly admit that this risks a child ending up isolated in sole custody with an abusive parent. This contradiction undermines their claim to any integrity as regards being alert to all child-protection issues.
    We should add to this that, unlike allegations of abuse, it is virtually impossible to fabricate the outcomes of parental alienation.

  • BB

    August 22nd, 2021 at 5:37 AM

    And, what if the targeted parent did have an established bond with the children prior to being alienated? What if the targeted parent was involved in the children’s lives every day before it began? What if the targeted parent did take the time to form an attachment with he children and now it’s being destroyed?

  • April B

    September 7th, 2021 at 5:30 PM

    I have a senior in high school he has number three or four children. No one has been equipped to help my son and what’s happened to him if inhumane. I just need some help to help my kid speak to me in his siblings and he abusive parent is just on believable I just mean

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.