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

  • Robert

    December 15th, 2021 at 7:47 AM

    KLM has a lot of nerve professing that this is a legal maneuver. obviously you’ve never been a victim of a loyalty conflict which turns into triangulation which turns into alienation. obviously you haven’t done enough research and don’t understand the brainwashing that a narcissist with a borderline personality disorder, that has been passed down through the generations, does to the children obviously it can be a legal maneuver and some lawyers may use it in the way that you’re saying but for you to say that it’s only illegal maneuver only makes you sound ignorant.
    Go watch the nine videos from Craig childress on YouTube on parental alienation and how it happens in the framework of family Dynamics and the attachment model of parenting.
    I raised my kids for the first 8 years of their lives while my ex went and got her Master’s degree and got her tenure at the city school district and then wanted the divorce. she presented it to me in the middle of the night, finals week, of the first semester of the degree program that I was in, so that I could get a career. I was very bonded to my children.
    I was also my son’s soccer coach. I took them on vacations I did fun things with them.
    That loyalty conflict began when she put a cell phone in my 11-year-old daughter’s hand and told her to call her if she ever was afraid of her father. reports of negative behavior about Dad escalated to the point where my daughter claimed that I had slammed her head into a wall and gave her a concussion, which ended our relationship.
    because of the inappropriate actions of my ex that would make any person angry,
    I was slapped with an order of protection, false allegations against me, that she used as a weapon to entrap me and make false claims against me to have me arrested six times, and of course in the midst of all that I’m put on probation and violated probation with every subsequent arrest.
    Nine unfounded CPS cases. Two integrated domestic violence Court cases.
    28 days total spent in jail for stuff that normal people would be able to handle and work out themselves.
    Those things only encase about half of what I had to deal with and I’m still dealing with.
    Know what you’re talking about before you jump into this arena. It’s incredibly insulting. If you haven’t experienced it,you don’t know what it is. the professionals who deal in this type of situation will tell you that 90% of therapists will miss what is really going on in these situations. It’s a very small portion of high conflict divorce.

  • Richard

    December 18th, 2021 at 7:35 PM

    Thanks, Robert, for putting that so well. No one, not even KML, can assert the substantial scale of domestic abuse without acknowledging that the human failings that drive it are one and the same as those that are just as capable of driving alienation – itself a form of domestic abuse, in any case. Where abuse is at its most severe is precisely where we find the wayward behavior being impelled by a personality disorder, and that’s also where we find severe alienation occurring. I list below what might be called the “Eleven Great Expectations Dashed by Alienation” as encountered at different stages by the alienated parent. You’ll notice that items 1, 3, and 6 are especially where KML’s approach falls short; a presumption of conventional domestic abuse at those three stages simply closes down any consideration of possible alternative explanations.
    1. You expected a marriage denouement from a +10 romance down to +5 or +1 or even 0, over time- that’s life! To go from +10 down to -10 (absolute malicious hatred of you) is NEVER expected. But this is precisely what happens if your partner has a personality disorder (narcissist), or is a callous opportunist.
    2. You expected your friends and family to be neutral; however, you didn’t expect them to remain neutral when the situation is DISTORTED against you (for example, when we are not seeing our children at all). But a good family’s notion of keeping the peace is to remain neutral, most especially because allegations (albeit almost certainly false) always have some measure of success at discrediting you
    3. You didn’t expect society to broadly consider:
    · If a dad is kicked out: He must have done something bad enough to deserve it (wandered to infidelity, or domestic abuse)
    · If a dad leaves: He must be pursuing another liaison!
    · If a mum is kicked out: Her partner must be abusive!
    · If a mum leaves with the kids: Her partner must be abusive!
    · If a mum leaves without the kids: She must be a negligent mother.
    4. We didn’t expect the Family Court to NOT defend the institution of marriage. Actually, it defends either party’s right to unilaterally end a marriage.
    5. We expected the Family Court to make determinations through scrutiny of evidence put forward. This is quite the opposite of what actually happens: Due process is willfully abrogated to ensure accusations of domestic abuse discredit one party at the expense of the other – no matter whether those accusations are true or fraudulent. Moreover, the court knows throughout, that at no point is it operating with any discernible transparency.
    6. We expected any institution that calls itself a “court”, including the Family Court, to have more than a single narrative. Yet, this is not the case for the family court. Its only purpose is to sanction divorce, and if alleging domestic abuse is expedient to that aim, this is encouraged. Furthermore, the domestic abuse industry nourishes a ‘tip-of-the-iceberg’ sub-narrative that unempirically claims most domestic abuse victims are female, and too intimidated to come forward. These narratives stir exaggerated fear of domestic abuse, enabling mere unsubstantiated claims of such abuse to themselves serve as proxy abuse of precisely what they (ostensibly) set out to prevent in the first place.
    7. By 2000 we expected the family court to be gender-neutral. Even by 2021 it isn’t gender-neutral, and masks its bias behind a motto “Best interest of the child” that, despite sounding reasonable, actually has no working definition.Its obscure working definition may be inferred by how little family court’s adjudications of residency/custody decisions have shifted from those arrived at under the “tender-years doctrine”
    8. We once expected our domestic storm to settle down; it didn’t. After all, wasn’t that a precondition of us being in the family court in the first place? So, we didn’t expect this ‘expert’ court to tell us ‘reassuringly’ that they expect things to settle as the storm passes, and the dust settles. That was not very reassuring to hear. In fact, it was deeply unsettling to hear.
    9. We believed that our children’s essential characters were already largely formed, that they were fair-minded, and pretty resilient. They aren’t. They remained a work-in-progress, in flux, with extraordinarily plastic minds, susceptible to influences from home and from peers – including undue influences. Compounding their vulnerability and gullibility is their limited grasp of outside world realities, not least their utter dependency, their guileless trust of both parents (initially), and an awe and fear of fantastic proportions (e.g. Father Christmas, the Tooth-fairy, Beelzebub, Harry Potter etc). They turn out to be very easily manipulated. We expected the expert family court to already know such deep psychological truths, or at least to acknowledge this vulnerability. They don’t.
    10. We believed that our children would eventually see through the fraudulent disinformation campaign (usually from their other parent) that slanders us. We anticipated that, with maturity, similar nagging doubts would lead to an epiphany similar to the one we all once had about ‘Santa Claus’. Worryingly, a more accurate comparison would be how many schoolkids ever abandon their fandom of Chelsea, Liverpool, or Manchester United (almost none, ever). This is a passion and an allegiance that most keep all their lives.
    11. We believed that, having missed the boat, so to speak – our children – though not managing to see through the lies when they were kids – would become open enough as young adults to be caught up with, and for rational inquiry to open their minds to a rational adjustment to their false beliefs. Tragically, that is rarely the case: nothing makes a Manchester United fan more of an unthinkingly loyal Manchester United fan than an encounter with a Liverpool, or City fan on a derby day. Likewise, nothing brings down the shutters on these developmentally-skewed ‘adult’ minds more quickly than an encounter with the supposed bogey-man (or woman) of their childhood, these kids themselves now grown with a set of false beliefs hard-wired into their self-identities as an obligation of loyalty to, as far as they’ve been led to believe, their only parent.

  • DJ

    February 24th, 2022 at 6:55 PM

    PA is not JUST a legal maneuver. It is inherently psychological abuse.

  • Sammi

    June 26th, 2022 at 6:56 AM

    This comment is completely wrong. I was the main caregiver for my daughter. Ten years exactly. She was with me everyday for her whole life but two days (Saturday Sunday). I took her to extracurricular activities, school, everything a mother was supposed to be. Her father and his wife (she is a mental health counselor) slowly turned my daughter against me. Told her every weekend I was a bad person, not paying attention to her (this was after I had my son but was far from true) I ran myself into the ground over four years of family law crap! I never lost one hearing. I had been served papers 10 different times. Literally the same paperwork but a different motions or him trying to pin some lie against me and he was even caught lying because I proved it however… that wasnt enough. While I was being (or so I thought I was) an awesome mom to two kids, dealing with the pandemic, virtual school, school closures, sickness …. My child’s father and new wife brainwashed my own daughter right in front of my own eyes. June 29th almost one year ago…. I hugged my daughter, she squeezed me tight. Told me she couldn’t wait to come back to help plan her brother birthday. Gave me a kiss said love you and ran off to her dads car. Smiled and waved at me…..
    little did I know that would be the last time I’d see her smile at me, look at me with the joy, they love she had for me because I was her mom. After that ..: July 1st she apparently was terrified of me, hated me, feared me. I’ve never yelled never grounded never even spanked my daughter. Now she somehow hates everything about me and hasn’t been home sense. I’m blocked on her phone… she tells my parents her cousins all the same thing that she’s not comfortable around d me….. there’s times where she says things and it sounds like something I was texted by her father. What makes it worse is they have e a counselor she sees who has never had a real conversation with me agreeing with my daughter feelings about me… listening to only her father and step mother (stepmother have never even talked to before). It’s insane. So insane that he knows he is wrong Becsuee he knows he is violating our parenting plan but he knows I can’t afford an attorney anymore due to the last four years of paying over 65,000’dollars in attorneys plus losing my medical assistant job because we were out so far in debt i can’t afford to pay for child care for my three year old and pay rent. It’s madness for you to think that narrow minded. Honestly I’m still in shock every day and the only way I get through some days is just pretending my daughter had passed away. It’s hard knowing she’s out there being told I’m something I’m not and there’s nothing I can do about it. The courts won’t help me. No one can but I have tonsit and wait and be destroyed mentally to wait for her to get older to understand her father did some serious damage to her that’s irreversible…. It’s hard being the bigger person, truly is.

  • Kamina

    November 22nd, 2022 at 7:10 AM

    Great article.

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