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The Cult of Parenthood: A Qualitative Study of Parental Alienation

By Amy J. L. Baker, Ph.D.
Cultic Studies Review Vol. 4, No. 1, 2005


Forty adults who were alienated from a parent as a child participated in a qualitative research study about their experience. A content analysis was conducted on the transcripts [of the audio tapes of the interviews of adults that participated in the study] and a comparison was undertaken to identify similarities between alienating parents and cult leaders. Results revealed that adults whose parents alienated them from their other parent described the alienating parent much the way former cult members describe cult leaders. The alienating parents were described as narcissistic and requiring excessive devotion and loyalty, especially at the expense of the targeted parent. The alienating parents also were found to utilize many of the same emotional manipulation and persuasion techniques cult leaders use to heighten dependency on them. And, finally, the alienating parents seemed to benefit from the alienation much the way cult leaders benefit from the cult: they have excessive control, power, and adulation. Likewise, the participants reported many of the same negative outcomes that former cult members experience such as low self-esteem, guilt, depression, and lack of trust in themselves and others. These findings can provide a useful framework for conceptualizing the experience of parental alienation and should also be useful for therapists who provide counseling and treatment to adults who experienced alienation as a child.

Each year approximately one million couples divorce. Many of these divorces involve children. Research has consistently shown that children whose parents divorce suffer emotionally and psychologically, especially when the divorce is contentious and the children are exposed to ongoing conflict between their parents (e.g., Amato, 1994; Johnston, 1994, Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1996; Wallerstein & Lewis, 2004). Amato (1994), building on an earlier meta-analysis of 92 studies, concluded that children who experienced divorce, compared to samples of children in continuously intact two-parent families, had higher rates of negative outcomes including conduct problems, psychological maladjustment, and poorer self-concepts. Using a qualitative approach, Wallerstein and Lewis (2004) also found long-term negative consequences of children’s experience of parental divorce.

One subset of children of divorce considered most at risk for negative outcomes are those experiencing ongoing post-divorce conflict (Garrity & Baris, 1994, Turkat, 2002). The children in these families are at risk of being subjected to some form of parental alienation in which one parent turns the child against the other parent through powerful emotional manipulation techniques designed to bind the child to them at the exclusion of the other –targeted -- parent (Darnall, 1998; Gardner, 1998; Garrity & Baris, 1994; Warshak, 2001). These alienating parents undermine the independent thinking skills of their children and cultivate an unhealthy dependency designed to satisfy the emotional needs of the adult rather than the developmental needs of the child (Warshak, 2001).

According to Gardner (1998) children can experience three levels of the parental alienation syndrome: mild, moderate, and severe (although Turkat, 2002 outlined conceptual issues with this scale). Mild cases are characterized by some parental programming against the targeted parent but visitation is not seriously affected and the child manages to have a reasonably healthy relationship with both parents. In cases of moderate parental alienation there is significant parental programming against the targeted parent and considerable struggle around visitation. The child often has difficulty during the transition but eventually adjusts. The child who is severely alienated is adamant about his or her hatred of the targeted parent. The child usually refuses any contact and may threaten to run away if forced to visit. The alienating parent and the child have an unhealthy alliance based on shared distorted ideas about the targeted parent. When this happens and the child wholly adopts the views of the alienating parent and severs all ties with the targeted parent, the child is living in something akin to a cult, the cult of the alienating parent.

According to West and Langone (1986) a cult (1) is a hierarchical social group in which there is a leader who requires excessive devotion, (2) has a leader who uses emotional manipulation and persuasion techniques to heighten dependency on him or her, and (3) furthers the aims of the leader at the expense of its members as well as others. Utilizing this definition provides a useful basis for comparing cults to the characteristics of families in which parental alienation occurs.

Of course, most families in western cultures are hierarchical social groups. Power is not evenly distributed among the members of the family. Parents have legal, physical, moral, and psychological control over their children. Even parents who respect their children’s individuality and aim to promote competence and autonomy retain some authority over their children. In some families, however, parents exploit their inherent authority in order to alienate the child from the other parent. The focus of the current study was to determine whether these alienating parents resemble cult leaders; that is, do they (1) require excessive devotion, (2) use emotional manipulation techniques to heighten dependency, and (3) garner psychological benefits at the expense of the well being of the child. This analysis was accomplished through the current study of interviews with adult who – when they were children – were turned against one parent by the other.

The full text of the study report is available as a PDF file (187kB)

From: John C. Menear

Dear Friends and Parents,

The attached PAS research was just released. It is worthy of a careful read.  It compares PAS parental dysfunction with the dysfunction of a cult leader.  Different than all the other PAS research, it does not rely on the testimony of children. It relies on mature adults who suffered PAS in their own, long past upbringing. It has much more validity than the earlier research based
primarily on a child's vulnerable views of their family situation.

The author, Dr. Amy Baker (Psych) has given me permission to distribute it.  I hope you find it of crebible value in understanding the issues you may face.


Barrister & Solicitor

(o) 705-326-4792
(f) 705-326-6471
(h) 705-326-8291
(e) menear@rogers.com


"Qualitative" studies have important limitations. For one thing, they involve a selective study sample (self-reporting is a no-no in serious statistical analyses). The findings of a "qualitative" study may generally hold true for the study sample examined. Nevertheless, because the sample in such a study is not selected at random, no valid extrapolations can be made from the study sample to the population at large.

Feminist social "researchers" have a reputation for using qualitative studies to promote their misandrist and family-hostile agenda. It is safe to assume that any qualitative studies produced by feminist have few, if any, redeeming qualities. Dr. Baker, however, appears to have made no attempt to paint men or fathers in a bad light in her study report. She identified that five out of the 40 alienating parents in her study were fathers, and that the remaining 35 alienating parents in her study were mothers.

Although that reflects the ratio of non-custodial to custodial parents in the real world, the study neither sought nor provides proof that women and men are equally likely to alienate their children against the other parent if given an opportunity to do so. A study attempting to establish the relative risk of mothers and fathers to alienate children would have to be based on a randomly selected study sample, not a self-selective one.

Similar cautions must be used when interpreting the sex ratio of the participants in the study sample (15 men and 25 women).  Under no circumstances should that sex ratio be taken as evidence that either women are more likely to be alienated or being more likely to report experiences of being alienated.

What Dr. Baker's study may accidentally reflect is that children alienated by either parent are equally likely to come forward and report their being abused in that manner. Still, unless a randomly chosen study sample is used to identify and examine the experiences of such children, it is not possible to prove with a qualitative study that either mothers or fathers are more likely, or more effective in doing so, to alienate their children against the other parent.

Going by anecdotal evidence of parental alienation (that is not valid statistical evidence either), it appears that parental alienating of children is present in many "intact" families. It is even a common practice by many parents to alienate siblings against one another.

All forms of alienation of children in families — no matter whether the families are "intact" or not — fall into the category family violence.  Nevertheless, the full extent of parental alienation in the population can only be estimated if a proper statistical analysis is done on a randomly selected population sample. —F4L

Note 2007 07 11:

Dr. Baker recently published a book on Parental Alienation: Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties that Bind (Norton Professional Book) by Amy J. L. Baker (Hardcover - April 15, 2007)

Back to main page for Parental Alienation Syndrome

See also:

  • DVStats.org a search engine, aggregating research that examines the impact and extent of domestic violence upon male victims. (Off-site)

    This search facility equates domestic violence to intimate partner violence between men and women in relationships.  It does not provide information on violence between homosexuals, siblings or violence against family members other than heterosexual partners and spouses, such as infanticide, child abuse or violence against elderly in families.

    The primary purpose of the site is to shift public perceptions of such violence away from political ideology, and instead toward objectively verifiable scientific research.
  • Feminism For Male College Students A Short Guide to the Truth, by Angry Harry (Off-Site)
  • Video on violent women

Posted 2005 04 20