Parental Alienation Syndrome

MMPI-2 Validity Scales and Suspected Parental Alienation Syndrome

American Journal of Forensic Psychology, Volume 16, Number 4, 1998, p. 5-14

by Jeffrey C. Siegel, Ph.D. and Joseph S. Langford, Ph.D.

MMPI-2 validity scales of two groups of parents going through child custody evaluations, parents who engage in parental alienation syndrome (PAS) behaviors and parents who do not, were compared. It was hypothesized that PAS parents would have significantly higher L and K scales and a significantly lower F scale than parents who do not engage in these behaviors. Using female subjects, since few males were available, the hypothesis was confirmed for K and F scales, indicating that PAS parents are more likely to complete MMPI-2 questions in a defensive manner, striving to appear as flawless as possible. It was concluded that parents who engage in alienating behaviors are Read More .. likely than other parents to use the psychological defenses of denial and projection, which are associated with this validity scale pattern. Implications of this finding regarding possible personality disorders in PAS parents are discussed.

Parental alienation syndrome is a term coined by Gardner (1, 2) for the phenomenon in which a child from a broken marriage becomes alienated from one parent due to the active efforts of the other parent to sever their relationship. Rand (3) recently provided an extensive review of the literature relevant to this phenomenon, broadening the scope to include writing which described the same or similar Concepts without using Gardner's term. Gardner and others (4, 5) have described numerous behaviors the alienating parent may engage in to harm the child's relationship with the other parent, many of which have been described as "programming" or "brainwashing." For example, the alienating parent is likely to make accusations about the other parent in front of the child, describe the other parent as dangerous or harmful, tell the child that the other parent does not love him or her, and greatly exaggerate the other parent's faults (whether real or imagined). More extreme alienating behaviors include making false accusations of sexual or physical abuse and programming the child to believe that the abuse occurred. According to Gardner, the child becomes aware that the alienating parent wants him or her to hate the other parent and, out of the need to please the alienating parent and to avoid abandonment or rejection, the child joins in the denigration of the other parent.

Such dynamics are very familiar to clinicians who work with broken families and who perform custody evaluations. As Rand's review (3) makes clear, an increasing number of theoretical writings, case studies, and anecdotal accounts related to this phenomenon have begun to appear in the literature, some of which use the term PAS (6-8) and others which use different terminology (4, 5, 9, 10). However, little empirical research has yet been reported. A number of questions need to be addressed through research. For example, how prevalent is this phenomenon? Is it correlated with certain personality traits or psychological disorders? What are the short-term and long-term effects on children who are subjected to it? How does a clinician recognize it? Can psychological testing help the clinician discern when it may be present? Opinions have been expressed about many of these questions by Gardner and others, but they have not yet been subjected to hypothesis testing. Since the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (11), testimony about PAS is not likely to be found widely admissible in court without a solid research base.

The present study is an attempt to gain understanding of parents who engage in alienating tactics through a statistical examination of their MMPI-2 validity scales. It was reasoned that if any patterns emerge in the test results of alienating parents, a better understanding of their behaviors might be gained, as well as a psychometric tool to help in the identification of the phenomenon.

In this study, the MMPI-2 profiles of divorcing parents exhibiting characteristics of parental alienation syndrome were compared with the standard MMPI-2 normative sample and with the profile of divorcing parents who do not exhibit characteristics of the syndrome. The specific hypothesis tested was that parents who engage in parental alienation would have significantly higher elevations on the L and K scales and lower elevations on the F scale than both the standard MMPI-2 normative sample and a sample of divorcing parents who do not engage in parental alienation. It was reasoned that persons who try to alienate their children from the other parent are likely to have a higher degree of the behaviors associated with high L and K scores and a low F score, including a wish to be seen as near flawless, a heavy use of denial defenses (12), a tendency to be rigid and moralistic, and a low degree of awareness of the consequences of their own behavior to other people (13).

Siegel (14) has previously found that males and females undergoing child custody evaluation tend to produce significantly elevated L and K scores and males produce F scores significantly below the MMPI-2 normative sample. If the hypothesis of this study is correct, parental alienators in custody disputes would be expected to follow that pattern to a greater degree than parents in custody disputes who do not use alienating tactics.



The subjects for the study were 34 females who completed the MMPI-2 in the course of child custody evaluations. Thirty of the subjects were evaluated in the authors' practice, while four were contributed by another psychologist who frequently serves as an expert witness for the family courts of Dallas, Texas. All of the subjects were involved in child custody litigation and were referred by their attorneys or by the court for psychological evaluation to assist the court in determining the best interest of the children.

Classification Into Groups

The MMPI-2 results of all the clients involved in child custody evaluations in the authors' practice over the last three years were first removed from the files so that classifications would be made as "blind" as possible The records of the evaluations were then reviewed and subjects classified into a parental alienation syndrome (PAS) group and a non-parental alienation (non-PAS) group, according to criteria developed from Gardner's (2) and Turkat's (4) descriptions of alienating tactics commonly used by parents.

The psychologist who contributed four additional PAS subjects' records picked them out of her case files using the same criteria. She did not know the study's hypothesis.

The PAS criteria were as follows:

  1. Personally involved in, or involving others in, malicious acts against the other parent
  2. Engages in excessive litigation for the purpose of limiting the other parent's access to their children
  3. Attempts to obstruct regular visitation with the other parent
  4. Obstructs the other parent's participation in the children's school life and extracurricular activities by lack of notification or untimely notification
  5. Lying to the children
  6. Lying to others (including, but not limited to, child welfare and child abuse workers, school personnel, medical and psychological professionals)
  7. Violations of law (court orders, enforceable agreed orders regarding access, etc.)
  8. False allegations of physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse (falsehood determined by collateral information from child protective service agencies, physicians, psychologists, or other reputable sources)

Sixteen subjects met the criteria for classification as PAS parents (age range: 30 years old to 45 years old, mean = 38.1 years), while 18 subjects did not and were placed in the non-PAS subject pool (age range: 27 years old to 44 years old, mean = 36.9 years).


The MMPI-2 was administered as part of the standard battery given to each parent in a custody evaluation. Standard MMPI-2 conditions and instructions were employed. Only female subjects were used in the data analysis due to a limited number of male subjects available for the statistical comparison. This limitation is consistent with the previously referenced work of Gardner (2) and Turkat (4), who report that the majority of persons exhibiting alienation behaviors are female.


Two tailed t-tests were used to compare parental alienators' mean scores on the MMPI-2 validity scales to the MMPI-2 normative sample and the sample of divorcing parents who do not exhibit alienating behaviors.


The study's hypothesis was confirmed for two of the three validity scales. Results of the t-tests indicate that mothers exhibiting PAS behaviors had significantly higher scores on the K scale and significantly lower scores on the F scale than both the standard MMPI-2 normative sample and the sample of divorcing mothers who do not engage in parental alienation. There was no significant difference in L scale scores between the alienating and nonalienating groups, although both were higher than the published normative sample. The results of these statistical analyses are presented in Tables 1 and 2. Figure 1 presents the results in T-scores as they would appear on a typical MMPI-2 profile.

Table 1. Comparison of Validity Scales of Suspected PAS Mothers In Custody Suits With Standard MMPI-2 Norms

Scale PAS Subjects Standard MMPI-2 Norms*
  M SD M SD t
L 5.69 2.8 3.47 1.98 3.17***
F 2.25 1.92 3.39 2.64 -2.375**
K 22.44 3.48 15.34 4.47 8.161***

* Caucasian normative group from Butcher J et al. (15)
** p<.01
*** p <.005

Table 2. Comparison of Validity Scales of Suspected PAS and Non-PAS Mothers in Custody Suits

Scale PAS Subjects Non-PAS Subjects
  M SD M SD t
L 5.69 2.8 5.46 2.41 .329(ns)
F 2.25 1.92 3.23 3.39 -2.042*
K 22.44 3.48 18.92 4.25 4.046**

* p<.01
** p<.005

Figure 1. Comparison of Validity Scale Profiles of Suspected PAS Mothers, Non-PAS Mothers and MMPI-2 Normative Group


This study shows that females who exhibit parental alienation syndrome behaviors are likely to produce extremely defensive MMPI-2 profiles. They appear to respond to the MMPI-2 items in such a way as to appear highly virtuous and without emotional problems or difficulties. Research has shown that most parents being evaluated in the context of custody dispute produce defensive MMPI-2 profiles (14). The finding that parental alienators answer the test items even more defensively than other parents in custody suits may shed light on their personality tendencies and may be diagnostically useful.

Gardner (2) has written that parents who make false allegations of child abuse, perhaps the most extreme expression of parental alienation, are likely to exhibit characteristics of histrionic, borderline, or paranoid personality disorders. Although they did not use the term parental alienation, Wakefield and Underwager (16) found, in a comparison of parents making false allegations in custody disputes with parents not making such allegations, that those making false allegations were more likely to have a diagnosis of a personality disorder, consistent with Gardner's (2) assertions. The findings of this study lend further empirical support to Gardner's belief that PAS may be associated with certain personality disorders and their associated patterns of psychological defense. A highly defensive MMPI-2 validity scale pattern, as was found among PAS parents, suggests psychological defenses which are typically used by people with the externalizing personality disorders (histrionic, borderline, narcissistic, and paranoid).

The tendency to see oneself as "all good" (expressed on the MMPI-2 through high L and K scales and a low F scale) suggests the use of splitting, projection, and denial. People with K scales as high as those produced by the parental alienators in this study are generally described as psychologically unsophisticated, as using denial heavily, and employing defensive distortions (12, 13).

In the context of a divorce and custody dispute, a person who produces a profile like those in this study would appear to be denying any personal responsibility for the divorce or family problems, seeing themselves as flawless, presumably a victim of the ex-spouse. A person with a Read More ..ture defensive structure would be likely to see the matter in Read More ..asonable terms, having less need to deny any responsibility, and be better able to modulate their emotions and give less extreme, Read More ..nest answers to the MMPI-2 questions.

Ehrenberg et al. (17) have found that parents with narcissistic personality disturbances were less likely than other parents to cooperate with the ex-spouse after the divorce and to be able to focus on their children's needs. It may be that parents who exhibit parental alienation syndrome are unable to cope with their personal hurt and disappointment about the dissolution of the marriage through a Read More ..ture grieving process and finding new ego supports. It is likely that they cope with their hurt and anger by villainizing the ex-spouse and, perhaps unwittingly, by enlisting their children to help repair their damaged sense of self by having the children join in the splitting and projection of responsibility onto the other parent. Johnston (18) has written that parents who are narcissistically vulnerable are more likely to use the more immature defenses of denial and externalization. The results of this study suggest that these defensive operations are likely to be evidenced in the MMPI-2 validity scales.

In child custody related psychological evaluations, the clinician should use multiple sources of data to arrive at conclusions (19). When parental alienation syndrome is a diagnostic possibility in mothers, a highly elevated K scale with a depressed F scale may be evidence of the defensive distortions which are associated with the syndrome. This MMPI-2 pattern may alert the clinician to the possible presence of the syndrome, which should be further evaluated through interviews, observations, examination of collateral sources, and other test data. An examination of the MMPI-2 profiles of fathers who exhibit parental alienation tendencies is needed to determine whether they show the same pattern.


1. Gardner RA: The Parental Alienation Syndrome and the Differentiation between Fabricated and Genuine Child Sexual Abuse. Creskill, NJ, Creative Therapeutics, 1987

2. Gardner RA: The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Guide for Mental Health and Legal Professionals. Creskill, NJ, Creative Therapeutics, 1992

3. Rand DC: The spectrum of parental alienation syndrome (part 1). American Journal of Forensic Psychology 1997; 15:3:3-52

4. Turkat D: Child visitation interference in divorce. Clinical Psychology Review 1994; 14:8:737-742

5. Clavar SS, Rivlin BV: Children Held Hostage: Dealing with Programmed and Brainwashed Children. Chicago, American Bar Association, 1991

6. Cartwright GF: Expanding the parameters of parental alienation syndrome. American Journal of Family Therapy 1993; 21:3:205-215

7. Dunne J, Hedrick M: The parental alienation syndrome: an analysis of sixteen selected cases. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 1994; 21:3-4:21-38

8. Lund M: A therapist's view of parental alienation syndrome. Family and Conciliation Courts Review 1995; 33:3:308-316

9. Blush GJ, Ross KL: Investigation and case management issues and strategies. Issues in Child Abuse Accusations 1990; 2:3:152-160

10. Johnston JR, Campbell LE: Impasses of Divorce: The Dynamics and Resolution of Family Conflict. New York, The Free Press, 1988

11. Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 113 S. Ct. 2786 (1993)

12. Greene RL: The MMPI-2/MMPI: An Interpretive Manual. Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 1991

13. Graham JR: MMPI-2: Assessing Personality and Psychopathology. New York, Oxford University Press, 1993

14. Siegel JC: Traditional MMPI-2 validity indicators and initial presentation in custody evaluations. American Journal of Forensic Psychology 1996; 14:3:55-63

15. Butcher J, Dahlstrom G, Graham J, Tellegen A, Kaemmer B: MMPI-2: Manual for Administration and Scoring. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1989; 105-106

16. Wakefield H, Underwager R: Personality characteristics of parents making false accusations of sexual abuse in custody disputes. Issues in Child Abuse Accusations 1990; 2:3:121-136

17. Ehrenberg ME, Hunter MA, Elterman ME: Shared parenting agreements after marital separation: the roles of empathy and narcissism. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 1996; 62:4:808-818

18. Johnston JR: Children of divorce who refuse visitation, in Nonresidential Parenting: New Vistas in Family Living. Edited by Depner CE, Bray JH. London, Sage Publications, 1993

19. Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Divorce Proceedings. American Psychologist 1994; 49:7:677-680


Jeffrey C. Siegel, Ph.D. is a forensic and clinical psychologist in private practice in Dallas, Texas. He is a Fellow of the American College of Forensic Psychology.

Joseph S. Langford, Ph.D. is a forensic and clinical psychologist in private practice in Dallas, Texas. He recently relocated to Texas from Atlanta, Georgia, where he was in practice for several years.


Parenting: Baldwin Speaks Up

May 7, 2007

Many celebrities would shrink from view after a PR nightmare like Alec Baldwin's leaked voice mail in which he calls his 11-year-old daughter, Ireland, a "rude, thoughtless little pig." But Baldwin wants to use the media scrutiny to give exposure to parental alienation, the controversial "syndrome" caused by one parent's systematically damaging a child's relationship with the other parent.

Parental Alienation

Canadian Press

B.C. judge bars mother from seeing daughter

Court orders one-year ban after 'unfounded' abuse allegations made about teenager's father

March 10, 2009

VANCOUVER - In a case of extreme parental alienation, a mother has been banned by a B.C. Supreme Court judge from seeing her teenage daughter for more than a year.

Because of the urgency of the matter, Justice Donna Martinson issued the terse, two-page ruling outlining 15 conditions the parents must follow, including that the mother, known only as Ms. A, not see her daughter until at least March 31, 2010.

The decision came after the mother alleged extreme emotional abuse by the father, which she claimed was putting the teenager's safety at risk.

"I am satisfied that Ms. A's allegations are unfounded," Martinson wrote.

"I am further satisfied that she has continued to undermine the relationship between M and her father and has acted in ways that are detrimental to M's psychological healing."

Names have been stripped from the court ruling to protect the girl's identity.

The judge has ordered that both the mother and maternal grandmother have no contact with the girl, which would be enforced by police if necessary.

Parental Alienation

Divorced Parents Move, and Custody Gets Trickier

The New York Times, New York city, U.S.A. August 8, 2004

Not too long ago, Jacqueline Scott Sheid was a pretty typical Upper East Side mother. Divorced and with a young daughter, she had quickly remarried, borne a son, and interrupted her career to stay home with the children while her husband, Xavier Sheid, worked on Wall Street.

Early last year, Mr. Sheid lost his job and saw his only career opportunity in California. But Ms. Sheid's ex-husband, who shares joint legal custody of their daughter, refused to allow the girl to move away. So Ms. Sheid has spent much of the last year using JetBlue to shuttle between her son and husband on the West Coast and her daughter (and ex) on the East.

The New York court system, which she hoped would help her family to resolve the problem, has cost her tens of thousands of dollars in fees for court-appointed experts, she said, and has helped to prolong the process by objecting to her choice of lawyers.

The Globe and Mail


The family Pandora's Box

Some victims of parental alienation syndrome don't realize until adulthood that one parent turned them against the other

The Globe and Mail
March 24, 2009

After Joe Rabiega's parents divorced, when he was an adolescent, his father repeatedly told him his mother had abandoned him. The boy had to return any gifts that came from his mother's side of the family and, twice daily, he had to pledge his allegiance to his father.

"I was never allowed to have anything to do with her," he says from his home in Raleigh, N.C. "The consequences were dire if I did. He said I would have nobody."

Even though Mr. Rabiega, now 33, had witnessed ugly behaviour by his father toward his mother and knew his dad to be an erratic alcoholic, it wasn't until he sought counselling for personal problems in his early 20s that his past snapped into focus: He had been the victim of parental alienation syndrome - his father had systematically turned him against his mother.

The phenomenon, coined by psychiatrist Richard A. Gardner in 1985, has gained traction recently due to a number of recent high-profile divorce cases in Canada - not to mention the very public case of movie star Alec Baldwin, who accused his former wife, Kim Basinger, of parental alienation.    Read More ..


November, 1999


The Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is the systematic denigration by one parent by the other with the intent of alienating the child against the other parent. The purpose of alienation is usually to gain or retain custody without the involvement of the non-custodial parent (NCP) The alienation usually extends to the NCP's family and friends as well. Though this document is written with the father in mind, it must be clear that there are many cases of PAS where the NCP is the mother, and PAS from the non-custodial mothers' viewpoint will be discussed later.

Dr. Richard Gardner in his book 'The Parental Alienation Syndrome' states (p. 74) "Many of these children proudly state that their decision to reject their fathers is their own.";

They deny any contribution from their mothers. And the mothers often support this vehemently. In fact, the mothers will often state that they want the child to visit with the father and recognise the importance of such involvement, yet such a mothers every act indicates otherwise.

Such children appreciate that, by stating the decision is their own, they assuage mother's guilt and protect her from criticism. Such professions of independent thinking are supported by the mother who will often praise these children for being the kind of people who have minds of their own and are forthright and brave enough to express overtly their opinions.

Frequently, such mothers will exhort their children to tell them the truth regarding whether or not they really want to see their fathers. The child will usually appreciate that "the truth" is the profession that they hate the father and do not want to see him ever again. They thereby provide that answer - couched as "the truth" - which will protect them from their mother's anger if they were to state what they really wanted to do, which is to see their fathers.

It is important for the reader to appreciate that after a period of programming the child may not know what is the truth any Read More ..d come to actually believe that the father deserves the vilification being directed against him. The end point of the brainwashing process has then been achieved.    Read More ..