Amy J.L. Baker Ph.D.

Caught Between Parents

ACEs and Parental Alienation

Adverse childhood experiences and parental alienation.

Posted Feb 17, 2017

In 1998 a research paper was published that presented the results of a large-scale study of middle class Americans. The study was a collaboration of the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente. The researchers identified 7 adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) including three types of childhood maltreatment (physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse), parental substance abuse, parental mental illness, domestic violence, and having a parent in jail. Results were astounding: Those individuals with 4 or more ACEs were 12 times as likely to suffer from alcoholism, depression, drug abuse, and to attempt suicide. The more ACEs an individuals experienced, the worse the outcomes were. A year later, parental separation/divorce was added to the list of ACEs. Since those early studies, the data keeps mounting about the type and extent to which these early experiences have cascading negative effects throughout the life of children. The theory is that each ACE represents a significant stressor for the child, one that can produce both biological consequences (i.e., toxic load on the mind and body which itself is harmful and can interfere with development, learning, and health) as well as shape behavioral choices (increase the likelihood of overeating, smoking, drug abuse and a host of other ways of trying to avoid or reduce or cope with stress).

What does this have to do with parental alienation? All alienated children have at least two of the 8 ACEs right off the bat: emotional abuse and being from separated/divorced parents. That means that even if alienated children have no other risk factors in their childhood, they are already at an elevated risk for poor outcomes, outcomes that could affect them throughout their lives. It is important to remember that risk does not mean certainty because interventions and treatments can be developed to help ameliorate the negative effects of early risk. For example, all separating parents could be provided with information about alienation so that they know the warning signs. Early detection may be key in preventing children of divorce from accumulating the risk of parental alienation (i.e., emotional abuse). Likewise, more training for mental health and legal professionals working with separating families may allow for intervention prior to alienation occurring. Just as each additional ACE had contributed to the overall poor outcomes, reducing ACEs should be able to contribute to improved outcomes. This is just another reason that greater awareness about the problem of parental alienation is so greatly needed.