Parental alienation is the process, and the result, of the psychological manipulation of a child into showing unwarranted fear, disrespect or hostility towards a parent and/or other family members. It is a distinctive form of psychological abuse, and family violence, towards both the child and the rejected family members that occurs almost exclusively in association with family separation or divorce, particularly where legal action is involved. It undermines core principles of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Most commonly, the primary cause is a parent wishing to exclude another parent from the life of their child, but other family members or friends, as well as professionals involved with the family (including psychologists, lawyers and judges), may contribute significantly to the process. It often leads to the long-term, or even permanent, estrangement of a child from one parent and other family members and, as a particularly adverse childhood experience, results in significantly increased lifetime risks of both mental and physical illness.
First described in 1976 as "pathological alignment", parental alienation refers to a situation in which a child unreasonably rejects a non-custodial parent. Richard A. Gardner proposed parental alienation syndrome in the 1980s based on his clinical experience with the children of divorcing parents. Parental alienation lacks a single definition and its existence, cause and characteristics have been the subject of debate. Gardner's concept of a syndrome has failed to gain acceptance. Some empirical research has been performed, though the quality of the studies vary widely and research in the area is still developing.
A survey of literature suggests that alienating behaviors by both parents are common in high-conflict divorces. Rejected parents tend to lose a sense of warmth and empathy with the child. As a result, the rejected parent may become passive, depressed, anxious, and withdrawn – characteristics that may encourage further rejection. The parent that the child aligns with (the aligned parent) may engage in alienating behaviors, including undermining the other parent. These behaviors may be conscious and deliberate or may reflect a lack of awareness on the effect of the actions on the children. Direct alienating behaviors occur when one parent actively undermines the other parent, such as making derogatory remarks about the other parent, telling the child that the other parent is responsible for the separation, or telling the child that the other parent is the cause of financial difficulties. Indirect alienation behaviors occur when one parent fails to support access or contact with the other parent or tacitly accepts the child's negative behaviour and comments towards the other parent.
The causes of alienation can be divided into two broad categories,
- Realistic estrangement, in which a parent's harmful or abusive behaviors or substance abuse result in the alienation of the child; and
- Pathological alienation, in which the alienation results from pathological aspects of the child's family relationships, and is not a rational response to the behavior of the alienated parent.
Realistic estrangement is a different phenomenon from "pathological alienation". The former is an understandable refusal by a child to see an abusive parent, while the latter is emotionally harmful and unjustified.
Symptoms associated with parental alienation include:
- The child lacks attachment to a parent.
- In relationship to the alienated parent, the child may display grandiosity, entitlement, absence of empathy, haughtiness, arrogant behavior and delusional belief systems about a parent being inadequate or abusive.
- The child may engage in splitting, believing that one parent is entirely good and the other parent is entirely bad or that both are entirely bad.
Some researchers emphasized the role of an alienating parent, termed variously the "programming" parent or "embittered-chaotic parent", while other researchers have focused on the "alienated child", and the relationship dynamics that contribute to the alienation.
Within the context of relationship dynamics, alienation is seen as a breakdown of attachment between parent and child that may be caused by a variety factors. These researchers have proposed a more complex analysis, in which all family members may play a role in the alienation. This "systems-based" view acknowledges that a child may be alienated from one parent with no alienation programming from the other parent. The behaviors of all family members, including those of the alienated parent, may lead to family dysfunction and the rejection of a parent. Under this approach, when a child is estranged from a parent it is necessary to evaluate all contributing factors and all possible remedies to the estrangement.
In one conception of parental alienation, driven by a specific parent, a parent who experienced feelings of inadequacy or abandonment in their childhood can have those feelings re-triggered by a divorce or breakup. In response, that parent can reenact a false narrative related to their own childhood, where the child's other parent symbolizes an inadequate or abusive parent, the child symbolizes a victim of the other parent, and the parent using harmful parenting practices symbolizes a good parent ostensibly trying to protect their child. The role of the bystander such as friends, therapists, and judges is to confirm the delusion for the parent, which was already partially confirmed for them by the child acting like a victim However, in reality, the other parent is neither inadequate nor abusive; rather, the parent using the harmful parenting practices is abusive. In effect, the parent who fears inadequacy or abandonment is able to project their fears onto the other parent because "all can plainly see" that it is the other parent who is rejected and abandoned by the child and who is "inadequate".
A parent who uses harmful parenting practices may suffer from borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder, related to an experience of feeling inadequate or abandoned while growing up. This feeling can be re-triggered by a divorce or breakup, causing them to decompensate into persecutory delusions. These parents may believe that they do not need to follow social norms of fairness, and they may "parentify their own children", "excessively bind their children to themselves", "demand absolute, unlimited control over their children while threatening rejection", project their own fears onto the other parent, abandon their spouse in favor of their children, and revive their own childhood attachment trauma after a difficult experience.
The techniques of harmful parenting may be subtle and "genuine". A parent can triangulate the child into the marital conflict by encouraging the child to make even minor complaints about the other parent and then "enthusiastically validating" them. This signals to the child that the other parent is dangerous and insensitive. This encouragement to complain manipulates the child into the role of victim without the child's awareness, allowing the parent to move into the protector role, forcing the other parent into the "inadequate" parent role, and leaving no trace of what happened for bystanders who only see the child acting as a "victim". Over time, the combined effects of growing closer to the alienating parent through this complaining process and growing further from the rejected parent as the result of focusing on negative things about the other parent cause the child to reject their other parent as being inadequate.
A parent may also mix in lies, partial lies, and exaggerations, particularly ones that the child may not be able to verify or where only the true part of the partial lie is easy to verify. As the result of being encouraged to act as judge of their rejected parent, the child then feels superior to their rejected parent, leading to the symptoms of grandiosity, entitlement, and haughty arrogance. This feeds the delusion of the parent, that they are protecting the child from an inadequate parent. The child then begins to adopt this delusion also.
Because the child and parent are from different generations, this qualifies as a perverse triangle, further complicated by enmeshment, and made even worse because a member of the perverse triangle has a personality disorder, climaxed by the splitting dynamic of the parent with the personality disorder that requires the ex-spouse to also become the ex-parent of the child. Finally, the child may be led to misinterpret the grief they experience from the loss of a parent as pain that means the rejected parent is abusive, since they mainly experience it in the presence of the rejected parent.
The success of restoring the child's attachment to their parent hinges on first protecting the child from harmful parenting. A study suggests that the child does not experience this protection as being traumatic.
According to one theory, when symptoms of alienation are present, structured intervention is likely to be more effective than traditional counseling. Structured intervention involves:
- developing critical thinking to overcome rejection and enmeshment dynamics
- resetting the child's place in the family hierarchy
- addressing the family system
- temporarily protecting the child from the bad parenting practices of the enmeshed parent.
Advocates of structured intervention argue that traditional counseling, based on the therapeutic alliance, is susceptible to:
- delays from a lack of milestones and schedules
- sabotage by a parent with an interest in making it fail
- exclusive focus on a child's feelings and complaints to the exclusion of addressing the family system
- the ineffectiveness of a parent apologizing for fabricated, exaggerated, or distorted complaints.
Some have discussed a different approach for severe cases that defines a set of psychological symptoms in a child and proposes a psychological explanation for how those symptoms were caused by harmful parenting practices and why a parent would employ those parenting practices. In this approach, the phenomenon is seen simply as a combination of psychological problems, each of which psychologists understand and recognize. According to this theoretical formulation, "the pathology traditionally called ‘parental alienation' are manifestations of well-established forms of existing pathologies.”
The history of parental alienation reflects an evolution of its acceptance by professionals involved in custody cases. A 2009 survey of mental health and legal professionals found broad skepticism of the concept of parental alienation syndrome, and caution in relation to the concept of parental alienation.
Mental health professionals
Mental health professionals are reluctant to recognize so-called parental alienation syndrome. In the past, the American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological Association have held a neutral view of parental alienation as a distinct syndrome.
In anticipation of the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which was released in 2013, William Bernet argued for the inclusion of parental alienation disorder, a diagnosis related to parental alienation. His conception makes reference to parental alienation and a variety of other descriptions of behaviors he believes represent the underlying concept of parental alienation disorder. Despite lobbying by proponents, in December 2012, the proposal was rejected.
Some argue that elements of parental alienation are covered in the DSM-5 under the diagnosis: "Parent-Child Relational Problem." For example, the child's perception of an alienated parent "may include negative attributions of the other's intentions, hostility toward or scapegoating of the other (parent), and unwarranted feelings of estrangement."
In a survey at the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts in 2010, 98% of the 300 respondents agreed with the question, "Do you think that some children are manipulated by one parent to irrationally and unjustifiably reject the other parent?". However, parental alienation refers not to the acts of manipulation, but rather to the child's rejection of a parent that results from alienating behavior.
Some courts recognize parental alienation as a form of child abuse with long-term effects and serious outcomes for the child. Some jurisdictions, including Brazil and Mexico, have enacted parental alienation as a criminal offense. Other jurisdictions may suspend child support in cases where parental alienation occurs. For example, in New York, in Matter of Robert Coull v. Pamela Rottman, No. 2014-01516, 2015 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6611 (September 2, 2015), where the father was prevented from seeing his son by the child's mother through a "pattern of alienation", child support was suspended. Some United States courts have also tried to address the issue through mandated reunification therapy; but no federal or state laws regulating parental alienation currently exist in the United States Due to the nature of allegations of parental alienation, many courts require that a qualified expert witness testify in support of allegations of parental alienation or in association with any allegation that a parent has a mental health disorder.
While states have broadly rejected parental alienation syndrome as a concept that may be presented in a child custody case, it remains possible to argue that parental alienation has occurred, and to demonstrate how a parent's alienating behaviors should be considered by a court when evaluating a custody case. Behaviors that result in parental alienation may reflect other mental health disorders, both on the part of the alienating parent and the alienated parent, that may be relevant to a custody determination. The behavior of the alienated child may also be a relevant factor.
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