Many aspects of divorce can be heartbreaking, but perhaps nothing is more tragic than when an innocent child is turned against a loving parent.
Sadly, it is common for one parent to work to undermine the relationship their child has with the other parent thus putting the child directly in the center of the conflict of their divorce.
This process is called parental alienation, which is defined as the programming/brainwashing of a child by one parent to vilify the other in a way that damages or destroys the targeted parent’s relationship with their child.
Parental alienation is a global problem. In the United Kingdom, chief executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Services (Cafcass) Anthony Douglas called parental alienation child abuse and estimated that around 80% of the most difficult cases that come before family courts are because of parental alienation.
“I think the way you treat your children after a relationship has broken up is just as powerful a public health issue as smoking or drinking,” Douglas said.
The National Parents Organization blog elaborated on Douglas’s notion that parental alienation is a threat to public health.
“Why would parental alienation constitute a public health issue? Because parental alienation’s whole purpose is to remove as much as possible one parent from a child’s life,” wrote Robert Franklin, Esq., who is a member of the NPO’s National Board of Directors. “And, since both parents are important to children’s well-being – their mental and physical health, their educational success, career success, etc. – parental alienation necessarily impacts the commonwealth.”
What are the symptoms of parental alienation?
The term “parental alienation syndrome” was coined by psychologist Richard Gardner in 1985, and the eight symptoms of PAS he defined have held up remarkably well.
The symptoms are: denigration, frivolous rationalization for the complaint, lack of ambivalence, independent thinker phenomenon, automatic/reflexive support, absence of guilt, borrowed scenarios, and the spread of animosity.
More broadly, parental alienation is the simple act of one parent manipulating an innocent child in order to turn them against the other parent. It’s widely accepted that kids are best able to cope with divorce when they maintain healthy relationships with each parent, which makes the act of parental alienation all the more sinister.
Why is parental alienation controversial?
Although Gardner defined the symptoms of PAS more than 30 years ago, the American Psychiatric Association has been slow to recognize PAS. The APA has argued PAS can’t be recognized as a mental disorder because it’s a parent-child relationship dysfunction.
Despite not formally including it as a mental disorder, the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual includes all the symptoms of PAS under the broader category of “child psychological abuse.”
Those working to prevent recognition of PA often argue that it’s a ploy devised by fathers to gain custody of their kids. It might be true that the majority of victims of parental alienation are dads, but that speaks more to the imbalance in the family court system.
Typically, the non-custodial parent is the target of alienation, which in most cases is the father. In the UK, for instance, nine out of 10 children of separating or divorcing couples live most of the time with their mothers. The numbers are similar in the U.S. So naturally, more fathers are PA victims, but mothers are susceptible to alienation as well.
What can be done about parental alienation?
Even as parental alienation is gaining more recognition, it remains widely misunderstood, particularly in regards to custody disputes.
Building a case to prove parental alienation is present in court is often an uphill battle, but it is possible. In some cases, demonstrating parental alienation is present can result in a modification of custody depending on what the court deems is in the child’s best interests.
It’s important to have a family law attorney well-versed in your state’s child custody statutes in your corner, but there are alternative ways to fight against parental alienation outside of legal remedies. There are many books about dealing with alienation and there is a growing number of support groups dedicated to helping parents fight parental alienation.
Reunification following a period of alienation can be tricky, but a number of intervention models have been developed and proven to be successful. In these programs, therapists work with families to rebuild a healthy relationship between the child and alienated parent.