Parental alienation is the process, and the result, of 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. While the prototypical cause is a parent wishing to exclude another parent from the life of their child, especially where child custody is being disputed, in some cases other family members or friends, or involved professionals (psychologists, judges, lawyers) may contribute significantly to the process. Parental alienation classically involves one parent manipulating a child into rejecting the other parent and it is distinct from parental estrangement due to child abuse or neglect by the estranged parent.
Parental alienation can lead to the long-term, or even lifelong, estrangement of a child from one parent and other family members and, as a significant adverse childhood experience and form of childhood trauma, can result 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. One complicating factor for research is that high numbers of parents involved in high conflict custody disputes engage in alienating or indoctrinating behaviors, but only a small proportion children become alienated.
A survey of literature suggests that alienating behaviors are demonstrated by both parents are common in high-conflict divorces. Rejected parents may 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 As a result, the rejected parent may become passive, depressed, anxious, and withdrawn – characteristics that may encourage further rejection.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 of 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.
There is no generally accepted theory of parental alienation. Some researchers emphasize the role of an alienating parent, termed variously the "programming" parent or "embittered-chaotic parent". Other researchers focus on the alienated child, and the relationship dynamics that contribute to the alienation.
Within the context of relationship dynamics, parental alienation is interpreted as a breakdown of attachment between parent and child that may be caused by a variety factors. The relationship dynamics theory involves 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 become alienated from one parent with no alienation programming by 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 theory, when a child is estranged from a parent it is necessary to evaluate all contributing factors and all possible remedies to the estrangement.
The causes of alienation can be divided into two broad categories,
- Realistic or justified 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 rejected 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 unjustified and emotionally harmful.
Behaviors that may be displayed by a child that, among other possible causes, may be associated with parental alienation include:
- The child engages in a pattern of denigration against a parent for unjustified reasons and uses frivolous rationalizations that are disproportionate to the circumstances.
- The child may display a complete lack of ambivalence wherein the rejected parent is viewed as "all bad" and the favored parent is viewed as "all good." This lack of ambivalence is associated with "splitting", a primitive division of the ego into "all good" and "all bad" objects to prevent the generalization of anxiety.
- The child may display reflexive support for the parent they favor during disagreements between the rejected parent and the favored parent.
- The child may use borrowed scenarios that involve making disparaging comments about the rejected parent that are identical to those made by the favored parent.
- The child may display an independent thinker phenomenon that involves comments by the child that their decision to reject a parent was arrived at without any influence from the favored parent.
- The child may display an absence of guilt regarding their denigration of the rejected parent.
- The child's vilification of the rejected parent may spread to extended family members.
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".
Another theory is that 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[medical citation needed] 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,[unreliable medical source?] 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,[medical citation needed] 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.
When parental alienation is identified, the success of restoring the child's attachment to their parent requires that the child be protected from harmful parenting. There is no generally recognized treatment protocol for parental alienation.
According to one theory, when symptoms of alienation are present, structured intervention is likely to be more effective than traditional counseling. Structured intervention often involves supportive temporary structural change in the family system. The process may also involve a period of court-ordered separation from the favored parent.   One critic of structured intervention has "concluded that PA advocates have failed to provide empirical support for the safety and effectiveness of their [treatment] methods and that custody proceedings should take these facts into consideration."
Another approach for severe cases of parental alienation involves defining the set of psychological symptoms in a child and proposing a psychological explanation for how those symptoms were caused by harmful parenting practices and why a parent would employ those parenting practices. In this model, 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 professionalsEdit
Mental health professionals are reluctant to recognize so-called parental alienation syndrome. The American Psychological Association has noted that there is a lack of data to support the concept of parental alienation syndrome, but takes no official position on the syndrome.
In anticipation of the DSM-5, the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which was released by the American Psychiatric Association 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 England, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) was formed to promote the welfare of children and families involved family court cases. Cafcass recognizes the possibility of parental alienation in family separation cases. Cafcass has developed a Child Impact Assessment Framework (CIAF) that is focused on understanding the child's personal experience of parental separation as a tool to help courts make more informed decisions about the best interests of the children. Alienation is specifically identified and assessed within that framework.
In an informal 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 rejected 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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