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Parental Alienation: What We Know


Parental Alienation Syndrome, first defined over 20 years ago, is more and more becoming a hot topic of conversation among child therapists, family law attorneys, judges and divorcing parents. It is a form of emotional child abuse where a custodial parent belittles or vilifies the other parent to the child. executing a campaign aimed at the child with the goal being the total and permanent rejection of the non-custodial parent.

What causes this syndrome, how common is it and what long-term damage can it leave in its wake?

Definition and Causes

Parental Alienation Syndrome was defined in 1989 by Richard A. Gardner, M.D., a child psychiatrist, as “a disturbance in which a child is obsessed with deprecation and criticism of a parent (more often the father) and denigration that is unjustified or exaggerated. At the same time, the other parent can do no wrong, and the non-preferred parent can do no right.”

This syndrome causes the child to find fault with one parent in a way that is unjustified and inflated. The hatred is often extended to the alienated parent’s extended family as well. This syndrome is characterized by the child’s ability to hate and defile one parent without any logic or evidence, embarrassment or remorse. Often the child will phrase his or her expressions of alienation in vocabulary inconsistent with his or her age, instead using expressions from an adult’s vocabulary in a direct form of mimicking. Seeking the approval and love of the alienating parent, the child goes to any length to please them. They discover that rejecting and disparaging the alienated parent brings reward from the parent leading the campaign.

The Three Categories of Alienation

The syndrome falls into three categories; severe, moderate and mild. In severe cases, accusations of sexual abuse can be manifested in the child’s memory when none ever took place. In the milder cases, such inaccurate characterizations as weakness, inability to parent effectively, or no real interest in protecting or caring for the child are planted in the child’s mind. The parent doing the alienating often does so as a means to boost their self-esteem brought down by the divorce and out of desperate need to make up for the loss of their partner with the loyalty and love of their child. Very often, though, the parent is simply using their child as a weapon, knowing that damaging or even terminating the love their child has for their other parent will be the worst pain they can inflict on them. They fail to realize that every child very much needs and has an innate desire to love both parents, and demanding an end to that love will severely damage the child as well.

Strategies Used to Alienate

Parental alienation typically involves a set of strategies put into force by the custodial parent. These strategies include: limiting the child’s contact with the other parent, bad-mouthing them, erasing them from the child’s life and mind by forbidding discussion or photos of the parent. Additional strategies are often designed to make the child believe the other parent is dangerous, forcing the child to choose between them and the other parent, (withholding affection if they do not comply) and withholding or putting down the extended family of the other parent.

How Common is It?

Fidler and Bala (2010) determined that parental alienation is present in approximately 11-15% of high conflict custody cases in the United States. They also determined that up to 2% of children in high conflict divorces are exposed to behaviors defined as Parental Alienation Syndrome.

What Are the Consequences?

Although this term has only been defined for about 20 years, cases of parental alienation are already well-documented. The emotional devastation it creates includes self-hatred, lack of trust, depression, low self-esteem and substance abuse. Children tend to internalize the hatred targeted at the alienated parent in addition to believing that they were unloved and unwanted by one of their parents. They also experience severe guilt in participating in the alienation, failing to realize that the alienating parent has manipulated them.

Depression, a very common result, comes from the child feeling unloved by one parent, from being separated from that parent, or even permitted to talk about and mourn the loss of that parent when that parent is removed from their lives. Sadly, these symptoms last well into adulthood, sometimes not appearing until adolescence or even much later. It is also known that a whopping 50% of children that were alienated from a parent growing up go on to be alienated from their own children in adulthood.

A Form of Child Abuse

Every child has a fundamental right to know and love both of their parents. A disruption of this right, either by isolation alone or also including programming of the child to fear or hate the other parent, is considered child abuse. Children who have been separated from a parent without the presence of abuse or neglect are highly susceptible to post-traumatic stress. Often, though, the child will reconnect and bond again with the alienated parent almost immediately, if given the chance. However, it is also common for the child to swing back to hating the once alienated parent shortly after reunification if the alienating parent has a chance to impose more influence over them.

It is important to remember that hatred from a child toward one of their parents is not a naturally occurring emotion. Children are pre-wired to love each parent. Forcing a child to have such emotions is a clear form of child abuse that does not have any fewer effects on the child’s long-term well-being than physical or sexual abuse, neglect or other forms of child abuse. Just as children who are forced to become child soldiers learn to identify with and love their abductors, or abused children hold onto a seemingly impossible love for the abusing parent, so do children who have been victims of parental alienation.

A Major Court Challenge

While Dr. Gardner’s approach to stopping this syndrome was in most cases removing the child from the alienating parent and often severely if not completely limiting the child’s contact with them, many child psychologists and judges find this approach to be extreme. Parental alienation syndrome is a very tricky situation for our courts to address. They must be as close to 100% sure that the alleged abuse or mistreatment of the child is non-existent and only fabricated, or else they are putting the child right into the lap of danger.

However, by being too cautious, the courts run the risk of allowing this form of abuse to go on, often causing severe psychological and emotional damage to the child that could have been avoided. There is also the possibility of the parent who has lost most, if not all, custody of the child to claim parental alienation to reverse the court order.

Unfortunately, our courts, working on too many cases with deficient amounts of time and resources, are often inadequate to make such a judgment. Therefore, parental alienation is yet another risk our children face in a system ill-equipped to properly prevent it.

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