Parental alienation (PA) is a serious mental condition that affects hundreds of thousands of children and families in the United States. It is a mental condition in which a child-usually one whose parents are engaged in a high conflict separation or divorce allies himself or herself strongly with an alienating parent and rejects a relationship with the “target” parent without legitimate justification.
The child has a false belief that the rejected or target parent is evil, dangerous or not worthy of love. There is an absence of communication between parent and child even though they previously enjoyed a loving, nurturing relationship. It may occur although the parents have never been legally married or that the parents are still living in the same household. Bernet, p. 5
Johnson, Campbell and Mayes (1985) reported the distress of 44 children who were the subjects of divorced and separated parents. The authors described 6 primary responses of these children to their parents: strong alliance, alignment, loyalty conflict, shifting allegiances, acceptance of both with avoidance of preferences, and rejection of both. Their definition of a strong alliance was “a strong, consistent, overt (publicly stated) verbal and behavioral preference for one parent over together with rejection and disintegration of the other. It is accompanied with affect that is clearly hostile, negative and not ambivalent.” P. 6
PA almost always arises in the context of intense conflict between the target parent and someone else. It is possible for a child to develop PA even without active brainwashing or coaching from the opposite parent. Children have a way of knowing when the parents feel hostile to each other. The target parent may contribute to the situation with a non-nurturing attitude toward the child and/or other forms of inadequate, insufficient parenting styles.
The child’s symptoms that define PA-refusal to see one of the parents, a campaign of denigration, hatred that is unjustified and disproportionate to the circumstances are usually just the tip of an ice berg of maladaptive attitudes and destructive behaviors. PA is a powerful psychosocial force that leads the child to develop comorbid emotional problems and often deviant behaviors, and impaired interpersonal relationships. Johnson, Walters and Olesen (2005) have found that alienated children had more emotional and behavioral problems of clinical and behavioral significance than their non-alienated counterparts. Johnson (2005)said that, “ alienated children are more likely to be more troubled-more emotionally dependent, less socially competent, have problematic self-esteem (either low of defensively high) , poor reality testing, , lack the capacity for ambivalence, and are prone to emeshment or splitting in relations with others. She also said:
“Severely alienated child are also likely to manifest severe conduct disorders and behave very inappropriately, at least in the presence of the rejected parent. Extreme expressions of hatred, rage, contempt and hostility can be acted out as rudeness, swearing cursing, and hanging up the phone. Etc.”
Fidler and Bala (2010) explain that data consistently show that alienated children are at risk for emotional distress and adjustment difficulties and are at a much greater risk than children from litigating families who are not alienated. They reported that clinical observations, case reviews and both qualitative and empirical evidence uniformly indicate that alienated children may exhibit poor reality testing, illogical cognitive operations; simplistic and rigid information processing; inaccurate or distorted interpersonal perceptions; disturbed and compromised interpersonal functioning; self-hatred; low self-esteem or inflated self-esteem; pseudo-maturity; gender identity problems; poor differentiation of self or enmeshed relationships; aggression and conduct disorders, disregard for social norms and authority; poor impulse control; emotional constriction; passivity or dependence; and lack of remorse or guilt.
David Joanis (1996 argued that in the context of PA “obnoxious, hostile behavior is acceptable and that deceit and manipulation are a normal part of the relationships.
Philip Stahl (2003) reported the following:
When children are caught up in the midst of this conflict and become alienated, the emotional response can be devastating to the child’s development. The degree of damage to the child’s psyche will vary depending on the intensity of the alienation and of the age and vulnerability of the child. However, the impact is never benign because of the child’s distortions and confusions.
Criteria for the diagnosis of Parental Alienation
The child must manifest these two behaviors.
- Campaign of denigration against the target parent. The child often presents complaints in a litany, some trivial, many false or irrational. The child often denies ever having good times with the target parent when that is not the case. Alienated children are likely to reject the potential for any type of reconciliation (even to the ability to co-parent).
- Frivolous rationalization of the child’s criticism of the target parent. The child’s reactions of hatred or disdain are unjustified and disproportionate to the circumstances they describe.
They may claim to be fearful, but they do so easily without typical fear reactions.
The child must manifest two or more of the following six attitudes
- Lack of ambivalence. The child manifests all or nothing thinking, idealizing the other parent and devaluing the target parent.
- Independent-thinker Phenomenon. The child proudly states the decision to reject the target parentis his or her own, not influenced by the other parent.
- Reflexive support of the alienating parent against the target parent. The child immediately and automatically takes the alienating parent’s side in a disagreement.
- Absence of guilt over exploitation and mistreatment of the target parent. The child may be oppositional, rude, disrespectful, and even violent toward the target parent and shows little of no remorse for those behaviors.
- Borrowed scenarios. The child makes rehearsed statements that are identical to those made by the alienating parent. Younger siblings may mimic what their older sibling says. They are usually able to elaborate on the details of the event they allege.
- Spread of the child’s animosity to the target parent’s extended family, even when the child has had little or no time with them. Occasionally the child’s hatred extends to the pets of the target parent.
Amy Baker (2006, 2007a) studied adults who had experienced PA as children. She identified several problematic areas: high rates of low self-esteem to the point of self-hatred, significant episodes of depression in 70% of the subjects, lack of trust in themselves and others, and alienation from their own children in 50% of the subjects, which suggests that PA is multigenerational. Approximately one-third of the sample reported history of drug and alcohol during adolescence to avoid painful feelings arising from loss and parental conflict. These adults had difficulty feeling that anyone would ever love them; two thirds had been divorced once and one quarter more than once.
There are long term and serious consequences for children including but not limited to difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships, depression, suicide, substance abuse, antisocial behavior, enmeshments and low self-esteem
Clawar and Rivlin (1991) found that in about 80 percent of 700 counseling cases, there was some element of parental programing in an effort to implant false and negative ideas about the other parent.
“Contact refusal” refers to the behavior of a child who avoids spending time with one of his parents. There are many reasons that a child may not want to see a parent after separation or divorce.
Estrangement refers to a child’s rejection of a parent that is justified “as a consequence of the rejected parent’s history of family violence, abuse and neglect.” Johnson (2005) Alienation refers to a child’s rejection of a parent that is unjustified, “unreasonable negative feelings and beliefs” that are significantly disproportionate to the child’s actual experience with that parent.
What can help these children and their parents?
The counselors and therapists at Personal Growth Counseling help children going through this phenomenon in a number of ways:
- The administration of Bonding Assessments with children reveals many of the child’s true feelings about each parent as well as their extended families.
- The use of play therapy, role playing, art, music and sometimes hypnosis with children can be very helpful especially when a child is afraid to talk or has trouble expressing emotions.
- Personal Growth Counselors are frequently called upon to provide ‘Expert Witness Testimonies” with the court. The counselors do a complete evaluation of the situation and make recommendations based on their experience and education in an objective and professional manner. (It is the opinion of Personal Growth Counselors that children are more emotionally healthy when both parents are involved in their life to the extent that it is safe).
- Psychoeducational and Cognitive Behavior Therapy with parents to help them to heal, to move on from painful relationships and make the best decisions for their children regarding co-parenting issues.
References are found in the book, Parental Alienation-the Handbook for Mental Health and Legal Professionals, Charles Thomas Publisher. 2013.