A family systems approach to parental alienation is recommended, involving victims and perpetrator.
Based on new understandings of how family relationships fundamentally affect child development and wellbeing, three researchers, Jennifer Jill Harman, Edward Kruk and Denise A Hines are arguing that parental alienation—a deliberate attempt to break a child-parent relationship—should be classified as child abuse. The researchers recommend a family systems response to parental alienation, involving both victims and perpetrator, with a view to restoring all relationships to the child.
Parental alienation facts
Definition of parental alienation:
- A child’s reluctance or refusal to have a relationship with a parent for illogical, untrue or exaggerated reasons.
- There is a spectrum of parental alienation, from mild to severe. In mild cases, the child may enjoy a good relationship with the target parent provided the alienating parent is not present.
Common symptoms of parental alienation seen in a child:
- Open expressions of hostility towards the target parent.
- Extreme polarisation – one parent is all good and one parent all bad.
- Campaign of denigration of the target parent.
- Unfounded rationalisations for their complaints about the target parent.
- Borrowed scenarios created by the alienating parent.
- Spreading animosity about the target parent to other people.
- Lack of overt ambivalence, guilt or remorse for their rejection.
- Automatically siding with the alienating parent in any argument or conflict.
Characteristics of alienating behavior by a parent:
- Intention to hurt or destroy the other child-parent relationship and to hurt the other parent, while the other parent is motivated to avoid these things. Parental alienation does not include situations where one parent or the child is choosing to end their relationship. It does not include steps by one parent to protect a child from genuine abuse by the other parent.
- Enacted over an extended period of time – a pattern of behavior rather than a single action.
- Ranging from mild to severe and explicit.
- Use of the child as an instrument to hurt the target parent.
- Custodial status is the main predictor of who is likely to alienate, rather than gender per se. Non-custodial parents can engage in alienating behavior, but it is rare.
- Prevalence is hard to measure because of the absence of an accurate diagnosis.
Parental alienation in the law:
- In 2010, Brazil passed a law criminalizing parental alienation on the grounds that is it “moral abuse” – a violation of the child’s fundamental right to have healthy family interactions and family life.
- In 2015, the Australian Federal Court recognised parental alienating behaviors as a form of family violence that causes harm to children.
Parental alienation research:
- Over 1,000 books, chapters and research articles on parental alienation published, mostly legal case reviews, expert opinions, clinical case studies and qualitative research studies.
- Research on the prevalence, causes, diagnosis and assessment, and treatment outcomes is highly limited.
Parental alienation as child abuse
The researchers highlight aspects of parental alienation that correspond with definitions of child abuse.
Parental alienation as emotional/psychological aggression:
- Creating fear in children that the target parent might be dangerous.
- Making children feel guilty or ridiculing them for showing warmth or loyalty to the target parent and their extended family.
- Withdrawing love and affection when children talk about the other parent.
- Interrogating children after visits to the other parent and/or forcing them to throw away any clothing, gifts or reminders of the other parent.
- Corrupting children’s identity by telling them the other parent is disappearing from their life – e.g., introducing a step-parent as a replacement, changing the children’s surname.
- Presenting false information to children – e.g., distorting their memories of the parent with false and negative details, pretending that the other parent failed to turn up to see the children at a scheduled time.
- Forcing children to make binary decisions – e.g., telling them they can see only one parent, not both.
- Using children to spy in the home of the other parent.
- Holding children responsible for violations of court orders.
Parental alienation as child neglect:
- Placing the needs of the alienating parent before the children’s need to be loved and cared for by the other parent.
- Being emotionally unavailable to children through parents’ own psychological pathologies.
- Making false allegations of abuse and fabricating illness in an attempt to get custody of children and prevent contact with the other parent.
- Giving false medication information to the other parent to justify sole care of children’s medical needs.
- Using professionals to “help” children cope with the alleged behaviors of the other parent. Some alienating parents work through one professional after another as each starts to suspect what is really happening.
- Isolating children from peers who may question their rejection of the other parent.
Parental alienation as local and administrative aggression:
- Making false allegations of abuse against the other parent to authorities and services. Sometimes children are co-opted into this process.
Parental alienation as physical and sexual aggression:
- Hitting children when they express a desire to be connected with the other parent.
- Preventing the other parent from protecting the children against a new partner with a history of sexual or violent offences.
Parental alienation as intimate partner violence
The researchers also map common behaviors in parental alienation to behaviors common in intimate partner violence: aggression, coercive control, physical threats, exploitation of the victim’s secrets, lying about past events to modify parenting plans, stalking, and legal/administrative aggression. As most alienating parents are the custodial parents, they can use the power of their situation to keep the victim living in fear of total cessation of contact with the child.
In all cases, children are victims when they witness the abuse or are affected by it.
Impacts on the child of parental alienation
Practitioners will intervene only when the severity of abuse reaches a certain threshold. This requires accurate and skilled diagnosis, which is made more difficult by the lack of systematic and empirical research on the causes of parental alienation.
Severe parental alienation has obvious and immediate impacts on the child, but mild and moderate forms can also cause significant harm which can go on for many years. This harm goes beyond just the impacts of being exposed to conflict and parental pathology.
Examples of negative impacts of parental alienation found in research include:
- Low self-esteem.
- Feeling abandoned and unloved.
- Inability to express grief.
- Self-hatred through internalising the hate targeted at one parent.
- Disturbed attachment to both parents.
- Substance abuse disorders.
- Mental illness
- Disturbed psychosocial development, for example, in handling interpersonal conflict and developing empathy.
- Poor academic performance.
- Poor physical health.
The difficulties of detecting parental alienation
Parental alienation can be hard to detect because it is a pattern of behavior extended over time, rather than a distinct action.
Another key difficulty regarding detection is that many professionals believe parental alienation occurs only in high-conflict relationships, and therefore both parents are held responsible for the situation. Such reciprocity does exist in some cases, but it cannot be assumed; in many cases, only one parent is the perpetrator. In these cases, holding the victim partly responsible is a manifestation of victim blaming that is a well-recognised feature in the field of intimate partner violence.
Victim parents may retaliate, for example, by defending their reputation against a campaign of derogation, and they may do this in inappropriate ways. It is important, however, to distinguish this pattern from mutual aggression. Likewise, victim parents may deliberately choose not to reciprocate any aggressive behavior in order not to become enmeshed in the alienating parent’s pathology, or in fear of the power that the alienating parent has over their relationship with the children.
A further difficulty is ignorance about the issue among professionals. “For parental alienating behaviors to be recognized and accepted as a form of serious child maltreatment and IPV [intimate partner violence],” the researchers argue, “a clear and precise definition of the phenomenon of parental alienation is needed, and the exact nature of the harms befalling targeted parents and children as a result of parental alienating behaviors needs to be unambiguous.”
Responding to parental alienation
To prevent future harm to children affected by parental alienation, the researchers recommend taking a family systems approach that engages both the victims and the perpetrator. They warn against any approach that engages only with the victim parent or child.
They recommend five interventions.
- Education for young people so that they can recognise abuse and take steps to protect themselves.
- Address the issue in education for parents on parenting after separation.
- Clinical interventions for children to repair the damage done. There are few of these, but one – the Family Bridges Program – has been specifically developed to help children to have a healthy relationship with both parents.
- In some cases, the reversal of legal custody, so that children are not left in the primary care of an abusive parent. This should be accompanied by treatment for the abusive parent and then reunification programs to restore both parental relationships with the children.
- In family courts, when children fully reject a parent, a process specifically adapted to the situation: (1) more intensive collaboration between legal and health professionals, (2) specific court orders setting clear boundaries for the alienating parent, (3) education for judges on the nature of parental alienation, its impacts on children and effective ways of mitigating these. Moreover, judges should be aware that awarding sole custody to reduce conflict leaves children exposed to the abuse of parental alienation.
Header photo: Ben Raynal. Creative Commons.