What Goes Around Comes Around.... Only Sometimes
In response to denigrating a parent: alienation or boomerang
Posted Aug 15, 2016
This blog post was written in response to a recent Psychology Today blog post by Dr. Emery, entitled, "Denigrating a coparent: alienation or boomerang?" First let me say that I agree that not all parents who denigrate the other parent are alienating parents, not all children exposed to denigration reject the denigrated parent, and in some cases the parent engaging in the denigration does look bad in the eyes of the child. Sometimes, what goes around comes does around. However, that does not mean, as the author states, that "disparagement equals alienation is a hypothesis that needs to be tested, not an established fact." The problem with this statement is that no one in the field of alienation has said that disparagement equals alienation. Research has consistently found that there are 17—not just 1—primary parental alienation strategies and that disparagement of the other parent is only one form of alienation. No credible alienation expert believes that alienation and disparagement are the same thing. There is no one behavior that is synonymous with alienation because one has to look at the behaviors of all of the parties involved to determine whether alienation is present: the behaviors of the favored parent (i.e., the 17 primary parental alienation strategies), the behavior of the targeted parent (did that parent have an adequate relationship with the child prior to the divorce, and is there absence of abuse or neglect on the part of that parent), and the behaviors of the child. It would be inappropriate to determine that alienation is present based solely on whether one parent disparages the other parent. It isn't even a hypothesis let alone an established fact. What is established is that there are 17 behaviors that a parent can exhibit that can foster a child's unjustified rejection of the other parent—when the targeted parent had a good relationship with the children and did not abuse or neglect them. If the rejected parent had been abusive it would not be alienation even if the favored parent engaged in disparagement. Alienation theory is much more nuanced than a simple equation of disparagement equals alienation. The blog offers a false equation (alienation=disparagement) and then discredits that statement in order to discredit alienation theory.
The second part of the post that I want to weigh in on is the fact that supposedly according to a review by Saini et al, the vast majority of parental alienation research was of poor or very poor quality. There are two points I want to make about this. First, the authors of the 2016 version of the chapter made many statements that support parental alienation theory. They state that there is a lot of research about the primary parental alienation strategies (citing my work) as well as considerable research on the long-term effects of parental alienation (again, citing my work). The blog did not mention this. Second, the authors of the chapter did conclude that the research in the field was not as rigorous as it could be. However, the system that Saini et al used to evaluate the quality of parental alienation research is called the GRADE system. It was designed for medical research studies in which two treatments are being compared. The fact that most parental alienation studies didn't fare well on the GRADE system is not a surprise. For example, in order to receive a high score on the GRADE system, a study should have a control group. Most PA studies would not be good candidates for a control group. This does not make them poor studies per se. Thus, the conclusion that PA is research is of poor quality is like complaining that an apple is a bad orange. At the same time, I agree with the Saini et al chapter that more research is needed and that it is always a good idea to strive for the highest quality study possible. By the way, the research study that is referenced in the blog would receive a low score on the GRADE system as well.
In the end, the blog offers up a false premise and then proceeds to knock it down. My research has consistently shown that many children exposed to the set of parental alienation strategies do reject the targeted parent. To conclude that in the vast majority of cases there is a boomerang effect fails to take into account the full set of parental alienation strategies that parents can engage in. Moreover, to believe that all cases of parental conflict are mutual (i.e. both parents are equally to blame) is to fall prey to a wish that parents cannot really victimize each other and that everyone contributes to the problem. This is sometimes—but certainly not always—the case.