Recent Advances in Understanding Parental Alienation
Implications of Parental Alienation Research for Family-Based Intervention
Posted Jul 12, 2015
Dr. Richard Warshak of the University of Texas has just published a new paper in the journal, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, entitled, “Ten Parental Alienation Fallacies that Compromise Decisions in Court and in Therapy.” Parental alienation is a mental condition in which a child, usually one whose parents have been engaged in a high conflict separation, allies him or herself with an alienating parent and rejects a relationship with the other parent without legitimate justification. Warshak's article is directed not only to researchers but also to mental health professionals, and family lawyers and judges. Its purpose is to identify and correct common misconceptions about research on alienated children, and examine implications for assessment and intervention. The article contains important practice recommendations for both therapists and legal practitioners.
Dr. Warshak's starting point is the assertion is that mistaken beliefs about the genesis of parental alienation and appropriate remedies have shaped both socio-legal policy and therapeutic and legal practice in ways that have failed to meet children’s needs during and after parental separation, and therefore are contrary to the principle of the best interest of the child. The article identifies and examines ten mistaken assumptions, each in detail. Note that there is no empirical evidence to support any of the following assumptions.
Ten Parental Alienation Fallacies:
1. Children never unreasonably reject the parent with whom they spend the most time,
2. Children never unreasonably reject mothers,
3. Each parent contributes equally to a child’s alienation,
4. Alienation is a child’s transient, short-lived response to the parents’ separation,
5. Rejecting a parent is a short-term healthy coping mechanism,
6. Young children living with an alienating parent need no intervention,
7. Alienated adolescents’ stated preferences should dominate custody decisions,
8. Children who appear to function well outside the family need no intervention,
9. Severely alienated children are best treated with traditional therapy techniques while living primarily with their favored parent,
10. Separating children from an alienating parent is traumatic.
The article provides a summary of the research on parental alienation that has emerged over the past decade. As with Warshak's (2014) article, "Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report," it supports shared parental responsibility as in the best interests of most children of divorce, and as a remedy for parental alienation. It is an important contribution to understanding the most common errors in judicial practice and social policy in this arena, as well as in mental health practice. It is the implications for intervention with children and families that should be of special interest to us.
One of the most controversial points is the last, "Separating children from an alienating parent is traumatic." Alienation and isolation by a parent in the absence of a child protection order is damaging to a child, and is itself a child protection concern. The key for children is to reunite with the alienated parent, ideally with the support of the other parent, which necessarily entails temporary separation from that parent. However, complete separation from an alienating parent may be a form of alienation in itself.
Another mistaken assumption that struck me is, "Young children living with an alienating parent need no intervention." It seems difficult to believe that such an assumption still exists, but there has been a widespread and persistent denial by some practitioners and policymakers about the reality of parental alienation. The fact that "parental alienation syndrome" is not identified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, Fifth Edition (DSM-V), for example, does not mean that parental alienation does not exist; as Warshak's consensus statement and other meta-analyses have demonstrated, parental alienation is much more widespread than is commonly assumed.
In addition, as Warshak has written, although the DSM-V has no specific diagnosis of "parental alienation," the DSM-V includes, under the heading “Relational Problems” and the sub-heading “Problems Related to Family Upbringing,” two diagnostic categories that describe children who are irrationally alienated from a parent. The first is “Parent-Child Relational Problem,” which reads, “Typically, the parent-child relational problem is associated with impaired functioning in behavioral, cognitive, or affective domains.” Examples of impaired cognitive functioning include the domain of the alienated child’s relationship to the rejected parent: “negative attributions of the other’s intentions, hostility toward or scapegoating of the other, and unwarranted feelings of estrangement.”
The second DSM-V category descriptive of alienated children is “Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress.” This category is used “when the focus of clinical attention is the negative effects of parental relationship discord (e.g., high levels of conflict, distress, or disparagement) on a child in the family.” Descriptions of the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems of children who unreasonably reject a parent in the shadow of that parent’s disparagement by the other parent clearly fit in this category. The general acceptance of the concept of unreasonable rejection of a parent as indicated in both empirical research and the DSM-V makes it difficult for professionals to maintain credibility while denying the existence of parental alienation.
Yet favored parents’ disavowal of responsibility for their children’s rejection of the other parent continues to find support among advocates who claim that the concept of unjustified parental alienation is harmful to children. They maintain that the concept of parental alienation is a legal strategy used by abusive parents to deflect blame for their children’s fear and hatred of them. In this view, briefly, children who reject parents always have valid reasons and all "hated parents" have no one to blame for their suffering but themselves. Such advocates deny any possibility that children’s rejection of their parents could have predominantly irrational roots.
In contrast to denial of the problem’s existence is the consensus statement on the desirability of shared parenting following parental separation for most children (Warshak, 2014). In alienation situations, favoured parents’ behavior constitutes psychological abuse when they manipulate and influence children to participate in depriving themselves of love, nurturance, and involvement with their other parent. Denial of this form of abuse of children is reminiscent of society’s denial in the early twentieth century, Warshak writes, of the prevalence of physical and sexual abuse of children. The prevalence of such denial has prompted surveys addressing the issues of whether children can reject a parent whose behavior does not warrant such rejection, and whether the rejection can be due in part to the influence of the favored parent. A survey taken at the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts’ annual (2014) conference reported 98% agreement “in support of the basic tenet of parental alienation: children can be manipulated by one parent to reject the other parent who does not deserve to be rejected.”
For the child, the biopsychosocial-spiritual effects of parental alienation are devastating. For both the alienated parent and child, the removal and denial of contact in the absence of neglect or abuse constitute cruel and unusual treatment. Adversarial court processes often add salt to the wound of both parents and children. This new research dispelling parental alienation fallacies thus represents a call to action. As a form of child maltreatment, parental alienation is a serious child protection matter as it undermines a basic principle of social justice for children: the right to know and be cared for by both of one's parents.
Warshak, R. (2015). Ten Parental Alienation Fallacies that Compromise Decisions in Court and in Therapy. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice.
Warshak, R. (2014). Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report. Psychology, Public Policy and Law.