‘Parental alienation’: What it means and why it matters

Alienated? Parent and child image via www.shutterstock.com.

Parental alienation – defined as when one parent’s relationship with his or her child is harmed by the other parent – can have devastating consequences.

Many legal professionals and psychologists have known about parental alienation for decades. But for political and personal reasons, there are others who deny that such a thing exists.

Unfortunately, these legal and professional debates have led to misconceptions about what parental alienating behaviors are.

As a result many people do not have a word to describe or label their experience, or to understand what they see happening to others. That makes it challenging to find solutions.

It is time to look past the controversy over whether parental alienation exists and to instead understand what the actual behaviors are so that we don’t allow them to be used to hurt others anymore.

So what are these behaviors and what does the research that’s been done so far tell us about them?

What is it?

First, let’s distinguish between the term “Parental Alienation Syndrome” and parental alienation. Parental alienation involves behaviors that a parent does to hurt or damage a relationship between a child and the other parent.

Parental Alienation Syndrome, on the other hand, was coined by Dr. Richard Gardner in 1985 and describes the ultimate outcome or impact of those behaviors on a child. There is debate among clinicians and legal professionals as to whether PAS is an actual syndrome or not. The focus in this article is on parental alienating behaviors rather than parental alienation as a syndrome.

The term “parental alienation” is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM, which is a manual that offers a common language and standard criteria that mental health providers use to classify mental disorders). However, “child affected by parental relationship distress (CAPRD)” is a term that has been added to the most recent edition of the DSM, the DSM-5. CAPRD includes parental alienating behaviors such as badmouthing a parent to a child. And several of the manual’s authors have clarified CAPRD to include an entire range of parental alienating behaviors and outcomes.

What are alienating behaviors?

The alienating parent might badmouth the other parent in front of the child to gain his or her loyalty. Or the parent might reconstruct past events to make the child believe horrible and untrue things about the other parent, or prevent the other parent from spending time with the child.

A parent may also intrude excessively (e.g., frequent texting) into the other parent’s parenting time with the children, or make false claims of abuse in order to limit their time with the children indefinitely. The result is the child can feel extremely negative toward the targeted parent for unjustified and often untrue reasons.

These behaviors often occur when the parents’ relationship ends and can be particularly acute if, upon separation, one parent can’t let the relationship go. The behaviors often escalate if one parent remarries – he or she may want to start over and “erase” the other parent altogether. But parental alienation can also happen when the parents are still together.

Alienation isn’t the same thing as estrangement

Parental alienation is often confused with estrangement, but they are not the same thing.

Estrangement can occur if a parent is abusive or has shortcomings that damage or strain his or her relationship with the child. For example, a parent may have a mental illness or other problem that makes it challenging to communicate with the child in a healthy way. As a result, the child may not want to have much contact with the estranged parent. In such cases, the child will express ambivalence toward the estranged parent.

Parental alienation, on the other hand, is when the actions of one parent intentionally harm the relationship the child has with the other parent. In these cases, the child feels little to no guilt about his negative feelings towards the alienated parent.

This difference is one reason why the clarification in the DSM-5 is important. Clinicians need to be better trained to identify when there is parental alienation, estrangement or both behaviors occurring.

What is the effect on kids?

When I interviewed alienated parents about their children for my new book, I learned that some children are quite resistant to the behavior of the alienating parent. In fact a child may even be critical of the alienating parent’s motivations.

However, this resistance places children in a difficult situation if they are also dependent on the alienating parent. Many children live “split” lives to cope with this situation. In other words, they behave in totally different ways depending on which parent they are with at any given time.

Most of what we know about the effects of parental alienation on children is based on small clinical or legal studies. There has yet to be a large-scale study on the prevalence of parental alienation, or on the different outcomes for children, let alone how outcomes change over time.

The limited research that has been published on this topic suggests that alienated children and parents suffer many negative outcomes. These can include psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse and even the contemplation of or attempted suicide. Declines in academic performance among children and decreases in work productivity of parents can also occur.

Kids can be resilient in the face of alienation. Father and child via www.shutterstock.com.

How common is parental alienation?

Despite a growing body of literature about parental alienation, we do not know how many people experience these behaviors. To find out more, my colleagues and I polled a randomly selected sample of 610 adults in North Carolina about their experiences of parental alienation.

We found that 13.4 percent of parents in our sample reported being alienated from one or more of their children. Of these parents, 48 percent reported this experience as as being severe.

It is important to make clear that we did not ask whether people have been the target of alienating behaviors. We asked only whether they feel they have been alienated from their children. This distinction is important, because it is likely there are many more parents who are experiencing alienating behaviors, but the children have not yet been alienated.

We found that fathers were slightly more likely to report being victims than mothers, but the difference was not statistically significant.

It is possible some of the parents who responded to our poll were actually the alienating parent. Research reported in my book suggests that many alienating parents actually accuse the other parent of alienating behaviors.

My colleagues and I now want to conduct a larger, national poll to estimate the prevalence of parental alienation. We also want to explore the types of families that are affected by parental alienation, and how the legal system, social systems and relationships contribute to it.

Stereotypes may feed into alienation

When I started interviewing parents for my book “Parents Acting Badly: How Institutions and Societies Promote the Alienation of Children from their Loving Families,” it became clear that many alienating parents use gender and parenting stereotypes to win over teachers, friends, and even court judges and psychologists to accomplish their aims.

For instance, if a father tells his daughter’s teacher that her mother works full-time and is not nurturing toward her, this statement may activate stereotypes about what being a “good” mother should be. In turn, the mother is then viewed by the teacher as a less effective parent than he is.

Results from an online survey I conducted with my colleagues demonstrate gender stereotypes can play a significant role in enabling alienation.

We asked 228 parents, over half of whom were married, to rate a large number of parenting behaviors by how acceptable they are for a mother, father or a parent (with no indication of gender) to do.

We found that when people hear of a mother badmouthing the father to their child, or doing other alienating behaviors, their behaviors are rated as more acceptable than if a father does them.

While participants in the study did not think parental alienating behaviors were generally acceptable, they rated those behaviors as more acceptable for mothers to do than fathers.

Unfortunately, many people who are not affected by parental alienation do not see it as a problem that concerns them. It is perceived as a private matter, or a matter to be handled in the courts.

We need more research on alienating behaviors, and we need greater public attention to this problem to protect children and families.

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