The October 15, 2019 meeting of the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council in Austin, Texas (TBHEC)
Finding the Right Therapist
Copyright 2017 by Monika Logan, M.A., LPC, LSOTP
Navigating through the trenches with a child who once loved you but now claims to hate you, rejects you, or refuses visitation can be a tough terrain without having a skilled guide. When parental alienation is suspected or detected, locating a forensically trained therapist is vital. However, finding the right therapist for your situation can in and of itself be a daunting task.
You will need to ensure the therapist has specialized training, as well as extensive experience, in working with troubled-parent child relationships. Therapists who lack an adequate understanding and competence in dealing with parental alienation may be too quick to accept at face value the favored parent’s and child’s representations of events.
Some therapists will list their experience in this specialized area on a curriculum vitae (CV). The therapist should have documented on his/her CV extensive training, known as Continuing Education Unites (CEUs) through organizations such as the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. Realize that being “passionate” and “proficient” are not one and the same. There are numerous excellent therapists, who sincerely care about children and families, but not all have adequate training nor the experience in a forensic setting to work in this specialized area.
It is important for parents to understand that early intervention is key to offsetting unwarranted rejection by your child. Detecting alienating behaviors and distasteful antics early on can lead to greater successful outcomes in a therapeutic setting. A skilled therapist can assess when/if individual therapy is suited for your child and/or if a team approach is warranted in order to work with the entire family.
It is also key to realize that your therapist cannot diagnose a person he/she has not met. In today’s diagnostic label milieu, terms such as “sociopath” and “borderline” are flippantly tossed around. Buzz words run amok through social media and everyday conversations without any real critical thought behind the implications of the label(s). Bad behavior is simply bad behavior and most agree that alienating behavior is damaging to a child. Many people have traits of narcissism, borderline, or other mental health diagnoses, however, having a specific diagnosis does not in itself damage a parent-child relationship. On the contrary, blocking access, badmouthing, berating, and belittling are observable behaviors that are problematic.
Finally it is essential to be patient and recognize that the troubled-parent child relationship did not become damaged overnight. It takes time to repair and to restore fractured relationships.
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Medico-Legal Journal (1999) Vol.67 Part 3, 121-123
Parental Alienation and the Judiciary
Increasing numbers of cases are coming before the Courts where one parent feels displaced in relation to the children in the family. The syndrome, parental alienation (PAS),’ as it is now called, is not a new one, but its importance is being highlighted in the United States as well as in the UK. Judges are often uncertain as to how to treat the situation where one parent seeks to make contact with the children following an estrangement, separation, or an unusually unpleasant and vicious divorce.
There is some pressure on the Judiciary to keep the child or children with the person who has major control, usually the mother. Parental alienation however, also affects some mothers denied contact with their children who are resident with the father. On the whole, it is the male member of the partnership who suffers from the alienation situation.
In recent cases in which I have personally been involved, I had the opportunity of talking about PAS and its problems with two judges, on different occasions. The dilemma is how to deal with the case where the resident partner i.e. the alienating partner, fails to co-operate with the courts in providing adequate access for the other partner. I will recreate the general conversation, on an informal basis and hence no names can be mentioned. Interestingly, similar conversations were repeated with both judges, one male and one female, demonstrating how similar problems are often faced by the Judiciary in parental alienation cases.
Psych.: Your Honour, this is a case typical of parental alienation and I feel it is only right that the alienated parent should have contact with the child in question.
Judge: But the mother says that the child does not want any contact with the boy.
Psych.: This is because there has been a considerable amount of programming, I have discovered through my assessment, to make the child respond in this manner.
Judge: This may well be so but how do I deal with this situation when mother stubbornly refuses to allow contact of the child with the father?
Psych.: It is a difficult situation, your Honour, but the question remains: should justice be done or should it be ignored?
Judge: it is not as easy as that. I have spent time with mothers, even sitting in a cell, to try to get them to see reason to allow their former husbands to have access to a child. Sometimes this has worked while at other times, there has been a refusal. This puts me he a very awkward position since I must consider carefully, first and foremost, the children concerned and they are, after all, in the care of their mother who, if they are deprived of her, due to her being sentenced for failing to follow instructions, will lose a mother vital to their welfare.
Psych.: Again it comes down, your Honour, to considering the question of failure to comply with the Court ruling. If an ordinary criminal fails to obey instructions of the Court, some punitive action is taken. Should not some punitive action also follow when a mother, or father for that matter, refuses to accede to the ruling of the judge and the Court?
Judge: Well, I will see what I can do on this particular matter and the case before me but I still feel that it is a difficult one to settle, when one of the partners is totally opposed to contact with the child and the child in question has decided openly and before me, to refuse to have any contact with the other parent. Are you suggesting that I fine the mother in question or place her in a prison for failing to adhere to my instructions and that of the Court?
Psych.: I personally see no other alternative. It may well be that if such a threat is made, the alienating parent may, in due course, accept what has been recommended by the Court and there will be no need to take the action which you and I both feel is undesirable and may even be counter-productive.
Both judges agreed the case before them was typical of parental alienation and the difficulties they faced are only too obvious. Their first concern, and also that of myself, was the children. If the children have been “brain-washed” and “programmed” in a particular direction, this made the judge’s decision all the more difficult.
It is my view that no exception can be made for failing to adhere to the ruling of a court and that justice must be done however painful this may be. It may well be that the alienated parent should eventually gain access following a period of therapy between the psychologist and the child or children in question, to make them aware of what is happening. If older they themselves may well be able to put pressure on the alienating parent to see sense.
From the conversation, it can be seen that many judges are undoubtedly unsure how best to deal with alienating parents – this usually being the mother. Judges are often saved by the fact that fathers cease to pursue their role of wishing to play a part in their childrens’ lives. This is due to the resistance they meet from the former spouse, who has often formed a new relationship and wishes the new partner to take over the role of father. I have even known cases where the mother insisted the child call the new husband “dad” and the natural father by his first name.
Fathers who pursue both their right and their sense of responsibility through the courts are relatively few. Many opt out due to the resistance they meet from their ex-partners, the programmed child and the reluctance of judges to give them justice. This is undoubtedly due to the following:
Judges are reluctant to punish and most especially incarcerate obdurate mothers who refuse to comply with a judge’s decision that they must allow access with an estranged father.
Judges often are reluctant to ignore the view expressed by children that they do not wish to meet their fathers, despite the fact that such children have been “intensively programmed” to respond in this way by mothers and the mother’s relations.
Judges are reluctant to advise that therapy should take place, despite the fact that when such alienation occurs, children are damaged. Such therapy is often recommended by expert witnesses such as a psychologist or a psychiatrist. Such recommended periods of therapy for the child and mother are viewed by judges (with the aid of the mother’s Counsel!) as likely to damage further the children who are involved in this conflict and hostility between the parents.
Despite such reservations, judges have a moral duty to provide justice for the alienated party, this usually being the father. The threat of punishment for the alienator must be supported by punishment, including removing the child from mother’s care to a neutral place or to the alienated parent, and to use incarceration when necessary. Failure to carry out this distasteful, but necessary, action against the obdurate party would constitute a mockery of the judicial system. It is my experience as an expert witness to the Courts as a forensic, clinical psychologist, that most alienating parents, whether mothers or fathers, will obey a court order if punishment is threatened for failure to adhere to the ruling. Hence the carrying out of the various possible measures is rarely necessary.
In connection with PAS many judges have, without always being aware, adopted a double standard. They see mothers who are alienators as “victims” to be protected even when they have committed what can only be described as a form of “emotional abuse”. They have abused their powerful position by influencing the young children and turning them against the other parent. They have usurped the role of the other parent or given it to yet another partner with whom they have become associated. In this way, they have, by destroying the right of the other parent taken away that parent’s opportunity to contribute to the child’s welfare. This is at a time when we are seeking to promote the equality of the sexes. Partners should have equal power and responsibility toward their children.
PAS, when it has been proven, is a vicious form of gender opportunism or gender apartheid, which those seeking through justice can no longer ignore. Judges must stop worrying about public outcries if they remove a child from the care of a vicious programming parent who is showing their hostility toward the former partner.
I therefore suggest that the alienated parents, be they fathers or mothers, be protected. In so doing we are also protecting the children of such a relationship from a gross and calculated mis-use of power or position, that of the resident care giver.
Judges in cases of proven PAS should act as decisively as they would if judging a case of proven crime such as rape or murder. They must remove the child from the emotional damage being heaped upon it, to a safe place, where the non-alienating parent, with the help of therapy for the child, can have his influences felt by the child. At the same time, it is necessary to help the parent who has alienated the child in the first place. He or she has undoubtedly suffered from a considerable amount of pathological hostility towards the former partner.
By removing the child, or children, from the influence of the “brain-washing” alienator, the child has the opportunity of experiencing the dedication of the previously alienated parent and to develop a less biased view of that parent. Also the child can develop a positive view of both parents despite them being at war with each other.
This will do much to ensure for that child that both parents, although hostile towards one another, care and are devoted to him/her. This provides the child with a reasonable start in life, which he or she would not have had, had the influence of the alienator been allowed to continue along with a failure to have any contact with the alienated parent at the same time.
Dr L F Lowenstein
Allington Manor, Allington Lane
Fair Oak, Eastleigh
Hampshire, SO50 7DE
1. Parent Alienation Syndrome: What the legal profession should know, MLJ Vol 66 ( 1998) pt 4, 151.
Abuse Under the Radar: Pressure, Power, and Perceptions: By Monika Littau Logan
April is acknowledged, by most counselors and helping professionals, around the world, as National Child Abuse Prevention Month. It is a time to raise awareness about child abuse and neglect, as well as to create strong communities to support families and children. There is a form of child abuse, unfortunately, that often goes unrecognized. It is not easily detected due to the absence of physical manifestations. The abuse is psychological in nature leading to anxiety, depression, and despair – to name just a few negative sequealae. This under the radar type of abuse begs for recognition by counselors. Awareness leads to education and education leads to empathy and intervention. The abuse is known as Parental Alienation (PA). In most situations, PA occurs in high-conflict custody cases. Children are placed in the middle of parental wars and as a result of the conflict, children are forced to choose a “side.” A formal definition of parental alienation, provided by Dr. Bernet, a psychiatrist from Vanderbelt University is, “when a child allies himself or herself strongly with one parent (the preferred or favored parent) and rejects a relationship with the other parent (the alienated or rejected parent). The rejection does not have legitimate justification.” Stated another way, if a child rejects a parent because the parent has physically abused the child, this is not parental alienation.
In cases of PA, the rejection of the parent is irrational. The rejection is perpetuated and primarily maintained by favored parents; they want to turn the child against the other parent. Some research indicates that the method is akin to inculcating prejudice. As one example, African-Americans throughout history have been treated as less than human. There was no justifiable reason for the overt or covert prejudice. Instead, the hatred was taught, adopted, accepted as truth, and manifested as discrimination. It took awareness, education, and legislation to shed light on the injustice. In cases of PA, one parent teaches the child to disrespect and denigrate the other parent. Minor parental flaws, which once were overlooked before the divorce, are now considered major defects. As one illustration, an eight year old may report that she hates the other parent, because the parent smacks too loud while he eats. When the child verbalizes her trivial reasons, she is rewarded by the favored parent. The child may receive a new toy, or a simple hug. If it is an adolescent, she may receive a new cell phone or a new car.
Regardless of the type of reinforcement, children’s undesirable behavior toward the rejected parent is rewarded with tenacious consistency. When PA is left unchecked, unrecognized, and overlooked as a serious form of emotional abuse, children may refuse visitation. As a consequence, rejected parents are cut off from their children. They grieve the loving relationship they once had. The children feel torn. They are not permitted to openly love the rejected parent. Ideally children should feel free to love both parents without suffering guilt. Those who are unfamiliar with PA may wonder how visitation schedules could be ignored, and communication could cease to exist, especially with divorce decrees and custody plans in place. However, in cases of PA, favored parents violate orders. Favored parents may trash gifts that are mailed to the children, they may not be home for pick-up times, some will change their phone numbers, and in extreme cases, the parent flees the state or country.
It should be recognized not only for children, but also acknowledged for the agony that rejected parents face. Rejected parents cope with grief, loss, shame, blame, and systemic injustice. One study, by Dr. Amy J.L. Baker (2010), who is the director of research at The Vincent J Fontana Center for Child Protection, highlights the injustice that rejected parents endure. Dr. Baker’s findings indicate that even when rejected parents had the resources to pursue legal action, such as to enforce previously ignored orders, favored parents did not respect the courts. She noted that once favored parents realized they can discard legal mandates, noncompliance became the norm. Unfortunately, this lesson is passed down to children. Consequently, with disregard for authority modeled by the favored parent, children are raised to believe they do not have to follow rules, respect adults, or obey laws.
As studies show, rejected parents are frequently left without legal options. They are attempting to enforce orders that should be upheld in the first place. Surprisingly, as noted by Dr. Joan B. Kelly (2010), a significant number of favored parents, through prolonged litigation, have come to believe that non-compliance with court orders has little to no negative consequences. Unfortunately, in some instances, rejected parents have wiped out their savings, or taken out a second mortgage, due to legal fees. Clearly, many rejected parents simply lack funding to pursue legal action. Given the fact that parenting plans are placed aside, and court orders are mocked, counselors should be cognizant about the “blame game.” When a child is bullied, most do not blame the child that is the victim of bullying. Dr. Richard Warshak, a clinical professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, an internationally renowned lecturer and authority on alienated children, points out that helping professionals should be cautious, as not to blame an already hurting parent and his or her child. According to Dr. Warshak (2011) “In some cases, when professionals see gray they are expressing a necessary and nuanced view of family problems. In other cases though, attributing a parent-child problem to both parents, when one parent is clearly more responsible for destructive behavior, is a misguided effort to appear balanced and avoid blame. Unfortunately, this sometimes results in blaming the victim, and leads to inadequate remedies that prolong rather than relieve a child’s suffering.”
Common vernacular used for PA is “high-conflict” cases. However, high-conflict does not accurately depict PA. Certainly, there are divorces in which both parents would benefit from parenting education. And with education, the parents will eventually co-parent amicably. With guidance, parents learn to cooperate so that the child will not be placed in the middle of disputes. However, through no fault of their own, rejected parents are often categorized as high-conflict. As Dr. Warshak notes, the system often labels these parents as a “high-conflict couple,” and assumes that both contribute equally to their disputes. Common advice is to inform parents to stop fighting. This assumes that it is equally within each parent’s power to cease fire. Studies indicate it does not always take two to tango. Jaffee, Ashbourne, & Mamo (2010) describes how favored parents may not always play fair, “A minority of parents who suffer from personality and mental disorders may ignore the court and spend their waking hours finding ways to exhaust the other parent emotionally and financially.” These authors’ findings are consistent with other research. It is clear; some favored parents blatantly ignore court orders. The concept that one parent may be at fault, goes against our balanced, attempting to remain objective, therapeutic grain. If one parent ignores the court, teaches his or her child to disrespect and demean the other parent, one could infer that the rejected parent require an empathetic ear. As counselors, beneficence is an ethical imperative. To help off-set further harm requires an insightful and historical understanding of alienating nuances.
Parental Alienation was depicted in the literature as early as 1949 by Wilhelm Reich; he wrote Character Analysis. Reich explained that some divorced parents enact revenge, on their ex-partners, by depriving them of a relationship with their children. In order to alienate the child from the partner, lies are told without any reality to the statements .Unfortunately, for rejected parents and their children, PA is often surrounded by controversy. According to literature, the controversy is multifaceted. Some posit the phenomenon was “invented.” Forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Gardner (1985) coined and defined the term, Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). While Dr. Gardner coined the term, he did not invent this horrific form of abuse. To claim that he invented parental alienation is comparable to stating Freud invented anxiety. Dr. Gardner, observed children’s behavioral patterns, which resulted in eight manifestations. Depending on the severity of alienation, behaviors of PAS can be mild, moderate, or severe. He postulated that PAS is a result of one parent indoctrinating his or her child. Consequently, the child contributes by vilifying his or her rejected parent. As some dislike the medical model, the word syndrome also leads to debate. Furthermore, Dr. Gardner observed the phenomenon during the tender years presumption. Thus, it was believed that mothers were favored parents, while fathers were rejected parents. Sadly, in some circles, this contributed to gender wars. The literature is clear that an alienated parent can be male or female, as alienation is indiscriminate.
Parental alienation has also been scrutinized for being simplistic as it relates to causality. Dr. Gardner suggested that target parents are innocent victims. It is easy to believe the common phrase: where there is smoke, there must be fire. That is, if a child rejects a parent some may conclude that the parent must have done something to deserve rejection. Once again, we should remember the bullied child or poor treatment of targeted ethnic groups. Certainly, this does not mean rejected parents do not contribute in some manner, but it suggests their role is unequal.
Logically, if the phenomenon is denied and dismissed as worthy of clinical intervention, how can parents learn helpful responses? Without help, rejected parents contribute such as: overreacting, under reacting, or by counter rejecting. Dr. Gardner, in a balanced view, suggested that the rejected parent may have certain qualities that irritated, or temporarily alienated the child, but the parent does not deserve ongoing scorn, rejection, and in some cases to never see the parent again. The animosity goes beyond what might be expected from minor parental weakness. Vassiliou & Cartwright (2001) reported that rejected parents feel hopeless and helpless. In a sum, rejected parents believe the situation is beyond control. Unquestionably, rejected parents require support for being irrationally alienated. They also need guidance in dealing with their children’s defiant behavior, which is perpetuated and rewarded by favored parents. Rejected parents, who have lost all contact with their children, require support in dealing with such an enormous loss.
Obviously, it is vital to distinguish indisputable abuse and neglect from parental alienation. Certainly, physical abuse is detestable and unacceptable. Most would agree that emotional abuse should also be unacceptable. A child or adolescent should not be taught to make false allegations, hoping for the possibility that his or her parent may “win” in court. Children should not be placed in the middle, nor do they need to hear constant denigrating remarks. A child should not be forced to choose a “side”. It should raise a red flag, when a five-year old parrots adult language using vocabulary such as alimony, or child support. A red flag should also go up, when an eight year old proudly reports, “We are going to court to obtain full custody.” Thankfully, progress has been made in providing awareness and education. Currently, Parental Alienation has over 600 citations throughout the literature. Progress has also been made in countries such as Brazil, where alienating behaviors are now illegal. April 25th is Parental Alienation Awareness Day. Last year Poland, Germany, Sweden, Canada, and the United States, just to name a few, participated on this day to help raise awareness. As counselors, we should help eradicate not only physical abuse, but we should also aid in shedding light on the undetected scars that result from emotional abuse.
Recognizing Parental Alienation: The Therapeutic Role
Counselors play a pivotal role in alleviating pain that results from irrational alienation. As a profession, we are at the forefront, when parents seek help, especially given the divorce rate. Regardless if one is in private practice, or works in an agency setting, it is likely that one will be faced with alienated child, alienated adolescent, favored parent, or rejected parent. Armed with empirical findings, counselors can help offset parental alienation before a relationship is permanently severed. The first role of the counselor is to pierce through powerful polarities. Stated another way, the media, and advocacy groups have erroneously portrayed that if one recognizes parental alienation, as a serious form of emotional abuse, they are simultaneously denying intimate partner abuse and child abuse. This polarity, for the CBT adherents, may ring an all too familiar bell – the sound of black and white thinking.
To acknowledge parental alienation, as a form of coercive control, with the victim as an innocent child, does not mean that one is denying the reality of child abuse or domestic violence.
In 2010, Fidler & Bala discussed narrow and polarizing perspectives. They indicated the inflexible all or none thinking, observed by alienated children and their parents, can also be seen in helping professionals. Another concern, one that often produces professional discord, is that PA is not accepted in the DSM-IV-TR. However, we should be aware of the fact that just because a disorder or phenomenon is not listed in the DSM, does not mean the problem is not real. One commonly cited example, among many, is Gille de la Tourette. It was first described in 1885; ninety-five years later, it was accepted into the DSM.
Working with Children
Detecting signs of parental alienation is another therapeutic endeavor. As noted by Baker & Andre (2008), the counselor can aid in putting a halt to additional deterioration of the parent-child relationship. It is vital to determine if there has been a history of violence and to rule out bona fide abuse and neglect. Unfortunately, there are not any widely accepted “parental alienation tests”. The authors recommend that counselors can discriminate among possible sources for the rejection by using Dr. Gardner’s eight behavioral manifestations. The first, as Dr. Gardner described, is what is known as a campaign of denigration. A child, seemingly overnight, will claim to hate and/or fear a once loved parent. Secondly, weak, frivolous, and absurd rationalizations for the depreciation of the targeted parent are offered, convincingly too, by the child. As an illustration, a child will reject Mom or Dad, offering irrational, yet emotionally charged reasons, such as the parent folds the laundry wrong or burnt the macaroni and cheese. Third; the child will adopt a rigid lack of ambivalence. This is a key indicator that counselors should know. Rather than viewing both parents, as fallible human beings, the rejected parent is viewed with contempt, while the favored parent is viewed in an angelic light. Fourth, is known as the “Independent thinker phenomenon. Clearly, independent thought is to be prized, but in PA situations the child’s head has been inserted with falsehoods. The child asserts that his or her hatred has nothing to do with the other parent. On the contrary, alienated children will insist that the idea is by their own accord. Fifth, is an absence of guilt. Alienated children, due to negative input by the favored parent, behave guilt free. They act entitled, are defiant, and may exhibit cruel behavior. Sixth is known as, reflexive support for the favored parent. They have no interest nor are they willing to consider the rejected parents thoughts or wishes. This is the time in which rejected parents wonder why logic does not work. It appears nothing they do or say will change their child’s distorted thinking. The seventh manifestation is known as borrowed scenarios. Children often will adopt words and concepts they cannot define. As mentioned earlier, counselors should take note when a child uses adult-like language. The last manifestation is when hatred spreads; the child may not only claim to hate the rejected parent, but they may also report they no longer love grandma, grandpa, aunts, uncles, or even the family pet. In conjunction to Dr. Gardner’s eight manifestations, there are three components that are essential in detecting parental alienation.
In identifying Parental Alienation, Dr. Warshak (2003) exposes three fundamental elements. First, counselors should establish if the rejection or denigration is persistent. That is, is the rejection by a parent an occasional episode, or has it turned into a hate campaign. As an example, did the parent’s separation occur six months ago, or six years ago? Second, the counselors are faced with the question: is the rejection rational? Is alienation due to the rejected parent’s behavior? Third, the rejection must be in part, a result of the favored parent’s influence. Dr. Warshak points out that at times, some who are critical of the child’s rejection, focus only on the first element. According to Dr. Warshak, the phenomenon is at work when all three elements are present. Counselors will be in a better position when they are considering parental alienation, if they keep the three elements in mind. Shortly after parents separate, an occasional negative remark by an ex-spouse is expected. However, daily doses of parental poisoning within an ear shot of a child, is another concern.
While the literature varies in regards to uniform testing and adopting Dr. Gardner’s eight manifestations, there is a consensus to the signs of alienation. For starters, alienated children display all-or-nothing thinking. They rewrite history, and ignore and/or deny evidence placed before them. As an example, when shown a picture of a Disneyland vacation with the rejected parent, a picture in which the child and parent are smiling, the child will insist that they were only pretending to have a good time. Another indication is when the child’s descriptions for the rejection sounds more like scripted lines. Counselors should be attuned to adult language; language that is above age expected vocabulary. This is similar to Dr. Gardner’s description of borrowed scenarios. Alienated children not only utilize grown-up vocabulary, but they are rude, disrespectful, or even violent – without guilt. As a caveat, their defiant behavior does not extended to all settings; it is aimed directly at the rejected parent. Another sign is the child’s incongruence between words and affect. As counselors, we are on the look-out for clients that are teary-eyed, yet insist they are happy. The same goes for the alienated child due to parental brainwashing.
An additional way to think about parental alienation, offered by Baker & Andre (2008), is the counselor may ask: do I believe that the child is being manipulated by one parent to reject the other parent, who is not abusive or so inadequate, as to deserve the child’s rejection? By posing this question, the counselor comes back to the three elements indicated by Dr. Warshak. Some goals for counseling include, addressing divorce related stress and correcting the child’s distorted view of his or her rejected parent. Studies indicate that in mild and moderate cases of alienation, a family systems approach is best suited. In severe cases, such as favored parents who defy court orders and refuse counseling, may require one to pursue additional court intervention. In severe cases, research indicates that temporarily suspending contact with the favored parent may be necessary. Ideally, court orders should be enforced; unfortunately, as counselors are aware, this is not always the case.
Working with Rejected Parents: Therapeutic Options
Counselors can best serve rejected parents by validating their experiences, providing psycho-educational materials, teaching coping techniques, and bibliotherapy. Rejected parents may run the gamut from being treated with contempt, while others may not have had any contact with their child for years. Working with rejected parents brings counselors back to the basics – empathy. Rejected parents require an empathic ear. Emotions vary too; the counselor should be cognizant that rejected parents may display anger, as they are frequently blamed for their child’s rejection. As Dr. Warshak points out, some suggest these parents are perpetrators of some type of behavior that warrants their child’s fear, hatred, or both. He eloquently captures the source of their injustice, “the position that irrational alienation does not exist essentially means that all rejected parents deserve what they get.” In the past, a common suggestion for rejected parents was to “wait it out.” A few findings have suggested that PA is an expected reaction to divorce. Or, in other instances, it is portrayed that alienation is no cause for concern, because children “outgrow” parental alienation. Rejected parents who are waiting for time to heal all wounds, will lose years that cannot be replaced.
One qualitative study, by Dr. Amy Baker (2007), indicates that adults who were alienated as children lost significant time with their rejected parents. More than half of the participants in this study had relationships that were severed 22 years or more. All participants lost at minimum, six years. One can conclude that another role of the counselor is to offer hope. Many rejected parents may develop a sense of learned helplessness. In severe cases, all attempts to stop alienation have been met with dismal failure. As described by Fidler & Bala (2010), some favored parents may be malicious, vindictive, feel above the law, and be deliberate in their actions. Unquestionably, trying to co-parent with someone who is unwilling to co-parent, contributes to a great deal of difficulty. Not only may rejected parents become angry, but they may also display anxiety and depression. Leona Kopetski (1998), who was part of an evaluation team, enlightens counselors, given the dynamics, that uncontrollable factors should be considered. She describes that rejected parents have more obvious symptoms of psychological distress than favored parents. She stated, “If psychological health is defined as the absence of internal distress or internal conflict, the favored parent appears healthier; however, this appearance is misleading.” As rejected parents are in distress, it is wise for counselors to consider the stressful context of PA. Coming to mind is the famous quote by Victor Frankl, “an abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” While PA is not the norm of divorcing families, counselors should reflect that rejected parents are anxious to restore strained or broken relationships.
Counselors can make a profound difference for rejected parents by offering sound educational materials in conjunction with modeling parenting techniques for rejecting children. Some parents may reinforce alienation, as they overreact to provocative behavior. Another manner in which Counselors can assist is by sharing knowledge. For example, if a rejected parent in return, rejects his or her child, he or she may risk further alienating the child. Dr. Warshak (2010), identified that rejected parents may vacillate between doing too much and doing too little. Other studies show that as rejected parents grow frustrated, they may ironically act like their alienated child. Fidler & Bala (2010) emphasize an important point; while at times parental responses are less than desirable, the counselor should keep in mind, “few have had the benefit of being adequately prepared in advance to deal constructively with at least some of the extreme behaviors that is manifested by the alienated child.”
Other rejected parents, after years of attempting to cope, may become exhausted, withdraw, and simply throw in the towel. Literature indicates, that earlier recommendations to rejected parents, was to give the child space. That is, if the child refused to see Mom or Dad, let it be. Unfortunately, decades later, this approach failed. A review of the current standards reveals, that by giving an alienated child space, the rejected parent, although unintentionally, may strengthen the allegations made by the other parent. As an example, if the child continues to refuse visitation, the rejected parent may become weary of “forcing” the child to spend time with him or her. However, this backfires. It provides ammunition for the favored parent to solidify his or her scheming antics, “See, your mom/dad does not care if you spend time with him or her.” Some rejected parents self-initiate a cut-off, as they believe nothing they do or say will lead to reconciliation. Thus, counselors can not only offer hope for the rejected parent, but they can also suggest that the behavior of their child is not personal. The favored parent, especially in severe cases, tries to wear down the rejected parent. Counselors should recognize this sad, but true reality. The goal for the counselor is to explore areas of strength and potential resources. The client needs to gain a sense of power and control. In a sum, counselors’ can aid rejected parents in maintaining their internal compass, so that their direction will not be set off course.
Unfortunately, relationships may become permanently severed. This may occur from the child, with the help of the favored parent, or the cut-off may come from the adult. As noted by Dr. Warshak (2010), some loving and well-intended parents may let go for several reasons. One reason, as previously mentioned, is that some parents may have exhausted all legal options, which in turn, may deplete financial resources. A second consideration is when a rejected parent’s ex-spouse is disturbed and that continuing legal proceedings may provoke him or her to take violent action. In cases where all ties have been severed, the counselor should consider that while the rejected parent’s child is not deceased, it is an ambiguous loss. There is no closure.
Another option suggested by Dr. Baker (2006), when working with rejected parents, is to incorporate bibliotherapy. Many counselors are familiar with suggesting self-help books or other readings. Study after study reveals that in severe cases, rejected parents feel powerless to prevent alienation and that they feel alone. Additionally, research indicates they often see themselves as doubly victimized. Not only are they dealing with disbelief of their situation, but they also perceive they are misunderstood. They may think others blame them for their child’s rejection. Rejected parents may find solace by reading books about other rejected parents, as they realize they are not alone. For constructivists, one could view rejected parent’s stories as a thick description. Dr. Baker (2006) explains that reading others accounts promote empowerment and releases feelings of rage that accompanies being the victim of injustice. Others stories also allows a relational aspect, similar to groups, offering the reader a chance to step into the shoes of another. The client may identify, through the descriptions, what role, if any, they have played. According to Baker (2006), rejected parents may discover they have been passive, or that they needed to initiate legal proceedings. Furthermore, the use of bibliotherapy may enhance therapeutic discussions, as different possibilities for the future may surface – a result of the narratives. Encouragement and enlightenment may be found, especially by reading those who have overcome tremendous hardships. Reading other rejected parents surreal ordeals may offset heartache, helplessness, and hopelessness.
Working with Favored Parents: Roles and Roadblocks
Working with favored parents can be an obstacle. Throughout the literature, many discussions ensue regarding if the favored parent’s tactics are intentional, or unintentional. Dr. Darnall (1998) describes various levels that favored parents may act upon. One designation is known as the naïve parent, this category includes favored parents who make an occasional remark, or participate in some alienating behavior. However, naïve parents are most likely to benefit from parenting education, or voluntarily attend therapy. It is vital, that counselors reflect upon the three elements that must be present for parental alienation to exist. In cases of PA, the remarks are not occasional, but are chronic. When working with the naïve parent, counselors can offer psycho-educational materials, work on coping with divorce, co-parenting, and anger management. This group is the most receptive to the harmful effects of badmouthing. Clearly, an occasional remark differs from a consistent litany of parental put-downs. Another group, described by Darnall (1998), is those who are obsessed and are set out to purposely destroy the relationship with the other parent. This group is most likely to be court mandated. They will be resistant, especially if the goal is to heal the damaged parent-child relationship. Studies indicate this group behaves as if they are above the law. In their view, court orders are worthless – mandates apply to everyone else, but not to them.
Counselors too, should be on the look-out for the methods used to turn a child against the other parent. Some will badmouth the other parent within an earshot of a child. The denigration is constant and they refuse to stop, even when informed badmouthing is harmful. Sadly, they may tell their child that the other parent does not love them, or does not want to see them. Keep in mind, this group is less likely to follow court orders; consequently, they may hide-out when it is time for the rejected parent to spend time with their child. The outcome of visitation interference is that the child will “see” that the other parent is not around. In their eyes, the lies of the favored parent are true, after all they did not “see” Mom or Dad. This provides the opportunity for the favored parent to fill the child’s head full of lies. Sure, object permanence is achieved; although out-of-sight does not equate to out-of-mind. Out-of-sight, will lead the child to believe, what is not right – that the other parent does not love them, does not want them, or perhaps, even hates them. In conjunction to damaging non-stop badmouthing, the situation can worsen. Rejected parents are known to trash gifts and intercept mail. Some too, flee the state or country.
Literature indicates favored parents may struggle in accepting their divorce. They use the child as a confidant and a friend. In order for the child to cope with loyalty demands, they often have no other choice than to claim that they hate Mom or Dad too. If the child still has contact, they may be instructed to trash dinner while at the rejected parent’s home. Some may destroy property, or steal – just to name a few. Research also reveals that favored parents may have personality disorders. What approach then, should a counselor take when working with favored parents? According to Dr. Rand (1997), therapy with favored parents, can possibly make the situation worse. As counselors, the therapeutic alliance is paramount. However, as a caveat, favored parents utilize the very nature of therapy to their advantage. As they have sociopathic tendencies, they might try to sway the therapist to his or her “side.” Many favored parents will not attend, or will terminate early. The counselor should keep in mind, for those who attend, they desire to find additional allies to gain support for their hatred.
Dr. Warshak (2010) expanded upon other findings, “family therapy, co-parenting counseling, parent education, and cognitive behavioral therapy are insufficient to modify the complex behavior of alienating parents who are unable to think beyond their own needs…” He goes on to note that psychoanalytic oriented treatment is the best approach to help these parents, but as this treatment is lengthy, by the time the parent improves their behavior, the children may be grown and have already endured years of psychic suffering.
Dr. Warshak summarizes a helpful perspective when counseling alienated children and rejected parents, “restoration does not preclude prevention.” As counselors, we must first and foremost recognize parental alienation as a serious form of abuse. Any society’s standard of care regarding abused children, must be to prioritize protecting them from further abuse. Every counselor can aid in protecting children from further emotional abuse through awareness of parental alienating behaviors, and recognizing children’s irrational rejection.
To participate in raising awareness, visit the Parental Alienation Awareness Organization.
THE SPECTRUM OF PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME (PART II)
(First of 3 HTML files)
Forensic Psychologist, Deirdre Conway, Rand, PhD
This three-part article reviews the literature on the Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) as formulated by Dr. Richard Gardner and seeks to integrate his work with research on high conflict divorce and the work of other professionals in this arena. Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is a distinctive form of high conflict divorce in which the child becomes aligned with one parent and preoccupied with unjustified and/or exaggerated denigration of the other, target parent. In severe cases, the child’s once love-bonded relationship with the target/rejected parent is destroyed. Part II begins with sections on the child in PAS, the target/alienated parent and the third parties who become involved, including family, friends, lawyers, mental health professionals, and sometimes cults. The material presented on PAS in the legal arena is devoted to what attorneys and judges have to say about PAS, which can be a key issue in certain depend ency and criminal proceedings, as well as in family law court. The discussion of forensic evaluations and PAS includes contributions by custody evaluators and others who recommend considering PAS as a possible explanation when child sex abuse is alleged in certain contexts. Case vignettes in Part II illustrate psychological maltreatment of the child in severe PAS, a case in which Child Protective Services was mobilized to bring pressure on the alienating parent to reverse the PAS, and the use of PAS testimony in criminal proceedings against a falsely accused parent. Part III will be devoted to interventions in PAS, including some difficult but effective interventions implemented by the author, her husband, Randy Rand, Ed.D., and a team of interveners, including the judge and guardian ad litem.
The Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) as formulated by Gardner involves a cluster of child symptoms in divorce. Gardner views these as a syndrome because of the number of cases in which these symptoms share a common underlying etiology. This is a combination of the alienating parent’s influence and the child’s active contributions to the campaign of denigration against the alienated/target parent. The term PAS does not applywhen children of divorce become alienated from a parent for reasons such as a parent’s lack of interest in or rejection of the child; significant deficits in a rejected parent’s functioning which may not rise to the level of abuse; or the child being subjected to bona fide parental abuse or neglect. These situations should be given the generic label of parent-child alienation. The Parental Alienation Syndrome as conceived of by Gardner is a type of parent-child alienation but warrants a special descriptive term. The benefit of using Gardner’s terminology is that, where the facts of a given case support a diagnosis of PAS, there is a body of knowledge regarding which legal and therapeutic interventions are likely to be effective.
Part I of this article, published in a previous issue of the American Journal of Forensic Psychology (Volume 15, issue 3, 1997), outlined Gardner’s formulation of PAS, discussed the contemporary social context in which his ideas arose, and described the features of PAS which, especially in more serious cases, make it a distinctive form of high conflict divorce. The studies reviewed in Part I included a large scale research project by Clawar and Rivlin, which was commissioned by the American Bar Association Section on Family Law (1). Clinical studies of PAS by Dunne and Hedrick (2), Lund (3) and Cartwright (4) were also discussed. Two case vignettes were presented, one in which the mother was the alienating parent and the other with the father in that role. Part I concluded with a section on parents who induce alienation, utilizing divorce research and the work of mental health professionals who deal with divorce families in the forensic arena. Part II begins with the child.
THE CHILD IN PAS
Children of Divorce
Most children and adolescents of divorce are eager to have an ongoing relationship with both parents. In a nonclinical sample of 131 children from 60 divorce families, the majority of children were eager to visit their noncustodial fathers and often wanted more time than the usual every other-weekend allowed (5). This finding held at follow-ups 18 months and 5 years later. For children whose fathers did not take much of an interest in them, their longing for both parents was very painful. Where the father did take an interest, 20 percent of children were in considerable conflict about visiting and 11 percent were genuinely reluctant to visit, most notably those who were between 9 and 12 years of age. Nineteen percent of the children who were reluctant or refusing to visit were aligned with one parent in actively doing battle against the other parent. Children in these alignments came to share the views and outrage of the parent with whom the child identified, often the parent who felt abandoned and rejected in the divorce. These children rejected the parent who was perceived as deserting the family, despite a previously close, loving relationship with that parent. Children in alignments were found to be less psychologically healthy than those whose divorce adjustment allowed them to maintain their affection for both parents.
Children’s Alignments in High Conflict Families
Johnston and Campbell’s research on divorce families in high conflict for three years or more found a measurable degree of alignment between children and one parent in 35 percent to 40 percent of children from-7 to 14 years of age (6). Similar ratios were obtained by Lampel, who studied latency-age children participating in custody evaluations ( 7). Comparing aligned children with non-aligned children, Lampel found that the aligned children tested as angrier, less well adjusted, and less able to conceptualize complex situations. They expressed greater self confidence, however, possibly reflecting the relief obtained by opting for a simplified, relatively black-and-white solution, as opposed to feeling “caught in the middle” of parental conflicts. Published in 1996, this article of Lampel refers to Gardner’s work on PAS.
Children Who Reject One Parent
Ten years earlier, Lampel reported on 18 consecutively referred high conflict divorce families, including a group of children who actively rejected one parent (8). In these seven cases, the rejected parent was the father. Lampel found the child’s lack of normal ambivalence noteworthy in these seven cases and further observed intense collusion between mother and child. Lampel implemented a family intervention strategy which treated these children’s reactions as a phobia with hysterical features. One child who was placed with the rejected parent for six to eight weeks while Lampel worked intensively with all family members reported a marked reduction in symptomatology. Of the remaining cases treated with phobia reduction techniques, results ranged from minor improvement to deterioration. In the three cases where intervention clearly failed, Lampel concluded it was because the mother’s collusive involvement with the child was too strong.
Children Who Refuse Visitation
According to Johnston in 1993, “It is surprising that such a perplexing and serious problem as children’s refusal to visit has received so little systematic attention by researchers” (9; p. 110). In a study focused specifically on this problem, Johnston recognized Gardner’s work on PAS. Results of research by Johnston and her colleagues led to the conclusion that children’s resistance or refusal to visit a nonresidential parent after separation and divorce is an overt behavioral symptom that can have its roots in multiple and often interlocking psychological, developmental and family systemic processes. Clawar and Rivlin articulated similar findings in their study published two years earlier (1).
Developmental Issues of Children Who Refuse Visitation
Analysis of data from 70 high conflict divorce families enabled Johnston and her colleagues to identify specific developmental issues for each age group which can impact children’s reluctance and refusal to visit. Emotional disturbance of the primary parent, usually the mother, was found to exacerbate developmental effects. For 2- to 3-year-olds, age appropriate separation anxiety from the mother was found to be a factor in resistance to visitation. In normal development, children this age have not yet developed an internalized image of the primary parent figure.
Their sense of time is not yet sufficiently developed for them to understand that they will be getting back to the primary parent within a comfortable time frame. Parents may blame each other when children this age display resistance to visitation, even though such problems may be due in part to developmental factors.
Johnston found that 3 to 6 year-old children in high conflict divorce tended to shift their allegiances depending on which parent they were with. This may contribute to children’s difficulty in transitioning from one home to another. Normally, children in this age group have not yet learned to entertain two conflicting points of view. As a result, when the child is told in mother’s home that father does not provide enough money, the child will temporarily align with mother. The child will shift allegiance to father when told in his home that mother just wastes the money. Children from 3-6 years of age become easily confused and can readily excite concern and chaos by telling different stories to each parent. In addition, the normal course of development is for children’s preferences to shift back and forth from one parent to the other as they grow older and sort out their gender identity. Children in the 3-6 age range experience a strong drive to align with the opposite sex parent and to compete with and to exclude the same sex parent. In divorce, the young child’s developmentally normal fantasies about eliminating the same sex parent may be fulfilled. This creates intense guilt and anxiety for the child, which can contribute to resistance to visitation.
Children of divorce in the 6- to 7-year age range are more likely to suffer from loyalty conflicts, and to be concerned about hurting their parents. Such conflicts reflect the normal child’s growing sense of morality and capacity to see things from the viewpoint of another. Children 7 to 9 years of age have begun to develop the capacity to imagine how their parents view them and to experience the cognitive dissonance of their parents’ conflicting views. There may be a growing need to resolve such conflicts because children in this age range experience the loyalty conflicts of divorce more acutely.
High conflict divorce children in the 9- to 12-year-old group are particularly vulnerable to forming strong, PAS type alignments with one parent, as they try to “resolve” their earlier loyalty conflicts. Johnston noted that adults also tended to expect more of children this age, viewing them as “old enough to take a stand” in parental disputes. Forty-three percent of these children were in strong alignments and 29 percent in mild alignments. According to Johnston, these figures approach Gardner’s estimate that 90 percent of the children he has assessed in custody evaluations exhibit varying degrees of PAS. Johnston found that in some cases, parent-child alignments often continue for several years into mid-adolescence. As teenagers, some aligned youngsters develop the capacity to take a more objective, independent stance. However, a significant proportion of high conflict divorce children are unable to withdraw from the parental fights and maintain their stance of rejection and denigration toward the target parent throughout adolescence.
Johnston found that 28 to 43 percent of the 9- to 12-year-olds were in what she termed “strong alignments,” characterized by consistent rejection and denigration of the other parent (9). Children tended to make stronger alliances with the more emotionally dysfunctional parent, who was more likely to be the mother. In Impasses of Divorce, Johnston described children in strong alignments as forfeiting their childhood by merging psychologically with a parent who was raging, paranoid, or sullenly depressed (6). Factors within the child which contributed to the formation of strong alignments were found to be: 1) need to protect a parent who was decompensating, depressed, panicky or needy; 2) need to avoid the wrath or rejection of a powerful, dominant parent (often the custodial parent on whom the child was dependent; and 3) need to hold onto the parent the child was most afraid of losing, for example, a parent who was too self-absorbed or who was only casually involved with the child.
Among children who were refusing visitation, Johnston identified a particularly troubled group of children whom she described as being in “extreme alignments”(9). In her most recent book, she and Roseby reserved Gardner’s label “parent alienation syndrome” for these cases (10). Children in extreme alignments were more likely to be viewed as disturbed by parents, teachers and clinicians (9). These children exhibited bizarre and sometimes destructive behavior. They were more likely to display unintegrated, chaotic attitudes with few workable defenses. Often the child’s negative interpretation and distortions of the target parent’s character and behavior were found to have a bizarre quality (6, 9). The case vignette of Mr. and Mrs. C in Part (I) I described how the behavior of their daughter, V, became increasingly bizarre and self-destructive especially after her father gained sole custody in dependency court based on false allegations of sexual abuse against Mrs. C’s new husband.
Once separated from her mother, V’s stories of abuse by her stepfather became more numerous and improbable, including charges of repeated rape although the gynecological exam was normal. Bernet suggested that. the century-old conceptof pseudologia fantastica is one explanation for elaborate, implausible, untruthful reports of abuse (11). Children who exhibit pseudologia fantastica, represent certain fantasies as if they were actual occurrences, although there is little or no reality basis for these stories. Ditrich posited that children who engage in pseudologia fantastica do so in order to defend against the pain of an unbearable, present reality (12). V engaged in pseudologia fantastica in part to cope with the unbearable loss of her mother, who had been the primary parent. Her father, Mr. C was so driven by his need for revenge against V’s mother that he encouraged and reinforced V’s use of pseudologia fantastica instead of providing reality testing.
In a recent book chapter entitled “Parental Alignments and Alienation Among Children of High Conflict Divorce,” Johnston and Roseby opined, “Rather than seeing this syndrome as being induced in the child by an alienating parent, as Gardner does, we propose that these ‘unholy alliances’ are a later manifestation of the failed separation-individuation process in especially vulnerable children who have been exposed to disturbed family relationships during their early years” (10; p. 202). These disturbed family relationships are viewed as the byproduct of interparental conflict and narcissistic disturbance of one or both parents. These authors hypothesize that the more extreme forms of parent alienation in early adolescence have their roots in failed separation-individuation from the alienating parent during the earliest years of the child’s life. This developmental failure adversely affects the young person’s life and developing sense of self. The most important ingredient in certain severe parental alienation cases, according to Johnson and Roseby, is the child’s vulnerability and receptivity to the alienating parent, rather than “conscious, pernicious brainwashing” by an embittered parent.
In contrast to this view, mental health professionals practicing in the forensic arena often find evidence of substantial volitional activity on the part of the alienating parent in severe PAS. For example, in the case of Mr. and Mrs. L in Part I, the custody evaluator and others observed that the mother timed her suspected abuse report to authorities in such a way as to prevent father’s visitation from going forward. Mrs. L was also observed to make denigrating remarks about Mr. L in front of the child. Whether or not these behaviors were “conscious”or “unconscious,” Mrs. L was the person responsible for them and they did impact the child’s relationship with the father.
Important Deviations From Usual Developmental Trends
When children who are resistant to visitation deviate from usual developmental trends, it is important to evaluate and understand the reason. Children who form consistent alignments with an alienating parent may never have separated psychologically from that parent (9, 10). Examples of this are described by Dunne and Hedrick in their study of 16 severe PAS families (2), which was reviewed in Part I. There are a variety of contributing factors to children forming strong parent-child alignments before the highest risk period of 9 to 12 years of age. These factors include: 1) a failed separation-individuation process between parent and child; 2) intense parental pressure; 3) a child with precocious cognitive development who is more sensitive and vulnerable to parental conflict. Children can become aligned with one parent even though there is relatively little overt conflict and estrangement between the parents (9). Seemingly mild and subtle forms of parental influence can have significant effects, according to Clawar and Rivlin (1).
Child’s Active Contributions in PAS
The fact that Gardner identifies the child as an active participant in the PAS is sometimes overlooked. Active contributions by the child can be part of an effort to take care of an angry, disturbed, or otherwise troubled parent with whom the child is aligned.
Some PAS children manipulate conflicts between the parents for the feeling of power it gives them in the divorce family situation which is otherwise beyond their control. Young adolescents in search of greater freedom may amplify their complaints about a stricter parent to the more per missive one, capitalizing on the permissive parent’s eagerness for validation of his or her fixed negative view of the other parent. This reinforces the permissive parent’s inability to contain the child and exacerbates acting out behavior. Regardless of the relative contributions to the PAS by the alienating parent or the aligned child, a mutually reinforcing feedback loop may develop which is resistant to outside influence and to reality testing. A self generating “brainwashing “process results.
In Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSP) involving older children, it is the parent who originally initiated the child’s factitious illness or victimization. In the context of a continued symbiotic parent/child relation ship, older children may then learn to set up this situation themselves, producing factitious symptoms which induce a complicitous response from the MSP parent (13). Similarly, in moderate to severe PAS, children may learn to get their needs met by fabrication and manipulation. Where there is a particularly enmeshed relationship between the aligned parent and child, the child’s legitimate strivings for autonomy are continually under mined.
The Overburdened Child
Divorce almost inevitably burdens children with greater responsibilities and makes them feel less cared for. Children of chronically troubled parents bear a greater burden. They are more likely to find themselves alone and isolated in caring for a disorganized, alcoholic, intensely dependent, physically ill, or chronically enraged parent. The needs of the troubled parent override the developmental needs of the child, with the result that the child becomes psychologically depleted and their own emotional and social progress is crippled. Wallerstein and Blakeslee used the term “overburdened child”to describe this problem (14). Wallerstein has encountered PAS [personal communication to the author, 1991], but she prefers to conceptualize it from the “overburdened child”framework.
The Psychologically Battered Child
According to Garbarino, et al., psychological maltreatment of children is more likely to occur in families where the atmosphere is one of stress, tension and aggression (15), an apt description of high conflict divorce. The Psychologically Battered Child, published in 1988, does not mention divorce directly but uses such terms as “marital discord”and “family breakdown.” The special problems of children of divorce are more fully recognized in a subsequent book by Garbarino and Stott, in which Gardner’s work is cited numerous times, including his work on PAS (16).
According to Garbarino et al., psychological maltreatment can be viewed as a pattern of adult behavior which is psychologically destructive to the child, sabotaging the child’s normal development of self and social competence (15). Five types of psychological maltreatment identified by Garbarino et al. are adapted for PAS and described below:
1) Rejecting – The child’s legitimate need for a relationship with both parents is rejected. The child has reason to fear rejection and abandonment by the alienating parent if positive feelings are expressed about the other parent and the people and activi ties associated with that parent.
2) Terrorizing – The child is bullied or verbally assaulted into being terrified of the target parent. The child is psychologically brutalized into fearing contact with the target parent and retribution by the alienating parent for any positive feelings the child might have for the other parent. Psychological abuse of this type may be accompanied by physical abuse.
3) Ignoring – The parent is emotionally unavailable to the child, leading to feelings of neglect and abandonment. Divorced parents may selectively withhold love and attention from the child, a subtler form of rejecting which shapes the child’s behavior.
4) Isolating- The parent isolates the child from normal opportuni ties for social relations. In PAS, the child is prevented from participating in normal social interactions with the target parent and relatives and friends on that side of the family. In severe PAS, social isolation of the child sometimes extends beyond the target parent to any social contacts which might foster autonomy and independence.
5) Corrupting-The child is missocialized and reinforced by the alienating parent for lying, manipulation, aggression toward others or behavior which is self destructive. In PAS with false allegations of abuse, the child is also corrupted by repeated in volvement in discussions of deviant sexuality regarding the target parent or other family and friends associated with that parent. In some cases of severe PAS, the alienating parent trains the child to be an agent of aggression against the target parent, with the child actively participating in deceits and manipulations for the purpose of harassing and persecuting the target parent. This is particularly likely to occur in what Turkat called Divorce Related Malicious Parent Syndrome (17, 18).
Psychological maltreatment can be mild, moderate or severe. Effects on the child may vary according to the child’s age, temperament and ability to access social support.
Children who have been psychologically maltreated by the primary caretaker on whom they depend are more likely to exhibit a variety of psychological and social handicaps. These make them vulnerable to detrimental outside influences. A case of psychological mal treatment by the alienating parent is illustrated below.
Case Vignette of Psychological Maltreatment in Severe PAS
At 13, S was a socially isolated girl who believed she was stupid. She spent recesses alone because the other kids did not accept her. She got “D “grades in school. For as long as she could remember, her mother told S she was incompetent and unlivable. S’s mother would tell her, “Even your baby half sister is smarter than you are “. S hadn’t seen her father in 10 years. Her parents separated when she was only a few months old. Her father quickly found a new partner and remarried. Although S’s mother tried to stop father’s contact with the girl, father and his new wife visited with S regularly until she was three. At that time, mother was successful in persuading child protective services to stop the visitation based on allegations of sexual abuse.
Father turned to the family court for help. A custody evaluation was conducted which exonerated the father of abuse charges and indicated that the mother was using the abuse allegations to prevent the child from having a relationship with her father. After several years of family law litigation, the judge ordered reunification and appointed a reunification therapist. For the next three years, the efforts of the reunification therapist and family court mediator were thwarted by the mother. Father became depressed and entered individual therapy.
A break in the case came when S’s father was referred to a PAS expert for consultation. The family mediator, reunification therapist and the court were interested in the expert’s input. The judge ordered mother and daughter to meet with father’s PAS expert to facilitate the father/daughter reunification. The court also threatened mother with sanctions when she refused to cooperate with the reunification plan. The reunification team, which now in cluded a guardian ad litem for the child, planned to gradually reacquaint S with her father. The more gradual approach proved unsuccessful. The child remained hostile and staunchly aligned with her mother.
The team agreed that a different approach was needed. The PAS expert held a meeting with S and the reunification therapist. The expert established rapport with S, who was guarded but responsive. He asked S questions and gave her information which made her curious about her father. S indicated that she was interested in exploring the contradiction between her belief that father molested her and her lack of any actual memories of molestation. This opened the door for the expert to provide age appropriate education about the concepts of thought reform and “brainwashing”, as well as the problem of “false positives” when abuse is alleged. S was surprised and pleased that the expert thought her smart enough to learn about these adult concepts. For the first time, she indicated she was willing to participate in a meeting with her father.
Despite mother’s continued efforts to interfere, a one day visit between S and her father went forward when S was 13. The team agreed that the PAS expert should be present at father’s house. The girl was thrilled by the interest shown in her by her father and step mother, whose desire to please her contrasted sharply with how her mother treated her. The expert had to intervene once when father and stepmother set reasonable limits and S exploded. When the reunification plan called for overnight visits to begin, S’s court ordered individual therapist gave the girl her pager number, with instructions to call day or night if problems arose. S called to say that she didn’t want to go back to her mother’s. The therapist then had to set limits with S, reminding her that everyone, including S, had to adhere to the parameters of the reunification plan.
S encountered intense anger from her mother each time she returned home. One day, S took the risk of telling her mother that she wanted a relationship with her father. Mother slapped S and told the girl that she hated her and that the rest of mother’s family hated S, too. In spite of mother’s efforts to punish and intimidate S, the girl’s relationship with her father and stepmother grew and the girl began to blossom. For the first time, S began receiving above average marks in school. She made friends and became involved with a boyfriend. Mother tried to persuade S to get pregnant so that mother could have the baby. When S was at her father’s, mother maintained secret contact with her, encouraging S’s impulsive, angry outbursts and telling her daughter to run away, which S did several times. As time went by, the reunification team and the court recognized that mother’s treatment of S amounted to serious psychological abuse, interspersed with episodes of physical abuse.
Mother refused to participate in treatment or otherwise modify her behavior and the court eventually gave custody to the father. In defiance of court orders, mother continued her secret undermining of S’s placement with the father until S had a mental breakdown and had to be hospitalized. Father and stepmother became so discouraged that they considered allowing S to resume living with her mother. The reunification team, backed by the judge, took the position that this was not an option. The team continued to provide coordinated services in support of S’s placement with the father, and to offer outreach to the mother. By age 16, S was doing well on a consistent basis. S remained troubled by her mother’s rejection and unwillingness to change but continued to hope that someday her mother would get help.
THE TARGET/ALIENATED PARENT IN PAS
Children are about twice as likely to form PAS type alignments with their mothers as they are with their fathers (3, 5, 6, 9). Similarly, fathers are more likely than mothers to become target parents, especially when abuse is falsely alleged (19–23). These and other gender differences were also discussed in Part I. Some fathers who become target or rejected parents in PAS give up and withdraw, contributing to the significant dropout rate of fathers after divorce. Others persist in their efforts to establish and maintain a meaningful post-divorce relationship with their children despite daunting obstacles. What motivates these men to persist in their efforts to father, despite rejection, calumny and protracted litigation ?
Struggle for Paternal Identity
Huntington studied fathers in a nonclinical sample of 184 couples who were cooperatively involved in divorce-specific activities at the Californa-based Center for Families in Transition (24). As fathers struggled with the issue of paternal identity after divorce, many found themselves closer to their children as part-time fathers than they were during the marriage when they were living with their children full-time. The emotional rewards of fathering gave some men new meaning to their lives after the loss, loneliness and feelings of failure engendered by the divorce. When fathers experienced a positive response from their children, they were more likely to pursue the relationship. Huntington also observed that fathers could be driven off by the child’s rejection and refusal to visit. She referenced Gardner’s 1985 article in which he introduced the term PAS.
Involuntary Child Absence Syndrome
According to Jacobs, a psychiatrist who edited a book on divorce and fatherhood, the stress reaction of some fathers to divorce is due to involuntary separation from their children (25). Such stress reactions in mothers are often given a positive connotation and attributed to “maternal instincts”. Jacobs contends there is not nearly as much social support for fathers in a similar situation. He brought attention to the fact that fathers may have an equally strong need to nurture and parent, experiencing profound feelings of loss and frustration when reduced to a post-divorce relationship with their children which is minimal, diminished, or nonexistent. Working with fathers in a clinical setting, Jacobs found that the ability of these men to adjust to divorce was deeply impacted by their relationship with their children. Some fathers reported that they had been the primary parent during the marriage and that their children needed them in order to cope with a mother who was chaotic and disturbed.
The fathers Jacobs saw were convinced their children would suffer if the father-child bond was ruptured. They felt frustrated and sabotaged in their efforts to maintain the bond but refused to accept the idea that their children could develop well if the father-child relationship was severed. This was true for S’s father in the case vignette above. Jacobs reported that the idea of being a “visitor “in their children’s lives seemed second-rate and unacceptable to the fathers with whom he worked. Common adjustment reactions included anxiety, depression, hypervigilance and outrage, especially in response to denigration and expressions of hatred by their ex-wives.
Even if it was the father’s decision to leave, he was often unprepared for the emotional and practical consequences where his children were concerned. Fathers of young children who were not guaranteed continued close contact felt particularly outraged and betrayed by the system, which was seen as unfair and biased toward mothers. Fantasies of self destruction, murder, and/or kidnapping were common, although usually not acted upon.
Circumstances of the Separation Which Increase Risk of Becoming a Target Parent
The likelihood that a mother or a father will become the target parent in an alienation scenario increases according to who is seen as responsible for the marital break-up (1, 5, 6, 9, 14). The risk increases when the parent seen as responsible for the break-up is discovered to have actually been unfaithful or becomes involved with a new partner immediately after the separation (1). Leaving the marriage precipitously may also incur in creased risk of becoming a target parent. The mother became the target parent in this example:
Mrs. E was a good mother but she was also guilt ridden and conflict avoidant. She tried to leave her husband several times but each time he persuaded her to return. When she left for the last time, she allowed the children, who were 3 and 5 years of age, tostay with their father on what mother believed to be a temporary basis. She was shocked at how the children treated her when she came to get them. They rejected her using profanity. Father filed for custody, accusing his wife of drug abuse, neglect and abandoning the children. He tricked Mrs. E. into not attending the custody hearing, telling her it had been put off. When mother failed to appear, the court granted father’s motion for custody. It took several months for Mrs. E. to get the court to order a custody evaluation. By the time an evaluator was selected and the evaluation got underway, the children had been living with their father for a year. The evaluator observed that they were distant and somewhat fearful of their mother and recommended that the children remain with the father.
Contributions by the Target Parent to PAS
The relative contribution of the target parent to the PAS scenario varies widely, depending on the severity of the PAS, psychological issues of one or both parents, the target parent’s capacity to parent, and other factors.
For intervention to be effective in PAS, it is important to carefully assess the relative contributions of each parent and to consider their relative capacities for a healthy parent/child relationship. Where the target/rejected parent is seriously disturbed, has abused the child or is seriously inadequate as a parent, the problem may be one of generic parent alienation and is not properly called Parental Alienation Syndrome.
In mild to moderate PAS, behavior of the target parent may contribute significantly, as in the case heard by Judge Tolbert which is further described below (26). The nine-year-old girl was refusing to visit her father and he claimed PAS by the mother. Based on the totality of the evidence, however, the court concluded that father’s behavior contributed significantly to the child’s refusal to visit. In particular, father was found to be excessively rigid and insensitive to his daughter’s needs, seemingly an example of Johnston’s observation that rejected parents are often inept and unempathic with their children (6, 10).
In severe PAS, the target parent may be relatively healthy and contribute minimally to the PAS, compared to the alienating parent. This is particularly likely to be the case with Divorce Related Malicious Parent Syndrome, where the alienating parent’s anger, aggression, manipulation and deception tend to be driven by internal forces which far exceed external realities and contributions of the target parent (17, 18). The case vignette of Mr. and Mrs. C. in Part ( I ) demonstrated how a determined, unscrupulous father succeeded in wresting custody from a fit, custodial mother, who was the target parent.
According to Johnston’s work with high conflict families, unresolved anger and continued narcissistic injury of either parent may contribute significantly to the child’s rejection of one parent (6). Huntington found that in a nonclinical divorce sample, fathers sometimes engaged in controlling, provocative behavior in their efforts to reestablish a lost sense of control, especially if the divorce was not of their own choosing (24). Nicholas suggested that target parents may reinforce the PAS by assuming an ambivalent or inconsistent stance toward custody after years of litigation (27). Lund cited her experience with moderate PAS families in which the hated parent, usually the father, often exhibited a distant, rigid style which was seen by the child as authoritarian, especially in comparison to the preferred parent, who was overly indulgent and permissive (3). It is important not to overgeneralize, however, and to keep in mind that behavior of the aligned parent and child may influence and concretize the ambivalence reserve or indignation of the rejected parent.
Target Parents Who Are Falsely Accused
An accusation of child abuse, especially molestation, can quickly cut off an accused parent’s access to his child, pending an investigation (28). Because sex abuse is often difficult if not impossible to disprove, the accused parent may spend months and even years trying without success to refute the charge. Clear resolution of such allegations may be impossible as a result of the accusing parent’s actions, poor training and technique of the investigators, involvement of multiple agencies and lack of coordination between agencies and different branches of the judicial system (6).
Even if the charge is successfully refuted and the accused parent’s rights are reinstated, the parent has lost valuable time with the child, damaging the parent-child relationship.
According to Patterson, additional repercussions for the falsely accused parent include damage to personal dignity, reputation in the community, and depletion of financial and other resources needed to defend the charge and to preempt the possibility of criminal action (29). An unproved accusation alone is sometimes enough to have an accused parent arrested and held in jail until a preliminary hearing and beyond. A parent who is criminally tried runs a significant risk of false conviction in the current legal climate. When sex abuse is alleged today, the presumption of innocence is often set aside with the justification that it is better to convict an innocent person than to allow a real child abuser to go free. Patterson’s article references Gardner’s book, The Parental Alienation Syndrome and the Differentiation Between Fabricated and Genuine Child Sex Abuse. Patterson concludes, “We can never serve a child’s best interest by denying him or her the love and affection of a parent who has himself been victimized by a lie” (29; p. 941).
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