The October 15, 2019 meeting of the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council in Austin, Texas (TBHEC)
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.