Allegations of parental alienation are common in high conflict divorces. They are usually a function of deeper issues in the family including exposure to high intense marital conflict, humiliating separation, and professional mismanagement (Kelly & Johnston, 2001). The concept of family alienation was popularized by Gardner (2002) who describes it as a syndrome. This implies a specific set of symptoms that are displayed by the alienated child. The syndrome has not been validated by empirical research. Rather, alienation is more accurately described as a set of behaviors on the part of a parent which may or may not result in a child becoming alienated (Kelly & Johnston, 2001).
The alienated child is described by Kelly and Johnston (2001) as one who expresses disproportionately negative behavior about the alienated parent that is not consistent with his or her actual experience. Alienation may be expressed in degrees (Paul, 2014). Mild alienation may result in resistance towards visitation. Moderate alienation may involve the degradation of the alienated parent by the child. Severe alienation takes the form of false allegations and/or actual fear of contact with the alienated parent.
In an article by Baker and Darnall (2006), the most frequently reported alienated behaviors included “badmouthing”, interference with parental visitation and contact, limitation of mail and phone contact, interfering with information such as updating school or medical issues, emotional manipulation, unhealthy alliances such as spying and reporting back, and symbolic interferences such as returning Christmas cards.
Two of the major consequences of alienation on the child are fearfulness and low self-esteem (Mone & Biringen, 2006). These consequences can last into adulthood. Alienation has also been found in intact, high conflict marriages. The longer the alienation, the worse the outcome. Parental alienation may be described as a form of propaganda (Gottlieb, 2014) in which the alienated parent is characterized as dangerous, untrustworthy and harassing. The alienating parent expresses these beliefs in the presence of the child.
The treatment for parent alienation is reunification therapy. It should begin as soon as alienation is detected. Jones, Hardy, and Smyth (2015) warn that there is no guarantee of a successful outcome. This writer views parental unification therapy as a developmental process beginning with addressing timesharing issues with the child(ren), and then the child(ren) and alienated parent, and finally if possible, the child(ren) and both parents. Dagan and Ailon (2015) offer a checklist for therapists when consulting with lawyers to set up the process of reunification therapy. It includes arranging a conference call with both lawyers at the beginning of the case, reviewing the consent order to treat with emphasis upon the child’s best interests and indemnification of the mental health professional, reviewing the importance of the lawyer’s assistance, submission of the retainer agreement, review of the limits of confidentiality, reviewing the limitations of psychotherapy, and lastly the agreement of both lawyers to submit any pertinent documents.
Baker, A.J.L. & Darnell, D. (2006). Behaviors and Strategies Employed in Parental Alienation, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 45: 1-2, 97-124, doi:10.1300/J087v4n01 06
Dagan H. & Ailon, E. (2015). Workshop 55: It’s All in the Architecture: A Blue Print for Successful Reunification Therapy [PowerPoint slides]. AFCC 52nd Annual Conference, Children in the Court System: Different Doors, Different Responses, Different Outcomes. Retrieved from: https://www.afccnet.org/Conferences-Training/AFCC-Conferences/ctl/ViewConference/ConferenceID/48/mid/615
Gardner, R.A. (2002). Parental Alienation Syndrome vs. Parental Alienation: Which Diagnosis Should Evaluators Use in Child-Custody Disputes, The American Journal of Family Therapy, 30:2, 93-115, doi: 10.1080/019261802753573821
Kelly, J.B, & Johnston J.R. (2001). The Alienated Child: A Reformation of Parental Alienation Syndrome. Family Court Review, Vol. 39, No. 3, 249-266. Retrieved from: http://www.lexisnexis.com.ezproxy.fiu.edu/hottopics/lnacademic/?verb=sr&csi=7327&sr=cite(39+Fam.+Ct.+Rev.+249)
Mone, J.G. & Biringen, Z. (2006). Perceived Parent-Child Alienation, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 45:3-4, 131-156, doi: 10.1300/J087v45n03 07
Paul, H. A. (2014). The Parent Alienation Syndrome: A Family Therapy and Collaborative Systems Approach to Amelioration, by L. Gottlieb. Child & Family Behavior Therapy, 36(1), 71-79. doi:10.1080/07317107.2014.878199
FLAFCC recognizes the complex scholastic history of child resistance to a parent during a divorce. Specifically, there is ongoing academic discourse over the appropriate terminology, definitions, etiology, prognosis, and interventions for these cases. For example, in the literature on child resistance, there continues to be an ongoing debate of the use of terms such as parental alienation syndrome (PAS), parental alienation disorder, and parental alienation (Gardner, 1998; Bernet, 2010; Darnell, 2010). Some scholars have emphasized the importance of identifying background and personal factors that contribute to the child’s resistance to a parent and have adopted the term child alienation or alienated child to emphasize the individual child’s situation (Kelly & Johnston, 2001). Parental gatekeeping has been used to describe the continuum of parental attitudes and behaviors that affect the quality of the co-parent’s relationship with the child. On this continuum, unjustified restricted gatekeeping can result in the alienation of the child from the resisted parent, but not always (Austin, Fieldstone, Pruett, 2012). The following article is published to further the discussion and awareness of the restricted gatekeeping behaviors on the part of the parent resulting in the resistance of the child. Full citations available upon request.