Parental Alienation

Experts In Parental Alienation

Parental Alienation Explained


In a 1985 article for the Academy Forum (a publication of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis), child psychiatrist Richard Gardner began to discuss parental alienation (PA) in the journals of the behavioral sciences. Gardner observed *that an alarming tactic in high-conflict custody cases was a false allegation of child abuse. Dismayed by the developing frequency of false allegations of child sexual abuse among divorcing parents, Gardner formulated what he saw as a Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). Gardner refined the description of the parental alienation syndrome first introduced in his article for the American Academy of Psychoanalysis (Gardner, 1985):

The parental alienation syndrome is a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child-custody disputes. Although the dispute is most often between the parents, it can arise in other types of conflicts over child custody, e.g., parent vs. stepparent, parent vs. grandparent, parent vs. relative, etc.

As Gardner explained in 1985 and again in 1998, the highly charged arena of child custody disputes dramatically intensified when abuse allegations were made. These cases became fertile ground for extreme statements. Working independently of Gardner in the late 1980s, Stanley Clawar, a sociologist, and Brynne Rivlin, a social worker, published a study through the American Bar Association titled Children Held Hostage: Dealing with Programmed and Brainwashed Children. Clawar and Rivlin followed 700 family counseling, mediation, and forensic evaluation cases over a 12-year period. They documented their observations over the course of their study and drew their conclusions in 1990. Clawar and Rivlin (1991) identified eight processes involved in parental alienation:

    1. Theme for the rationalization of rejection
    2. Sense of support and connection to alienating parent is fostered
    3. Feeling of sympathy for the alienating parent is fostered
    4. Child’s loyalty is tested by child’s behavior/attitude
    5. Reinforcement by seeking out behaviors of the rejected parent that reinforce the alienation
    6. Maintenance of alienation: subtle reminders
    7. Child shows support for beliefs of alienating parent
    8. Child’s compliance tested; rewarded or not admonished for inappropriate behavior

Describing the parental alienation conduct they observed as programming and brainwashing, they identified the following techniques alienating parents used:

      • denying and not acknowledging the social existence of the other parent;
      • attacking something about the character, lifestyle, past, present, or future of the target parent;
      • discussing visitation arrangements with the child, thus pressuring the child to make a choice; failing to inform the other parent of educational, social, and religious functions, thus communicating that the other parent lacks importance;
      • creating or exaggerating differences between themselves and the other parent in front of the children;
      • asking the children to ally their sympathies and support with the alienating parent; making moral judgments regarding the target parent’s values, lifestyle, friends, and so on;
      • implicitly or explicitly threatening to withdraw affection if the child expresses a desire to be with the other parent;
      • creating the belief that the other parent is not sincere in his or her love for the child;
      • creating the belief that the other parent is unable to properly care for the child; and convincing the child to doubt his or her ability to perceive reality.

Warshak (2001, 2010b) made similar findings when he described a pattern he observed in the literature of coercive control and domination. He pointed out that in these families, a parent continues harassing and controlling the ex-partner by manipulating the children to turn against the victim parent. He went on to explain that when the favored parent’s behavior contributes significantly to the children’s negative attitudes, leading authorities in the field label this as emotional abuse. He cited Clawar & Rivlin’s 1991 work explaining, “The legal system in most states is not currently adequate to protect children from this form of abuse.” Gardner had made the same point in 1998 when he described alienation as child abuse: “Whether such parents are aware of the negative impact on the child, these behaviors of the aligned parent (and his or her supporters) constitutes emotional abuse of the child.”

Johnston and Kelly (2004) agreed on the issue of alienation as abuse, referring to parental alienation as “an insidious form of emotional abuse of children that can be inflicted by divorced parents” (also see: Weigel & Donovan, 2006). From this understanding, a formal proposal that parental alienation be included in DSM-5 and ICD-11 (Bernet, 2010; see also: Bernet, Boch-Galhau, Baker, & Morrison, 2010) was introduced by authors from many countries who described parental alienation as child abuse. As Bernet’s team put it:

We agree with Johnston, who stated that parental alienation constitutes child abuse. She said, “With respect to the parents’ need for mandated treatment, we argue that alienating behavior by parents is a malignant form of emotional abuse of children that needs to be corrected, whether a parent agrees or not. A growing body of literature on the adverse effects of parents’ psychological control, also called ‘intrusive parenting,’ supports this contention. (emphasis added).