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How is Differential Diagnosis of Parental Alienation Made?
There are many reasons that children may not want to see a parent after a separation or divorce. Using Johnston’s 2005 Children of Divorce article, Baker (in press) makes a cogent point that most authors make a distinction between “estrangement” and “alienation.” Estrangement refers to a child’s rejection of a parent that is justified “as a consequence of the rejected parent’s history of family violence, abuse and neglect” (Johnston, 2005).
In contrast, alienation refers to a child’s rejection of a parent that is unjustified. With that distinction in mind, estrangement is not a diagnosable mental condition because it is normal behavior. Alienation, on the other hand, is an abnormal mental condition because it consists of maladaptive behavior (refusal to see a loving parent) that is driven by a false or illogical belief (that the rejected parent is evil, dangerous, or not worthy of love).
According to Lewis (2009) this maladaptive behavior is the result of the child being used by the alienator as a relationship weapon in an effort to “destroy the child’s psychological connection with the other parent.” Warshak calls this “pathological alienation” and defined it as:
a disturbance in which children, usually in the context of sharing a parent’s negative attitudes, suffer unreasonable aversion to a person, or persons, with whom they formerly enjoyed normal relations or with whom they would normally develop affectionate relations.
He made a cogent point that this recognition, that a child once had a secure attachment to the now rejected parent, notwithstanding personality or parenting flaws, is of particular relevance for accurate assessment. Johnston (2005) also refers to this distinction in cases of parental alienation when indicating that the child’s rejection of the previously attached parent is based upon “unreasonable negative feelings and beliefs … that are significantly disproportionate to the child’s actual experience with that parent.”