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Basic Research in Parent/Child Alienation in the Courts

The Contours and Effect of High Conflict Divorce and Parental Alienation

It is estimated that that in western cultures, more than 90% of people are married at least once before the age of 50, and of those marriages, 45% end in divorce (American Psychological Association, 2014). Most of these marriages produce children and following a divorce most parents are able to move on with their lives and concentrate on the wellbeing of their children (Ahrons, 2004; Kelly, 2000; Saini, 2012). However, in some cases conflicts arise over custody or visitation disputes which continue for years in the form of constant litigation. These are categorized as high-conflict custody cases which Johnston and Campbell (1988) say exhibit a high degree of anger, hostility and distrust between the spouses and ongoing difficulty in communicating about the care of their children without involving the court system (Johnson & Roseby, 1997; Cohen & Levite, 2012). These types of high-conflict custody cases make up approximately 15% of all divorces (Kelly & Emery, 2003; Ravitz, 2011; Saini, 2012).

Often the family court system is left to make decisions they are not equipped or educated to make (Galatzer-Levy & Kraus, 1999). One of the reasons for this problem is that high-conflict custody cases take up 90% of the family court time and can be exhausting (Stahl, 1999a). A number of researchers have described the behaviors or external markers commonly observed in high conflict divorce/custody cases:

  • Verbal acts, such as abusive language, threatening violence
  • Physical acts, such as slamming doors, throwing things, endangering each other
  • Actual or alleged domestic violence
  • Actual or alleged child sexual abuse
  • Child experiencing emotional endangerment
  • A history of access denial
  • Family dysfunction, such as substance abuse, severe psychopathology
  • Involvement of child welfare agencies in the dispute
  • Several or frequent changes in attorneys
  • The unusual number of times the case goes to court
  • The length of time it takes for the case to be settled
  • The large number of documents, such as diaries and affidavits, that have been collected

(Garrity & Baris, 1997; Stewart, 2001; Gilmour, 2004; Johnston, Roseby, & Kuehnle, 2009).

The long-term effects of conflict on children were described in a study of 297 parents and their now married children (Amato & Booth, 2001). The researchers found that parents’ marital conflict during the child’s early adolescence was significantly associated with the children’s own marital conflict; as well as unhappiness, less interaction, and more problems in their marriages. Amato (2006) also found that offspring from intact, high-discord families experienced problems similar to individuals from divorced families, including greater discord in their own marriages, less social support, and lower levels of psychological well-being.

Parental conflict most negatively affects children when the children are involved directly. Family process variables, including the quality of the child’s relationship with each parent and parenting competence, in addition to the level of parental conflict and the child’s involvement in that conflict, play a role in children’s functioning post-divorce (Ayoub, Deutsch, & Maraganore, 1999; Johnston, 2006). Because the two people on whom they rely for security and accurate understanding of the world differ in how they view the child and the child’s needs, children are more likely to have difficulty trusting or making accurate perceptions, interpretations, and attributions (Johnston & Roseby, 1997).

One study found that when parents were involved in a high level of conflict with their former spouse, but did not directly involve the children in the dispute, their children had more moderate psychological effects, such as a tendency towards adjustment problems, depression and anxiety. When these children where compared with children from families where the parents did involve them directly in the dispute (as is the case with parental alienation) more significant behavioral problems were evident (Amato, 2006; Buchanan, Maccoby & Dornbusch, 1996; Hetherington, 1999; Lee, 2002).

Research: Identification – Enmeshment – Alienation and Parental Brainwashing

When children are asked to carry hostile messages from one parent to another, are exposed to negative and belittling comments about the other parent, or are forbidden from mentioning the other parent, they are placed in loyalty conflicts which result in significant stress (Grych, 2005; Kelly & Emery, 2003). Cummings, Goeke-Morey, and Papp (2001) describe this kind of involvement in hostile disputes between parents as “destructive conflict.” Research informs that one parent’s denigration of the other parent or pressure exerted on the child to withdraw from the other parent can lead to confusion, self-denigration, or a complete rejection of the other parent (Cummings, Goeke-Morey, & Papp, 2001; Grych, Harold, & Miles, 2003; Grych, 2005). Leona Kopetski (1998a, 1998b) refers to this as a form of psycho-social pathology exhibited by alienating parents who manage their internal conflicts through contrived interpersonal conflict based on exaggerated or nonexistent character flaws in the alienated parent. She learned from her research with over 600 families (1975-1995) that this psycho-social pathology invariably leads to a type of forced-estrangement between the child involved and the target parent who is unjustifiably demonized by the alienating parent (Kopetski, 1998a, 1998b).

This type of forced-estrangement refers to an induced undesired change in the child’s perceptions and feelings about the target parent similar in process to the Stockholm Syndrome. In 1973 in Stockholm Sweden the Kreditbanken Bank was robbed. The robbers held captive several bank employees for six days while attempts were made to negotiate with police. During this period, the bank employees became emotionally attached to their captors. In so doing, they refused assistance at one point from government sources, sang their captors praises, defended them and even refused to participate in their criminal prosecution, all of this after they were released from their ordeal. The bank employees, all adults and strangers to their captors prior to the robbery, developed a profound change in their thinking and their emotional experience of their captivity and their captors. This change moved from fear to affection. By terms of common parlance, they became brainwashed as a result of forced indoctrination while being held captive.

The Clawar and Rivlin Studies

When considering this phenomenon – adult stranger to adult stranger – and then apply the same dynamic expressed between a child and an alienating parent, it becomes easier to understand the power of this influence to change the thinking and emotional experience of another person under coercive power and control. The context in which this phenomenon occurs between an alienating parent and child is what Clawar and Rivlin (2013) refer to as “social/psychological kidnapping” which they define as “the exclusionary, proprietary control of a child’s mind (or body) by a parent.” This type of abusive and alienating control stems from an unhealthy parent-child relationship characterized by enmeshment. Enmeshment is a term used by Minuchin (1974) when he described a relationship that lacked clear ego boundaries between family members which produced a form of fusion; a condition that interfered with the development of a clear sense of self apart from the family, while still being a part of the family. When this unhealthy dynamic exists between an alienating parent and a child, the child is unable to establish a clear identity apart from the alienating parent, to the degree that actions of the child appear (to the child) to significantly impact the apparent well-being of the parent whom the child is held captive to and enmeshed with. This pathological level of enmeshment represents a potential role reversal subsuming the child’s own identity and needs into those of the parent. Under these conditions, such an enmeshed parent-child relationship, results in a pathological level of dependency and a retardation of the process of individuation within the child.

Clawar and Rivlin (1991, 2013) identified this phenomenon and reported that pathological enmeshment was the result of specific brainwashing techniques used by alienating parents to program their children. Some of these techniques include:

  • 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.

The most common motivational factors notated by these researchers were revenge, self-righteousness, fear of losing the child, proprietary perspective, jealousy, loss of identity, self-protection, power, control, domination, maintaining the marital/adult relationships through conflict.

The Kopetski and Purcell Studies

Kopetski and Purcell noticed some of these same factors during 600+ custody evaluations they conducted in Colorado from 1975-1995. Kopetski published these findings in 1998 and reported that “alienating parents are obsessively preoccupied with the short-comings of others and enforce their agenda by aligning with intrinsically sound theories or causes, then accusing the parent to be alienated of behavior that violates the tenets of those theories or causes for the pathological purpose of alienating a child from the other parent. They noted that usefulness of the cause was not determined by its content “but by the amount of emotion and action that can be generated when there is an accusation that the tenet of the cause has been violated. This helped to blur the boundaries so that questions that need to be raised are treated as though the validity of the cause itself is being questioned.

Does the Phenomenon of Parental Alienation Have Validity and Reliability?

With respect to the construct, PA, Bernet (2010) as well as Bala, Hunt, and McCarney (2010) pointed out that there has been a significant increase over the last two decades in the number of cases explicitly raising “alienation” issues in the courts of Canada and the USA. Surveying the literature of the last 50 years, Bernet and colleagues (2010) made a strong case that many researchers or groups described the phenomenon of PA independently in the 1980s and 1990s. Bernet and colleagues explained that while the phenomenon was almost universally accepted, there had been a great deal of disagreement and debate regarding whether it was a “syndrome” and what kind of interventions were appropriate.

Reviewing past efforts finds that Westman and colleagues wrote in 1970 that a “pattern is found in which one parent and a child team up to provide an effect on the other parent” (Westman, Cline, Swift, & Kramer, 1970). In 1976, Judith Wallerstein and Joan Kelly referred to an alliance between a “narcissistically enraged parent” and a particularly vulnerable child or adolescent who were “faithful and valuable battle allies in efforts to hurt and punish the other parent.” Not infrequently, wrote Wallerstein & Kelly, children co- opted in this way “turn on the parent they had loved and been very close to prior to the marital separation” (Wallerstein & Kelly, 1976, 1980). Writing in 1989, Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee offered that some mothers could be “entangled with Medea like rage”. They went on to say

“a woman betrayed by her husband is deeply opposed to the fact that her children must visit him every other weekend … She cannot stop the visit, but she can plant seeds of doubt – ‘do not trust your father’ in the children’s minds and thus punish her ex-husband via the children. She does this consciously or unconsciously, casting the seeds of doubt by the way she acts and the questions she asks … Fathers in similar circumstances make use of techniques congenial to them, often conveying to the boy or girl that the mother is depraved and dangerous.”

At another point in this work, Wallerstein offered “I have seen a great deal of evidence that Medea—like anger severely injures children at every age.” Wallerstein went on to write:

“when one or both parents act the Medea role, children are affected for years to come. Some grow up with warped consciences, having learned how to manipulate people as the result of their parents’ behavior. Some grow up with enormous rage, having understood that they are used as weapons. Some grow up guilty, with low self-esteem and recurrent depression.” Ibid.

In 1993, Johnston noted the impact of polarizing parents in high-conflict cases. She wrote that “strong alignments are probably most closely related to the behavioral phenomena Gardner referred to as parental alienation syndrome…”

In 2000, Elizabeth Ellis published a book entitled ‘Divorce Wars: Interventions With Families In Conflict.’ In this book, Ellis explained that by the year 2000, the concept of PA had “come to be accepted by clinicians working with families involved in post divorce conflict.” She went on to point out that the cogent diagnosis of “…PAS has been unclear, because clinicians still confuse a child’s symptoms with the parents behavior.” (Ellis, 2000). Three years after Ellis’ point about confusion of child or alienator’s symptoms, two systematic reliability studies emerged.

Carlos Rueda conducted the first inter-rater reliability study on PAS as part of a doctoral dissertation. Rueda sent a survey instrument to doctoral level mental health professionals and asked each to examine five vignettes that related to PAS. Rueda found a high rate of agreement regarding the diagnostic criteria for PAS (Rueda, 2004). In 2006, Stephen Morrison conducted a second inter-rater reliability study, using the same vignettes and PAS test instrument as Rueda (2004). In Morrison’s replication, the survey instrument and vignettes were sent to child custody and mental health practitioners in the USA. Morrison avoided specialists in Florida, as that was the primary source of respondents for the Rueda study. The intra-class correlation coefficient values obtained in Morrison’s second inter- rater reliability study all approach one and indicate significant agreement among evaluators. This was especially the case when vignettes described PAS symptoms, which were pronounced. The results indicate the PAS test instrument was reliable when testing for PAS. Rueda (2004) had found that of the total number of questions answered by all respondents in the five cases surveyed, only 2 % of the answers varied slightly in the second round of inquiry. Morrison reviewed Rueda’s data and arrived at a similar conclusion. He said there were 2,666 questions that were answered during both the first and second administration of the questionnaires to the evaluators. Morrison wrote, “Of these 2,666 answered questions, 10.8 % changed from the first to the second administration.” In addition to significant inter-rater reliability, the Rueda and Morrison studies indicate a high degree of test–retest reliability for the PAS test instrument used. Writing in 2010, Joan Kelly pointed out that there was “broad consensus among the mental health and family law community that the risk of child alienation is increased in highly conflicted separations accompanied by protracted adversarial child custody disputes” (Kelly, 2010).