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What are the Symptoms of Parental Alienation in the Child Victims, The Alienators, and the Target Parent Victims When Identified in Family Court?

Research literature consistently documents that psychopathology and personality disorders are present in a significant proportion of high-conflict parents litigating over custody or access (Feinberg & Greene, 1997, Friedman, 2004; Johnston, 1993; Siegel & Langford, 1998). According to Kopetski (1998a, 1998b) this often results in the following observable family dynamics: (1) the relationship between the child and the alienating parent is disturbed, (2) The child’s need for a relationship with two parents is not recognized, and (3) The alienating parent shares with the child a distorted, essentially negative perception of the parent to be alienated.

Child Victims of Parental Alienation

When these family dynamics are present Kopetski (1998a, 1998b) states that children suffer the following symptoms:

    • anxious attachment or separation
    • unusual distress during transitions from one parent to the other
    • failure to achieve expected levels of impulse control
    • problems with self-esteem resulting from being overvalued in ways that are detrimental and undervalued in ways that would be helpful
    • problems with reality testing resulting from mirroring the psycho-social pathology of the alienating parent
    • problems with developing appropriate responses to grief and loss of significant others as a result of the loss of an alienated parent within an environment where there is no help with sadness and grieving from the alienating parent.

Decades ago, Johnston, Campbell, and Mayes (1985) offered that “The child consistently denigrated and rejected the other parent. Often, this was accompanied by an adamant refusal to visit, communicate, or have anything to do with the rejected parent.” They went on to report the “distress and symptomatic behavior of 44 children, aged 6–12 years, … who were the subject of post-separation and divorce disputes over their custody and care.” The authors described six primary responses of these children to their parents:

      1. Strong alliance
      2. Alignment
      3. Loyalty conflict
      4. Shifting allegiances
      5. Acceptance of both with avoidance of preferences and
      6. Rejection of both.

The authors’ definition of “strong alliance” was “a strong, consistent, overt (publicly stated) verbal and behavioral preference for one parent together with rejection and denigration of the other. It is accompanied by affect that is clearly hostile, negative, and unambivalent.” Johnston, Walters, and Olesen (2005) found that “alienated children had more emotional and behavioral problems of clinically significant proportions compared to their nonalienated counterparts.” Janet Johnston wrote in 2005 that alienated children (those who express unreasonable negative feelings and beliefs about a parent) “are likely to be more troubled—more emotionally dependent, less socially competent, have problematic self-esteem (either low or defensively high), poor reality testing, lack the capacity for ambivalence, and are prone to enmeshment or splitting in relations with others.” In this same treatise, she noted:

Severely alienated children also are likely to manifest serious conduct disorders and can behave very inappropriately, at least in the presence of the rejected parent. Extreme expressions of hatred, rage, contempt, and hostility can be acted out in rudeness, swearing, and cursing, hanging up the phone, spitting at or striking a parent, sabotaging or destroying property, stealing, lying, and spying on the rejected parent. In anyone’s book, these are not helpful or moral ways of dealing with a difficult interpersonal relationship of any kind. Questions may be raised about the aligned parent’s competence and need for counseling if she or he allows these children’s behaviors to continue or does not have the ability to control them. (Ibid.)

Fidler and Bala (2010) reported that clinical observations, case reviews, and both qualitative and empirical studies uniformly indicate that alienated children may exhibit:

      1. Poor reality testing
      2. Illogical cognitive operations
      3. Simplistic and rigid information processing
      4. Inaccurate or distorted interpersonal perceptions
      5. Disturbed and compromised interpersonal functioning
      6. Self-hatred
      7. Low self-esteem (internalize negative parts of rejected parent, self-doubt about own perceptions, self-blame for rejecting parent or abandoning siblings, mistrust, feel unworthy or unloved, feel abandoned) or inflated self- esteem or omnipotence
      8. Pseudo-maturity
      9. Gender-identity problems
      10. Poor differentiation of self (enmeshment)
      11. Aggression and conduct disorders
      12. Disregard for social norms and authority
      13. Poor impulse control
      14. Emotional constriction, passivity, or dependency
      15. Lack of remorse or guilt (Ibid. 2010).

Clinicians must remember that many studies exist of children and adult children of divorce, reporting a longing to have had more time with their noncustodial “target” parents (Ahrons & Tanner, 2003; Baker, 2005, 2007a; Fabricius, 2003; Fabricius & Hall, 2000; Hetherington & Kelly, 2002; Laumann-Billings & Emery, 2000; Parkinson, Cashmore, & Single, 2005; Parkinson & Smyth, 2004; Schwartz & Finley, 2009).

Alienators: The Perpetrators of Parental Alienation

Many researchers explain that alienator parents tend to be rigidly defended and moralistic. These alienators perceive themselves to be flawless, virtuous, and externalize responsibility onto others. They lack insight into their own behavior and the impact their behavior has on others (Bagby, Nicholson, Buis, Radvanovic, & Fidler, 1999; Bathurst, Gottfried, & Gottfried, 1997; Siegel, 1996).

In 1989, Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee described female alienators with “Medea-like rage.” They wrote:

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.

In 1998, Vivienne Roseby and Janet Johnston described the perspective of the alienators:

The other parent is seen as irrelevant, irresponsible or even dangerous, whereas the self is seen as the essential, responsible, and safe caretaker. These parents tend to selectively perceive and distort the child’s concerns regarding the other parent.

Psychological disturbance, including histrionic, paranoid, and narcissistic personality disorders or characteristics, as well as psychosis, suicidal behavior, and substance abuse are common among alienator parents (Baker, 2006; Clawar & Rivlin, 1991; Gardner, 1992; Hoppe & Kenney, 1994; Johnston & Campbell, 1988; Johnston, Walters, & Olesen, 2005b; Kopetski, 1998a, 1998b; Lampel, 1996; Rand, 1997a, 1997b; Racusin & Copans, 1994; Siegel & Langford, 1998; Turkat,1994, 1999; Warshak, 2010a).

Kopetski (1998a, 1998b) refers to this when she wrote that alienating parents have a narcissistic or paranoid orientation to interactions and relationships with others, usually as the result of a personality disorder wherein relationships are maintained by identification, rather than mutual appreciation and enjoyment of differences and when others disagree they feel abandoned, betrayed, and often rageful.

Kopetski (1998a, 1998b) also discovered that this paranoid and narcissistic personality orientation was observed in alienating parents who placed a heavy “reliance on defenses (such as splitting: I am good, you are bad) against psychological pain that results in externalizing … unacceptable feelings … so that more painful internal conflict is transformed into less painful interpersonal conflict.”

In 1998, Jeffrey Siegel and Joseph Langford published research based on an analysis of MMPI-2 validity scales and PAS. The study involved 34 female subjects who completed the MMPI-2 in the course of child custody evaluations. Of the total, 16 subjects met the criteria for classification as PAS parents; 18 were considered non-PAS parents. Siegel and Langford concluded: “The hypothesis was confirmed for K and F scales, indicating that PAS parents are more likely to complete MMPI-2 questions in a defensive manner, striving to appear as flawless as possible. It was concluded that parents who engage in alienating behaviors are more likely than other parents to use the psychological defenses of denial and projection, which are associated with this validity scale pattern.”

Gordon, Stoffey, and Bottinelli (2008) published research regarding the use of objective psychological measures in high-conflict custody cases. Gordon et al. examined the MMPI-2 data of 76 cases where PA was found and 82 custody cases (controls) where parental alienation did not operate. The subjects were identified as (1) alienating parent; (2) target parent; or (3) control parent. Their data demonstrated how alienating parents resorted to what they described as “primitive defenses.” Gordon, Stoffey, and Bottinelli (2008) explained that these primitive defenses allow alienating parents to split reality in terms of an “all good parent” and an “all bad parent.” These defenses were seen to motivate vicious attacks directed at the target parent. Two different MMPI-2 indexes were used to measure these primitive defenses: L + K − F and (L + Pa + Sc) − (Hy + Pt). The first index, L + K − F, identifies persistent defensiveness.

Elevations on this index would be expected in those cases of parents viewing themselves as an “all good parent” and condemning the former spouse as an “all bad parent.” The second, (L + Pa + Sc) − (Hy + Pt), is the Goldberg Index (1965) or “GI.” The Goldberg Index (GI) is a regression equation score which is the T score of (Lie + Paranoia + Schizophrenia) − (Hysteria + Psychasthenia). Because Egger, Delsing, and De Mey (2003) found that the Goldberg Index was valid for the MMPI-2, Gordon et al. (2008) used the GI as an indication of “a borderline level of functioning and the favoring of primitive defenses such as projective identification.”

Target Parents: The Adult Victims of Parental Alienation

It is axiomatic that most custody litigants want to make a good impression in any evaluation process. This is described as situational specific “impression management.” Situational impression management and what many describe as active attempts by the subjects of custody evaluations to “fake good” on measures like the MMPI-2 work to suppress clinical scales. This can be interpreted as an objective assessment of a parent’s style of defensiveness (Bathurst et al., 1997; Brophy, 2003; Duckworth & Anderson, 1995; Lanyon & Lutz, 1984). Working in high-conflict custody cases with and without indications of PAS, Wakefield and Underwager (1990) compared data concerning the personalities of 175 parents [72 who made false accusations of sexual abuse and 103 who were falsely accused of sexual abuse] to a group of 67 parents who were involved in custody disputes but without allegations of sexual abuse (controls). According to the data, the falsely accusing parents were much more likely than were the target parents or the controls to have a personality disorder such as Histrionic, Borderline, Passive-Aggressive, or Paranoid. While only a fourth of the sample of falsely accusing parents presented scores arguably in the normal range, the target parents and controls were significantly different. Almost all of the individuals in the custody control group and in the falsely accused group were seen as normal. Statistical analysis reached significance on F and F-K MMPI scales (see also Bernet, 2006).

With this in mind, Gordon et al. (2008) worked to test numerous hypotheses concerning a target parent’s complicity or involvement in the origin of PA. Gardner insisted that the degree of rejection of the target parent by the child is not justified by the target parents’ behaviors (Gardner, 1998, 2006). However, in their reformulation of PAS, Kelly and Johnston (2001) suggested a family systems model would find more involvement of the target parent in the onset of PAS symptomatic behaviors. Sensitive to this contrast, Gordon et al. (2008) thoroughly analyzed their data with these competing views in mind. They reported that their results showed strong support for a test of Gardner’s definition of PAS and the critical role of the target parent. They explained:

      … we predicted that, for both our measures of primitive defenses L + K − F and (L + Pa + Sc) − (Hy + Pt), the target parents (mothers and fathers) should be no different from the control parents (mothers and fathers), but score lower in both measures in comparison to the alienating. Overall both the target parents and the control parents had lower mean scores as compared to the alienating parents in the use of primitive defenses. We found evidence of primitive defenses in the alienating parents, but for most of our groups, we did not find significant evidence of primitive defenses in the target parents. (Gordon et al., 2008)

When closely examining the Kelly and Johnston (2001) reformulation that “target parents should be higher in the use of primitive defenses than the control parents in L + K − F and (L + Pa + Sc) − (Hy + Pt), but less than the alienating parents”, the researchers were blunt: “we did not find support for this.”