As the UK are in the middle of Children’s Mental Health Week (4-10 February) and today is also “Time to Talk” Day over the pond, it seems like an opportunity to create a conversation regarding a little known or acknowledged adverse childhood experience labelled Parental Alienation. Brian O’Sullivan, a systemic family therapist at the Centre, gives an in-depth explanation of Parental Alienation in today’s Therapists Thoughts blog.
What is Parental Alienation?
Bernet et al (2010) considers a primary feature of parental alienation where a child whose parents are engaged in a high conflict divorce or separation allies himself or herself strongly with one parent while rejecting the relationship with the other previously loved parent without legitimate justification.
When is it not parental alienation?
There are occasions when a child will reject a parent for what can be considered normative reasons such as findings of fact in relation to neglect or abuse. This is considered true estrangement and is not considered parental alienation.
Furthermore, a child might have a closer relationship with one parent as a result of age, gender, temperament or shared interests, which is considered a developmentally normal response at a point in time rather than alienation (Johnson & Kelly, 2001), thus it is crucial to differentiate parental alienation from other forms of reduced contact.
While allegations are untrue, in alienation an abused child may cling to, be protective of, wish to maintain the relationship with the abusing parent or minimise or deny past abuse (Baker & Schneiderman, 2015; Clawar & Rivlin, 2013; Gottlieb, 2012); hence, it may be a complex picture to unravel.
When allegations of abuse are made it is necessary to fully investigate these to ensure the safety of the child / children, which can take a considerable length of time. Maintaining some contact with the targeted parent, perhaps via supervised contact, during the investigation is an important consideration to avoid perpetuating the alienation.
This process can be further complicated if relying on the aligned parent to promote contact as she / he may present as disempowered regarding this matter, while at the same time being very much empowered in all other aspects of the child’s life.
Furthermore, when decisions regarding custody and access are in question it is important to recognise that joint custody is usually in the child’s best interest when both parents are deemed fit to parent (Lowenstein, 2007).
History of Parental Alienation
The American psychiatrist, Richard Gardner, brought attention to the phenomenon of parental alienation through his clinical work and publications in the mid to late 1980s. However, some of the founders of systemic theory and practice identified parent-child alignments as a significant challenge in family dynamics. While they did not use the term parental alienation, they proposed a number of related concepts to describe similar interactional patterns within the family, such as the “perverse triangle” (Hayley, 1963) and the “pathological triangle” (Bowen, 1971; 1978), that can cause severe emotional and behavioural disturbances in the child in extreme circumstances.
Hayley (1963) observed dysfunctional interactional patterns among hospitalised child patients and their families. He noted a cross generational coalition that he termed the perverse triangle that is characterised by one parent co-opting a child to collude with him or her while isolating the other parent. Hayley suggested that this led to highly symptomatic and dysfunctional behaviours, resulting from the double bind in which the child finds him or herself. He noted that there is no satisfactory outcome for the child who either rejects the targeted parent or pays the penalty of losing the love of the co-opting parent.
According to Bowen (1971), triangles involve two family members drawing in or excluding a third family member. A common form of triangulation is a cross generational coalition which develops when one parent tries to enlist the support of the child against the other parent by confiding in the child, treating the child as a parent or involving the child in parental disputes (Kerr & Bowen, 1988; Minuchin 1974). The pattern becomes pathological when it becomes repetitive, routine and predictable and has the destructive effect of disempowering, demeaning and excluding the other parent.
Is Parental Alienation recognised?
The research and literature of Bernet & Baker (2013) and Lorandos et al (2013) along with the research of Bernet et al (2010) and Wallerstein & Kelly (1996) attest to the validity and reliability of the parental alienation construct.
Furthermore, Baker et al (2012) have developed a four factor model for determining the presence or absence of parental alienation.
Additionally, the DSM-V task force committee clearly articulated a view that parental alienation is a relational phenomenon rather than one where a pathology can be said to be residing within any one individual within the family; therefore, they have included labels such as “child affected by parental relationship distress”, “problems relating to family upbringing” or “disruption of family by separation or divorce” and “child psychological abuse”.
More recently (autumn, 2018), the Child and Family Court Advisory Service in the UK (CAFCAS) have published high conflict pathways for their teams to identify and intervene in cases where parental alienation is considered to be a factor
In July 2018, the ICD-11 published by the World Health Organisation included parental alienation in their latest edition.
Currently, the American Psychology Association is reviewing its position on parental alienation.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (1997) published practice parameters for its members working with parental alienation.
It is illegal to alienate a child from a parent in Romania and Mexico.
Albert Einstein was probably the first to use the term alienation in 1914 when he wrote about his relationship with his children after separating from his first wife.
Charles Dickens (1850) is said to have alienated his children from his wife.
The Count of Westmeath (1847) is said to have alienated his children from their mother the Countess of Westmeath.
What are the rates of Parental Alienation in Ireland?
Clawar and Rivlin (1991) identified elements of false or negative ideation about the alienated parent in 80% of cases in their study of seven hundred divorces.
Darnall (1998) suggests that the vast majority of divorcing parents can be considered to be naïve alienators who periodically engage in parental alienating behaviours while, at a the other end of the spectrum, others engage in obsessive and active alienating behaviours in an effort to damage and / or terminate the relationship between the child and the targeted parent.
During 2015 in Ireland there were fifty two thousand and twenty one (52,021) applications to the family law courts regarding custody, access, guardianship and related family law matters in the context of relationship breakdown (Courts Service Annual Report, 2015). This report indicates a high level of contentious separations and divorces exposing children to ongoing conflict between their parents. This figure does not include those who did not have the psychological or financial resources to engage with Court processes. We do not know how many children were the subject of each of these 52,021 applications.
What is the impact of Parental Alienation on Children?
Understanding the impact of alienation on children is crucial when considering if, when and how to intervene therapeutically.
Fidler et al. (2013) suggest that alienated children are at risk of short term emotional distress and long term adjustment difficulties.
Johnson and Goldman (2010) reported that 60% of alienating youth, aged 18–21 years, had impaired emotional functioning, 84% had difficulty forming secure intimate relationships, and emotional dysfunction was found more frequently in those who had severed contact with a parent than those who had not.
Baker (2007a) found that participants in her study suffered low self-esteem in adulthood. She proposed that as children they viewed themselves as genetically similar to the rejected parent and concluded that they too must be “bad”. Self-hatred and self-blame were common problems among this group often arising from feelings of guilt associated with rejecting the targeted parent. She also found that 70% of the children studied suffered episodes of depression due to the belief that they were unloved by the targeted parent, 35% engaged in substance abuse as a means to mask their feelings of loss and pain, and 50% suffered a repetition of the alienation from their own children.
Clawar and Rivlin (1991) suggest that children who have been permanently removed from a targeted parent long to be reunited with the lost parent. They note that as childhood cannot be recaptured, a sense of history, intimacy, and input of values and morals is lost through not knowing one’s history and extended family.
Zarkadas cited in Gottlieb (2012) found that the difficulties faced by alienating children include educational problems, difficulties in peer relationships, illegal substance use, engagement in criminal activities and the development of mental health disturbances. She notes that these children are being asked to deal with adult situations that the adults involved do not know how to manage, describing the pain that they suffer as a result of alienation as criminal, while Gottlieb (2012) considers it a form of emotional child abuse.
What does an Alienated Child look like?
Separation and divorce can be experienced as difficult processes that require psychological, emotional and often physical readjustment. Parents are challenged to engage in such transitions while also attending to their child’s best interests and they frequently seek therapeutic intervention for themselves and / or their child to assist with this process.
Informed practitioners can intervene to minimise the progression of alienation along the spectrum from mild to severe alienation. They can support both parents and children to minimise aligning behaviours while emphasising the potential harm to which that child may be exposed.
The alienated parent may also seek support; however, it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss this work.
A comprehensive evaluation of the parent–child relationship prior to the relationship breakdown is important to assess alienation and to avoid intervention or recommendations that may perpetuate the alienation process albeit unwittingly (Bone & Walsh, 1999).
The characteristics of alienation may be observed in the family pattern of interactions, coalitions, in the distribution and regulation of power among family members, and in how distance and closeness is regulated.
Andre (2004, p.9) outlines a number of questions to consider with regard to family vulnerability to alienation that can help in assessment, as follows;
- Is there or was there a high conflict divorce, separation or a protracted battle in relation to custody or access?
- Is the child’s anger, hatred or rejection disproportionate to any crime that the parent is accused of?
- Did the child have a loving relationship with the now rejected parent?
- Is the rejection accompanied by extreme resistance to visit the rejected parent?
- Does the child shun the parent in public?
- Do the child’s perceptions lack duality, is there only black and white?
- Does it seem that there is only bad in one parent with no gratitude or affection for that parent?
- Are the child’s reasons for rejecting the parent scripted, lacking substance and accurate detail?
- Has the child added to or embellished the script with his or her own contributions to the rejected parent’s badness?
- Does the child insist that he or she has not been influenced by anyone but that he or she has independently chosen his or her own behaviours and opinions?
- Does the child protect and idealise the aligned parent?
- Do the actions of the aligned parent suggest an agenda of anger, negativity or destructiveness towards the rejected parent?
- Is there a distinct lack of outward guilt or remorse on the part of the child?
In addition to observing and exploring features of parental alienation in the nuclear family it is important to consider the role of extended family members such as grandparents or new partners in this process. Involving them in therapeutic work may optimise healthy transactions within the immediate and extended family system.
Systemic therapists are ideally placed to work with the entire family system as well as its various sub-systems. Therapy can be offered individually and collectively to address the individual and collectively to address the individual and systemic concerns within the family (Le Bowe & Reckart, 2007).
Templar et al (2017, p.119) suggests that a systemic family therapeutic programme for parental alienation should:
- Provide each family member with psychoeducation about parental alienation
- Protect the children from harm caused by the alienation
- Use therapeutic interventions that reduce the children’s distress and improve psychological well-being
- Utilise techniques that challenge the child’s distorted thinking and teach them critical thinking skills
- Work to improve the targeted parent and child relationship
- Prepare the alienating parent for an improvement in the quality of the targeted parent-child relationship and challenge the distorted thinking of the alienating parent
- Utilise conflict resolution techniques to repair the co-parenting relationship and establish healthy boundaries and communication within the family
Warshak (2010) cited in Gottlieb (2012, p.150) argues that therapeutic interventions with the alienating parent are multi-faceted. They provide an outlet for the sublimation of anger, explore alternative avenues for need fulfilment, provide psychoeducation regarding the detrimental effects of alienation on the child, support the parent to recognise age appropriate needs and offer valuable strategies for them to respond more effectively.
Engaging parents in high conflict situations can be challenging but can be enhanced by capitalising on their love for their children. This can motivate them to develop respectful child-centred co-parenting relationships. However, it is acknowledged that the strategic and determined alienating parent may not engage in a forum that facilitates enhancement of a relationship between the targeted parent and the child. In these circumstances family psychotherapy may need to be court ordered, non-compliance addressed and close collaboration between the systems involved to promote and motivate behaviour in the alienating parent.
Parental alienation is a relational dynamic. It requires thorough assessment and intervention to be targeted at the familial level as well as the various sub groups within the family to reverse alienation patterns and processes (Friedlander & Walters, 2010; Lowenstein, 1998; Reay, 2015; Sullivan et al, 2010, Toren et al, 2013; Warshak, 2010).
The available evidence demonstrates that systemic family psychotherapy is beneficial and should occur as soon as parental alienation is identified (Gottlieb, 2012; Johnson & Goldman, 2010).
Systemic family psychotherapy can help to achieve and maintain healthy parent-child relationships and facilitate a new family environment that allows parents to maintain a healthy distance from each other with cordial communication as necessary (Lebow & Rekart, 2007).
It may be challenging to engage the alienating parent in therapeutic work which can impact on the outcome of the therapeutic endeavour; hence, finding leverage to involve them is an important consideration.
The Voice of the Child
In Ireland the voice of the child is privileged in proceedings that affect them. However, it is crucial to be certain that what the child wants is being accurately reflected in what they say and that this is in fact in their best interest.
Practitioners often believe that they must listen to the child and concede to their wishes. However, Lowenstein (2007) highlights that children sometimes want things that are not good for them, while Gottlieb (2012) argues that there is logic for not allowing children to engage in certain activities, such as voting, serving in the army and so on. She asks “How is it then that we so freely abrogate our professional and parental decision-making responsibility to a child in such a critical area as family relationships, specifically the relationship with a non–resident parent” (Gottlieb 2015, p. 5).
Fidler et al. (2013) also advocate caution regarding the power of the voice of the child in such situations. They found that many adults who rejected a parent post separation secretly wished as children and adolescents that someone had recognised that they did not mean what they said when they were rejecting that parent.
A child’s voice is just that – a voice and not a choice. It is more than inappropriate to place the child in a position where they have to choose a parent.
Brian has conducted the only research in Ireland regarding parental alienation. He has published the only peer reviewed papers across social, legal and mental literature in Ireland as well as international publications. He acts as an expert witness in private family law proceedings in both Northern and Southern Ireland where parental alienation is considered to be a factor. He can be contacted at 01 2100600 or at [email protected]
A cross border conference to raise awareness of the phenomenon of parental alienation across Ireland among social, legal and mental health professionals is scheduled for May 23 2019 in the Swift Theatre, Trinity College, Dublin. Contact Brian at [email protected] if you would like further details of this timely event.
O’Sullivan. B (2012) the Alienated Child, Irish Journal of Family Law, 16 (1) pp 20 – 24
O’Sullivan. B (2018) Parental alienation, a systemic perspective, Context, Journal of Systemic and Family Practice, UK, 157, June pp. 3 – 7