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What is Parental Alienation?

Parental alienation Syndrome (PAS) is one of the most controversial concepts dealt with by family law judges, parents, and professionals alike – and yet it is also one of the most misunderstood. In our many years of dealing with custody matters, some of the most difficult and painful cases we have ever had to deal with have involved parental alienation.

Understanding Parental Alienation

Parental Alienation has so many different aspects to it that it can be difficult to define. It’s actually easier to start to describe what alienation is not, so let’s start there. Alienation is not:

  • A child displaying or expressing anger at a parent, or the desire not to spend time with them;
  • A child avoiding a parent due to the parental conflict or other issues related to the custody dispute;
  • A child claiming to have a lack of feelings for a parent

Parental Alienation runs much deeper than these surface behaviors, which may have rational explanations of their own that can be determined by the professionals working on the case. For instance, a child may be at a young age or developmental level where they’re just rationally aligned to (or instinctively protective of) their mother. The father may have engaged in bad behavior such as family violence, alcoholism or drug abuse; behaviors that can have a lasting impact on family members. It’s only natural for a child to retain an emotional response to such an experience. This is an example of what we call a rational alignment (due to the rational basis for the child’s reaction), not parental alienation.

In addition there are very rare, but increasingly common situations of children who have high levels even clinical levels of anxiety, depression or Autism, who cling to one parent in favor of the other and can present as an parental alienation case but in fact are more properly approached as a case requiring a fresh look at the child’s early childhood and diagnostics that the child has or has not received from their various medical and mental health providers.

Parental Alienation is when a child is fully and irrationally aligned against one parent in an entrenched and significant intensity so as to prevent any normal interaction between the child and the non-aligned parent. This occurs when children mentally ‘re-scripts’ their memories and perceptions of their past experiences with the non-aligned parent. For example, in a therapy session the child may say, “I’ve never had one positive experience with my mom; I have no happy memories with her,” even though the parent produces gigabytes of video and photos displaying plenty of pleasant shared experiences. This is a classic case of parental alienation based on irrational alignment. But this only explains the “what” and not the “why” of parental alienation.

Parental Alienation is also characterized by what mental health experts call rigidity or “black and white” thinking. This is present when the child’s alignment and beliefs regarding the alienated or non-aligned parent are irrationality based, but they also happen to be extremely rigid. They child is incapable of seeing any shades of gray or being open to the possibility that things weren’t always terrible after all.

While not the focus of this work, there are rare cases of alienation that involve the child as the aligning actor, where they foster distrust and alignment against both parents without the active participation of either parent seeking to undermine the other.

Brainwashing and Escalation

These rigid beliefs may not always originate with the child – in some cases, they can be the result of what’s commonly referred as brainwashing. This is the why of parental alienation and can be an extremely difficult if not intractable behavior to prevent.

If the child is clearly parroting the thought patterns of the other parent, those alienating beliefs could have been picked up from hearing that parent’s comments on the litigation or opinions of the maligned parent. Manipulation over schedules or money may also be in play. A mom might make statements such as “Hey, you’re dad’s going to pick you up” without the dad’s knowledge, setting the dad up for failure and allowing the mom to come to the child’s rescue. A dad may promise the child that his mom will pay for that trip to band camp when he knows that the mom can’t do so, ensuring disappointment in that parent.

Once parental alienation takes hold, it’s extraordinarily difficult to break – and there are many ways to accidentally make things even worse. That’s why it’s so important to recognize signs of parental alienation early and consult with both a family law professional who is experienced in alienation and a mental health professional referred by that family lawyer. Handling the situation without expert guidance of these classes of professionals will make things even worse.

One of the common mistakes is to fight privately with the other parent, inadvertently feeding on the bait set out by that parent to escalate the conflict and making it even harder for the child to process the emotional upheaval. It also sets you up for enmeshment – the phenomenon of a child becoming extremely emotionally defensive of the alienating parent and actually feeling guilty or anxious about having any relationship with you. If you’re fighting with the other parent on that parent’s doorstep in front of the child, for instance, that experience could easily increase the anxiety and defensiveness fueling the child’s enmeshment and feed their false believe that somehow you are not loving, are bullying or however the aligning parent wishes to stage set the fact that the parent is simply seeking their appropriate and often court ordered rights.

Tools and Treatments for Parental Alienation

Parental Alienation is a highly controversial, highly studied issue, the subject of many books by such experts as Dr. Judith Wallerstein, Dr. Leslie Drozd and Dr. Richard Warshack. Wallerstein suggests that up to 15 percent of all children in custody fights have been alienated in some way. That’s one reason our office works with renowned experts on alienation to come up with a range of options for dealing with it. The courts will often seek options that can be supported therapeutically. This is the most important aspect of obtaining Court sponsorship of a therapeutic solution to end the parental alienation. The child’s current may agree with the diagnosis but may tell the court the child is unable to handle the “medicine” and therefore needed changes should not be implemented. Let me explain.

Depending on the severity of the situation, removal of the child from the alienating parent (a “parentectomy”) may have to be one of the options considered by the Court. The experts mentioned above include this option as a therapeutically sound and possibly necessary one, but the courts tend to view it as an extreme action and the child’s treating therapist may be limited in their specialized knowledge of successfully treating parental alienation and therefore will err on the side of the caution of their professional knowledge and not recommend courses of treatment that they are not knowledgeable of and may very well impose short term mental pain on their client, the aligned child.

It’s important to have a family law professional who can work with the child’s therapist to vet them and if appropriate buttress or replace the mental health expert with a provider who understands parental alienation interventions and cab bring their expertise to the courts. Too often Parental Alienation is Diagnosed but the lack of experience of the provider rules out more effective treatments such as temporary removals from the aligning parent.

Mental health professionals such as family counselors, individuals counselors, child psychologists or even adult psychologists can help treat and reverse alienation. Both psychiatric and psychological forensic evaluations can be useful starting points, and in some cases a medical assessment may be deemed necessary as well.

Treatment for alienation involves helping the child learn what’s real and what’s not in terms of their experiences with the alienated parent. Individual therapy can help a child process those genuine emotions and experiences in order to learn how to love and have affection for that parent, independent of the alienating parent. The alienating parent may also need individual counseling or psychotherapy. Parents may need to be held therapeutically accountable for their contribution to the alienation by recognizing the consequences of their own words and behavior. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the alienating parent has no idea of the damaging results of their actions – and recognizing the damage caused to the child, and the child’s relationship with a loving parent, is an important turning point.

Another helpful tool is family therapy. After a number of individual therapy sessions, a counselor may bring the child and parents together for family counseling. The key element of family therapy is helping the child feel safe in the presence of both parents, so it’s critical both parents understand that and support a positive experience for the child during these sessions. Even small positive experiences can add up to help reverse the alienation.

Extreme cases may require us to call in a professional who can conduct a parental alienation evaluation. This is not the same thing as a psychological evaluation, although the data from that evaluation is a factor in it. An alienation evaluation can state definitively whether alienation is actually present, with or without enmeshment – and the outcome of the evaluation will have a profound impact on the mental health responses or other therapies included in the scope of treatment.

In spite of our best efforts, an extreme case of alienation may require you to go to trial. This means you need an advocate who has experience presenting these issues to courts and working with all the necessary experts to ensure a proper response – one that saves your child’s relationship with both parents and, even more importantly, helps ensure that your child will be able to form healthy sustained relationships and emotional attachments for life.

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