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December 19th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association will not include Parental Alienation Syndrome in its fifth edition.  As regular readers of this blog know, there has been a long and contentious debate about whether PAS is a unique syndrome or disorder worthy of inclusion.  I’ve read only one opinion opposing inclusion that is so frankly loony that I can’t believe it represents the prinicipled opposition.  In a nutshell, Dr. John Grohol said that children who are alienated by one parent from the other are simply exercising their own free choice about with whom to associate.  Given that he’s talking about kids who may be two or three years old, that opinion is obviously just silly.  What’s next, letting them play in traffic as their free choice?

But even with older children, the simple fact is that parent-child relationships aren’t like other relationships and everyone needs considerable age and maturity before they achieve the level of autonomy required to make the decision to refuse a relationship with a parent.  That’s true even if the parents get along fine, but in PAS cases, they don’t.  The fact that one parent engages in a lengthy campaign to demonize the other obviously renders a child’s judgment about the target parent suspect at best and likely flat wrong.  Finally, parental alienation is child abuse; by seeking to remove the other parent from the child’s life, it interferes with the vital parent-child relationship to the long-term detriment of the child.

That any reputable mental health professional would seek to characterize parental alienation and its profound and deleterious effects on children as simply a free choice exercised by those children is beneath contempt.  Whether PAS qualifies as a syndrome or not is beyond my expertise, but to anyone who wants to know the nitty-gritty of Parental Alienation Syndrome, I highly recommend the book “The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Family Therapy and Collaborative Systems Approach to Amelioration,” by Linda Gottlieb, LMFT, LCSW.

The book is partly aimed at mental health professionals and partly at lay people.  That makes it an easy read even though Gottlieb’s prose style can be stilted at times.  All in all, it’s a must-read for anyone who’s unsure about what PAS is, how it comes about, who does it, it’s effects on adults and children, and the like.  Maybe those who are dead-set against the concept won’t be convinced that PAS is real, but everyone else will be.

Importantly, Gottlieb debunks every one of the half-baked excuses for not acknowledging PAS by anti-father groups.  One of those is that PAS is some nefarious plot by pro-father organizations to deprive mothers of custody.  Anyone with even a casual interest in facts knows that’s not true.  In Gottlieb’s book, you have to read as far as page three of the Introduction to learn that alienating behavior “more closely approximates 50/50″ between mothers and fathers.  Importantly, the book is filled with examples of alienating behavior committed by both mothers and fathers.

Another is the hilarious claim that there’s no science behind PAS.  In fact, Gottlieb takes us all the way back to the 1950s to find the roots of the diagnosis.  The book doesn’t attempt an exhaustive catalog of the research on PAS, but by the end, the reader has a good idea of the great depth and breadth of the inquiry by countless scholars worldwide.

Still another is that PAS is the brainchild of Dr. Richard Gardner, when in fact, some six different researchers working independently in the 1980s gathered data on alienating behavior and its profound effects on children.

In short, no one who reads Gottlieb will ever again give a second’s consideration to the blatantly false claims of NOW, the Center for Judicial Excellence, etc.  There may be arguments for excluding PAS from the DSM, but NOW’s aren’t among them.

Louise Gottlieb has been a practicing mental health professional for 18 years.  She’s a family systems adherent.  My shorthand understanding of that is that she considers families to be interrelated systems that tend to psychologically self-regulate.  That means that the relationships in a family become established and develop an interest in remaining so.  That can be for good or ill.  Therefore dysfunctional families will still tend to perpetuate their internal relationships even though they’re detrimental to individuals in the family.  For a person to be treated for a mental health problem therefore, a therapist must treat the whole family.  Otherwise, any effort at change by the individual will be resisted by other members of the family.  (I hope any family systems practitioners reading this aren’t tearing their hair at my explanation.)

What Gottlieb has witnessed time and again in her practice is that the alienating behavior parents engage in post-divorce actually began as a family dynamic long before.  For example, a mother who assumes primary childcare during the marriage and marginalizes the father, may become the authority in the family regarding childcare matters.  She may wield this power in a dictatorial manner, tossing aside efforts or suggestions of the father.  This one-sided, “I am the sole authority” attitude, if acceded to by the father sets up an unequal dynamic between the two when it comes to the children.  In the event of the divorce, the same dynamic may play out, with Mom marginalizing (alienating) Dad and Dad acquiescing in his subservient status.  Stated another way, maternal gatekeeping may be a precursor to (or an example of) parental alienation.

Family Courts Promote Parental Alienation Syndrome

Because PAS occurs and is revealed during the course of custody cases in court, Gottlieb knows a thing or two about the legal process in those cases.  She’s emphatic about how courts actually promote parental alienation by parents and what they must do to stop.  Not surprisingly, as a therapist of integrity, Gottlieb avidly supports both parents’ having a meaningful relationship with their children post-divorce.

In order to support the goal for each parent to provide a meaningful and substantial involvement in the lives of their children, I affirm that the resolution to custody requires an arrangement for joint legal custody with physical custody that maximizes the time that nonresidential parents have with their children.

Given that, she categorically rejects the standard custody/visitation orders we see with numbing regularity.

It is my professional opinion that the customary visitation arrangement for nonresidential parents to visit every other weekend and one night during the week is not sufficient to maintain a consequential relationship with their children…  I further submit that this typical visitation arrangement is based on custom and has no basis in any scientific research about optimal child development and child rearing.  In fact, the opposite is the case…

I couldn’t have said it better myself although I’ve made the same point more times than I care to guess at.  Essentially all the social science on parental involvement and child well-being contradicts the practice of family courts.  That fact alone should cause radical changes to the way those courts deal with custody issues.

I’ll write more about Gottlieb’s valuable book in the near future.

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