January 9, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
With every passing day, the concept and the understanding of parental alienation grow. It seems hard to imagine that, just two years ago we were reading the most scurrilous disinformation about parental alienation in reasonably respectable mainstream journals like Psychology Today. Back then, those opposed to equal parenting had to deal with the issue of parental alienation. They had to because the alienating parents often were given sole or primary custody by family courts. After all, the point of parental alienation is to remove the targeted parent from the child’s life altogether or marginalize him/her to the maximum extent possible.
So it’s scarcely a surprise that alienating parents often “won” the parenting time sweepstakes. If an alienating parent were at all successful, he/she would show up at court not only with lurid stories of bad parenting by the other parent, but with a child who corroborated the claims. How could an alienator miss?
Often they didn’t. But the edifice carefully erected by alienators and their apologists has been slowly collapsing over the years. It now looks to be little but a dusty ruin. But none of that happened without a fight. As the social science on parental alienation grew in volume and detail, the alarm went up from the ranks of those opposed to shared parenting. And why not? Parental alienation was one of the best weapons available to keep one parent away from the kids, keeping the sole-parent regime in place.
Of course those who shouted against the recognition of PA were mostly those who were also opposed to children having fathers in their lives. For them, accepting parental alienation constituted a grave threat to mothers’ hegemony over children, family life and ultimately the transfer of wealth via child support. So it was no surprise that organizations like the National Organization for Women were among the most vocal of those decrying the notion of parental alienation.
Their opposition to PA was always strange at best and downright nutty at worst. One of the excuses they came up with for opposing recognition of PA was the claim that it was nothing more than a shady plot by fathers and fathers’ rights organizations to wrest custody from mothers who of course deserved it. They sang that song to the heavens, never pausing to notice that no one anywhere ever claimed that PA was a gendered phenomenon. Indeed, social scientists expert in PA were at pains to state the opposite – that both men and women were fully capable of alienating behavior.
That of course made NOW’s claims not only wrong but self-defeating. If they’d gotten their way and evidence of PA were in some way banned from courtrooms, mothers could have been as easily removed from their children’s lives by alienating fathers as vice versa. So, in one of the screwiest turnabouts imaginable, NOW’s take on PA would have injured fit mothers who wanted nothing more than to have real relationships with their own children. Uninformed, knee-jerk advocacy can sure go wrong sometimes.
Fortunately, we don’t hear much from the likes of NOW or Ms. Magazine anymore on the subject of PA. That’s to a great extent due to the fact that there’s just too much empirical evidence of PA to ignore and the social science community, to its credit, has continued to accumulate more. By last year that meant publication of a compendium of papers on the subject edited by Dr. William Bernet boasting a bibliography of over 1,000 references from 35 countries around the world and 500 case studies. Then the American Psychological Association included the concept, if not the name, of PA in its latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
In short, the notion that parents don’t sometimes try to alienate the other parent has gone by the boards. Psychologists, lawyers and judges are now on the lookout for signs of PA and often are ready to alter custody arrangements accordingly. Dare I say it? It looks like this particular way of opposing equal parenting may finally have met its long-overdue demise.
With mental health professionals ever more aware of PA, inevitably comes greater nuance in its diagnosis, which brings us to this article (PsychCentral, 1/7/15). It’s by psychologist Samantha Rodman who’s touting her new book, The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Guide for Mental Health and Legal Professionals. In the article and the book, Rodman makes the point, seldom made in the context of divorce, that PA often rears its ugly head before any divorce petition is filed or divorce is even contemplated by either spouse.
We’ve seen this concept before. What family lawyers and judges see during divorce and child custody proceedings often began long before. The inter-spousal relationship that manifests itself as parental alienation often far pre-dates divorce or separation. Married parents who live together are every bit as able to compete for their children’s affections as are divorced or divorcing parents. They resort to methods that may be more subtle, but have the same goal – the marginalization of the targeted parent in the affections of the child.
Rodman offers some examples that I imagine ring bells with a lot of parents.
Wife to child: “That’s it, you’re in time-out!”
Husband: (sighs, smiles at the child as they walk into time-out)
Wife: “What was that?”
Husband: “What was what?”
Wife: “You don’t support me with the kids! No wonder they act out.”
Husband: “Act out? That was nothing. She was just sitting there. You’re really out of control lately. Calm yourself.”
Wife: “You’re so patronizing, I can’t believe you! Maybe I could calm myself if you helped me with discipline!”
Husband: “I need some quiet here for my call at 2.”
Wife (long-suffering tone): “John, they’re children.”
Husband: “Right, and I was a child who was quiet when my father needed quiet.”
Wife (sighing): “Fine, guys, let’s go down to the basement — maybe we can come up and do something fun later if Daddy stops working.”
Children of course get the message to their detriment.
Another lesson that one parent is the “good one” and the other parent is bad, mean, rigid, and controlling. Over time, if these patterns are not addressed, children will start to view their parents as caricatures: one who is patient, loving, and selfless, and one who is impatient, self-centered, mean, or “crazy.” The children’s own personalities and preferences affect this as well; a more laid-back child will naturally ally with a more laid-back parent.
Additionally, children learn that to stand up for the “wrong” parent is to risk displeasure and disapproval from the other. For example, if in the time-out scenario, a 6-year-old child said, “It’s okay, Daddy, I know I was being bad,” it is likely that the father would either sigh and act as though the child saying this was indicative of how deeply his mother is emotionally scarring him, or that the father’s face would change almost imperceptibly and the child would realize that his father wants his “role” to be that of a hapless child constricted by his mother’s punitive discipline.
Worse, this sort of intentional manipulation of the child’s perceptions of both the alienating and the targeted parent can have a profound and distorting impact on the child’s overall emotional functioning. The simple fact is that, in the alienating scenario, one parent may be cast in the role of villain, but the child sees more than just villainous behavior. Little Andy or Jenny also sees a loving parent on whom he/she has come to depend. That means the child is forced to rationalize what he/she sees with the terms of the narrative created by the parents. That radical disconnect between the child’s experience and the alienating narrative to which he/she is expected to conform can be psychologically disorienting and even dangerous to the child.
Parental alienation is a problem that both the mental health and legal communities must learn to see and deal with. It’s cause for some celebration that we’re putting behind us the false claim that some parents don’t alienate their kids.
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