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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

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February 12, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

In discussing parental alienation of children, I’ve many times commented on how thorny a problem allegations of PA can present to judges and custody evaluators.  In about one-third of cases in which child abuse is alleged, alienation is as well.  Imagine being a judge and having to sort out the competing claims and proffers of evidence and arrive at a decision.  There may be no abuse and no alienation or there may be both.  Or there may be alienation and not abuse or vice versa.  And all allegations are presented in the most heated rhetoric.  Sound easy?  It’s not.

Trickiest of all is the question whether a child’s rejection of a parent is justified or not.  One of the key indicators of PA isn’t simply rejection, but unjustified rejection.  So how’s a judge to figure out whether an angry and rejecting child is engaging in appropriate or inappropriate behavior?  There’s no case a judge less likes to hear than one including allegations of abuse and alienation.

Understandably, judges usually try to reach the right conclusion by resort to mental health professionals.  After all, at least they have training and experience in evaluating children’s behavior and therefore may be in a position to identify PA or its absence.  The problem with that approach is that, whatever their training and experience, making that evaluation can be hard for court-appointed evaluators too.  Indeed, complaints of wrong findings of alienation and wrong findings of no alienation are rife.

With that background, Professor Richard Warshak has published a new paper on how to avoid false positive findings of parental alienation.  To what extent those are a problem, I don’t know, but Warshak’s article, that appears in Volume 22 of the APA’s journal Psychology, Public Policy and Law, makes a valuable contribution to the growing body of science on parental alienation.

By now, that set of information is indeed impressive, as Warshak’s article makes clear.

Attention to parental alienation has significantly increased since the late 1990s. During this time, the number of trial and appellate cases in which court-appointed evaluators testified on parental alienation or in which courts determined that parental alienation was material, probative, and relevant to the case has grown considerably... There has also been an accumulation of knowledge about parental alienating behaviors and the psychology of alienated children (for a database of more than 1,300 publications, see Vanderbilt University Medical Center, n.d.), and of research on assessment instruments (Bernet, Gregory, Reay, & Rohner, 2018; Hands & Warshak, 2011; Huff, Anderson, Adamsons, & Tambling, 2017; Moné & Biringen, 2012; Row- lands, 2019a, 2019b). A review of 58 studies concluded that parental alienating behaviors and the presence of alienation in a child can be reliably identified (Saini, Johnston, Fidler, & Bala, 2016).

Compare that with, say, the assertions of the likes of law professor Joan Meier and others who seem to want us to believe that parental alienation doesn’t exist at all and the very concept is one thought up by abusive fathers to gain unwarranted time with their kids.  A great many scrupulous researchers have produced more than enough science to make the claims of Meier, et al little but an entertaining sideshow to the real event.  The battle to elbow the problem of parental alienation aside is over.  Meier, et al, should take heed.

Meanwhile, Warshak’s new paper constitutes a hallmark in the maturation of the subject.  Only professionals who are sure of their expertise could take on the problem of false positives, secure in the knowledge that discussing the issue and the issue itself will not endanger acceptance of PA by mental health professionals or the legal profession.  Meier and her fellow travelers may be tempted to seize on Warshak’s work to further criticize findings of alienation.  After all, if false positive findings of PA exist, then perhaps all findings of PA are false, right?  I know that would be an unprincipled take Warshak’s paper, but, as we know, Meier is not above unprincipled and even outright false claims.

So Warshak’s right to caution both custody evaluators and judges about the danger of false positives.  He points out that just because certain alienating behavior (e.g. bad-mouthing the other parent) exists on the part of a parent doesn’t mean that the intention or the result is an alienated child.  In the throes of divorce, parents are far from their best selves and sometimes unduly criticize the other parent.  That’s common, far more common than alienation.

When compared with a child whose negative behavior does not reflect parental alienation, a child with moderate or severe parental alienation displays negative behavior that meets all of the following criteria.

  1. The behavior is chronic rather than temporary and short lived (but can include an ongoing pattern of intermittent alienation that recedes in the presence of the rejected parent but returns when in the presence of the favored parent).
  2. The behavior is frequent rather than occasional.
  3. The behavior occurs in most situations rather than only in certain situations.
  4. The behavior occurs without displays of genuine love and affection toward the rejected parent.
  5. The behavior is directed at only one parent.
  6. The behavior does not reflect typical dynamics for the child’s stage of development.
  7. The behavior is disproportionate to, and not justified by the rejected parent’s past or current behavior.

Likewise, a child who criticizes a parent, even unjustifiably, isn’t necessary alienated.  There are many other possible explanations for his/her behavior that must be explored and assessed by the mental health professional tasked with rendering an opinion to the court.

Examples of situations in which children treat a parent negatively but their behavior does not meet the seven criteria [for parental alienation] are: (a) normal reactions to parental separation; (b) behavior reflecting a difficult temperament or emotional problems; (c) reluctance to leave a parent who needs emotional support; (d) situation-specific resistance to being with a parent; (e)feeling closer to or having more rapport with one parent; (f) feeling more comfortable in one’s parent’s home, either because of differences in parenting styles or in the emotional atmosphere of the home; and (g) typical adolescent psychological functioning. In each of these situations, a child’s negative behavior can be mistaken for parental alienation.

Dr. Warshak’s work extends the range of both the science of parental alienation and its accurate and scrupulous use in court.  The science on parental alienation is expanding and will continue to do so because parents continue to engage in the practice.  The better we understand PA, the better for all concerned and Warshak’s latest is a significant step in that direction.

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