From an early age, Anne was taught by her mother to fear her father. Behind his back, her mom warned that he was unpredictable and dangerous; any time he'd invite her to do anything--a walk in the woods, a trip to the art store--she would craft an excuse not to go. "I was under the impression that he was crazy, that at any moment he could just pop and do something violent to hurt me," says Anne, who prefers that only her middle name be used to guard her family's privacy. Typical of a phenomenon some mental-health experts now label "parental alienation," her view of him became so negative, she says, that her mother persuaded her to lie during a custody hearing when the couple divorced. Then 14, she told the judge that her dad was physically abusive. Was he? "No," she says. "But I was convinced that he would [be]." After her mother won custody, Anne all but severed contact with her father for years. If a growing faction of the mental-health community has its way, Anne's experience will one day soon be an actual diagnosis. The concept of parental alienation, which is highly controversial, is being described as one in which children strongly attach to one parent and reject the other in the false belief that he or she is bad or dangerous. "It's heartbreaking," says William Bernet, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, "to have your 10-year-old suddenly, in a matter of weeks, go from loving you and hiking with you...to saying you're a horrible, ugly person." These aren't kids who simply prefer one parent over the other, he says. That's normal. These kids doggedly resist contact with a parent, sometimes permanently, out of an irrational hate or fear. Bernet is leading an effort to add "parental alienation" to the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association's "bible" of diagnoses, scheduled for 2012. He and some 50 contributing authors from 10 countries will make their case in the American Journal of Family Therapy early next year. Inclusion, says Bernet, would spur insurance coverage, stimulate more systematic research, lend credence to a charge of parental alienation in court, and raise the odds that children would get timely treatment. But many experts balk at labeling the phenomenon an official disorder. "I really get concerned about spreading the definition of mental illness too wide," says Elissa Benedek, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Ann Arbor, Mich., and a past president of the APA. There's no question in her mind that kids become alienated from a loving parent in many divorces with little or no justification, and she's seen plenty of kids kick and scream all the way to the car when visitation is enforced. But, she says, "this is not a mentally ill child"... In any case, divorcing parents should be aware that hostilities may seriously harm the kids. Sometimes manipulation is blatant, as with parents who conceal phone calls, gifts, or letters, then use the "lack of contact" as proof that the other parent doesn't love the child. Sometimes the influence is more subtle ("I'm sure nothing bad will happen to you at Mommy's house") or even unintentional ("I've put a cellphone in your suitcase. Call when everyone's asleep to tell me you're OK")... "The long-term implications [of alienation] are pretty severe," says Amy Baker, director of research at the Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection in New York and a contributing author of Bernet's proposal. In a study culminating in a 2007 book, Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome, she interviewed 40 "survivors" and found that many were depressed, guilt ridden, and filled with self-loathing. Kids develop identity through relationships with both their parents, she says. When they are told one is no good, they believe, "I'm half no good." Now 23, divorced, and a parent herself, Anne has recognized only recently that she was manipulated, that her long-held view of her father isn't accurate. They live 2,000 miles apart but now try to speak daily. "I've missed out on a great friendship with my dad," she says. "It hurts."Lyon did a pretty good job with the article but her assertions about Parental Alienation and the American Psychological Association are incomplete. She wrote "The American Psychological Association has issued a statement that 'there is no evidence within the psychological literature of a diagnosable parental alienation syndrome.'" Yet the APA has given mixed messages on PAS--to learn more, click here. The controversy over Parental Alienation is largely political. Children are vulnerable and impressionable, and parents in emotionally-charged divorces are quite capable of using them as tools of their anger. It is true that family courts must weed out false claims of PA made by abusive or manipulative parents. It is also true that courts must act decisively to protect children from the emotional abuse inflicted by alienating ones.
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Group of 50 Mental Health Experts Pushing to Add Parental Alienation to DSM
Now 23, divorced, and a parent herself, Anne has recognized only recently that she was manipulated, that her long-held view of her father isn't accurate. They live 2,000 miles apart but now try to speak daily. "I've missed out on a great friendship with my dad," she says. "It hurts." A group of 70 mental health experts from 12 countries are part of an effort to add Parental Alienation to the 2012 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association's "bible" of diagnoses. According to psychiatrist William Bernet, this "would spur insurance coverage, stimulate more systematic research, lend credence to a charge of parental alienation in court, and raise the odds that children would get timely treatment." Few family law cases are as heartbreaking as those involving Parental Alienation. In PA cases, one parent has turned his or her children against the other parent, destroying the loving bonds the children and the target parent once enjoyed. Numerous misguided feminist groups oppose recognition of Parental Alienation in court or in DSM. Some of these opponents raise legitimate concerns. For example, Janet Johnston, a feminist-oriented clinical sociologist/justice studies professor, fears that PAS could be invoked by an abusive parent to gain rights to a child. She is correct--this can happen. One example is the Joyce Murphy case in San Diego--to learn more, see my post Feminist Opponents of Shared Parenting Get It Right in Parental Alienation/Abuse Accusation Case. The solution to Johnston's concern is to have courts make thorough, unbiased investigations into abuse claims. It also true, as some opponents of recognizing Parental Alienation assert, that there are fathers (or mothers) who have alienated their own children through their personality defects or lack of parenting skills, and who attempt to shift the blame to their children"s mothers (or fathers) by falsely claiming PAS. However, some opponents of recognizing Parental Alienation are on the lunatic fringe, denying that Parental Alienation exists at all, and spinning fantasies of masses of mothers losing custody to molesting fathers. In most of the cases put forth in the media by these extremists, no abuse occurred and the mothers only lost custody of their children after going way out of their way to destroy the relationship between the children and their fathers. Some examples of these frauds include the Genia Shockome, Sadia Loeliger, and Holly Collins cases Even if many claims of Parental Alienation were false--and there's no evidence to suggest this--it still would not mean that opponents' assertions that PA doesn't exist are credible. In family law cases, false accusations of any and all types of maltreatment, including PA, are used to gain advantage. Since false accusations of domestic violence and child sexual abuse are common, should we then conclude that battering and molestation don't exist? Another issue opponents of recognizing Parental Alienation have latched on to is the debate over whether Parental Alienation should by considered a syndrome. They then argue that if it's not a syndrome, it can't be real. I believe the assertion that Parental Alienation is a "syndrome" is defensible, but regardless, the key fact is that alienating behavior and Parental Alienation campaigns exist and are a major problem in divorce. Johnston also asserts that in teens, a level of parental rejection appearing similar to Parental Alienation might be a developmentally normal response. This assertion is questionable. Johnston is correct that many teens reject their parents to various degrees. However, there's a difference between this and active alienation. Several of my wife's male friends have been alienated from their teenage children, and many of them try to mask their pain by shrugging and saying, "You know how teenagers are." Well, I do, and I don't buy it. For example, my 17-year-old son is convinced that I'm a hopelessly out of touch old loser, and I certainly don't disagree with him. Still, he clearly loves me, and will sometimes (grudgingly) acknowledge it. That's not Parental Alienation, which is far more visceral. The new U.S. News & World Report article Parental Alienation: A Mental Diagnosis? (11/2/09) covers the efforts of Parental Alienation experts to get PA accepted by DSM. I suggest that readers comment on the piece by sending Letters to the Editor at [email protected]. In it, author Lindsay Lyon writes: