This morning, I’ve been reading an interesting article, THE ALIENATED CHILD: A Reformulation of Parental Alienation Syndrome, Joan B. Kelly and Janet R. Johnston, that attempts to shift the focus on to Child Alienation rather than Parental Alienation, as a way of reformulation. Personally, I do not yet know the correct answer to have Parental Alienation/Hostile Aggressive Parental/Child Alienation included in the diagnostic manual for mental disorders, or what the correct terminology should be. I don’t believe placing the focus on the outcome – the children’s alienating behaviors – will prevail in preventing future cases, as it is the result of the problem. On the other hand, focusing on the one parent as “alienator” and the other parent as “targeted parent” is not going to hold up either as there are many times when both parents contribute, or when the “so-called targeted” parent is actually abusive, or otherwise unfit.
Precisely for this reason, this issue needs to be studied from all possible angles. One day there we will have a better understanding. One day, divorcing parents in the United States will be required, or at the very least it will be strongly suggested that they be educated on these and other issues that are the outcome of separating a family.
When separating a family, i.e., divorce, issues are bound to arise. There is no perfect solution, and there never will be. All that we can hope for and work towards is a better understanding of what we do, why we do it, and what happens to the children, and for going forward how to either avoid our damaging behaviors, lessen our damaging behaviors, or empowering the victim/s to navigate the alienator’s damaging behaviors.
In this article, controversies and problems with parental alienation syndrome are discussed. A reformulation focusingon the alienated child is proposed, and these children are clearly distinguished from other children who resist or refuse contact with a parent following separation or divorce for a variety of normal, expectable reasons, including estrangement. A systemic array of contributing factors are described that can create andlor consolidate alienation in children, including intense marital conflict, a humiliating separation, parental personalities and behaviors, protracted litigation, and professional mismanagement. These factors are understood in the context of the child‘s capacities and vulnerabilities. The angry alienation of a child from a parent following separation and divorce has drawn considerable attention in custody disputes for more than two decades and, more recently, has generated considerable legal, psychological, and media-based controversy. The clinical phenomenon of the child’s strident rejection of a parent, generally accompanied by strong resistance or refusal to visit, was originally described as a pathological alignment between an angry parent and an older child or adolescent that arose from the dynamics of the separation, including the child’s reaction to the divorce (Wallerstein & Kelly, 1976, 1980). Gardner (1987, 1992) later coined the label parental alienation syndrome (PAS) to describe a diagnosable disorder in the child occurring in the context of a custody dispute, and it is this entity that has generated both enthusiastic acceptance and strong negative response. Gardner (1998) described PAS as a child’s campaign of denigration against a parent that has no justification and that results from the combination of two contributing factors: the programming or brainwashing by one parent and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target
parent. He notes that the indoctrinating parent is usually the mother and that false allegations
of sexual abuse are common.
The controversy regarding PAS has focused on a number of criticisms, only some of
which will be discussed here (see also Faller, 1998; Williams, 2001 [this issue]). First and foremost, PAS focuses almost exclusively on the alienating parent as the etiological agent of the child’s alienation. This is not supported by considerable clinical research that shows that in high-conflict divorce, many parents engage in indoctrinating behaviors, but only a small proportion of children become alienated (Johnston, 1993). In other cases, it can be shown that some children (especially adolescents) develop unjustified animosity, negative beliefs, and fears of a parent in the absence of alienating behaviors by a parent (Johnston, 1993). Hence, alienating behavior by a parent is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for a child to become alienated.
Second, Gardner has formulated a definition of PAS that includes its hypothesized etiological agents (i.e., an alienating parent and a receptive child). This renders his theory of the cause of PAS unfalsifiable because it is tautological (i.e., true by definition). Third, because there is no “commonly recognized, or empirically verified pathogenesis, course, familial pattern, or treatment selection’’ of the problem of PAS, it cannot properly be considered a diagnostic syndrome as defined by the American Psychiatric Association (1994). If PAS is considered a “grouping of signs and symptoms, based on their frequent co-occurrence,” it could be considered a nondiagnostic syndrome, but this sheds no light on cause, prognosis, and treatment of these behaviors. Hence, the term PAS does not add any information that would enlighten the court, the clinician, or their clients, all of whom would be better served by a more specific description of the child’s behavior in the context of his or her family. Fourth, using the terminology of a medical syndrome to explain the behavior of family social systems engenders controversy among mental health professionals of different philosophical orientation and training, ensuring that the validity of PAS will continue to be debated. Finally, there is a relative absence of any empirical or research support for the reliable identification of PAS, other than Gardner’s (and other proponents’) clinical experience and “expert testimony.” It is unfortunate that many of Gardner’s publications have been self-published and, therefore, have not benefited from the scrutiny of the larger community of peer reviewers.
Allegations of PAS have become a fashionable legal strategy in numerous divorce cases in which children are resisting contact with a parent, without due regard for possible historic reasons for such resistance within the marital home nor for the children’s relationship with both parents (Rand, 1997a, 1997b; Walsh & Bone, 1997). Most controversial are the radical recommendations that follow from Gardner’s view that an alienating parent is the principal if not the sole cause of the problem. In severe cases of PAS, he recommends changing custody (placing the child with the “hated” parent) as well as other punitive measures that have resulted, for instance, in the child’s detention in juvenile hall or inpatient psychiatric facility,
and/or the jailing and fining of the offending parent.
The indiscriminate use of PAS terminology has led to widespread confusion and misunderstanding in judicial, legal, and psychological circles. In the United States, some jurisdictions are now rejecting expert witness testimony on PAS based on the higher standards for admissibility of evidence contained in Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals (1993), which have largely replaced the Fxye (1923) standards in most states (Nelson & Downing, 1999; Williams, 2001; Wood, 1994). In thelarger community, theconcept of PAS has created its own gender politics, as father’s rights groups and women’s advocates have respectively exalted, used, and scathingly rejected Gardner’s formulation. Several Web sites devoted to PAS are frequently visited. The media too has entered the debate with extensive stories and
investigations, some well-balanced journalistic reporting and others sensationalized and one-sided (Carpenter & Kopas, 1998a, 1998b, 1998c; Farragher & Rodebaugh, 1989; Goldsmith, 1999; Stevens, 1996a, 1996b; Tanner, 1996). A more extensive review of the support for, and rejection of, PAS is beyond the scope of this article but can be found elsewhere (Clawar& Rivlin, 1991; Faller, 1998; Gardner, 1992,1998; Nelson & Downing, 1999; Rand, 1997a, 1997b; Turkat, 1994; Waldron & Joanis, 1996; Williams, 2001).
Given the lack of empirical support for PAS as a diagnostic entity, the barring of testimony about PAS in some courtrooms, the overly simplistic focus on the brainwashing parent as the primary etiologic agent, and the frequent misapplication of Gardner’s PAS theory to many diverse phenomena occurring in child custody disputes, there is a critical need to reformulate a more useful conceptualization than PAS. Indeed, there are many custody situations in which questions about alienation arise that need to be examined and understood to recommend effective legal and psychological interventions for the family.
This article presents a family systems formulation regarding the alienated child, and those that follow focus on legal and psychological case management, assessment where child alienation is suspected, therapeutic work with alienated children and their families, and a view of parental alienation from the bench (Johnston, Walters, & Friedlande, 2001 [this issue]; Lee & Olesen, 2001 [this issue]; Sullivan & Kelly, 2001 [this issue]; Williams, 2001).
THE ALIENATED CHILD: A NEW FORMULATION
This formulation proposes to focus on the alienated child rather than on parental alienation. An alienated child is defined here as one who expresses, freely and persistently, unreasonable negative feelings and beliefs (such as anger, hatred, rejection, and/or fear) toward a parent that are significantly disproportionate to the child’s actual experience with that parent. From this viewpoint, the pernicious behaviors of a “programming” parent are no longer the starting point. Rather, the problem of the alienated child begins with a primary focus on the child, his or her observable behaviors, and parent-child relationships. This objective and neutral focus enables the professionals involved in the custody dispute to consider whether
the child fits the definition of an alienated child and, if so, to use a more inclusive framework for assessing why the child is now rejecting a parent and refusing contact.
DISTINGUISHING ALIENATED CHILDREN
FROM OTHER CHILDREN WHO RESIST VISITATION
It is critical to differentiate the alienated child (who persistently refuses and rejects visitation because of unreasonable negative views and feelings) from other children who also resist contact with a parent after separation but for a variety of normal, realistic, and or developmentally expectable reasons. Too often in divorce situations, all youngsters resisting visits with a parent are improperly labeled alienated. And frequently, parents who question the value of visitation in these situations are quickly labeled alienating parents. There are multiple reasons that children resist visitation, and only in very specific circumstances does this behavior qualify as alienation. These reasons include resistance rooted in normal developmental processes (e.g., normal separation anxieties in the very young child), resistance rooted primarily in the high-conflict marriage and divorce (e.g., fear or inability to cope with the high-conflict transition), resistance in response to a parent’s parenting style (e.g., rigidity, anger, or insensitivity to the child), resistance arising from the child’s concern about an emotionally fragile custodial parent (e.g., fear of leaving this parent alone), and resistance arising from the remarriage of a parent (e.g., behaviors of the parent or stepparent that alter willingness to visit). (See Johnston, 1993; Johnston & Roseby, 1997; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980.)
A CONTINUUM OF CHILD-PARENT RELATIONSHIPS
AFTER SEPARATION AND DIVORCE
Children’s relationships to each parent after separation and divorce can be conceptualized along a continuum of positive to negative (with the most negative being alienation) as shown in Figure 1. Positive relationships with both parents. At the most healthy and benign end of this continuum are the majority of separated children who have positive relationships with both parents, value both parents, and clearly wish to spend significant (and sometimes equal) amounts of time with each parent. As an example, 13-year-old John railed angrily against his mother who was insisting that she become the primary caretaker in the custody dispute and
then said plaintively, “She doesn’t understand that a kid needs both his mother and
father. . . . I get different things from my mom and my dad.”
Afinity with one parent. Also at the positive and healthy end of the continuum are some children who have an affinity for one parent (see Figure 1) but desire continuity and contact with both parents. By reason of temperament, gender, age, shared interests, sibling preferences of parents, and parenting practices, these children feel much closer to one parent than the other. It is important to note that such affinities may shift over time with changing developmental needs and situations. Although these children may occasionally express an overt
preference for a parent, they still want substantial contact with and love from both parents. Beth, an 1 1-year-old, explained that she loved both her parents but really liked doing “girl things” with her mom like shopping and talking. So, she said, “I want to live with my mom a bit more than my dad, but I really want to see him, too.”
Allied children. Further along the continuum are children who have developed an alliance with one parent (see Figure 1). These are children who demonstrate or express a consistent preference for a parent during marriage or separation and often want limited contact with the nonpreferred parent after separation. Unlike the alienated child, children allied with one parent generally do not completely reject the other parent or seek to terminate all contact. Most often, they express some ambivalence toward this parent, including anger, sadness, and love, as well as resistance to contact.
Such alliances between children and parents might arise from intense marital conflict and flawed marital dynamics in which the children were encouraged to take sides or carry hostile messages and might intensify following separation. More often, alliances arise in older school-age children in response to the dynamics of the separation, involving children’s moral assessment and judgment about which parent caused the divorce, who is most hurt and vulnerable, and who needs or deserves the child’s allegiance and support. Maria expressed her rage at her mother for “ruining my dad’s life and my life! She’s thinking only of herself. . . . She’s so selfish!” The anger and sadness of this 13-year-old about the divorce conjoined with her father’s freely expressed anger at his wife and pain. Maria’s moral outrage, including her initially expressed wish to live with her father, was quite supportive of
and gratifying to him. In talking further with the mediator, Maria acknowledged quietly that she loved her mother, had been close to her during the marriage. and later conceded that maybe she would want to spend time with both parents. READ MORE….