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  • Susan Fletcher, Ph.D.

What is Parental Alienation? (Part One of Five)

Working with families who are in conflict in response to a divorce or a modification in the custody arrangements from a previous divorce, I am often asked to provide testimony as an expert when a child resists or refuses to follow a parenting schedule.

These cases are complex and no two cases are the same.

As it relates to resistance and refusal, the term parental alienation is often used and it is often misunderstood. Many times a parent perceives the other parent to be “alienating the children” when in fact, there are reasons why a child may resist or refuse to follow the parenting schedule.

In an effort to help distinguish when it is possible that alienation is occurring, I am going to answer the following five questions:

  1. What is parental alienation?

  2. What effect does it have on children when alienation is occurring?

  3. What is it that parent a parent says or does that causes alienation?

  4. How do you combat alienation?

  5. What are factors that lead to successful outcomes when alienation is really occurring?

In this blog post, I will give a general explanation of parental alienation. The other four questions will be answered in separate blog posts.

So what is parental alienation? To give a very general overview, alienation involves:

  • There is a disturbance in a parent/child relationship that was previously working

  • Behaviors are exhibited that show a child has an unreasonable aversion to a parent

  • A child displays resistance and rejection that is disproportionate to their actual experience with the parent

  • A child is persistently expressing unreasonable negative feelings and beliefs toward a parent

  • The difficulties display a family relationship problem, not individual pathology

What the research and literature addressing alienation tells us is that it is important for a professional to focus on the behaviors of the favored parent, the rejected parent, and the child.It is not appropriate to attempt to guess at the intentions, motivations, or internal thoughts of a parent or child as a way to try and fix the problem or assign fault.Behaviors that are suggestive of alienation include:

  • A child calling a parent by first his or her first name and the favored parent supporting the behavior.

  • The child and possibly the favored parent displaying disproportionate disrespectful behavior towards the rejected parent.

  • The child displays behaviors that exhibit that he or she rejects anything/anyone associated with the rejected parent

  • The child denies previous positive experiences when other data displays otherwise.

The literature tells us a lot about what to look for in cases where alienation is suspected. In families where alienation is suspected, patterns of observable behavior contribute to a disrupted hierarchy in a family. Most often the child displays behavior suggesting that he or she has been provided with the power to inappropriately choose whether or not he or she follows the parenting schedule. There may also be data supporting that the favored parent may have been providing too much adult detail to the child and behaviors, such as denying access, suggesting that the rejected parent’s relationship is being undermined resulting in further disruption in the parent-child relationship.

There are a lot of controversies related to alienation, especially how to identify that it is occurring and how to treat it. There are many opinions about whether it is occurring or not in a specific family. Nevertheless, there is a lot of literature and there are empirical studies that address components of alienation such as attachment issues, the benefit of healthy coping mechanisms, the benefits for a child to have a relationship with both parents, and the specific evidence that can be gathered in families where this is an issue. That data can support that there are irrational beliefs, faulty narratives, and/or support that a parent-child relationship is being undermined.

In Part Two of this series I will address what we know about the effect alienating behaviors can have on children.

Until next time,

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