June 5, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Yes, this article appeared in the Huffington Post (Huffington Post, 5/26/15). That’s remarkable because the article is a good, informative piece on parental alienation. The writer, Traci L. Slatton, actually knows something about PA and delivers the information to readers in an even-handed way. Yes, this is the Huffington Post.
It wasn’t very long ago that those opposed to recognizing the reality of PA stooped to some very low tactics to try to convince people that the very concept of PA was nothing but a scheme by fathers’ rights activists to wrest children from loving mothers. The National Organization for Women’s website included some of the most scurrilous disinformation on the subject anywhere, but it was far from the only one. Even Psychology Today ran an article repeating claims about PA that were by turns, inaccurate, debunked or just flat wrong.
But that was then, and this is now. Now, after hard-fought battles over whether to include PA in the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychological Association, that PA deniers lost, acceptance of PA as a phenomenon and a psychological diagnosis goes largely unchallenged. Of course, the political deal that was struck left the words “parental alienation” out of the DSM-V, but included the concept under other headings. That allowed the deniers a fig leaf of respectability, but the reality is that mental health practitioners are now free to diagnose and treat children who are victims of PA and the adults who perpetrate and are victimized by it.
That of course makes sense given the overwhelming evidence of PA. Much of that evidence has been gathered into a book by Dr. William Bernet professor emeritus at Vanderbilt University. His weighty tome brings together studies by experts from over 30 countries around the world and hundreds of legal cases.
Meanwhile, Slatton makes the case to the lay people reading the Huffington Post.
Parental alienation happens when a child becomes enmeshed with one parent, strongly allying himself or herself with that parent, and rejects the other parent without legitimate justification. These children are encouraged by one parent, the favored parent or alienating parent, to unjustly reject the other parent, the targeted parent. The children can fall prey to the alienating parent’s tactics as a means of escaping the conflict.
According to psychiatrist Dr. William Bernet, professor emeritus of Vanderbilt University and a researcher into the phenomenon, “Almost every mental health professional who works with children of divorced parents acknowledges that PA — as we define it — affects thousands of families and causes enormous pain and hardship.”
That fact alone made it all but impossible for the deniers to keep PA recognition out of the mental health community and family courts for long. Put simply, PA is too common; countless practitioners, both of psychology and law, have seen it to deny its existence or it destructive effects on children and families.
Bernet and other researchers refer to eight criteria for diagnosing parental alienation, including a campaign of denigration against the targeted parent, the child’s lack of ambivalence, frivolous rationalizations for the child’s criticisms against the target parent, reflexive support of the alienating parent against the target parent, the child’s lack of guilt over exploitation and mistreatment of the target parent, borrowed scenarios, and the spread of the child’s animosity toward the target parent’s extended family or friends.
These criteria sound academic but their effect is exquisitely awful in the most human and primal way. The child basically constructs an alternate reality where the parent is some kind of monster.
In particularly young children, that dynamic can do lasting emotional/psychological damage. Before a child has a firm grip on the distinction between fiction and reality, parental alienation can undermine sound mental development. If one reality for the child is a parent saying the other parent is a monster and another reality is the child’s experience of the targeted parent as warm and loving, the conflict between the two realities may be more than the child can assimilate healthily. The point being that PA has the potential to do far more than simply shove one parent out of a child’s life, damaging as that may be. It can also do long-term harm to basic mental functioning.
Amy J. L. Baker, PhD, one of Bernet’s research colleagues, writes about seventeen primary strategies used by the alienating parent to foster conflict and psychological distance between the child and the targeted parent.
These include poisonous messages to the child about the targeted parent in which he or she is portrayed as unloving, unsafe, and unavailable, such as, “your mother is a rage monster who shames you”; erasing and replacing the targeted parent in the heart and mind of the child, “you can trust mommy, she doesn’t judge and malign you like daddy does”; encouraging the child to betray the targeted parent’s trust, “how bad was daddy this weekend?”; and undermining the authority of the targeted parent, “your mom’s rules don’t apply, you don’t have to listen to your mother, do whatever you want.”…
In an extensive program of research, Baker has found that children exposed to the 17 primary parental alienation strategies and those who become alienated suffer in the long run, as do their parents. “To turn a child against a parent is to turn a child against himself,” she says.
Which is pretty much my point. A parent turning a child against the other parent may believe he/she is just hurting the other parent, but it’s not true. The child is hurt far worse.
Not stopping with publishing the most authoritative treatise on PA ever, Bernet has founded a group whose mission is the advancement of knowledge about it.
To study this sad phenomenon and to educate the public, Bernet founded the Parental Alienation Study Group (PASG). PASG is an international, not-for-profit corporation with about 220 members – mostly mental health and legal professionals – from 32 countries. PASG members are also interested in developing and promoting research on the causes, evaluation, and treatment of parental alienation.
For a targeted parent, it can help to know that there is support. In addition to the PASG website, there are several books, some good ones written by Baker herself. There are therapists and coaches who can offer compassionate support and strategies for responding to the alienating tactics without becoming engulfed in anger or despair.
The only thing Slatton neglects is one of the most important aspects of PA – opportunity. As most authorities on PA make clear, in order to carry out the campaign of alienation, the alienating parent has to have the opportunity to do so. If the child sees the targeted parent regularly and for significant periods of time, it’s much more difficult for the alienator to convince the child that the target doesn’t love him/her, is violent, a drunk, lazy, or whatever may be the alienator’s chosen narrative. If the child sees enough of the target parent, he/she can see that the stories aren’t true.
And of course that opportunity to alienate the child is precisely what family courts afford alienating parents. By confining children to one parent’s care between 80% and 86% of the time, courts provide the opportunity to alienate to parents inclined that way. As Professor Edward Kruk has written, “Parental alienation flourishes in situations in which one parent has exclusive care and control of children…” By contrast, “Equal parenting reduces the risk and incidence of parental alienation.”
That’s simple common sense. The closer to equal the parenting time, the less opportunity for one parent to succeed in a campaign of alienation that harms both the child and the targeted parent.
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