Dr. Amy Baker: Parental Alienation is Child Abuse

Psychology Today has finally wised up.  Not long ago the magazine ran a truly scurrilous article by Paula Caplan that was supposedly about Parental Alienation Syndrome, but simply recycled a few old and utterly meritless claims.  Those claims are routinely made by anti-father advocates who fear that PAS may deprive mothers of custody.

Of course that’s correct; any parent – mother or father who engages in parental alienation deserves to lose custody.  Put simply, parental alienation is child abuse.

The Caplan article in Psychology Today frankly described PAS as a theory that fathers use to take children from mothers.  The fact that that is simply untrue (PAS supporters have said for years that alienators can be male or female) detered Caplan not in the least.

Nor did the fact that the science she cited is long outdated and at least one of the authors has since disavowed the work Caplan relied on.

Now comes Dr. Amy Baker here to give readers facts on parental alienation and give Psychology Today at least a figleaf of respectability on the subject of PAS (Psychology Today, 6/28/11).

Parental alienation is a set of strategies that parents use to undermine and interfere with a child’s relationship with his or her other parent. This often but not always happens when parents are engaged in a contested custody battle. There is no one definitive set of behaviors that constitute parental alienation but research with both parents and children has revealed a core set of alienation strategies, including bad-mouthing the other parent, limiting contact with that parent, erasing the other parent from the life and mind of the child (forbidding discussion and pictures of the other parent), forcing the child to reject the other parent, creating the impression that the other parent is dangerous, forcing the child to choose, and belittling and limiting contact with the extended family of the targeted parent.

Notice that Baker nowhere uses a masculine or feminine pronoun.  For Caplan’s information, that’s because both sexes engage in the behavior Baker describes. 

Baker describes parental alienation of children as child abuse.

Parents who try to alienate their child from his or her other parent convey a three-part message to the child: (1) I am the only parent who loves you and you need me to feel good about yourself, (2) the other parent is dangerous and unavailable, and (3) pursuing a relationship with that parent jeopardizes your relationship with me. In essence the child receives the message that s/he is worthless and unloved and only of value for meeting the needs of others. This is the core experience of psychological maltreatment (emotional abuse) as defined by the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC).

Most importantly, children who succumb to alienation by a parent are often scarred for life because of it.  When a parent exerts pressure on a child to reject the other parent, sometimes the child may do so in order to maintain a relationship with the alienating parent.  In effect, the child turns away from the target parent to please the alienator.

The results often extend far into adulthood.

Research with “adult children” of parental alienation syndrome (that is, adults who believe that when they were children one parent turned them against the other parent) confirms that being exposed to parental alienation represents a form of emotional abuse. Furthermore, these adults reported that when they succumbed to the pressure and rejected one parent to please the other, the experience was associated with several negative long-term effects including depression, drug abuse, divorce, low self-esteem, problems with trusting, and alienation from their own children when they became parents themselves. In this way the cycle of parental alienation was carried forward through the generations. Thus, parental alienation is a form of emotional abuse that damages the child’s self esteem in the short run and is associated with life-long damage.

Finally, Baker makes clear that in court, parental alienation can look like nothing more than the child’s passionate preference for one parent.  That of course is the whole point of the exercise. 

When child custody is involved, what better strategy could there be than to convince the child that his/her well-being depends on remaining with the alienator and rejecting the target parent?  That drama plays well in court and custody evaluators need to be trained and aware of the distinction between a child’s rejection of a bad parent and his/her rejection of an alienated one.

As is often true with other forms of abuse, the child victims of parental alienation are not aware that they are being mistreated and often cling vehemently to the favored parent, even when that parent’s behavior is harmful to them. This is why, mental health and legal professionals involved in cases of parental alienation need to look closely at the family dynamics and determine what the cause of the child’s preferences for one parent and rejection of the other parent are. If the favored parent is found to be instigating the alignment and the rejected parent is found to be a potential positive and non abusive influence, then the child’s preferences should not be strictly heeded. The truth is, despite strongly held positions of alignment, inside many alienated children want nothing more than to be given permission and freedom to love and be loved by both parents.

Child custody law is riddled with falsities and misconceptions.  Parental alienation and PAS are prime examples of those very things.  It is beyond astonishing that publications and social scientists would, for the sole sake of attacking fathers and their relationships with their children, engage in the type of blatant intellectual dishonesty that we see routinely regarding parental alienation.  As Dr. Baker says, it’s child abuse.  Why are they defending abusers?

Whatever the answer to that question is, Amy Baker has been and will continue to be a staunch advocate of sound science.  When it comes to PAS (I couldn’t resist the pun) that means we’ll continue to learn more and more about alienation and its effects on kids.  And courts will continue to listen over the din of the anti-dad crowd that more and more reveals itself to be anti-science as well.

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