Dr. William Bernet on the Concept of Parental Alienation and its Inclusion in the DSM-V

December 27, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

I’ve written often about Parental Alienation and its attendant effect on children, Parental Alienation Syndrome. The latest excellent news has been that the fifth and most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association includes numerous diagnoses that, while not using the actual words ‘parental alienation’ nevertheless embrace the concept. Put simply, the DSM-V takes the common definition of PA and calls it something else.

As I’ve mentioned before, in the lead-up to the publication of the DSM-V, there was considerable political infighting about whether to include the term ‘Parental Alienation’ or not. My take on the result is that the decision to include the definition but not the specific term looks very much like giving a fig leaf to opponents of PA inclusion. The reality of PA as observed by countless mental health professionals around the world is undeniable, so the committee that decided what should be included in the new manual offered opponents of PA inclusion a thin veil of respectability. They can tell themselves and their supporters that they “won” because PA isn’t included in the DSM-V.

But of course it is; it’s just called other things. If that saves embarrassment for PA opponents, I won’t begrudge it to them.

With all that in mind, the man who has for years been one of the leading lights in the field of Parental Alienation, Dr. William Bernet, Professor Emeritus at Vanderbilt University, has written a letter to the National Parents Organization, acknowledging our diligent work in promoting inclusion of PA in the DSM-V and in the popular understanding. In it Bernet describes a bit about how PA came to be included in the manual and its support in the psychological literature. He also includes a short article he wrote explaining to professionals just how to diagnose PA using the definitions of the DSM-V.

In so doing, Bernet accomplishes another important goal, whether by inadvertence of not. He utterly destroys the claims of those who would prevent mental health professionals from diagnosing children with any form of mental/emotional disorder arising from the alienation of one parent by another.

Here’s a piece I wrote about the National Organization for Women’s scurrilous claims about parental alienation (NPO, 7/2/12). As but one example of NOW’s scandalously dishonest statements about PA, here is how they described the scientific evidence supporting its existence and the need for inclusion in the DSM-V:

…no valid, empirical evidence exists for such a mental disorder…

NOW missed the mark by just a tad, as Dr. Bernet makes clear. In his letter to the National Parents Organization, Bernet brings to our attention a new book on PA that he calls “the most comprehensive book ever published regarding parental alienation.” I’ll say. Bernet describes the book, Parental Alienation: The Handbook for Mental Health and Legal Professionals,” as including “more than 1,000 references in the bibliography (from 35 countries) and 500 legal cases summarized.”

The fact is that Parental Alienation is well-known to mental health professionals around the world and has been extensively studied as those “more than 1,000” references make clear. But of course to NOW, that constitutes “no valid empirical evidence.” Such is the level of intellectual honesty of those opposed to recognition of PA.

Another claim often made by PA opponents is that courts don’t recognize its legitimacy as a mental health diagnosis. Again, that’s simply false, as the book Bernet recommends amply demonstrates with its 500 examples to the contrary.

Parental Alienation: The Handbook for Mental Health and Legal Professionals is obviously a landmark in the fight for sanity in child custody cases. Judges are notoriously ignorant of much of the mental health literature regarding child well-being, and lawyers have difficulty making cases of parental alienation in part because of that ignorance. The Handbook then is a crucial step in the direction of educating judges about the realities of PA and lawyers in what’s required to prove both that a parent is alienating a child and the dangers of that behavior to the child.

Those (outside the mental health community) opposed to the recognition of PA often make the spurious claim that allegations of alienation are nothing more than clever ruses by fathers and their lawyers to shanghai children from mothers who are “protecting” them from abuse by those very fathers. Amazingly, they never produce a single example in which that’s actually occurred. The few cases they do cite have been proven to be bogus by such luminaries as Glenn Sacks.

In so doing, those (like NOW) who make false claims about PA in an effort to prevent its use in child custody proceedings, take an active role in child abuse. Make no mistake, parental alienation of children is exactly that. Just a casual reading of Linda Gottlieb’s fine book, The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Family Therapy and Collaborative Systems Approach to Amelioration, reveals the horrors to which a child who’s a victim of alienation can be subjected.

Those who would shield alienators from legal consequences for their actions do indeed support the abuse of children by alienators. This cannot be overstated. Alienators harm not only the targeted parents, but more importantly the child. Until courts start to understand and take seriously parental alienation of children by parents, they allow child abuse to continue. Until anti-father organizations admit that parental alienation of children exists and is toxic to all concerned, they will be willing participants in that abuse.

Yet another false claim made by NOW and other opponents of PA recognition is that “proponents of PAS[are] predominantly right-wing “fathers’ rights” groups…” and that “PAS is a tactical ploy used by attorneys whose clients (primarily fathers) are seeking custody of their children.” Unsurprisingly, those claims are completely wrong, and therein lies a great irony. The literature on PA and PAS is replete with examples of fathers who attempt to alienate children from mothers. Again, even a casual glance at Gottlieb’s book leaves no doubt that fathers can be perpetrators and mothers victims of PA. Not a word in the mental health literature suggests that PA is gendered behavior.

Therefore, those who would exclude PA from recognition by mental health professionals and the law on child well-being, would, in the process, prevent mothers who are targets of alienation from proving the matter in court. They would support the efforts of alienating fathers to keep children from those mothers on the pretext that the child hates or fears the mother, who’s done nothing to deserve such estrangement from her child. That among those opponents of PA recognition are feminist organizations like NOW has to be counted among the supreme ironies of our times. Mothers battling alienating fathers in court might well think of NOW as the type of friend whom “if NOW is my friend, who needs enemies?”

Bernet, in his article on PA instructs mental health professionals about the various diagnoses in the DSM-V that include concepts of parental alienation.

For example, the diagnosis “parent-child relational problem” includes what is almost a direct quotation of the definition of PA. Therefore, a child’s behavior “may include negative attributions of the other’s intentions, hostility toward or scapegoating of the other, and unwarranted feelings of estrangement.” That is, the diagnosis “parent-child relational problem” now includes the elements of Parental Alienation. How much more included can a concept be?

Bernet points out that other diagnoses also relate to PA, among them, “child affected by parental relationship distress,” “child psychological abuse,” “delusional symptoms in partner of individual with delusional disorder,” and “factitious disorder imposed on another.”

By its inclusion in the DSM-V, the concept of Parental Alienation has taken a great leap forward toward common acceptance by the mental health community. As such, it can no longer be excluded from family court proceedings, to the extent it ever was. The Handbook is a hugely important part of that advance. It not only provides the scientific support for PA, but assists attorneys in making the case against alienating parents and in favour of their targets in court.

There is one fundamental truth about the children of divorce: absent serious abuse or unfitness by a parent, children need both parents involved in their lives both before and after separation. Parental alienation is an attack on that basic truth; it seeks to exclude one parent from the child’s life. That is morally wrong and in many jurisdictions is legally wrong too. It is everywhere deleterious to the well-being of the child. The greater our understanding and recognition of PA, the better off kids of divorce can be and the healthier parental behaviour can become.

Thanks to Dr. Bernet and countless others who’ve worked so hard to get mental health professionals to accept the concept of PA. Their efforts are bearing fruit. Children and parents the world over thank them.

National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.


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