NBC’s ‘Law and Order’ Shows Parental Alienation Syndrome

Sometimes (all the time?) all the studies, all the social science in the world can’t match a single bit of pop culture.  As one obvious example, we’ve known for decades the importance of fathers to children; massive amounts of sociology show that beyond question.  But all that scarcely dented the perception of fathers peddled by popular culture as dangerous, uncaring deadbeats. 

That’s why the gradual improvement in the depiction of fathers by television and movies can have (and I would argue is having) a profound and lasting effect on how fathers are perceived and, more importantly, how they’re treated by family courts.

The simple fact is that images produced by visual media like TV and movies play a key role in people’s conception and understanding of what’s depicted.  That’s why understanding popular culture is important to understanding how people see various phenomena.  Everything from war to family dynamics finds its contours outlined by popular culture.

Now, one of the many issues in family courts today is that of parental alienation and its sometime outgrowth, Parental Alienation Syndrome.  Although not officially recognized as a discrete syndrome by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, many courts have admitted evidence of PAS and there is a broad-based movement among mental health professionals to recognize its symptoms in children as a disorder.

As we’ve come to expect, pretty much anything that offers the possibility of allowing fathers to maintain contact with their children after divorce will be opposed by the anti-dad crowd.  If world peace somehow offered fathers closer connections to their children, the anti-dad folks would be against it.  And, since parental alienation and PAS have been used by some fathers to educate judges about the methods some mothers employ to keep fathers out of their children’s lives, those reflexively opposed to fathers rights have been quick to cry “foul.”

That of course is shortsighted on their part.  The concepts of PAS and parental alienation have nothing to do with gender; both mothers and fathers sometimes try to alienate children from the opposite parent.  Therefore both fathers and mothers stand to benefit from a broader understanding and acceptance of those concepts.  The anti-father forces seem determined to cut off their nose to spite their face.

And if recognition of parental alienation and PAS were general and courts were on the lookout for it, parenting would surely improve.  Parents would recognize the deleterious effects of that behavior on children and know that courts might restrict their own contact if they engage in it.  So the opposition to recognition of PAS by those opposed to fathers’ rights also must be seen as opposition to improved parenting post-divorce.

But the current of history is against those who would shield from the consequences of their actions, parents who alienate children.  The simple fact is that parental alienation and PAS are becoming more and more recognized by courts and legislatures as time goes on.  The concept is spreading and attempts to stop it, like the efforts in California to pass legislation prohibiting the admission of evidence of PAS, repeatedly fail.

So this episode of the NBC crime drama “Law and Order” counts as another milestone in the widening understanding of PAS (NBC, 12/1/10).  (The episode aired on December 1 and is entitled “Playa Vista.”)  

Since the show is all about crime, the idea of PAS flies somewhat under the radar; it makes its appearance at about minute 20 of a 42-minute program.  And by making it part, not of a family court drama, but of a crime drama, the producers were able to deflect some of the more contentious issues surrounding PAS.  Viewers aren’t asked to take a father’s or a mother’s side in a fight over a child.

But the scenes inside the courtroom and out in which PAS is described and we see the mother and son acting out some of its symptoms can do a lot to educate viewers about a psychological condition about which they likely have never heard before.  “Law and Order” has struck a small, but not insignificant blow for the recognition of PAS, if not by the APA, then at least by the general public.

Thanks to Larry for the heads-up.

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