Parental Alienation: Legal Malice or Mental Health Disorder? Or Both?

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December 16, 2019 by Robert Franklin, JD, National Board of Directors

Here’s an interesting piece on parental alienation by psychologist Dr. Stanton Samenow (Psychology Today, 12/9/19).  It’s of course meant for clinicians, but presents an issue lawyers and judges will also want to consider.

That issue can be roughly stated as “Is an alienating parent being malicious or does she/he actually believe their allegations?”  Of course one answer is that the alienator may be doing both.  Mental illness doesn’t preclude malice.

Still, Samenow has a point; what motivates alienating behavior is all-important for understanding and changing it.

He refers pseudonymously to two former clients of his, “Marcia” and “Donald.”

Marcia contended that Donald, her husband, posed an extreme danger to her and their three children. She provided a vivid account of her husband’s emotionally and physically abusive behavior. Specifically, she alleged that Donald had thrown their five-year-old son down the stairs causing him to suffer head trauma.  She reported that her husband kicked open a basement window, entered the marital home, then terrorized her and the children with a knife.  Alleging that Donald had been attempting to poison her and the children, she continued to fear for their lives.

And there was more, much more.  Marcia reported all this to doctors and other emergency room personnel.  She went to the police.  She had her lawyer ask the court for sole custody of their children.

Meanwhile, Donald was baffled.

He knew that his wife tended to be “black and white” about people but he did not know what produced such a radical transformation in her view of their marriage. He witnessed her allegations changing from the “frivolous and untrue” to the “very serious and untrue.” At first, he thought Marcia was just being “super overprotective” toward the children. Then he thought that she was inventing allegations.  As Marcia became more accusatory, he feared that she wasn’t just manufacturing allegations but believed them. “She does think I’m a danger, a Satan,” he commented.

Marcia was a highly-functioning individual, both in her professional life and with her children.  But psychological assessments of the two found her to have symptoms consistent with a paranoid personality disorder.  Donald was found to be a “stable individual with no psychological disorder.”

Eventually, the judge presiding in their child custody case gave Donald primary custody of the children and Marcia supervised visitation periods.  That turned out to be the right thing to do because, whether she realized it or not, Marcia’s alienation of the children from their father was dangerous to their well-being.

Caught in the middle and not knowing whom to believe, the child adopts the view of the parent on whom he is more dependent.  The child is affected by doubts about her own judgment and thinks she must make a choice. She shuts off positive feelings toward a parent whom the child loved and opts to have little or nothing to do with the parent thereby complying with the wish of the other parent.

That confusion on the child’s part between the reality he/she perceives about the targeted parent and the story told by the alienating parent can have serious psychological consequences, particularly in very young children.  Samenow is right when he says that, at some point, figuring out whether the alienator is acting maliciously or as a result of some mental disorder becomes moot.

From the standpoint of the child’s welfare and the immediate task before a court, the etiology may not matter. Regardless of the alienating parent’s motivation, the child stands to lose his relationship with a parent who loved him.

Removing the child from the alienating environment is usually necessary as the judge in Marcia and Donald’s case did.  The alienator can get help any time, but the child’s welfare demands that he/she live in a healthy environment among honest adults.

Samenow’s a psychologist, not a lawyer, and his article is concerned with clinical issues, but allow me to add one thing.  The legal system is adversarial in nature.  The family law part of that system offers “rewards” in the form of parenting time and “punishments” in the form of parenting time lost.  Given that divorce and custody matters arise when parents are at their emotional worst, it is no surprise that the system of reward and punishment results in alienating behavior by one parent against the other.  Whatever the etiology of the behavior, the court system makes it both worse and more prevalent than it would otherwise be.

And one final note about what’s not in Samenow’s piece.  Those opposed to equal parenting often call parental alienation a “debunked theory.”  They do so not because that claim has any merit, but because they recognize that alienating mothers stand to lose custody if their behavior is understood for what it is – child abuse.  They therefore attack the very concept of parental alienation.  What’s nowhere in Samenow’s article is any hint that parental alienation is anything but the awful reality that it is.  He’s seen it in his practice as have so many other mental health professionals.  He rightly sees it as his job to understand PA, to deal with it appropriately and to let other professionals know what he knows.

The anti-shared parenting crowd can shout all they want, but the facts about parental alienation are against them, always have been and always will be.

Thanks to Don for the heads-up.

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