July 3, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Common false beliefs about parental alienation lead therapists and lawyers to give bad advice to their clients, evaluators to give inadequate recommendations to courts, and judges to reach injudicious decisions. The increasing recognition of the phenomenon of children’s pathological alienation from parents brings with it a proliferation of mistaken assumptions about the problem’s roots and remedies. These assumptions fail to hold up in the light of research, case law, or experience.
With those words, Professor Richard Warshak opens his latest paper that seeks to bring mental health professionals, lawyers and judges into line with the current science on parental alienation. It’s published in the peer-reviewed journal, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. If he’s successful, he’ll help prevent the type of errors made by the court in the case I wrote about yesterday. There, the judge squandered 10 years of three girls’ lives by failing to intervene and stop their extreme alienation from their father by their mother. That occurred despite one psychologist’s warning eight years previously that the mother was bent on removing their father from the girls’ upbringing.
So Warshak has set out to help decision makers in family courts better come to grips with the realities of parental alienation. Needless to say, judges, lawyers and mental health professionals involved in deciding custody and parenting time should take heed.
Warshak identifies 10 common fallacies about PA that may derail appropriate decisions in custody cases. Five come in the diagnosis of PA and the rest in how it’s dealt with.
The first fallacy is that “Children Never Unreasonably Reject the Parent With Whom They Spend the Most Time.” I’ve said before, and it’s true, that PA is an opportunistic phenomenon. That is, the parent who sees the child most is the parent who’s best positioned to alienate the child and the parent who sees the child the least is most likely to be targeted. But that doesn’t mean the alienator is always the custodial parent.
One survey found that in 16% of cases the alienated parent had either primary or joint physical custody (Bala, Hunt, McCarney, 2010)…
Operating under fallacy #1 some evaluators have stated unequivocally that the children’s rejection of their primary residential parent (usually the mother) could not possibly constitute pathological alienation. These evaluators assume that a child who spends a lot of time with a parent is sufficiently familiar with the parent to be invulnerable to cognitive distortions about the parent. Thus if a child rejects a parent who has primary custody, the child must have a valid reason. This mistaken assumption predisposes evaluators to search for flaws in the rejected parent…
Fallacy number two is much like fallacy number one: “Children Never Unreasonably Reject Mothers.” Mothers are usually the custodial parent, but, as I’ve said many times, fathers are as capable as mothers of alienating a child and have the same motivations to do so.
3. Each Parent Contributes Equally to a Child’s Alienation. While it’s true that alienation often begins in the dynamics of the parents’ interactions prior to divorce and merely continues (and often escalates) afterward, that doesn’t mean that the two are equally responsible. One parent seeks to alienate the child and the other parent allows that to happen. The target parent therefore shares some of the blame, but the instigator is the main actor.
Kelly (2003) was one of the first to expose this fallacy. Drawing on 40 years of experience as a researcher, custody evaluator, mediator, and Special Master, she found that in as many as one third of entrenched parental disputes, one parent was clearly responsible for initiating and sustaining conflict. Clinical reports and some large-scale empirical studies describe disturbed and disturbing behavior on the part of favored parents, often characteristic of borderline and narcissistic psychopathology (Eddy, 2010; Friedman, 2004; Kopetski, 1998; Rand, 1997a, 1997b, 2011).
As is often the case, family systems therapists and other mental health professionals disagree on this topic.
4. Alienation Is a Child’s Transient, Short-Lived Response to the Parents’ Separation. Of course, this is one possible outcome of the parents’ divorce, but often it merely masks alienation.
Therapists who predict that a child’s resistance to spending time with a parent will evaporate in the near future are apt to focus therapy on helping the child cope with unpleasant feelings aroused by the parents’ breakup. In such cases therapists may encourage parents to passively accept their children’s reluctance or refusal to spend time with them, and often advise a “cooling off period” in which the rejected parent temporarily relinquishes active efforts to reestablish regular contact with the children (Darnall & Steinberg, 2008b).
But numerous studies show alienation failing to dissipate and indeed lasting for years.
5. Rejecting a Parent Is a Short-Term Healthy Coping Mechanism. This notion is similar to the fourth fallacy. Again, it seems to represent a sort of wishful thinking on the parts of all concerned — targeted parents, judges, lawyers and therapists alike. No one wants to believe alienation is occurring, so adults can easily interpret antagonistic behavior by the child in ways that reflect their own preferences rather than the reality of the situation.
Studies converge to suggest a conservative estimate that 2% to 4% of children become alienated from a parent after the divorce (Warshak, in press). Although this represents a large number of children, an alienated relationship with a parent is clearly a deviation from the norm even among children whose parents are divorced. Most children want regular contact with both parents after divorce (Fabricius, 2003; Fabricius & Hall, 2000; Hetherington & Kelly, 2002; Parkinson, Cashmore, & Single, 2005; Schwartz & Finley, 2009; Warshak & Santrock, 1983).
Therapists who believe that rejection of a parent is a healthy adaptation encourage parents to accept the children’s negativity until the children feel ready to discard it. This is especially true when therapists assume that the alienation is destined to be short-lived. But as discussed above, the alienation may not be transient, and is not healthy if the children’s negative attitudes and avoidant behavior harden into a long-term or permanent problem. Growing up with a severely conflicted or absent relationship with a parent is associated with impaired development (McLanahan, Tach, & Schneider, 2013).
Since I can’t report on Warshak’s piece in a single post, I’ll continue with this next time.
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