Warshak’s Ten Fallacies about Parental Alienation, Part Two

July 5, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
This post continues last Friday’s.

The common fallacies about parental alienation Warshak numbers six through 10 involve intervention and fixing an alienating situation.

6. Young Children Living With an Alienating Parent Need No Intervention.

One of the primary excuses alienating parents give for allowing alienated children to avoid contact with the targeted parent is that the child doesn’t wish to see the parent. The answer to that, for children of whatever age, is that having or not having contact with the parent isn’t their decision. There is a court order that must be obeyed by all parties. If it’s the wrong order for whatever reason, then someone needs to seek a modification. But the child is not the one who decides about contact with the targeted parent.

That’s the law; here’s the science:

Toddlers and preschoolers may fulfill a parent’s expectations by acting fearful and resistant during scheduled transfers to the other parent’s care (Fidler et al., 2008, p. 243; Lund, 1995). If the child’s overt, albeit temporary, feelings are indulged, and the child’s protests allowed to abort the planned exchange, the protests are likely to emerge and become more intense at each subsequent attempt to implement the parenting time plan. If instead the child is given the opportunity to spend time with the denigrated parent outside the orbit of the alienating parent, the fearful and angry behavior quickly evaporates (Fidleret al., 2008, p. 242; Kelly & Johnston, 2001; Lund, 1995; Warshak, 2010b; Weir, 2011).

Because the young child loses the negative reaction and warms up to the denigrated parent during contacts with the parent, and does not show stable and chronic negative attitudes and behavior, a common mistake is to overlook the need for intervention (Weir, 2011)… Depending on their severity and cruelty, alienating behaviors may approach or reach levels of psychological abuse and children may need protection from the abusive parent.

7. Alienated Adolescents’ Stated Preferences Should Dominate Custody Decisions.

This fallacy builds on the previous one. As children mature, courts are more and more willing to consider their preferences regarding custody. Most state laws establish an age at which courts can listen to a child’s preferences and consider them based on the demonstrated maturity of the child. But courts must be aware that those children may have been alienated by one parent against the other and their preferences affected.

[Adolescents] are also better able to convince others that their wish to avoid or disown a parent is a reasonable, thoughtful, and proportionate response to the treatment they claim to have suffered at the hands of the rejected parent.

Despite their more mature cognitive capacities compared with younger children, adolescents are suggestible, highly vulnerable to external influence, and highly susceptible to immature judgments and behavior (Loftus, 2003; Steinberg, Cauffman, Woolard, Graham,&Banich,2009;Steinberg&Scott,2003).

Adolescents’ vulnerability to external influence is why parents are wise to worry about the company their teenagers keep. At times adolescents show extreme deference to others’ views. Other times they make choices primarily to oppose another’s preferences (Steinberg & Cauffman, 1996). Both of these dynamics can result in the formation of a pathological alliance with one parent against the other. Grisso (1997) points out that the preferences of adolescents often are unstable. Choices made early in the process of identity formation often are inconsistent with choices that would be made when a coherent sense of identity is established, generally not before age 18. For these reasons, even the preferences of adolescents merit cautious scrutiny, rather than automatic endorsement.

8. Children Who Irrationally Reject a Parent But Thrive in Other Respects Need No Intervention.

First, children’s apparent good adjustment may be superficial or coexist with significant psychosocial problems. Second, regardless of adjustment in other spheres, the state of being irrationally alienated from a loving parent is a significant problem in its own right and is accompanied by other indices of psychological impairment. Third, growing up apart from and in severe conflict with an able parent risks compromising children’s future psychological development and interpersonal relationships.

Yes, whatever else may be true, parental alienation can have profound, long lasting and detrimental effects on a child’s emotional well-being. For that reason, any judge faced with an alienated child is bound by his/her brief of acting in the “best interests of the child” to try to put a stop to the alienation. Any other course of action would endorse child abuse.

9. Severely Alienated Children Are Best Treated With Traditional Therapy Techniques While Living Primarily With Their Favored Parent.

Research on interventions for severely alienated children is an emerging field (Saini, Johnston, Fidler, & Bala, 2012). Case studies and clinical experience suggest that psychotherapy while children remain under the care of their favored parent is unlikely to repair damaged parent–child relationships and may make things worse (Dunne & Hedrick, 1994; Fidler & Bala, 2010; Garber, 2015; Lampel,1986; Lowenstein, 2006; Rand&Rand,2006; Rand et al., 2005; Warshak, 2003a; Weir & Sturge, 2006). No study has demonstrated effectiveness of any form of psychotherapy in overcoming severe alienation in children who have no regular contact with the rejected parent.

The usual treatment of phobic patients has been demonstrated to have limited-to-no efficacy with alienated children primarily because their rejection of the target parent isn’t a phobic response, whatever it may look like.

As opposed to the poor response of alienation to traditional therapy techniques, marked reduction of alienation has been reported for children who were placed for an extended period of time with their rejected parent (Clawar & Rivlin, 2013; DeJong & Davies, 2012; Dunne & Hedrick, 1994; Gardner, 2001; Lampel, 1986; Rand et al., 2005; Warshak, 2010b, in press). Despite limitations such as small sample sizes and lack of random assignment to treatment conditions, the collective weight of the literature suggests that contact with the rejected parent is essential to healing a damaged parent–child relationship.

10. Separating Children From an Alienating Parent Is Traumatic.

No peer-reviewed study has documented harm to severely alienated children from the reversal of custody. No study has reported that adults, who as children complied with expectations to repair a damaged relationship with a parent, later regretted having been obliged to do so. On the other hand, studies of adults who were allowed to disown a parent find that they regretted that decision and reported long-term problems with guilt and depression that they attributed to having been allowed to reject one of their parents (Baker, 2005).

The literature that suggests children may be traumatized comes from studies of children in orphanages who’ve lost both their parents. Those studies have limited or no applicability to children who have two fit parents, one of whom is an alienator and the other a target.

It’s good that mental health professionals, lawyers and judges now have an analysis of some of the typical mistakes made in diagnosing and treating parental alienation. Our understanding of PA has grown significantly over the past decade or so. It is now widely understood by mental health and legal professionals alike. We’re now honing that understanding to better serve children and their parents who are caught up in one of the most destructive of all family dynamics. Thanks to Professor Warshak for his most recent contribution to that effort.


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