By Richard A Warshack, Psychologist and expert on P.A.S. @richardwarshack
This post is in honor of Parental Alienation Awareness Day—April 25.
A boy wrote a letter to his mother telling her that she belonged in a mental institution, that she was nothing to him, that she was nothing but a screw-up, that she was sick, selfish, that he wanted to have nothing to do with her or any of her relatives, and that he hoped she died a horrible, painful death. In other words, this boy disowned his mother with the most aggressive, vile, and hateful language.
The father’s attorney attempted to minimize the child’s alienation by claiming that the boy merely loved his dad a lot more than he loved his mom.
Attorneys spin the facts to zealously advocate for their clients’ positions. We expect it.
But what excuse do others have for denying the reality that a child can become irrationally alienated from a good and formerly loved parent? And for denying the reality that the child’s unjustified rejection of one parent can be traced to the other parent’s relentless manipulations to drive a wedge between child and parent?
How could anyone who works in the family law system deny the reality — affirmed nearly unanimously by legal and mental health professionals — that children can be influenced by one parent to turn against the other parent?
Encouraging a child to align with one parent against the other, and teaching a child to hate a parent for no good reason, is cruel. If a teacher did this to a student, bad-mouthed a child’s parents and systematically undermined the child’s love and respect for her parents, that teacher would be out of a job.
“Stealing the soul,” is how I described this process in DIVORCE POISON—enlisting children as agents in their own deprivation and violating children’s trust.
Leading authorities on divorce agree. Dr. Joan Kelly and Dr. Janet Johnston held no punches: “Whether such parents are aware of the negative impact on the child, these behaviors of the aligned parent (and his or her supporters) constitute emotional abuse of the child.”
Society has a checkered track record in recognizing and protecting children from abuse. Denial and minimization intermittently subdue awareness and acknowledgment. It has been this way with physical abuse, with sexual abuse, and with psychological abuse. So we should not be surprised that a subculture of parents and professionals denies that children can be manipulated to reject a parent for no good reason—or that they go so far as to claim that most children will turn against the parent who is abusing them in these ways.
How do deniers rationalize their apparent blindness?
Here are five strategies.
1. Deflect attention from the reality of divorce poison and its destructive impact with debates about whether parental alienation constitutes a bona fide syndrome. The claim is that because the official manual of psychiatric diagnoses (DSM-5) does not include the term “parental alienation,” the problem must be bogus. You also will not find “reckless driving syndrome” in the DSM-5. But you would be wise to avoid getting in a car with a driver who has this problem. Children need protection from reckless, toxic parenting, regardless of how we label the parent’s behavior. Moreover, the DSM-5 does refer to the concept of irrational parental alienation. The diagnostic manual mentions “unwarranted feelings of estrangement” as an example of the diagnosis: Parent–Child Relational Problem.
To the parent who loses her child, or the child who loses a parent, it matters little whether we label the loss a syndrome, a disorder, a condition, or a problem. What matters is whether a child is suffering and whether a parent’s behavior contributes to a child’s suffering.
2. Claim that it is only a speculation, hypothesis, or theory that children can become alienated from one parent when exposed to the other parent’s negative influence. As I explained in my article, “Bringing Sense to Parental Alienation,” there is nothing theoretical or speculative about the existence of irrationally alienated children. These children can be directly observed by anyone willing to look.
3. Attribute unsupportable, fake positions to parental alienation studies, and then refute the fake positions—a tactic known as “attacking a straw man.” For instance, a recently published study claimed that “the alienation hypothesis” (see denial strategy #2 above) maintains that parental denigration is only unilateral, not reciprocal, and that all children exposed to parental denigration become alienated from the target of denigration. When the study found that a group of volunteer college students reported that both parents denigrated each other, and the children did not reject either parent, the authors of the study concluded that “the alienation hypothesis” was not supported and that parental denigration does not cause children to reject the parent who is denigrated.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that no scholar has claimed that parental denigration necessarily leads to a child rejecting the denigrated parent. Of course many children whose parents badmouth each other maintain relationships with both parents. Rejecting a parent is an extreme consequence, not a common one. Furthermore, anyone who has worked with irrationally alienated children knows that these children are reluctant to admit that their favored parent maligned their other parent— in fact, these children are reluctant to admit anything negative about the parent whom they favor.
Researchers who genuinely want to learn about the forces that lead children to irrationally reject a parent will begin by studying alienated children. Studying children who are not alienated merely makes the obvious point that their parents occasionally bad-mouth each other without alienating the children from either parent. This is the sort of “scholarship” that gives social science a bad odor because the study advocates for and confirms a bias against the existence of parental alienation.
4. Ignore studies that fail to support one’s pet theories. For example, while promoting skepticism about the notion that children can be manipulated by a parent to hate the other parent, the authors of the study mentioned above failed to cite the largest study, published by the American Bar Association, that explicitly attributed children’s problems to being brainwashed by one parent against the other. They also failed to cite the volume of scientific evidence about various mechanisms by which children’s attitudes can be influenced and by which negative stereotypes about a parent can be promulgated.
Children’s feelings and behavior toward each parent are influenced by the way their parents treat each other. Does any reasonable person seriously believe otherwise—that children are immune from a parent’s influence? If so, tell that to all the child psychologists and authors who study and write about how to raise smarter, healthier, happier, and better behaved children.
Ironically, one of the authors of the straw-man study, in a previous article, railed against scholars who selectively cite research that confirms their biases, a tactic he called “cherry picking” or “stacking the deck.” Pot, meet kettle.
5. Promulgate, or accept without investigation or critical scrutiny, dramatic and exaggerated claims that the evaluator, therapist, child representative, and judge in a case mistook a child’s justified rejection of a parent for unjustified alienation, or that children removed from toxic alienating environments have been abused by the family court system. Such claims are repeated without considering all the evidence weighed by the court in reaching its decision.
We have a lot to learn about the roots of parental alienation and about why some children become ensnared in a campaign of hatred toward a parent while others resist. And why some children draw closer to the target of bad-mouthing and reject the parent who dispenses divorce poison, a phenomenon called “blowback” in the video, WELCOME BACK, PLUTO: UNDERSTANDING, PREVENTING, AND OVERCOMING PARENTAL ALIENATION.
But the existence of parents who effectively teach their children to hate the other parent, and of children who absorb this lesson, is beyond dispute.
Exactly two weeks before Parental Alienation Awareness Day in 2017, British High Court Justice Russell delivered her judgment in a Liverpool family court case. She wrote, “By manipulating her children, [the mother] has achieved what she has always wanted and stopped contact with their father. She has done so either because she cannot help herself or because she had quite deliberately set out to expunge their father from their lives. These children have suffered significant emotional harm as a result of their mother’s manipulative actions.”
Do the deniers and skeptics think Justice Russell was deluded?
As journalist Kathleen Parker observed, “Anybody old enough to drink coffee knows that embittered divorcees can and do manipulate their children. Not just women, but men, too.”
We may not want to face the fact that some parents prey on the children in their charge—physically, sexually, or emotionally. Often these parents carefully groom children to engage in harmful acts that victimize children. Whether children are victims of sexual abuse or psychological abuse, we must not turn a blind eye to them.
The fact that some children are able to resist does not obscure the reality that such abuse exists. Professionals who feed denial and skepticism play into the hands of those who want us to look away.
Because deniers and skeptics contribute to a backlash against protecting psychologically abused children from efforts to alienate them from a parent, 13 years after it was introduced we still need Parental Alienation Awareness Day to shine a light on the plight of children and parents caught in this maelstrom, and to remind us that much work remains to be done.