Politics of Alienation
© 2010 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
I just finished writing a book about child alienation (Don’t Alienate the Kids!), broadly defined as when a child resists spending time with one parent after a divorce, without assuming the cause. Ironically, I finished this in 2010 – the year that the issue of alienation escalated into the news with two opposite political efforts: one to officially recognize alienation and the other to officially ban it from existence. In this article I want to explain what may be going on, why now and what to do about it.
A Little Background
About 10-20% of children resist or refuse all contact with one of their parents after a separation or divorce. This seems to be a worldwide phenomenon, although the percentages may vary. For the past 25 years or so, parents and professionals have argued about who “caused” this resistance. Is it Mom’s fault, or is it Dad’s fault?
In the 1980’s, fathers began to share parenting tasks on a much larger scale after a divorce, and shared decision-making became common (joint legal custody). At the same time, child sexual abuse started being recognized in the larger society as real and not just a child’s fantasy. In the mid-1980’s, Richard Gardner, a child psychiatrist who testified in custody disputes, coined the term Parental Alienation Syndrome to explain why many cases of alleged child sexual abuse against fathers were actually the result of the child being purposely alienated against the father by the mother, to win an advantage in court.
Battle lines were drawn and it wasn’t surprising that the alienation issue quickly became a clash between women’s rights advocates against abuse of women and children, and father’s rights advocates against parental alienation of the children. Mothers asked the court to support the child’s expressed wishes to stop contact with the father temporarily – saying that the risk of elimination of the father was a small price to pay to protect the child from the father’s abuse or severe incompetence. Father’s argued that the court should order a change of custody to the father and stop contact with the mother temporarily – saying that the risk of elimination of the mother was a small price to pay to protect the child from the mother’s emotionally abusive alienation.
Fast Forward to 2010
While this debate has raged in thousands of family courts around the world for all these years, it has received little attention in the public until the past couple years. What changed? Several things:
1) Child alienation seems to be increasing. I believe this corresponds to the increase of parents with personality disorders, which include a lot of “all-or-nothing thinking.” This becomes passed on to their children, who develop an all-or-nothing view of their parents: one is “all-good” and one is “all-bad.” At the same time, the federal government reports that child sexual abuse has decreased over the last twenty years. Only 2-5% of custody disputes involve an allegation (whether true or false) of child sexual abuse, whereas over 20% of custody disputes involve an allegation of alienation.
2) Child alienation is no longer a gender issue. Today we see many mothers who have become the “rejected parent” and many fathers who have engaged in alienating behaviors and have become the “favored parent.” And children become alienated against custodial parents (traditionally mothers), as well as parents with less parenting time (traditionally fathers). Many women have joined the fight against alienation and many men are active in the fight against child abuse. Many professionals of both genders are concerned about both issues.
3) Many alienated children don’t reconcile with the rejected parent when they become adults. Recent research about adult children of divorce is revealing this reality. This is in contrast to what many divorce professionals used to believe and advised their clients – just back off and your child will come back to you after they turn 18. Sometimes this happens, but many children remain alienated as much as 20 or more years after they reach 18. Further, this can have serious consequences for their own adult relationships and emotional health. It is no longer being seen as just a passing phase in the divorce, so that more parents are becoming assertive when alienation seems to be occurring.
4) Several children have been killed in the past year in high-conflict divorce cases. At the same time as courts are paying more attention to alienation issues, concerns about child abuse and the need for protective court orders have grown as well. This has motivated activists to demonstrate outside of family courts, stating that judges are biased against mothers who report abuse concerns – perhaps because their reports are seen as lacking credibility and a form of alienation. They are concerned that once alienation is raised as an issue, the possibility of child abuse and future child abuse is ignored.
In short, concerns about alienation have grown rapidly and concerns about child endangerment have grown at the same time. This brings us to the two opposing political efforts: 1) To legislate the existence of Parental Alienation as a psychiatric disorder (currently being considered by the body developing the DSM-V, the internally-used diagnostic manual of mental disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, expected out in 2012) and 2) To legislate the non-existence of alienation as forbidden in assessments of children in custody and visitation disputes (Assembly Bill currently in the California 2010 legislature). I have trouble with both of these efforts, as I will describe below, and I think I have a better solution.
A group of mental health professionals have submitted Parental Alienation for adoption as a psychiatric diagnosis in the DSM-V. They say that there are hundreds of articles about parental alienation in peer reviewed publications in the past 25 years, so that it is not just the thinking of one person. (Richard Gardner coined the term “Parental Alienation Syndrome in the mid-1980’s and was criticized for developing his own theory without peer review.) This is the first time that Parental Alienation has been submitted to be included in any version of the DSM (the DSM-IV came out in 1994). I received a copy of this proposal, which briefly described parental alienation as follows:
The essential feature of parental alienation is that a child – usually one whose parents are engaged in a hostile divorce – allies himself or herself strongly with one parent (the preferred parent) and rejects a relationship with the other parent (the alienated parent) without legitimate justification. The primary behavioral symptom is that the child refuses or resists contact with a parent, or has contact with a parent that is characterized either by extreme withdrawal or gross contempt. The primary mental symptom is the child’s irrational anxiety and/or hostility toward the rejected parent. This anxiety and hostility may have been brought about by the preferred parent or by other circumstances, such as the child who avoids being caught between warring parents by gravitating to one side and avoiding the other side of the conflict.
Proposal draft dated July 7, 2008, submitted to colleagues by William Bernet, M.D.
California Assembly Bill
This year a member of the California Assembly (Beall) submitted a bill that would ban the use of “nonscientific theories” in custody and visitation decisions. A brief summary of this bill is contained in the monthly news update I receive as a clinical social worker, which stated:
This bill states that “unproven, nonscientific theories,” including but not limited to alienation theories that assume that a child’s report of physical or sexual abuse by one parent is influenced or fabricated by the other parent, are not consistent with generally accepted clinical, forensic, scientific, diagnostic, or medical standards. The bill prohibits the court from relying upon an unproven, unscientific theory by an expert witness, among other things.
This bill is believed to unreasonably limit the court’s discretion, and renders it unclear how the court would determine whether the expert opinion is based solely on the child’s statements or the parent’s behavior, and not based on a prohibited theory. The bill is opposed by eight professional associations, including the Society, and by the Judicial Council.
California Society of Clinical Social Workers Update, June 2010.
We Don’t Need Presumptions
There is no doubt in my mind that alienation exists – it’s just that we can’t make assumptions about what causes a child to resist contact with one parent – the “rejected parent” or the “alienated parent.” There are many possible causes for this, including the unintentional actions and shared emotions of many people. That is what my book is about: my belief that thousands of behaviors by each parent, family members, professionals and our larger “Culture of Blame” add up to cause alienation for some children of divorce. I suggest many tips for reasonable parents, family and professionals in addressing this problem collectively – rather than fighting over determining who is to blame.
My concern is that creating a diagnosis of parental alienation disorder will create a presumption that it is one parent (the “favored parent” or “preferred parent”) who has “caused” the child to be resistant to the other parent. This suggests that all we have to do is remove the child from that parent, and the problem is solved. In my mind this is like blaming a parent for a child becoming obese in today’s society of junk food, endless food commercials and limited exercise. These are problems created by the culture surrounding the child, not by one single person. Instead of eagerly blaming one parent for the child’s behavior, we need to work together – each doing our own part to help and protect children from the “all-or-nothing thinking” of child alienation.
I also am concerned that creating a law against mentioning “alienation theories” will create a presumption that alienation never occurs – and that a child’s resistance must be caused by abuse or other poor parenting behavior by the rejected parent. This is the same problem of presumptions. And the reality is that many courts tend to operate from presumptions (consciously or unconsciously), that if one theory might be true than the other theory must not be true. In other words, if it’s a case of alienation then it can’t be a case of child abuse. If it’s a case of child abuse then it can’t be a case of alienation. In reality, one or the other or both could be true and in some cases both are perpetrated by the same person, who abuses the other parent and also engages in alienating behavior against that parent.
What We Need To Do
The problem with presumptions is that they distract everyone from looking at the facts – assessing and protecting children in each individual case when concerns of abuse and/or alienation are raised. If abuse is alleged by a parent, then it should be investigated – without assumptions that it did happen or it didn’t happen. If alienation is alleged, then it should be investigated – without assumptions that a parent intentionally influenced a child against the other parent, but also without assumptions that a parent’s behavior did not influence the child. As I mention in my book, recent brain research shows us how family members, professionals and even the larger culture can influence a child’s emotions and opinions. Anyone’s alienating behaviors which influence a child to resist contact with one parent is a form of emotional child abuse – even if it is unintentional – and needs to be treated and the child protected.
One solution when allegations of child abuse and alienation are raised together, is for the court to quickly order supervised contact for the parent who has allegedly engaged in abusive behavior. Then, get a report from the supervisor about the relationship of that parent and child. If there really is a risk of dangerous behavior by the accused parent, then the child will be safe and a professional supervisor can protect the child as needed. If there was no risk of dangerous behavior and there are positive interactions instead, then the supervisor can report positive observations. Supervised contact can be ordered right away at a first hearing, and the supervision lifted if there is no objective reason to maintain it later on.
While it is possible that a child can be observed to have a warm relationship with an abusive parent, if there is no sign of fear or danger then there is no emergency need to prevent contact with that parent. Then, there is less likelihood that the child will develop alienation against that parent by maintaining contact. Such an approach serves the dual purpose of protecting the child against both risks – injury from abuse or loss of a relationship with one parent. Rather than “either/or,” the court can use this approach as “both are possible,” and get more direct, non-adversarial information upon which to base decisions.
In rare cases it may be necessary to have a no-contact order temporarily. In cases of abuse, it still is important for the child to eventually deal with that parent – to gain skills and confidence in himself or herself – even if it is in a controlled setting. In cases of alienation, it still is important for the “favored parent” to gain new non-alienating skills in parenting. How long the temporary no-contact order is necessary (to allow the alienated parent a chance to reunite with the child) will depend on how quickly the favored parent can learn new skills. But this should not be too long and supervised contact may help show when he or she is ready for normal contact again.
Fortunately, most professionals I know have an open-minded view: that both child abuse and child alienation exist and that we need to look beneath the surface to find out what is actually happening. We need to avoid making assumptions and to protect children from abuse and alienation, while also preserving a relationship with both of their parents. I strongly believe that children can be protected with supervised contact or brief periods of no contact, in extreme cases. There is no reason to allow children to be abused – or to lose a relationship with one parent. We live in an all-or-nothing political world these days. That’s no reason for children to have to start out life with all-or-nothing thinking about their own parents.
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.