Should Parental Alienation be a Diagnosis?

I believe that some children are alienated against one of their parents for no specific appropriate reason. As a social worker, I believe that alienation can be a form of emotional abuse. As a lawyer, I have won changes of custody related to alienation. However, I do not believe that an alienated child should be diagnosed as having a mental disorder.( see: Don't Alienate The Kids!)

The American Psychiatric Association is currently considering revisions to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The next edition is due to come out sometime in 2012 – the DSM-V (the fifth edition). The APA has decided to consider including Parental Alienation Disorder in the DSM-V. On the surface, this could be a good thing, as it would bring legitimacy to an issue which has been highly controversial and misunderstood. But under the surface, I believe that it would create more problems, for the following five reasons:

1. It will feed the Culture of Blame in Family Courts: If it is a psychiatric diagnosis, then family courts will become further bogged down in fights over the diagnosis and who is the “all-bad” parent causing the parental alienation. Such high-conflict court battles are a significant factor in causing alienation, not solving it. A diagnosis will become a new weapon in the Family Court Culture of Blame – and create more alienation, not less, in high-conflict divorces.

2. It will build resistance to behavior change: I believe that child alienation is the result of high-conflict behavior by at least one person (usually with a personality disorder), but often by several people in a child’s environment – much of it inadvertent. I developed the New Ways for Families program of High Conflict Institute to take out the blaming and put in short-term skills training at the beginning of family court cases before anyone has been judged to be an “all-bad” parent. Once a parent has been identified as the all-bad parent, it is next to impossible to get him or her to change anything in their own behavior. Whereas, before such findings have been made, both parents can learn and use skills for dealing with each other and with their children through programs such as New Ways for Families. It’s much easier to get a parent to try flexible thinking, managed emotions and moderate behaviors, if they don’t have to be defensive about their past behavior.

3. It will further isolate children: Thirty years ago I started working with children as a therapist. They often loved the counseling, but hated having a psychiatric diagnosis. Their families and friends often teased them and they felt awkward, alone and different. If you give a child a diagnosis of parental alienation disorder, what will it mean to the child’s sense of identity growing up? Children of high conflict families often blame themselves already for the family’s problems. It seems to me that it will add more weight to the wrong person. It would be more appropriate to diagnose a parent with a personality disorder, because that is more often the driving force behind child alienation anyway.

4. It will distract from looking for other problems, such as abuse: I’m a social worker and I also believe that child abuse and domestic violence are real. Sometimes these problems are present when a child becomes alienated, and often they are not present. But there will be the temptation to see alienation as the one and only problem and identify one parent as the one and only cause. In many cases, this will cause those trying to help the family to miss other problems that also need attention.

5. It will distract from focusing on solutions: Child alienation (I prefer to call it child alienation rather than parental alienation, to avoid any presumptions that its one parent's fault) is a result of the child’s exposure to excessive amounts of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors, by one or more people in the child’s environment. The child needs to learn that these three problems are not the way to live, rather than reinforcing them by eliminating one parent and then the other. The favored parent needs to change these behaviors as much as possible, regardless of who has physical custody. Often the rejected parent reinforces these problems by inadvertently getting angry at the child or prematurely giving up on the child (at the child’s insistence). Professionals need to show empathy for both parents and the children, rather than getting emotionally hooked into reinforcing that one parent is “all-good” (their client) and that the other parent is “all-bad.”

For more about my point of view as a therapist and attorney, see my book Don't Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High Conflict Divorce.
What do you think on this controversial subject? Please leave a comment. Please remember to be respectful of each other’s opinions.