November/December 2008 Issue
Parental Alienation Syndrome — The Parent/Child Disconnect
Divorce and separation can breed bad blood between parents and children when one partner uses the children to target the other partner.
Among the many areas of concern for social workers working with divorced or separated couples with children are two related problems: parental alienation, or the efforts on the part of one parent to turn a child against the other parent, and parental alienation syndrome, or a child’s unwarranted rejection of one parent in response to the attitudes and actions of the other parent. Social workers may encounter these problems in a number of settings, such as family service agencies, schools, and family court, as well as in private practice working with high-conflict divorcing couples, parents who believe that the other parent has or will turn the children against them, alienated children refusing to see a parent, adults who are still alienated from a parent, or elders who have “lost” their children to parental alienation.
While some social workers may be unaware of the name for this particular phenomenon, they have probably dealt with it over the course of their careers. For example, clients may enter individual therapy presenting with anxiety, depression, or relationship problems and later reveal that they have been cut off from one parent by another parent. These clients may be unaware of the meaning of the lost relationship and may even minimize its effect on their growth, development, and current mental health concerns.
Children referred to a school social worker for acting out or experiencing academic problems may casually reveal that they have no contact with a “hated” parent. When questioned about the absent parent, these children may vehemently denounce the parent as “good riddance to bad rubbish.” The family of such a child may be maneuvering behind the scenes to exclude the other parent from the child’s school life by misrepresenting that parent’s intentions to school staff, withholding information from that parent to create the appearance of a lack of interest, and removing contact information from school records.
A third scenario is represented by clients who enter therapy consumed with fear that the other parent is turning the children against them. Such parents will be desperate for advice and guidance about how to cope with the chronic provocation of the other parent. These parents live with anxiety, depression, and helplessness, as well as feelings of victimization by the other parent, the child, and myriad systems (legal, mental health, school) that are not always responsive to the needs of targeted parents.
In all these cases, social workers may formulate a hypothesis that one parent has engineered the child’s rejection of the other parent. However, unless the social worker is familiar with parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome, he or she is missing a useful conceptual framework for understanding how one parent is able to poison a child’s relationship with the other parent in the absence of just cause.
Parental alienation is a set of strategies that a parent uses to foster a child’s rejection of the other parent. Parental alienation syndrome develops in children who come to hate, fear, and reject the targeted parent as someone unworthy of having a relationship with them. Richard Gardner, PhD, who coined parental alienation syndrome, described in The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Guide for Mental Health and Legal Professionals that there are eight behavioral components that have been validated in a survey of 68 targeted parents of severely alienated children (Baker & Darnall, 2007).
Eight Manifestations of Parental Alienation Syndrome
1. A Campaign of Denigration
2. Weak, Frivolous, and Absurd Rationalizations
3. Lack of Ambivalence About the Alienating Parent
4. The “Independent Thinker” Phenomenon
5. Absence of Guilt About the Treatment of the Targeted Parent
6. Reflexive Support for the Alienating Parent in Parental Conflict
7. Presence of Borrowed Scenarios
8. Rejection of Extended Family
In a recent study (Baker & Darnall, 2007), targeted parents rated their children as experiencing these eight behavioral manifestations in a way that was generally consistent with Gardner’s theory. Parents reported that their children exhibited the eight behaviors with a high degree of frequency. One exception was alienated children being able to maintain a relationship with some members of the targeted parent’s extended family, which occurred in cases where that relative was actually aligned with the alienating parent. This suggests that the context of the contact with the targeted parent’s extended family (that relative’s role in the alienation) needs to be understood prior to concluding whether this component is present in the child.
Study of Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome
Although this problem has long been of concern to mental health practitioners, little research has been conducted on the specific problem of children rejecting one parent due to the overt or covert influence of the other. In contrast to the dearth of research, demand for knowledge about parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome is overwhelming. There are several Web sites devoted to this problem, many of which receive tens of thousands of visits each year. The few books on divorce that discuss this problem are best sellers, and there are several Internet chat groups comprised of anxious parents who fear that the other parent of their child is turning their child against them. Saddest of all are the parents who have already lost their child to parental alienation syndrome and want to know whether they will ever get the child back.
This is the question that guided the current study on parental alienation syndrome of adults who as children had been turned against one parent by their other parent (Baker, 2007). In order to participate in the study, the individuals needed to have been alienated from one parent as a child and had to believe that the alienation was at least in part due to the actions and attitudes of the other parent. Forty adults participated in in-depth, semistructured telephone interviews. A content analysis was conducted. Some of the major themes and research findings relevant to the work of social workers are the following:
Different Familial Contexts
Emotional, Physical, and Sexual Abuse
The research and clinical literature on recovery from cults offers useful ideas for therapists working with adult children of parental alienation syndrome. For example, the way in which a person leaves a cult has ramifications for the recovery process. Cult members can walk away from a cult, be cast out of a cult, or be counseled out of a cult. Those who walk away (come to the realization on their own that the cult is not healthy for them) and those who are counseled out (those who are exposed to a deliberate experience designed to instigate the desire to leave) tend to fare better than those who are cast out (those who are rejected from the cult for failing to meet its regulations and strictures) (Langone, 1994).
Regardless of how the cult is abandoned, leaving represents only the beginning of the recovery process. Considerable time and effort is required (usually in therapy) to process the experience and undo the negative messages from the cult that have become incorporated into the self. The same may be true of adult children of parental alienation syndrome.
Different Pathways to Realization
There were a few epiphanies, but most experienced something like a slow chipping away of a long-held belief system, a slow awakening to a different truth and a more authentic self. Most gained self-respect and a connection to reality and were grateful to know “the truth.” At the same time, they acknowledged that this truth was hard won and quite painful. Once they were aware of the parental alienation, they had to come to terms with some painful truths, including that the alienating parent did not have their best interest at heart, that as children they had probably behaved very badly toward someone who did not deserve such treatment, and that they missed out on a relationship that may have had real value and benefit to them.
Long-Term Negative Effects
Wide Range of Alienation Tactics
Working With Targeted Parents
If the conclusion is that parental alienation is at work, the targeted parent should be taught a series of responses to parental alienation that can allow the targeted parent to maintain the high road while not becoming overly passive or reactive. Such parents need ongoing validation and support in dealing with the pain and suffering associated with parental alienation.
Working With Alienated Children
In private practice, family service agencies, and school settings, social workers may work with clients affected by parental alienation. Some of these individuals may even be unaware of the source of their pain and suffering and/or uninformed about the name and nature of this phenomenon. Familiarity on the part of the social worker is the first step in providing the client with information, guidance, and hope when dealing with this complicated and painful issue.
— Amy J. L. Baker, PhD, is director of research at the Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection in New York City and author of Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties That Bind.
Resources for Targeted Parents
Custody Calculation: Web site with information about a program designed to help parents have input into the creation of custody orders, www.custodycalculations.com
Divorce Support: Web site with information about divorce, www.divorcesupport.com
Parental Alienation Awareness Organization: Web site with information about parental alienation, www.parental-alienation-awareness.com
The Rachel Foundation for Family Reintegration: Organization offering reintegration programs and services for targeted parents and alienated children, www.rachelfoundation.org
Baker, A. J. L. & Darnall, D. (2006). Behaviors and strategies employed in parental alienation: A survey of parental experiences. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 45 (1/2), 97-124.
Baker, A. J. L. & Darnall, D. (2007). A construct study of the eight symptoms of severe parental alienation syndrome: A survey of parental experiences. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 47(1/2), 55-75.
Gardner, R. (1998). The parental alienation syndrome: A guide for mental health and legal professionals. Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics, Inc.
Langone, M. (ed) (1994). Recovery from cults: Help for victims of psychological and spiritual abuse. New York: W. W. Norton.
Wallerstein, J., Lewis, J., & Blakeslee, S. (2001). The unexpected legacy of divorce: The 25-year landmark study. New York: Hyperion.