Parental alienation – the concerted attempt by one parent to fracture the bond of a child with the other parent – is child abuse of the worst kind. It should be a criminal offense. It is the last judicial frontier.

Parental alienation is a pernicious form of abuse too often given only lip service by the courts. Alienators, historically camouflaged and augmented by gender politics, have hoodwinked psychologists and judges for too long. Current data, knowledge, and research demand a more concerted exposure and recognition of this type of abusive parent. The dynamic involved in serious parental alienation is a very complex one even for psychologists to understand. We need strengthened resolve on the part of judges to understand and pay heed to the growing number of experts in this field.

Children hearing one parent say bad things about the other is as old as language itself. Parents incorporating negatives in a purposeful campaign to damage or prevent a bond between their child and the other parent is primarily a late twentieth-century phenomenon. As the mid- to late 20th century ‘tender years doctrine,’ giving preference to mothers, gave way to concerns for the best interests of the child, false allegations of sex abuse became more common.

The cause and effect is clear: when an unjustified, gender based claim by a mother for sole custody no longer guaranteed the result sought, out came the trump card: sex abuse! When the courts and health care professionals eventually disclosed the high incidents of false allegations, serious attempts (and successes) at parental alienation increased. This was the new silver bullet. When a child shows extreme prejudice against and dislike of dad during assessment, the mother’s claims for sole custody are more likely to be granted. Initially it was predominantly mothers who alienated, but seeing the success it offered, fathers are starting to adopt the tactic.

No loving parent would ever put his children through this form of abuse, even when they fear they is being victimized by this approach.

Columbia University child psychiatrist Dr. Richard Gardner pioneered the public debate with his book Parental Alienation Syndrome. His thesis was as simple as it has become controversial: An extreme campaign of alienation by a parent can cause the child to exhibit a common set of symptoms. These include:

  • A campaign of denigration
  • Weak, absurd, or frivolous rationalizations for the deprecation
  • Lack of ambivalence
  • The “independent-thinker” phenomenon
  • Reflexive support of the alienating parent in the parental conflict
  • Absence of guilt over cruelty to and/or exploitation of the alienated parent
  • The presence of borrowed scenarios
  • Spread of the animosity to the friends and/or extended family of the alienated parent

Gardner argued that the collectivity of these symptoms indicate a psychiatric break from reality in the mind of the child. The symptoms constitute a syndrome, which he called “Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS).” The continuing debate over whether alienation can be a syndrome or should be seen as a psychiatric disorder in the child serves mainly to take the court’s eye off the ball. Even Gardner’s most strident critics acknowledge that Gardner’s list of symptoms can be found in most cases.

In the years since Gardner brought needed focus to the problem, accredited professionals have nuanced the definitions and approaches to the condition. Today, there are multifaceted approaches to recognizing that the factors contributing to PAS can be more than just one parent’s vendetta against the other parent. Journal articles, text, and popular books and untold web sites abound on the subject. An increasing number of psychologists in child assessment have made PAS a sub-specialty.

Similar to individuals with borderline personality disorder, serious alienators are masters at masking their actions by hiding behind a façade of personal and social charm and acceptability. They are often supremely convincing to any person, even professionals such as lawyers or judges who have had no previous experience with the disorder.

The first defense taken up by an accused alienator is that the child’s rejection of the other parent is based on actual faults of the target parent. Knowing that changing custody of the child is often the recommended first step in countering serious parental alienation, the alienating parent, when confronted, becomes one of the most dishonest witnesses to ever take the stand. Typically, their naïve lawyer is right there holding their hand. If the lawyer is a victim feminist herself, she is the mother’s cheering section.

An early victim of the alienator’s fictionalized version of events is often their own lawyer: hook, line, and proverbial sinker. Another victim is the counselor or psychologist who is brought on board to help the child when it is the parent who needs the help. A major part of the problem is the continuing mistake on the part of judges to direct counseling or supervised visits between the child and the target parent. Defining the problem between the child and the target parent is exactly what the alienating parent and their lawyer hope for: keeping all eyes off the alienating parent.

The trial judge is often the final and most significant victim. Inexperience in their personal lives, inexperience on the bench, wanting to see the good in a parent, particularly in a mother, too quick to judge the father, produces the most important enabler for the alienating process. Worst of all, when a judge agrees that there is sever alienation, they haven’t got the intelligence and fortitude to take the child from the alienator and give the child to the target parent. This is the most frustrating part of these trials. Months and months even years of work and money only to have the judge slap the child abusing parent on the wrist and say “please don’t do it anymore.” It is like slapping a rapid dog and saying “Stop bitting people.”

If there is no local psychologist whose specialty is parental alienation, find an outside expert. When you bring concerns about parental alienation to the case, demand that it be taken seriously and investigated properly.

  1. Diagnosing a parent as an alienator is the first task and the first challenge.
  2. Because the claim needs to be taken seriously, have your case for the existence of the syndrome laid out with care and precision. There must be convincing evidence, beyond just your claim.
  3. Document specific examples of how your child’s attitude toward you has changed since the separation or leading up to it. Record, by whatever means possible, how the child expresses their dislike of you especially when their anger is expressed without context or “out of the blue.”
  4. Pay close attention and document whenever your child makes specific references to things the mother has said about you. Do not ask the child what the mother is saying about you, just pay attention and record the moments when they offer you the information independently. Remember that you are focused on helping your child and you want to avoid placing them in the middle of the battle. They are the biggest victims in parental alienation and must always be the focus of primary concern.
  5. The most difficult task is deciding what to do for the child involved. A parental alienation expert can assist a judge to evaluate the evidence and recommend options for repairing the damage.

Engage With Experts

The unresolved psychological or childhood issues of parents of either gender are contributing factors to the collapse of a relationship. Where it is the mother who has a fractured sense of herself, she often has a physical as well as an emotional need to keep the kids excessively close to her. She uses the kids as psychological supports to keep her self-image from total collapse.

This regression by the mother to an earlier, almost child-like existence, which may be contributed to by an actual personality disorder, is the toughest factor militating against your children. Dealing with it can consume and ruin some men. It ruins too many children.

In the face of an alienating or angry, jealous or embittered mother, it is always important for the father, if he can afford it, to keep experts working to help. It is often not possible to force the person most in need of therapy – in this case, the mother – into getting help. Judges think nothing of ordering fathers into recommended programs as a condition for access but very rarely do women get that sort of equal treatment.

If you are heading into a legal battle with an alienating parent, try to get one judge seized of your file who will hear all the applications leading up to the trial. Otherwise, you will find yourself having to reeducate every new judge you are in front of.

Try to prepare your documentation as simply as possible and begin each time by mentioning these concerns and any validation you’ve received on this issue from previous applications or reviews. This is especially the case if you are unable to keep one judge who will commit to following up on your case.

Parental Alienation Hit by Hit

The early symptoms of alienation in a child can be very subtle and difficult to detect. The target parent initially has only vague suspicions, experienced as a shudder in the soul. Above almost all else in the diminished or lost role as a parent is the horrible fear that the other parent has commenced a campaign to sabotage the bond between you and your child. But the signs are fleeting at first. Who is going to believe you? What judge is going to make an order that will prevent slippage? Lawyers, health care professionals and judges are not trained or experienced in recognizing the initial signs.

For how many years did brain damage to football players go unrecognized and denied? Millions were spent by the National Foot Ball League to refuting the very existence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a progressive degenerative disease found in people who have had repeated blows to the head. Only when players started going crazy and dying did the world wake up.

Parental alienation has the same manner of causation as CTE. Repeated and targeted slights by the alienating parent against the target parent in the presence of the child work against the parent-child bond until it frays and breaks. Like an undetected cancer, by the time it is recognized as malignant, if it is not too late, radical surgery is required.

Doctors are trained to send a patient to a specialist on the mere suspicion of a potentially serious ailment. Judges are trained to only deal with provable diagnosis. They reject a soundly based suspicion and dismiss the application with costs against the target parent.

Only the rare psychologist doing a family evaluation will address the target parent’s suspicion with the respect it deserves.

One of the most difficult challenges facing a parent is how to talk to children who are being alienated against them by the other parent. Alienation typically develops into situations where the children are being directly told bad things or falsehoods about the target parent and often the target parent’s family.

Historically alienators were nearly always mothers. Over the past several years, an increasing number of fathers have become alienators and mothers are finding themselves the target parents. There are two opposing views as to what to do and how to handle this when it becomes known to the target parent.

One school of psychological thought holds that the father should just ignore it. The rational being that if the father engages in trying to dispute and correct it with the child, the child will become inappropriately involved. It won’t matter that the mother has blatantly done exactly that to the child. These psychologists naïvely tell the father just to cool it, don’t respond, give the mother space and time. Hopefully whatever unresolved childhood issues she has will resolve without therapy and she will miraculously grow out of malicious ways.

This school I call the “let’s hope” school. Family law lawyers, without their own personal experience with serious parental alienators, are over ripe to being influenced by this school of thought. It is the chicken shit response.

The other school – what I call the “realism” school – was best represented by renowned child psychiatrist Dr. Richard Gardner, who died in 2003. The preponderance of expert opinion has shifted to this school, yet it is just trickling down to the legal and judicial profession.

The realism school says that target parents have to deal with it and can’t just let it slide. Alienators hardly ever just suddenly see the light of day and stop. The father must talk to his children. The trick is in how to do it. It must be in an honest, factual, and psychologically appropriate way. There are good books that provide this guidance.

A little antidote I always suggest is that when a child comes “for a visit” and says “Mommy (or Daddy) says you are stupid!”, pull your jacket up over your head, with your fingers stretch your cheeks around a wide open mouth, make big eyes, hunch over, make like an animal, look the child in the eyes singing in a high pitched voice: “I’m stupid, I’m stupid. I am very stupid. I’m very, very stupid.” By this time the child should be in hysterics. The next time the other parent tells the child you are stupid the child is going to have that image of you psychedelically zapped into her mind’s eye. The child’s problem suddenly becomes to suppress that smile and being able to hold back even the shadow of her interior giggles. Shrink down to the child’s world.

No matter how appropriately a parent corrects the child’s false views, the other parent and her lawyer can be guaranteed to complain to the court with exaggerated gusto. Expect it. This is one fight you can’t avoid. Trying to avoid it runs the real risk that the other parent will succeed in their goal and permanently fracture the bond between you and your children. There is no higher sin for the courts to commit than to rob a child of their father and the child from the father.

This is another situation requiring fathers to be careful with language. Your child knows very well something major is happening but they can’t figure out why they have less time with you. Even if you believe mom is the reason, you must never say so. Never blame the mother. At times this seems impossible, particularly if your child is full of questions, and can easily tell that you believe you are feeding them false information. Do your best to get around or avoid the subject. To the question “Why can’t I stay for one more night,” you should reply, “Your mother and I are working on it.” It is damned difficult to withhold the logical response: “Ask your mom.” Don’t do that. You ask it of the mother’s lawyer once a week.

Talk to your child about how you can’t really talk to them frankly about it. Let them know you understand their confusion and hurt. Comfort them with the assurance things will improve. Hold them tight. If you didn’t cuddle or hug your kids much before, you should draw your kids into it now. They need it. You need it.