Parental Alienation — One of the Easiest Terms to Throw Around, and One of the Most Difficult to Address

by Annette Burns on March 14, 2011

It seems that every time a child rejects a parent, or is even somewhat reluctant to spend time with one parent, or makes it obvious that he prefers one parent over the other, parental alienation is alleged.

Being rejected by one’s child has to be devastating. I can imagine why a parent would find comfort in seeking an explanation for the rejection that has little to do with that parent or the child. Finding an explanation in an outside source is self-protection.

It’s not so simple. A child rejecting a parent, even if the child also favors the other parent, does not by itself equal parental alienation. To fall within most professional definitions of “parental alienation”, a child must irrationally reject a parent primarily as the result of negative influence of the other parent. Unfortunately too many people, including attorneys, forget those italicized words. To some, if a child rejects a parent, parental alienation is presumed, and the other parent MUST be to blame.

Professionals working with high conflict couples must remember that a child’s rejection of a parent is NOT prima facie evidence of parental alienation, and remember to look for all three of the elements of parental alienation before jumping to conclusions.

Richard Warshak notes that in the continuum of parental alienation, some (professionals, researchers, parents) will absolutely deny the possibility that a child could be irrationally alienated from a parent. If a child is alienated, then by definition there must be a rational reason. See Bringing Sense to Parental Alienation: A Look at the Disputes and the Evidence. [Family Law Quarterly, Vol. 37 No. 2, Summer 2003].

Others might acknowledge that irrational alienation might occur, but that this is a normal occurrence, and that irrational alienation can exist entirely separate and apart from the influence of the favored parent.

Yet others will argue that a child’s alignment with one parent over the other is a natural by-product of a divorce, or the result of the child’s developmental needs.

Let’s start with the basic requirements of parental alienation (according to Warshak):

  • A child is rejecting a parent
  • The rejection is irrational
  • The rejection is primarily or at least partially due to negative influence from the other parent.

If a situation has only one or two of these factors, it’s likely not parental alienation.

What is irrational? According to Warshak, it’s extreme animosity toward or fear or a parent that is not reasonable or consistent with the history of that relationship.

There are at least two ends to the alienation spectrum. As mentioned above, to some there is no such thing as irrational alienation, so if a child rejects a parent, there MUST be a good reason, and therefore all rejected parents deserve what they get. The other end is the extreme that if a child rejects a parent, it MUST be the fault of the favored parent’s negative campaign.

Do I believe that parental alienation exists? Of course. But when I review a situation where a child is rejecting a parent, I don’t automatically jump to either conclusion — I don’t automatically assume that rejected parent did something to deserve it, and I also don’t automatically assume that the favored parent caused it. I focus on the child; his age and developmental stage; his needs; his social, school and personal life. I am fortunate, as I’m not a mental health professional, that I don’t have to make diagnoses or assign labels. I just have to deal with what’s there. Unfortunately, the parents and attorneys are often so concerned with assigning blame and placing labels that they lose sight of the child and his needs.

When you think about it, only the first factor —- the existence of the alienation itself—is really important when it comes to the child. The child doesn’t care if his alienation is rational or not; he experiences it either way. Factors #2 and #3 are important only for treatment purposes. Therapy for the child will take different directions depending on whether the alienation is rational or not. If the rejection of a parent is based on rational reactions to experiences that the child has had with that parent, the child’s therapy will focus on strategies to deal with the parent’s shortcomings or issues (such as a parent’s personality disorder, different parenting styles, or lack of parenting skills). If the estrangement is based on irrational justification, the child’s therapy can focus on returning the child to a more realistic and accepting view of the estranged parent.

As pointed out by Johnston, the term “parental alienation” focuses on the parent (and fault) rather than on the child. A more helpful and appropriate term, according to Johnson, might be “alienated child”.   See, Children of Divorce Who Reject a Parent and Refuse Visitation: Recent Research and Social Policy Implications for the Alienated Child [Family Law Quarterly, Vol 38, No. 4, Winter 2005] A change in terminology might allow the court system and professionals who are trying to help the family focus on the child rather than blame.

Previous post:

Next post: