July 01, 2015

Parental Alienation: Misinformation versus Facts

By William Bernet

Editor’s Note: A version of this article that includes endnotes is available from the author, who can be reached at william.bernet@vanderbilt.edu.

Several of the most intense controversies involving law and medicine have pertained to child psychology and psychiatry. Arguments have addressed whether practitioners of satanic rituals abuse and murder children, whether recovered memories of adults reliably describe past maltreatment during childhood, whether facilitated communication helps autistic children disclose sexual abuse, and whether children always tell the truth when reporting sexual abuse. One of the most active controversies involving children in a legal context has pertained to parental alienation (PA), which some critics have said does not exist but was invented as a mechanism for abusive fathers to gain control of their children from protective mothers. The author of this essay believes that PA exists and damages thousands of children and families in the United States every year. However, attorneys and judges are exposed to much misinformation regarding PA.

Parental Alienation and Courts

PA is a mental condition in which a child—usually one whose parents are engaged in a high-conflict separation or divorce—allies himself strongly with one parent (the preferred parent or alienating parent) and rejects a relationship with the other parent (the target parent) without legitimate justification. The child’s rejection of the target parent must be without justification for the child to be considered alienated; if a parent has been abusive or severely neglectful, the child’s rejection of that parent is understandable and does not constitute PA. Most contemporary writers use parental estrangement to describe a child’s rejection of a parent for a good reason, such as a history of abuse or neglect; they use parental alienation to describe a child’s rejection of a parent without a good reason. With that distinction in mind, estrangement is typically caused by the rejected parent’s own behavior; alienation is usually caused by the preferred parent’s indoctrination or brainwashing of the child to fear or dislike the rejected parent.

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