Criticisms Against Parental Alienation
While our understanding of parental alienation is still relatively young, the notion that there are major controversies in parental alienation theory has been largely created and spread by the epidemic of misinformation and disinformation regarding this condition (Bernet, W. (2020). “Parental alienation and misinformation proliferation.” Family Court Review, 58(2), 293-307). Critics have promulgated the four criticisms: (1) parental alienation does not have an adequate scientific foundation, (2) it is not real because it is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision, published by the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-5-TR), (3) it is false and destructive because fathers have used the diagnosis to justify abusive acts, and (4) proponents of it believe that every instance of a child refusing contact is caused by parental alienation.
Let us address each claim.
First, parental alienation as a clinical entity has a strong scientific foundation based on hundreds of peer-reviewed research studies in more than 50 countries, with at least 40 percent of them being published since 2016 in top scientific journals (Harman, JJ., Warshak, RA., Lorandos, D., & Florian, MJ. (2022). “Developmental psychology and the scientific status of parental alienation.” Developmental Psychology, 58(10), 1887-1911). There have been more than 100 chapters and books written on the topic by mental and legal professionals, scientists, as well as by alienated children and parents themselves.
Critics claim that the research methods used to study parental alienation have been so insufficient that the science has not “evolved” enough to have confidence in the conclusions that have been reached. For example, some critics claim that all outcome studies of parental alienation rely on “retrospective” accounts. In their 2022 article, Harman, Warshak, Lorandos, and Florian identified 29 studies published through 2020 that employed the use of a variety of methods, not exclusively retrospective methods (i.e., surveys or interviews regarding past events). There were numerous studies that employed clinical observations and assessments, documentations from court records of children’s real-time outcomes, and other non-retrospective methods. Critics of parental alienation also claim that interventions designed to treat parental alienation have not been scientifically validated in any way. This is also false. The same review article identified 27 studies using a variety of research methods that examined the outcomes of interventions, and there have been previous reviews documenting evidence for this as well.
What is clear is that there is no single research methodology that is the gold standard for defining and validating parental alienation. Many research methodologies are being used to investigate the intricacies and nuances of the phenomenon, and collectively, the science of parental alienation is solid, compelling, and growing. Parental alienation theory is far from pseudoscience, and deniers are perpetuating a misinformed claim.
Second, parental alienation is a condition that is subsumed under three different diagnostic categories in DSM-5-TR: (1) parent–child relational problem, (2) child psychological abuse, and (3) child affected by parental relationship distress (CAPRD). The correct diagnostic category can be selected based on the nature of the particular facts of the case. If the focus of clinical attention is on the child’s mental state, the diagnosis is CAPRD. If the evaluator is focusing on the child’s relationship with the rejected parent, the diagnosis is parent–child relational problem. In cases of severe parental alienation, the diagnosis may also include child psychological abuse. DSM-5-TR does not explicitly describe all possible conditions that fit into these three categories. Much leeway is given to clinicians and researchers to diagnose a condition based on the case’s specific characteristics and parameters. To say that parental alienation is not covered in DSM-5-TR is disingenuous and wrong.
To further clarify the place of parental alienation in DSM-5-TR, it has been proposed for a new diagnosis, parental alienation relational problem (PARP), to be added to the chapter of DSM-5-TR called “Other Conditions That May Be a Focus of Clinical Attention.” This proposal has been endorsed by thousands of individuals—including practitioners, researchers, and alienated parents and grandparents—as well as clinical practices and advocacy groups from many countries. More information, including the complete proposal, can be found here.
Third, it is true that the diagnosis of parental alienation has been misunderstood and misused in legal proceedings (Harman, JJ, & Lorandos, D. (2021). “Allegations of family violence in court: How parental alienation affects judicial outcomes.” Psychology, Public Policy & Law, 27(2), 184-208). Some abusive fathers have hidden behind a claim of parental alienation to try to justify their overtly abusive behavior.
Interestingly, deniers do not even contemplate the possibility that abusive women try this same tactic in court, despite there being scientific studies failing to find gender differences in who alienated parents are. The voices of male victims of domestic abuse and parental alienation are rarely considered by these critics. Mistakes in the courtroom should not discredit the validity of parental alienation as a diagnosable and treatable condition. Such courtroom errors point to the need for all legal professionals—from attorneys to mediators to judges—to learn about parental alienation and other forms of family violence via formal course work, continuing education, and collaboration with mental health experts. It is untenable to pretend a psychiatric condition does not exist because it has been misunderstood and/or misused in court actions. It has been said that posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the most widely misused psychiatric condition in legal settings. That does not mean that PTSD should be dismissed but that the diagnosis should be used correctly by attorneys, judges, and all forensic practitioners.
Fourth, critics claim that proponents of parental alienation assume that every instance of contact refusal by a child is caused by alienating behavior by a favored parent. For example, a position statement published by the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children stated, “APSAC stands opposed to the use of [parental alienation syndrome], [parental alienation disorder], and [parental alienation] as a presumptive explanation for child resistance, refusal and fear of contact with the less preferred parent in contested child custody cases” (emphasis added). The strong implication is that proponents of parental alienation presume that a child’s contact refusal is a manifestation of parental alienation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Proponents do not find evidence of parental alienation in every case. There are many reasons why a child might refuse contact with a parent for very legitimate reasons having nothing to do with parental alienation, such as estrangement or loyalty conflicts (Bernet, W, Baker, AJL, & Adkins, KL. (2022). “Definitions and terminology regarding child alignments, estrangement, and alienation: A survey of custody evaluators.” Journal of Forensic Sciences, 67, 279-288).
Many of the critics of parental alienation are advocates and are not scientists or mental health professionals. Their criticisms of parental alienation reflect an agenda or ideology that they are trying to promote. Deniers are doing a major disservice to the millions of children, fathers, and mothers around the world who experience the catastrophic consequences of parental alienation. Yes, we need standardized definitions and diagnostic criteria for parental alienation. No, we should not turn a blind eye or stick our heads in the sand about this condition based on the agendas of misinformed and unhelpful critics.