Sep 22, 2019

Parental Alienation: What Therapists Need to Know

Susan Heitler Ph.D.
Resolution, Not Conflict
Psychology Today
September 20, 2019

Diagnosis and treatment can both be tricky. Here's a guide to traps and tips.

Parental alienation is child abuse. We must do better at protecting these children and helping them to heal.
  • A distraught divorced mother reports that when her formerly loving daughter returns from vacations at her father's house, she treats her with disrespect and hostility. 
  • A divorced father of a 12-year-old boy who lives primarily with his mother says that his son insists that he does not want any contact with his father: "If I have to see him even in a therapy session I will hurt myself!” 

Parental alienation may seem obvious in these cases. Yet recognizing potential alienation, correctly diagnosing it, and providing treatment for this phenomenon can prove challenging.

Recognized earlier but first given a name in the 1980s by child psychiatrist Dr. Richard A. Gardner, parental alienation occurs when an alienating parent turns a child against a targeted (alienated) parent via deprecating innuendos (often based on projection), name-calling (“he’s a nitwit”), exaggeratedly negative reports of minor mishaps, and false accusations. 

Alienated children parrot the alienating parent’s excessively negative views of the targeted parent, expressing these as their own much as cult followers parrot the beliefs of a cult leader.
The result is a child’s unwarranted hostility (mild alienation), resistance to parenting time (moderate alienation), and/or severance of contact (severe alienation) with the targeted parent.  

Diagnosis of Parental Alienation

Let's start with why therapists and evaluators often miss alienation. 

Psychopathology assessment

Targeted parents generally present as anxious, depressed, and angry, but beneath these desperate situational reactions generally lies psychological health.

Alienating parents, by contrast, generally appear calm, cool, and charming and therefore look more attractive. They lie convincingly. Alienator and child appear credible by telling similar stories.

Yet beneath the alienator’s smooth exterior lie Cluster-B character disorders: (1) borderline emotional hyperreactivity, splitting, etc. (2) narcissistic ignoring of the child's needs in favor of using the child as their foot soldier against the targeted parent (3) antisocial lying and harming others without guilt. Parents without character disorders rarely, if ever, alienate.

What hypotheses need to be generated to evaluate potential alienation?

Explore the following possible causes of the child's negative view of one parent.  Note that more than one of these three factors may be occurring.

  1. A negative home situation like alcoholism
  2. Danger from verbal, sexual, and/or physical abuse
  3. Brain-washing of the child by an alienating parent

When the child's negative reaction to a parent stems from a negative home situation, abuse, or mild alienation, children still want a relationship with the abusive parent. Severely alienated children, by contrast, manifest splitting. They insist that the alienating parent is all good; they eventually totally reject the all-bad targeted—though, in reality, emotionally healthier—parent. 

What about parent-child attachment patterns?

Alienating parents mingle nurturing with anxiety-provoking interactions, creating an insecure attachment—pathologically enmeshed, unreliable, controlling, parentified, or spousifed. The child’s bond with a targeted parent, in spite of prior good-to-excellent parenting and secure attachment, shows progressive deterioration as an alienator poisons it with negative comments and distorted or false memories.

Gardner detailed 8 characteristics of an alienated child, plus criteria for distinguishing between mild, moderate, and severe presentations. Amy Baker and Paul Fine (2008) delineate, for therapists and for targeted parents, 17 strategies of alienating parents, and how to respond to them. In a recent Psychological Bulletin article, Harman, Kruk, & Hines (2018) clarified that alienation is child abuse with consequences potentially more damaging than from physical or sexual abuse: depression, anxiety, addictions, poor relationships, and suicide.

Treatment of Parental Alienation

Treatment of alienation is basically the same for mild, moderate, and severe cases—with one exception. For successful treatment of severe cases, additional measures that require cooperation from the court are essential.

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Mild to moderate parental alienation

Effective reunification therapy depends on the child and alienated parent participating together in treatment. When an alienated child says, “I don’t want to see my father; I’m too anxious,” the therapist nonetheless must bring them together. Extended individual therapy with an alienated child consolidates alienation instead of relieving it and therefore is counter-indicated. 

While initial preparatory individual sessions may be helpful, treatment of alienation begins with therapeutic parent/child interactions. The therapists' job is to foster positive parent-child connecting.  One technique is to ask the parent to bring memorabilia of fun prior experiences they can recall together.  

Once a child and parent are re-experiencing warmth and affection, they can list the child’s negative beliefs about the parent and then circle back to address them.

Lastly, the therapist explains alienation, including projection, to immunize the child against future alienation attempts.

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