I was in a courtroom the other day waiting to testify in a family law matter that included total rejection of a parent by the children. The new judge, who recently inherited the case of ongoing litigation, listened to the family therapist’s failure in reuniting the children with the rejected parent. This is a typical outcome and, as in this case, the situation got worse (Evans & Bone, 2011). The judge uttered, “I’m only a judge, what am I supposed to do?”
This frustrated judge was faced with what appears to becoming more common, not only in the United States but across the globe. This includes the countries which are represented in The International Handbook of Parental Alienation Syndrome (Gardner, et al, 2006): The United Kingdom, Israel, Germany, Australia, and The Czech Republic. To demonstrate the magnitude of this global issue, The First International Conference of Parental Alienation Study Group was held in Washington, D.C. this October and included representatives from The European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners.
With greater frequency, family law cases are showing up in which children are rejecting a parent. While there may be some situations where a child may be hesitant to be with a parent, these high conflict family law cases typically include outright rejection and severe expressions of hatred for a parent without genuine justifications.
These phenomena are variously described as pathological enmeshment, pathogenic parenting, attachment-based parental alienation, hostage taking, cross-generational coalition, and brainwashing. More commonly, it is called Parental Alienation. Regardless of what it’s called, the courts have been frustrated and stymied by it for over two hundred years!
Parental Alienation is a psychological condition in which a child demonstrates strong attachment to one parent (the favored parent) and unjustified rejection for the other (the target parent). The child frequently refuses to see a parent and is usually accompanied by strong language of dislike or hatred. The child’s adamant protests, without rational justification when investigated, are commonly consistent with the favored parent’s negative attitudes. Judges, parenting coordinators, counselors/therapists, and others commonly report being frustrated and stymied by the child’s resistant behavior that is frequently in total disregard of court orders.
Frequently heard in courtrooms is that The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – 5th Edition (DSM-5) does not mention the words “Parental Alienation,” therefore, it is only a theory, pseudo-science, not real, etc. and should not be given weight in a case. But the DSM-5 does include a number of diagnoses that describe the essence of Parental Alienation. These include: Parent-Child Relational Problem, Child Psychological Abuse, Child Affected By Parental Relationship Distress, Factitious Disorder Imposed On Another, and Delusional Symptoms In Partner Of Individual With Delusional Disorder. Each of these DSM-5 conditions covers various aspects or essence of Parental Alienation and, therefore, warrant serious consideration by a court.
Very conservative estimates of the incidence of alienated children are between two and four percent of those whose parents divorce. More than one million U.S. children experience their parents’ divorce each year; which does not include those whose parents were never married. This means each year at least 20,000-40,000 children reject their parents. This often includes grandparents and other relatives, who join the ranks of those who suffer from this problem.
In 2013, the American Bar Association published a book Children Held Hostage, authored by S. Clawar and B. Rivlin. In analyzing 1,000 cases, the authors concluded that many mental health and social problems of older children of divorce may be related to programming and brainwashing during earlier periods of their social development which relates to the findings of research known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).
Alienated children have polarized views of their parents. They often rewrite the history of their relationships and fabricate negative events including allegations of physical and sexual abuse. They come to believe that they experienced ACEs.
The fabricated experiences of alienated children often resemble the types of ACEs that were identified in a study conducted by Dr. Vincent Felitti. Dr. Felitti researched the connection between childhood experiences and lifelong health. In the study, a questionnaire administered to over 17,000 participants asked about certain negative childhood experiences. Respondents indicated that either they experienced an event or didn’t. The ACE questionnaire asked about emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, drug abuse, alcohol, or mental illness in their home or was someone in prison, etc.?
The researchers were stunned when they calculated their findings. Respondents indicated that 21% were sexually abused as children, 19% grew up with someone with mental illness, 28% were physically abused.
What’s even more amazing is the findings showed the greater the ACE Score the higher the likelihood of chronic physical or mental health problems, social dysfunction, involvement with the criminal justice system, drug and alcohol abuse, and death. An ACE score of four has twice the risk of cancer and heart disease. Someone with an ACE score of five had eight times the risk of becoming an alcoholic than someone with an ACE score of zero. An ACE score of six or more had a 20-year lower life expectancy.
As Barbara Goiran, Esq., a child support hearing officer in the 6th Judicial Circuit, wrote in the Spring issue of The Florida Bar Family Law Section Commentator, high ACE scorers “are also more likely to practice the same poor parenting techniques on their own children, often necessitating the intervention of the juvenile justice system or child welfare authorities. They are more likely to have multiple marriages, thereby impacting the family courts. …Children with four or more ACEs were 32 times more likely to have learning or behavior problems in school than those with no ACEs. Failure to thrive in school leads to a lack of learning, frustration and acting out, which often leads kids into the juvenile and ultimately criminal justice system. A lack of learning results in a low socioeconomic class.”
Alienated children will frequently come to believe that they have been abused, both physically and sexually and can be led to convincingly report such occurrences. The favored parent will often pursue therapy for abuse which inadvertently reinforces the belief that abuse has actually occurred. They can also be lead to believe that one of their parents is a substance abuser and neglected them in their formative years, often before the child can even remember details of any such events. Frequently alienated children witness a parent being arrested, taken away by law enforcement and incarcerated. Favored parents convince their children to believe the other parent has a mental illness.
Considering Parental Alienation as an Adverse Childhood Experience with its actual cognitive, physical, and emotional consequences, it is important for all professionals involved in child custody cases to be more aware of the potentially negative and long-term effects of a child rejecting a parent.
To assist with a judge’s dilemma the following is respectfully offered:
- Learn as much as you can about Parental Alienation and ACEs.
- When appointing a GaL and Child Representative choose someone who is familiar with the literature on Parental Alienation and has had experience with such cases.
- Children can be very convincing so, when meeting with them in chambers, be cautious because their presentation is very convincing yet not always truthful.
- If addressing children let them know that the court is the decision maker and that it is in their best interest to be raised by both parents
- Tell parents you expect your orders to be obeyed, and that they’ll have to deal with the consequences for noncompliance with court orders.
- Communicate to the children that failure in reestablishing a relationship with a rejected parent is not an option.
- Traditional counseling/psychotherapy with alienation cases typically reinforces the alienation because the therapist doesn’t have the knowledge of Parental Alienation and accepts what they are told
- Be prepared to hear testimony from therapists and “experts” that predict great psychological trauma, harmful consequences and destructive behavior when you consider removing children from the aliening parent. Often such predictions have no reliable basis and are made by professionals who lack adequate experience and are unfamiliar with the relevant family dynamics in the case.
- Consider how “no contact” with a favored parent, at least on a temporary basis, can benefit children’s successful reunification with the rejected parent.
- If custody is reversed, order that the child receive appropriate therapeutic support.
- Enforce your orders swiftly and unequivocally. When parents and children learn that the court does not enforce its own orders, they lose respect for the court and the law.
Severe cases of Parental Alienation, where children lose their relationship with a parent, present unique challenges. These cases have long frustrated professionals who try to assist these families with this difficult and tragic problem. Fortunately, there are educational materials for professionals (see NAOPAS.com) and specially designed interventions that provide an antidote.
As Dr. Richard Warshak (2015) says, “Early identification of children at risk for alienation, and appreciation that divorce poison works swiftly to transform expressions of love into claims of fear and hatred, will help the legal system respond rapidly to protect children from the intensification of alienation. Severely alienated children plead with custody evaluators, therapists, attorneys, and judges to allow them to excise from their lives one of the two people on the face of the planet responsible for their care. Despite weathering cruel treatment and untampered hatred that would drive most people away, many rejected parents maintain a steadfast commitment to their children’s welfare and invest considerable resources trying to restore positive relationships.”
The outcome of cases with severely alienated children spells the difference between potentially living a normal happy, healthy life or one of potential despair and disease. If they don’t find their way back to their rejected parents, when these children grow up and have their own children the next generation is deprived of a legacy.