During my years as a psychologist I have seen and heard many stories of trauma and despair. As a firm advocate for the protection of children, one of the most disturbing issues I come across relates to parental alienation.
What it is,
“…a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing), parent’s indoctrinations and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent.” Psychiatrist Richard Gardner
What are the stats?
Parental alienation is more common than is often assumed: Research indicates an increasing incidence and increased judicial findings of parental alienation; alarmingly they report estimates of parental alienation in 11 to 15 percent of divorces involving children.
What do you see?
Research has shown adult children of divorce report the tactics of alienating parents are tantamount to extreme psychological maltreatment, including terrorising, spurning, exploiting or corrupting, isolating and denying emotional responsiveness. For the child, parental alienation is a serious mental condition, lying in a distorted belief that the alienated parent is unworthy and even dangerous. The effects of parental alienation on children are severe and well-documented— these can include: depression, low self-esteem, self-hatred, lack of trust, substance abuse and often, forms of addiction are widespread. Children lose the capacity to accept and give love to a parent. Of particular note is self-hatred as the child internalises the hatred toward the alienated parent. The child is led to believe that the alienated parent does not want or love them. They can experience significant guilt related to betraying the alienated parent. The child’s depression is grounded in a sense of being unloved by one of their parents while additionally being separated from that parent, subsequently being denied the mourning process at their loss or to even to mention them. Alienated children often appear to have distant or conflicted relationships with the alienating parent and show high risk of being alienated from their own children.
Every child has a need and elemental right for a loving and unthreatened relationship with both parents. Denial of that right by one parent, without justification (neglect or abuse), is in itself a form of child abuse. Children who have experienced separation from a parent (in the absence of abuse) where parental alienation is evident, appear to be more susceptible to post-traumatic stress; reunification attempts should include a sensitive and careful approach.
Research indicates that alienated children can rapidly transform from refusing or resisting the rejected parent to then show and receive love from that parent. This can follow an equal prompt shift to the alienated position when back in the presence of the alienating parent. Concerningly, alienated children appear to have a secret desire for someone to uncover their false beliefs, urging them to re-establish the relationship with the parent they report to hate. While children’s wishes regarding parental contact in contested custody should be considered, in suspected cases of alienation they should not be determinative.
Are we getting things right?
There is now scholarly consensus that severe parental alienation is a form of child abuse and is a largely overlooked, as divorce practitioners and child welfare agents often minimise its extent or are unaware of it.
What further concerns me is the courts apparent lack of insight into this form of child abuse. I have had multiple client’s report that they were simply not listened to. This further extends to particular government and non-government agencies where alienated parents were informed they had no rights as a parent. Our legal system appears to be oblivious to this form of child abuse and the transgenerational effects are likely immeasurable. Preliminary findings appear to indicate there is significant concern regarding inappropriate judicial decisions amongst those that have had the unfortunate experience of having to attend court for custody of their children. With the exception of abuse, every child has a right to both parents as do parents a right to raise their children. Our current system of governance appears to often be at conflict with this fundamental right.
If you or a loved one are experiencing issues relating to parental alienation I would strongly recommend psychological intervention. There are also several 24/7 help lines that may be able to listen to your concerns (e.g. Lifeline, Beyond Blue).
Further information can be found at:
• Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC)
• Aus Gov: Australian Institute of Family Studies
Pro Psychology SA
David Ahmed, Psychologist