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Current Issues in Family Law
The Truth About Parental Alienation
Source: Michał Parzuchowski/Unsplash
The academic study and practical treatment of domestic abuse are evolving. Historically, researchers and support workers have tended to adopt the view that domestic abuse is inherently gendered, with primarily male perpetrators causing harm to primarily female victims. However, some recent research suggests that female-perpetrated domestic abuse may actually be as prevalent as male-perpetrated cases, leading this field to re-evaluate how it studies and addresses its core subject.
This flipping of the perpetrator statistics comes in lockstep with an expanded view of domestic abuse, which is now an umbrella term that not only refers to physical violence, but also encompasses emotional abuse, blackmail, financial coercion, sexually-based manipulations, and coercive control of a partner's way of living. This broadened definition has been largely uncontroversial, as most people agree that these behaviors are abusive. However, one topic that has been increasingly discussed and disputed is that of parental alienation.
What Is Parental Alienation? At its most basic level, parental alienation refers to the process by which a child unjustifiably aligns himself/herself with one parent, and expresses hatred or rejection of the other, during a separation or custody battle. This is typically driven by behaviors exhibited by the aligned-to parent that are designed to manipulate the child's beliefs and perceptions about the alienated parent, and the distortion or erasure of any positive memories that they might have about them.
According to one representative survey published in 2019, more than one-third of parents feel somewhat alienated from their children in this way, with 22 million Americans (equating to around 7 percent of the population) reporting having a non-reciprocated alienated relationship with their offspring. Members of this latter group suggest that they are being alienated from their children without enacting any alienating behaviors. Around four million children are said to be alienated from one of their parents. Thus, parental alienation is viewed by many as an important social issue to explore and resolve.
Dr. Jennifer Harman—an associate professor in psychology at Colorado State University, and world expert on parental alienation—recently published an overview of current research and theories underlying parental alienation in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology. When I asked Dr. Harman about the current science on this topic, she highlighted why it was important for her to conduct a review: article continues after advertisement. The goal of this review paper was to review all publications with empirical evidence on parental alienation to get a clear understanding of what we do know on the topic, and how people around the world have been studying the problem. This is important, because there are advocates around the world who are pushing legislation and policies claiming there is no scientific support for parental alienation. That is false information, and should not serve as a basis for laws that affect millions of children and families affected by this form of family violence.
From recent work, it is unclear whether mothers or fathers are more likely to be the targets of parental alienation, though anecdotal evidence and some older research suggest that fathers are more likely to be alienated by mothers than vice versa in the course of a separation.
However, the effects of alienation on targeted parents seem to be consistent irrespective of sex. Effects include the experience of grief over the loss of a relationship with the child(ren). Poor mental health outcomes are frequently reported, as are feelings of isolation and frustration. Alienation may also involve justice-related contexts, too, with those experiencing alienation often reporting dissatisfaction with how legal remedies to issues such as access and child custody are reached.
Children at the center of parental alienation cases also experience a cascade of losses, according to Dr. Harman's research. This begins with a corruption of the child's reality and a disruption of their identity, through to the loss of extended family and community. The effects of such losses can be profound, with one paper led by Suzanne Verhaar (University of Tasmania, Australia) reporting how adults who experienced parental alienation as children often grow up to experience trauma responses, poor mental health outcomes, and a need to find coping strategies for emotional dysregulation.
Why the Controversy? Given the evident effects of parental alienation on both targeted parents and their children, it is perhaps surprising to learn that there is a controversy over its existence. Dr. Harman said:
"The take-home message [from her work] is that the research on this problem makes an important contribution to the existing research on child development and family conflict, and that it is no longer tenable to argue that there is no scientific support for the problem. "She did not wish to comment on the motives of those doubting the validity of parental alienation as a concept, but an online search suggests that some such doubts may come from some charities and activists who speak out about the domestic abuse of women. For example, Women's Aid UK has called parental alienation a "harmful and dangerous concept" that is used to counter accusations of domestic abuse being made by a parent who claims to be being alienated.
It appears that the ideological battle over the notion of parental alienation is being fought, in part, between those studying the topic on the one hand and those with concerns about its weaponization on the other. This is not surprising, and is consistent across many areas of socially contested research. One might hope that future work looks to reconcile the science with such concerns, and look to eliminate the misuse of "parental alienation" as an accusation in arguments during separations while also supporting those who are legitimately experiencing these behaviors.
Moving Forward Moving forward, Dr. Harman and her team are developing new ways of studying parental alienation. In response to critiques about the quality of research in this area, she said:
We found similar proportions of studies that used different methods, sampling strategies, and measurement techniques, making claims by critics of parental alienation that the entire field is methodologically flawed wrong. We are now working on a follow-up review of more studies published since 2020 (when our literature search stopped), and are evaluating the quality of all of the studies using an appropriate evaluation approach used for fields where both qualitative and quantitative research is conducted.
As the debate over the scientific and social status of parental alienation rumbles on, it is difficult to see a societal consensus emerging any time soon. A potential route out of this roadblock may be for competing teams to engage in adversarial collaborations, where both sides agree on a set protocol of study in advance, and a joint interpretation of the data.
However, in the background are still those parents who, irrespective of the science, experience loss and separation from their children. The effects on them and their families will continue until services recognize the effects of alienation—real or perceived—and act to improve relationships within feuding families.
Harman, J. J., Leder-Elder, S., & Biringen, Z. (2019). Prevalence of adults who are the targets of parental alienating behaviors and their impact: Results from three national polls. Child & Youth Services Review, 106, 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2019.104471
Harman, J. J., Matthewson, M. L., & Baker, A. J. L. (2022). Losses experienced by children alienated from a parent. Current Opinion in Psychology, 43, 7-12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.05.002
Harman, J. J., Warshak, R. A., Lorandos, D., & Florian, M. J. (2022). Developmental psychology and the scientific status of parental alienation. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0001404
Lee-maturana, S., Matthewson, M., Dwan, C., & Norris, K. (2019). Characteristics and experiences of targeted parents of parental alienation from their own perspective: A systematic literature review. Australian Journal of Psychology, 71, 83-91. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajpy.12226
Verhaar, S., Matthewson, M. L., & Bentley, C. (2022). The impact of parental alienating behaviours on the mental health of adults alienated in childhood. Children, 9, 475.
Costa, D., Soares, J., Lindert, J., Hatzidimitriadou, E., Sundin, O., Toth, O., Ioannidi-Kapolo, E., & Barros, H. (2015). Intimate partner violence: a study in men and women from six European countries. International Journal of Public Health, 60, 467-478. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00038-015-0663-1
By filing for divorce, and seeking child custody and spousal support, a parent puts their mental and physical health at issue and the trial court has a statutorily duty to consider them.
On June 18, 2020, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in Torres Friedenberg v. Friedenberg, 2020-Ohio-3345. In an opinion written by Justice French, joined by Chief Justice O’Connor and Justice Fischer, the Court held that Belinda Torres Friendenberg’s mental health records were properly ordered released subject to a protective order because Belinda’s claims for child custody and spousal support in this divorce action put her mental and physical conditions at issue. Justice Kennedy concurred in judgment only. Justice DeWine wrote a dissent joined by Justices Stewart and Donnelly. The case was argued February 11, 2020.
“The General Assembly has made consideration of the parties’ physical and mental health not only relevant but mandatory in determining both child custody and spousal support.”
Justice French, lead opinion
R.C.3109.04(F)(1) makes consideration of the mental and physical health of the parties mandatory in a custody determination. These are the best interest factors.
F)(1) In determining the best interest of a child pursuant to this section, whether on an original decree allocating parental rights and responsibilities for the care of children or a modification of a decree allocating those rights and responsibilities, the court shall consider all relevant factors, including, but not limited to:
(a) The wishes of the child's parents regarding the child's care;
(b) If the court has interviewed the child in chambers pursuant to division (B) of this section regarding the child's wishes and concerns as to the allocation of parental rights and responsibilities concerning the child, the wishes and concerns of the child, as expressed to the court;
(c) The child's interaction and interrelationship with the child's parents, siblings, and any other person who may significantly affect the child's best interest;
(d) The child's adjustment to the child's home, school, and community;
(e) The mental and physical health of all persons involved in the situation;
(f) The parent more likely to honor and facilitate court-approved parenting time rights or visitation and companionship rights;
(g) Whether either parent has failed to make all child support payments, including all arrearages, that are required of that parent pursuant to a child support order under which that parent is an obligor;
(h) Whether either parent or any member of the household of either parent previously has been convicted of or pleaded guilty to any criminal offense involving any act that resulted in a child being an abused child or a neglected child; whether either parent, in a case in which a child has been adjudicated an abused child or a neglected child, previously has been determined to be the perpetrator of the abusive or neglectful act that is the basis of an adjudication; whether either parent or any member of the household of either parent previously has been convicted of or pleaded guilty to a violation of section 2919.25 of the Revised Code or a sexually oriented offense involving a victim who at the time of the commission of the offense was a member of the family or household that is the subject of the current proceeding; whether either parent or any member of the household of either parent previously has been convicted of or pleaded guilty to any offense involving a victim who at the time of the commission of the offense was a member of the family or household that is the subject of the current proceeding and caused physical harm to the victim in the commission of the offense; and whether there is reason to believe that either parent has acted in a manner resulting in a child being an abused child or a neglected child;
(i) Whether the residential parent or one of the parents subject to a shared parenting decree has continuously and willfully denied the other parent's right to parenting time in accordance with an order of the court;
(j) Whether either parent has established a residence, or is planning to establish a residence, outside this state.
R.C.3105.18(C)(1)(c) does the same in determining spousal support.
“Because the General Assembly has required trial courts to consider the mental and physical health of the parties when determining claims for child custody and spousal support, communications between those parties and their physicians regarding their mental and physical health will often be causally or historically related to the issues in domestic-relations cases in which those claims are raised. That relationship does not depend on whether the party seeking the release of medical information has specifically challenged the patient’s parenting ability or earning potential based on health considerations,” French wrote. When the parties dispute this, that is what the in camera review is for.
By filing for divorce, and seeking child custody and spousal support, a parent puts their mental and physical health at issue and the trial court has a statutorily duty to consider them. This would be relevant to concerns with substance abuse as well.