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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
False Allegations of Abuse During Divorce: The Role of Alienating Beliefs
November 23, 2021
Alan D. Blotcky, PhD
How can mental health experts help identify false allegations and alienation during divorce proceedings?
As a clinical and forensic psychologist, I have been involved in hundreds of cases of divorce and child custody. The topic of false allegations of abuse is a complicated and thorny one that deserves much attention. In particular, there needs to be a focus on the alienating beliefs that often underly and compel false allegations.
False allegations of abuse are an all-too-common phenomenon during divorce and child custody proceedings. One parent fabricates a false allegation against the other parent to gain leverage in court and to undermine the parent-child relationship going forward. The frequency of false allegations in custody cases is not fully understood, with estimates ranging from 2% to 35% of all cases involving children.1 Whatever the percentage, attorneys, judges, and mental health experts all know firsthand that it is a vexing problem in court cases. And nothing can disrupt, sidetrack, or impede a case more than an allegation of abuse that eventually proves to be false.
Parents never admit to their conniving and harmful behavior during a legal action. As such, proving an allegation is false can be extremely challenging. Why? Because a false allegation is hatched in the mind of the offending parent, who then enlists the help of their child to unwittingly carry out the plot. The intent is to harm the other parent, but to do so as if the offending parent is the real victim. Parents know that an allegation of abuse has the potential to help them win their case, which is their ultimate goal. Unfortunately, being honest and fair is not always a virtue in a contentious child custody case.
Detecting a false allegation is critical because judges can be swayed by the accusation, even if it is not substantiated by the evidence. More often than not, custody decisions go in favor of the accusing parent.2 So, uncovering and exposing a false allegation is vital in making sure the offending parent is not rewarded for his or her destructive behavior.
Discovery of Alienating Beliefs
The surest way to prove a false allegation of abuse is to uncover the alienating belief system of the offending parent. Alienating beliefs often underlie a parent’s decision to fabricate a false allegation against the other parent. With careful interviewing and psychological testing, these beliefs can be brought to the surface. A mental health professional is best suited to address this clinical problem. It takes patience and a probing attitude by the clinician to elicit alienating beliefs that are being hidden from view by the offending parent. Sentence Completion Series is one psychological instrument that will elicit thoughts, feelings, actions, intentions, and motivations. In interviewing, hypothetical questions, a focus on nonverbal cues, and exploration of apparent discrepancies can be productive.
Here are 7 common alienating beliefs that occur in false allegations:
1. “I am afraid our child will love you more than me and will want to live with you.”
2. “I want my child all to myself.”
3. “If you don’t want me, you don’t get our child, either.”
4. “I want to exact revenge on you, and what better way than to deprive you of your child?”
5. “I don’t want my child to be anything like you.”
6. “I’ve been the real parent in this family, not you.”
7. “I don’t want my child to love their new stepparent because I might be pushed out.”
The Many Implications
There are important implications to consider in cases of false allegations of abuse. First, the desire to alienate the child from the other parent is at the core of most false allegations of abuse. And, when a parent makes multiple false allegations during a legal proceeding, you can bet that alienating beliefs are in play. Yet, it is important to note that not all false allegations are due to alienating motives. Sometimes, for example, a parent may over-interpret a comment or report from a child, thereby jumping to an erroneous conclusion. Rather than clarifying the benign situation, the parent makes what proves to be a false allegation. Other examples exist where alienation is not a major component in a false allegation.3
Second, a child needs to love both parents without impediment or interruption. Being caught in a loyalty fight is damaging, as a child’s long-term adjustment is dependent upon having a close relationship with both parents. Anything short of that is unacceptable. A false allegation of abuse can go a long way to disrupt a child’s relationship with the accused parent. Loving that parent may become strained or even impossible going forward. Thus, a false allegation against a parent can have a tragically negative impact on the child.4
Third, offending parents tend to view their children as possessions to be controlled and manipulated. They see them as extensions of themselves. That is not parental love, but rather, narcissistic self-absorption. It is the offending parent’s hostile needs and motivations that are the real problem in these cases, not the rejected, victimized parent. Offending parents lodge false allegations against the other parent to meet their own needs, not their child’s. Teaching a child to be a victim under false pretenses can set the stage for a lifetime of victimhood for the child.
Fourth, vindictiveness is a malignant emotion that causes great pain, sorrow, and unhappiness in any relationship. Being consumed with vindictiveness is profoundly unhealthy. It has nothing to do with love and care for the child. Vindictiveness is common in false allegations of abuse. What is portrayed as protectiveness of the child is actually hostility and destructiveness toward the other parent, with little genuine concern for the child’s best interest.
Fifth, false allegations of abuse must be stopped as soon as possible for the child’s wellbeing. If they are not stopped, the offending parent’s pernicious behavior will gain steam and impact over time. False allegations cannot be condoned in any way. Several courses of action are reasonable: limited parenting time, supervised visits, change of custody, court-ordered therapy, and others. Turning a blind eye to a false allegation of abuse is not an option.
Finally, judges and attorneys need to be educated about the seriousness and deleterious consequences of false allegations of abuse. Mental health experts can help inform, explain, and guide during the legal proceeding or at trial. False allegations and alienation are highly disruptive to the wellbeing and mental health of the child.
It should be reassuring to know that alienating beliefs can be uncovered and exposed. That is the key to unlocking the “proof” of a false allegation. Without exposure, a child custody case can be hijacked by a false allegation, and the child’s wellbeing may be lost in the confusion. After all, a child’s future can be at stake.
This is the first installment in Dr Blotcky’s new column, “Forensic Practice.” Feedback and suggestions for future articles can be sent to PTEditor@mmhgroup.com.
Dr Blotcky is a clinical and forensic psychologist in private practice in Birmingham, Alabama. His specialty is false allegations of abuse and parental alienation. He can be reached at email@example.com.
1. King DN, Drost M. Recantation and false allegations of child abuse. The National Children’s Advocacy Center. 2005;1-45.
2. Meier JS, Dickson S, O’Sullivan C, et al. Child custody outcomes in cases involving parental alienation and abuse allegations. GW Law Scholarly Commons. 2019;1-30.
3. Bernet W. False statements and the differential diagnosis of abuse allegations. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1993;32(5):903-910.
4. Brooks SK, Greenberg N. Psychological impact of being wrongfully accused of criminal offences: a systematic literature review. Med Sci Law. 2021;61(1):44-54.
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