Parental alienation a debated concept in the field of family law and psychology

Parental alienation is a scientifically and legally valid theory and practice that refers to a situation in which one parent engages in behaviours that may manipulate or influence a child to reject the other parent. The child’s resistance or hostility towards the targeted parent is often seen as a result of the alienating parent’s actions. Parental alienation, as it presents in the child, is a form of child psychological abuse or maltreatment and family violence resulting from parental alienating behaviour. Such behaviours cause social and psychological distress and harm to the child and their targeted parent.

Here are some points and perspectives in the parental alienation debate:

Is Parental Alienation Recognised as a Syndrome?

  • Proponents: Leading academics, researchers and practitioners have actively lobbied to include parental alienation as a  psychological disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) recognises presentations and disorders that embody parental alienation and parental alienating behaviours, such as Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress (CAPRD).
  • Critics: Others argue against labelling it as a syndrome, mainly on ideological and political grounds, despite the science that supports it. Parental alienation has been removed from the International Classification of Diseases  (ICD-11) False Controversies 
  • Proponents: Supporters of the concept argue that parental alienation is a scientifically and legally valid and harmful phenomenon that can have long-term adverse effects on the child’s relationship with the alienated parent. Parental alienation is an inclusive concept that equally applies to all genders, sexualities and types of families.

Critics: Some critics argue that the term is misused or abused in legal settings, that it perpetuates patriarchal norms and disadvantages women subjected to family violence and who are protecting their children from abuse. They also deny its scientific and legal validity.

Overlap with Other Issues:
  • Proponents: parental alienation is distinct from other issues, such as child abuse or neglect, and it warrants specific attention.
  • Critics: Some critics argue that behaviours associated with parental alienation may be better understood and addressed within the broader context of family dynamics without the need for a separate diagnostic label.

Legal Implications:

  • Proponents: Supporters of parental alienation believe that legal systems should recognise and address it appropriately, possibly influencing parental care and responsibility decisions in parental divorce or separation cases.
  • Critics: Critics argue that the legal system should be cautious in accepting the concept, as it may be misused to influence court decisions or silence women who experience family violence.
  • Therapeutic Approaches:
  • Proponents: The best practice in remediating parental alienation in severe cases is reversing parental care and responsibility for the child to the targeted parent together with a specialist remediation process and reportable behaviour change for the former alienating parent.  Family therapies and other therapeutic interventions are ineffective in severe cases and further entrench the alienation. Modified, reportable family therapies may be effective in mild or moderate cases.

Critics: Critics may argue that therapeutic interventions should focus on the broader family dynamics,  labelling one parent as an “alienator” may hinder practical therapeutic approaches and removing a child from a parent to whom they are attached will harm the child.

The historical debates about the validity of parental alienation are resolved. Ongoing claims that it is “junk science” or a “pseudo concept” have no basis and are politically motivated. 

Professionals involved in family law and mental health must carefully consider each case’s specific circumstances and approach it with sensitivity to the well-being of the child and the family as a whole. Parents Beyond Breakup is well placed to offer insight and support to parents, whichever side of the above divide they reside on.