The Politics of Alienation

shadow of lonely person on concrete wall surrounded by shadows

The Politics of Alienation   © 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. I just finished writing a book about child alienation (Don’t Alienate the Kids!), broadly defined as when a child resists spending time with one parent after a divorce, without assuming the cause. Ironically, I finished this in 2010 – the year that the issue of alienation escalated into the news with two opposite political efforts: one to officially recognize alienation and the other to officially ban it from existence. In this article I want to explain what may be going on, why now and what to do about it. A Little Background About 10-20% of children resist or refuse all contact with one of their parents after a separation or divorce. This seems to be a worldwide phenomenon, although the percentages may vary. For the past 25 years or so, parents and professionals have argued about who “caused” this resistance. Is it Mom’s fault, or is it Dad’s fault? In the 1980’s, fathers began to share parenting tasks on a much larger scale after a divorce, and shared decision-making became common (joint legal custody). At the same time, child sexual abuse started being recognized in the larger society as real and not just a child’s fantasy. In the mid-1980’s, Richard Gardner, a child psychiatrist who testified in custody disputes, coined the term Parental Alienation Syndrome to explain why many cases of alleged child sexual abuse against fathers were actually the result of the child being purposely alienated against the father by the mother, to win an advantage in court. Battle lines were drawn and it wasn’t surprising that the alienation issue quickly became a clash between women’s rights advocates against abuse of women and children, and father’s rights advocates against parental alienation of the children. Mothers asked the court to support the child’s expressed wishes to stop contact with the father temporarily – saying that the risk of elimination of the father was a small price to pay to protect the child from the father’s abuse or severe incompetence. Father’s argued that the court should order a change of custody to the father and stop contact with the mother temporarily – saying that the risk of elimination of the mother was a small price to pay to protect the child from the mother’s emotionally abusive alienation. Fast Forward to 2010 While this debate has raged in thousands of family courts around the world for all these years, it has received little attention in the public until the past couple years. What changed? Several things: Child alienation seems to be increasing. I believe this corresponds to the increase of parents with personality disorders, which include a lot of “all-or-nothing thinking.” This becomes passed on to their children, who develop an all-or-nothing view of their parents: one is “all-good” and one is “all-bad.” At the same time, the federal government reports that child sexual abuse has decreased over the last twenty years. Only 2-5% of custody disputes involve an allegation (whether true or false) of child sexual abuse, whereas over 20% of custody disputes involve an allegation of alienation. Child alienation is no longer a gender issue.  Today we see many mothers who have become the “rejected parent” and many fathers who have engaged in alienating behaviors and have become the “favored parent.” And children become alienated against custodial parents (traditionally mothers), as well as parents with less parenting time (traditionally fathers). Many women have joined the fight against alienation and many men are active in the fight against child abuse. Many professionals of both genders are concerned about both issues. Many alienated children don’t reconcile with the rejected parent when they become adults. Recent research about adult children of divorce is revealing this reality. This is in contrast to what many divorce professionals used to believe and advised their clients – just back off and your child will come back to you after they turn 18. Sometimes this happens, but many children remain alienated as much as 20 or more years after they reach 18. Further, this can have serious consequences for their own adult relationships and emotional health. It is no longer being seen as just a passing phase in the divorce, so that more parents are becoming assertive when alienation seems to be occurring. Several children have been killed in the past year in high-conflict divorce cases.  At the same time as courts are paying more attention to alienation issues, concerns about child abuse and the need for protective court orders have grown as well. This has motivated activists to demonstrate outside of family courts, stating that judges are biased against mothers who report abuse concerns – perhaps because their reports are seen as lacking credibility and a form of alienation. They are concerned that once alienation is raised as an issue, the possibility of child abuse and future child abuse is ignored. In short, concerns about alienation have grown rapidly and concerns about child endangerment have grown at the same time. This brings us to the two opposing political efforts: To legislate the existence of Parental Alienation as a psychiatric disorder (currently being considered by the body developing the DSM-V, the internally-used diagnostic manual of mental disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, expected out in 2012) and To legislate the non-existence of alienation as forbidden in assessments of children in custody and visitation disputes (Assembly Bill currently in the California 2010 legislature). I have trouble with both of these efforts, as I will describe below, and I think I have a better solution. Psychiatric Diagnosis A group of mental health professionals have submitted Parental Alienation for adoption as a psychiatric diagnosis in the DSM-V. They say that there are hundreds of articles about parental alienation in peer reviewed publications in the past 25 years, so that it is not just the thinking of one person. (Richard Gardner coined the term “Parental Alienation Syndrome in the mid-1980’s and was criticized for developing his own theory without peer review.)