Parental alienation: a mental condition is indeed founded on scientific research.
An excellent article has recently been published on the scientific underpinnings of our understanding of parental alienation.1 Parental alienation as a mental condition is indeed founded on scientific research. In addition, there is a wealth of accumulated clinical knowledge of parental alienation in real-life, high-conflict cases. In this article, my goal is to discuss lessons learned from my experiences as an expert in alienation cases.
To provide context, I have been involved in at least 100 parental alienation cases over the years. I have been court-appointed to evaluate both parents in some of these cases. In others, I have been retained by a targeted or rejected parent to serve as an expert advocate on their behalf. Currently, I am retained in cases in 10 states and in Canada and England.
As a clinician, I can tell you that parental alienation is real, toxic, and potentially life changing. Of course, there are varying degrees of parental alienation, ranging from mild to moderate to severe.2 Mild to moderate alienation means the child is partially rejecting the targeted parent. In severe alienation, the parent is being totally rejected.
Estrangement is very different from alienation.3 Estrangement means the child is rejecting the targeted parent due to a legitimate concern about that parent, such as substance abuse or physical altercations or major mental illness. It is important for a mental health expert not to confuse estrangement with parental alienation. They are totally different situations and conditions.
We know that children who are immersed in the middle of a high-conflict separation, divorce, or postdivorce are at much higher risk for psychiatric symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, behavior problems, substance abuse, and more. This is true for children in childhood and later in adulthood.4 This is exactly what I have encountered clinically in my work.
Understanding Parental Alienation
Parental alienation manifests itself in a wide variety of behaviors, maneuvers, and strategies by the offending parent aimed at having the child reject the other parent. Bad-mouthing, interfering with visitation time, interfering with phone calls, cutting off family members, and false allegations of abuse are a few of the common alienating behaviors. A list of 17 frequent alienating strategies has been described in the literature.5
False allegations of abuse are weapons that alienating parents use to gain leverage in their court proceedings. Filing criminal charges intensifies the weaponization even more. Such false allegations are hard to disprove, and offending parents use that fact to their advantage. Fortunately, investigations by child protective services often produce a “not indicated” or “unsubstantiated” finding, which helps to show the falseness of the allegations. Here is an important rule of thumb: multiple false allegations of abuse during a divorce proceeding are a huge red flag for parental alienation.6
Attorneys involved in parental alienation cases often make the situations worse, not better.7 Winning is their top priority. The alienating parent’s attorney often turns a blind eye or even encourages the destructive behavior to “win” their case. The child’s attorney—the GAL—often has no mental health training and takes what the child says at face value, thus enabling the parental alienation. The rejected parent’s attorney may understand the dynamics but their hands are tied by the roadblocks imposed by the alienating parent’s attorney and the GAL. Passivity and defeatism may set in. Thus, it is often true that the attorneys in parental alienation cases do little to uncover and correct the pathological dynamic.
We know there is a certain treatment template that works in parental alienation cases.8 The alienating parent needs individual therapy that focuses exclusively on ceasing the alienating behavior. At the same time, the alienated child and the rejected parent must have reunification therapy to repair their relationship. If the child’s alienation is severe—meaning total rejection of the parent—the child must be removed from contact with the alienating parent, at least for a while, so that reunification therapy can take hold and be sustained.
Treatment of parental alienation can be successful if all involved in the case—attorneys, mediators, coordinators, experts, and judges—support the template offered above. Parental alienation in a child can be corrected. It is not a hopeless situation. But roadblocks to treatment must be recognized and combated.
Mental health experts are an invaluable asset in parental alienation cases, especially if the expert is knowledgeable and experienced in such dynamics. In my opinion, all high-conflict divorces that involve child custody matters should have a mental health expert in some capacity. Without an expert, these cases can become convoluted, twisted, and confusing very quickly.
As William Bernet, MD, and I have written, winning in a parental alienation case is much different than in all other family-law cases.7 Winning should be defined in terms of exposing and correcting parental alienation in the child. The correction of parental alienation is in the child’s best interest in each and every case. Ignoring it or accepting it as fait accompli is both ethically and professionally unacceptable and harms the child in the short-term and long-term.
Steven Miller, MD, recently passed away. He was an important contributor to our understanding of parental alienation cases.9 He wrote about the counterintuitive nature of parental alienation. The counterintuitive features of parental alienation are at the core of all diagnostic and treatment problems in these cases.
It is unacceptable for a physically or sexually abusive parent to falsely claim that they are the victim of parental alienation. That is a ruse that cannot be condoned or enabled. Parental alienation as an entity is not intended to cover up or hide physical or sexual abuse in a family.
Parental alienation is a diagnosable and treatable mental condition. Detractors who say otherwise are misguided and wrong. The condition is supported by both scientific research and clinical experience. Those of us who work in cases of parental alienation can attest to its toxicity, its confusing presentation, and its ability to be corrected under the right circumstances.
Dr Blotcky is a clinical and forensic psychologist in private practice in Birmingham, Alabama.He is also clinical associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr Blotcky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Harman JJ, Warshak RA, Lorandos D, Florian MJ. Developmental psychology and the scientific status of parental alienation. Dev Psychol. Online ahead of print.
2. Koszyk PA, Bernet W. Treatment and prevention of parental alienation. Psychiatric Times. March 12, 2020. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/treatment-and-prevention-parental-alienation
3. Bernet W. The Five-Factor Model for the diagnosis of parental alienation. Feedback. 2020;6(Summer):3-15.
4. Verhaar S, Mathewson ML, Bentley C. The impact of parental alienating behaviours on the mental health of adults alienated in childhood. Children (Basel). 2022;9(4):475.
5. Baker AJL, Fine PR. Surviving Parental Alienation. A Journey of Hope and Healing. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; 2014.
6. Blotcky AD. False allegations of abuse during divorce: the role of alienating beliefs. Psychiatric Times. November 23, 2021. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/false-allegations-of-abuse-during-divorce-the-role-of-alienating-beliefs
7. Blotcky AD, Bernet W. Winning parental alienation cases: a roadmap for family lawyers. Family Lawyer Magazine. January 12, 2022. Accessed July 25, 2022. https://familylawyermagazine.com/articles/winning-parental-alienation-cases/
8. Blotcky AD, Bernet W, Harman JJ. A roadmap for the treatment of parental alienation. Michigan Family Law Journal. 2022;52(1):15-18.
9. Miller SG. Clinical reasoning and decision-making in cases of child alignment: diagnostic and therapeutic issues. In: Baker AJL, Sauber SR, eds. Working With Alienated Children and Families: A Clinical Guidebook. Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group; 2014:8-47.