Myths About Parental Alienation

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A huge buzz phrase in the divorcing community these days is “parental alienation.” It is often defined as a tendency, syndrome or disorder in which one parent subconsciously or actively interferes in a child’s relationship with the other parent in covert or overt ways. This is a very general definition; in reality, it exists on a scale from mild to severe. In the mildest form, it is a knee-jerk reaction to the hurt and pain of divorce. In severe cases, it borders on child abuse.

Because there is such a wide range of behaviors and family experiences encompassing this complicated issue, divorced or separated parents would do well to understand what it is and what it is not.

Myth No. 1 – Parental alienation can be easily diagnosed by a therapist.

Many attorneys and judges believe a diagnosis can be made in a psychological evaluation of a parent or the children. An online search of “parental alienation” turns up all kinds of information about symptoms and treatments, but the bottom line is that the psychological community has not yet completed enough research to determine appropriate criteria and responses to this complicated issue. Contrary to popular belief, parental alienation cannot be assessed in one or two counseling sessions. It can take months for a mental health professional to determine if it exists and how severe the alienation is. Parents and children must be interviewed and strategies implemented to assess the alienation and determine appropriate responses for a particular family.

Myth No. 2 – All parental alienation is child abuse.

Many divorcing or separated parents alienate somewhat at a low level due to the high emotions involved in a divorce or custody dispute and because of the natural conflict that arises when two parents are separating. This is often termed “naïve” alienation, which means the parents are not consciously aware they are engaging in harmful behavior and that with a little coaching, they can understand the consequences and stop. Higher up on the scale is something often termed “active” alienation, in which the parent is aware of his or her behavior, but thinks it is necessary to protect the child from a harmful parent. Finally, the most severe form might be termed “obsessive” alienation, where a parent is determined to interfere with the child’s relationship with the other parent in order to fulfill his or her own personal or emotional needs. The more severe the level of alienation, the more abusive it is to the child, and the more time it takes to unearth all of the complicated emotions and behaviors involved.

Myth No. 3 – When parental alienation is identified, a change in custody will fix the problem.

The treatment responses for alienation, once determined, is not as simple as giving the alienated parent custody. That doesn’t completely address the children’s needs. Children of alienators are often unaware of what is happening and naturally side with the alienating parent because of what they have been told or led to believe. You cannot simply change custody and expect the children to be OK. Instead, it may take months or years to repair some of the damage.

It is common, for example, for the alienating parent to accuse the victimized parent of alienation as well, so a therapist often has to set rules and test different scenarios to determine who the real alienator is. A wise therapist will attempt to build good relationships with all parties involved to help the children adjust to new attitudes. Unless the alienation is extremely severe, punitive responses rarely work and only serve to create more conflict for the children.

When one parent attempts to alienate another, it is a very upsetting situation for the victimized parent and the children. However, when the legal community tries to win cases using mental health issues that the psychological community has not yet fully defined, it can make matters worse and people (namely children) can end up getting hurt. If you suspect your child’s parent is engaging in abusive alienation, take care to consult with a mental health professional who has successfully worked with families around this issue before taking it to the courtroom.

Diane Chambers Shearer is a licensed marriage and family therapist, divorce mediator, and parent educator in Atlanta. She is author of “Solo Parenting: Raising Strong and Happy Families.” Visit her website at