Understanding parental alienation


In 1992, a professor of child psychology at Columbia University, Dr. Richard A. Gardner, wrote The Parental Alienation Syndrome. It is one of the most important developments in family law of the past quarter century.

Yet, Virginia courts are only slowly coming to grips with it. Parents on the receiving end of alienation are actually more perceptive to it than many judges are.

What is parental alienation?

The concept is not difficult: One parent “alienates” a child from the other parent, so that the child favors the alienating parent and distances himself or herself from the other.

Courts have been very slow, even resistant, to understand that parental alienation is pervasive, and its effects on children can be truly devastating. Once understood, it is surprising how obvious, predictable, and consistent alienation is.

Symptoms your child has been been alienated against you

Gardner identified the following symptoms of parental alienation:

  • Revision. The child wildly exaggerates deficiencies of the “other” parent and has a uniformly glowing opinion of the alienating parent. The alienator will very often be described as “perfect” by such a child. The child will claim to be unable to think of even one trait they dislike about the alienating parent.
  • Regurgitation. Use of vocabulary and phraseology by the child that is uncommon and inappropriate for a child of that age. An alienated child will use many expressions that are identical to those used by the alienating parent.
  • Reasons. When pressed for details to substantiate the child’s negative portrait of the other parent, he or she is often not able to identify a single substantiating fact.
  • Reminders. An alienating parent will refuse to allow the child to take his or her belongings with them when spending time with the other parent. Often the alienator will destroy items that might be reminders of the other parent.
  • Relocation. The alienator often wants to move a great distance away with the child.
  • Rigidity. The alienator will rigidly and unreasonably attempt to restrict the child’s time with the other parent. He or she will insist that custodial time must be very strictly construed and confined to a visitation schedule, with no flexibility. That parent will insist the child “needs continuity.”
  • Religion. If the parents came from different religious background, the alienating parent may suddenly become stridently committed to his or her religion.
  • Relaxing. When the children are alone with the hated parent, they may let their guard down and start to enjoy themselves and interact more naturally with that parent.

Of all these symptoms, the hallmark of alienation is the child’s extreme, unambiguous, and unnatural hatred of the other parent when under the influence of the alienator.

The alienator’s objective is to “bring about a cessation of the parent-child relationship,” according to Dr. Gardner. The longer the children are exposed to the programming, Gardner says, “the longer they are subjected to the loyalty conflict, the more deep-seated become their symptoms, and the more difficult it will be to alleviate them. ... If it goes uninterrupted over many months and possibly extending over a few years, there will be a progressive deterioration of that bonding––sometimes to the point that it may be obliterated.”

What does alienation “look like?”

I have seen children literally hyperventilate, scream, cry, and lapse into paroxysms of hysteria at the very idea that they are going to visit the non-alienating parent. I had an alienating mother bring her 9-year-old daughter to court, a child she programmed to accuse her father of sexual abuse. The girl vomited into the waste basket in the hall before entering the courtroom. At first blush, it may appear that the child is afraid of this “other” parent. Upon closer examination, it becomes very obvious that this behavior is induced by the alienating parent, and the child is afraid of disappointing the alienator.

Why do some judges resist consideration of alienation?

It requires a hard decision. The only way a child can be recovered from the ravages of alienation is to remove that child from the alienating parent. This is not only the conclusion of Dr. Gardner, but also of excellent forensic child psychologists such as Dr. Stanton Samenow and Dr. David Shostak, who have testified in my cases.

No amount of therapy will help such a child if he or she remains living with the alienator. And judges do not like transferring custody from one parent to another.

I can think of three cases in which circuit court judges found overwhelming evidence of alienation yet did nothing to help the children. In two of those, the judges said, “This is the worst case of alienation I have ever seen.” In all three cases, they ruled that it would be too traumatic or unsettling to the children to change custody to the non-alienating parent.

Not only is the logic head-spinning, it is at odds with scientific findings. Dr. Edward Farber, a leading psychologist in northern Virginia, wrote recently of a study that almost half of alienated children interviewed 10 years later reported they had hoped someone in authority had forced them to have contact with the non-alienating parent.

On the other hand, there are courageous judges who will not hesitate to reverse custody in these situations. The little girl who vomited into the waste basket in the courthouse was ordered transferred to the custody of the father immediately by the late Judge Terrence Ney in Fairfax, perhaps the most beloved Virginia judge of his generation. Within 24 hours, she was snuggling with her dad. Another judge more recently ordered a 6-year-old girl to the sole custody of her father because of the mother’s alienation.

Children can rebound quickly from alienation if the child is young and the alienation has not been greatly prolonged. Not all will respond as rapidly as the 9-year-old girl I mentioned above; the six-year-old took longer, but is doing well three years later.

Some children shift in and out of alienation symptoms in a matter of days, or even hours, depending on the parent they are with. If it is politically correct, as it were, to hate one parent to please the alienator, so be it. As soon as the child is free of the alienator’s oppression, however, the child rebounds to some level of normalcy.

But what of the long term?

Dr. Farber mentioned a second study showing that almost half of young adults who had previously rejected a parent due to alienation no longer had contact with the formerly alienating parent. In other words, alienation is a double-edged weapon, and eventually it carves deep scars in a child’s relationships with both parents––one past, the other present––even into adulthood.

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