Since the term “parental alienation” appeared, countless articles have described the phenomenon of battered spouses losing custody of their children when their batterer defended with claims that the battered spouse tried to alienate them from their children. As a result, domestic violence advocates and some Family Court Councils state parental alienation is “junk science” and is a “cancer in the family courts.” Yet the reality is more complex.
What is Parental Alienation?
Parental alienation occurs when children reject a relationship with a parent for unfounded reasons. The tragic feature of this rejection is that relational distance isn’t created by the parent-child relationship, but instead created by the vindictive alienating parent or the dynamics of a high-conflict divorce process.
In other words, children reject the alienated parent in an effort to remain attached and loyal to the alienating parent out of fear, love, or confusion. The child concludes that it’s not safe for them to love both parents. In survival mode, they denigrate and reject one, while idealizing and supporting the other.
What Isn’t Parental Alienation?
This is fundamentally different than parent-child estrangement. Estrangement occurs when a parent lacks parental fitness, leading to abusive and neglectful behaviors. As a result, children reject or withdraw from such a parent because of legitimate fears, anger, and disappointment. The other parent may engage in protective parenting that can be misconstrued as parental alienation, but isn’t—loving parents want their children with safe caregivers.
Where the Road Gets Foggy: Parental Alienation and Domestic Violence
Despite the criticism of parental alienation, it is a well-documented phenomenon in divorce cases. Peer-reviewed journals such as the Family Court Review have published materials on parental alienation and its intersection with domestic violence. The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, for example, has offered numerous trainings to help custody and parenting time evaluators differentiate parental alienation from parent-child estrangement. And those who work in the trenches and sit on the benches know well the blank stare of the child who refuses to go to mom or dad’s house, despite no sound evidence of poor parenting.
Sometimes, in certain cases of domestic violence, assessing the the severity of the situation—and hence, the best interests of the children—can be difficult. In severe cases, the batterer may continue to use the children as a weapon to control their ex-spouse. They may only be interested in parenting insofar as it gains them access to their ex-lover, with whom they remain obsessed. In milder cases, the domestic violence may have manifested from a conflict-based, unhealthy relationship. Once this relationship is dissolved, both parents may be capable of providing for the best interests of the children. Sometimes, an angry, vindictive parent can use episodes of domestic violence as a weapon to totally deprive the other parent access to the children. They dupe the courts into thinking that the domestic violence is severe—intractable and dangerous—when in fact it isn’t. These cases need good and thorough evaluations to discern severity and scope and the best custody and parenting time arrangement for the children.
Child Protection or Parental Alienation? (Or Both?)
When a person is abusive and violent to a parent in front of the children, the children become scared of that violent abuser. And when victims finally are able to leave their abusers, the children often relax into a new, safe environment and resist parenting time with the abuser. A loving parent’s support of this resistance isn’t alienation tactics; it’s called child protection. Batterers trying to avoid accountability can try to claim the victim role by painting child protection as alienation. Understandably, domestic violence advocates experience legitimate frustration when batterers dupe the courts into thinking they are a victim of parental alienation when they aren’t.
The courts are very cautious—as they should be—about putting children in harm’s way. They are also invested in upholding the rights of both parents to maintain a relationship with their children after a divorce. He said, she said allegations bounce off the walls in the halls of justice. These are difficult cases, and in the maelstrom, advocates on both ends sometimes find themselves fighting for justice. Consequently, in their own professional trenches of warfare, they start working to disarm their foe. This is how “junk science” allegations arise. It’s understandable—but unacceptable in the pursuit of true justice and the best interests of children.
An Illustration from Another Area of Law
Let’s take mental health and criminal behavior as an example.
We know certain psychotic individuals can display poor judgment and aggressive behavior without any conscious intent to harm anyone, yet do. In response, we try to understand how their mental illness is causing them to harm others, and we work to treat the origin of the problem, rather than provide only punitive time in jail for bad behavior. We get angry at criminals who falsely plead insanity in an attempt to absolve themselves from criminal behavior and punitive consequences. In such cases, we don’t denounce mental illness as “junk science” in an effort to protect victims and hold criminals accountable. We know we must carefully evaluate each and every case to determine the truth.
I am dismayed by the current efforts of domestic violence advocates to denounce parental alienation as “junk science” in an effort to take away a batterer’s arsenal. Although protecting children is a noble cause, using such tactics isn’t professional, it isn’t judicious, and it isn’t ultimately advocating for the best interests of all children. Calling into question a well-documented phenomenon like parental alienation is fear-based and defensive. It grows out of a bias toward erring on the side of “safety,” while setting the stage for potentially unwarranted denial of parenting time—which also harms children. Denying the existence of parental alienation is over-simplifying a very complicated issue facing Family Courts.
The Need for Proper Evaluation
I’ve completed hundreds of custody evaluations as well as worked with hundreds of batterers, and each situation had its own set of nuances:
- I’ve seen batterers obsessively pursue control over their partners and use the alienation of their children as an extension of that control over their ex-partner.
- I’ve seen angry, vindictive parents who act out their rage at their own abandonment by systematically alienating their children from a parent with no history of poor parenting.
- And I’ve seen cases that are dynamic. For example, one parent has a history of problems such as substance abuse, poor parenting, or abusive behavior toward their partner and then experiences a “wake up call” and begins a legitimate path to recovery. Nonetheless, the other parent is understandably traumatized from the past and remains wounded, fearful, and mistrusting. This wounded parent begins acting on this trauma by engaging in parental alienation tactics. (When this happens, the courts need to afford the traumatized parent treatment, not collude with their protracted trauma response—while also remaining vigilant in holding the recovering parent accountable.)
What’s Lost in the Fog: The Best Interest of All Children
The real “cancer” in Family Courts is unwavering advocacy of a rigid ideology interfacing with a litigious process that promotes bi-polar thinking: Is it domestic violence or parental alienation? This type of either/or question leads to: “If batterers sometimes use parental alienation effectively as a defense to win custody, then we should consider parental alienation junk science and eradicate its use in court.” However, Family Courts and the best interests of children are served when evaluators develop multiple hypotheses rather than proceed on false either/or premises in these complicated cases—when the data confirm conclusions, not an ideological bias.
Denying that parental alienation exists is based in fear and ideology, and it will not forward the best interests of ALL children. We need to train professionals, including judges, on the intersection of domestic violence and parental alienation. Then we need to evaluate and process each family case by case.
Batterers are masters of obfuscation. They will bend, twist, and shade facts to avoid accountability and shift blame. Accordingly, parental alienation can become a high-powered weapon for them in courts. Understandably, some of us engaged in the work of protecting children get scared and angry, and reflexively seek to remove “the weapon.” In the same way, if a loved one gets shot and killed by a criminal with an unregistered gun, we may wish to rid society of guns in order to feel safer. Yet a more judicious and less emotionally-reflexive response would be to work on gun law policies that get guns out of the hands of criminals and only into the hands of responsible citizens.
Charting a Path
We need to continue to study, research, and evaluate parental alienation, rather than throw it out. The more we learn about how vindictive parents can effectively alienate children from a good and loving parent, the more we can actually protect parents from parental alienation by a batterer. Let’s walk together, pursuing justice with courage, rather than ideology with fear.
Randy Flood, MA, LLP
Randy Flood is the co-founder and director of the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan and of the Institute for the Prevention and Treatment of Mascupathy (IPTM), the culmination of a nearly 20-year career creating and developing specialized clinical services that address men’s issues. He holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Western Michigan University and has co-authored (with Charlie Donaldson) two books on men’s issues: Mascupathy: Understanding and Healing the Malaise of American Manhood (IPTM, 2014) and Stop Hurting the Woman You Love: Breaking the Cycle of Abusive Behavior (Hazelden, 2006). Learn more…