The Alienated Child.

                     O'Sullivan. B. (2013) Irish Journal of Family Law (16) pp.20-24.

To the child who said "I don't need my father (mother) I would reiterate the importance of having the love and care of both parents. I only hope that you as a child, adolescent or adult will yet realise the importance of not just one but both parents before it is too late.

Do not blame yourself for what has happened in the past. The fault was not with you, but rested elsewhere as is so clearly explained on this site. Make amends now, by seeking that loving contact you denied yourself when you truly needed this. The parent you have rejected will welcome you back with open arms and a loving heart.

Marital breakdown has become a significant social phenomenon in Ireland. The Central Statistics Office describe an increase of 150% in the rate of marital breakdown in Ireland over the past ten years (2011)

The Courts Service of Ireland describes 2,273 court orders, granted in relation to gaurdianship and a total of 1,738 court orders granted, in relation to custody and access during 2011. These figures do not reflect the number of parents who did not have the financial, emotional or psychological resources to go through the court process.

                                           I wanted one life,

                                           you wanted another,

                                           We couldn't have our cake,

                                           So we ate each other   (Mc Gough)

The experience of children being caught in the crossfire between divorcing parents is not new to Ireland. What is new however, is the views of the child are now given more status. This may have presented us with a new dynamic through which the child may be drawn further, into the painful divorce process.

One emerging phenomenon that faces families, social workers, judges and mental health professionals relates to cases where a child venomously rejects and denigrates a previously loved parent, during or following a high conflict divorce or separation.

The purpose of this paper is to introduce, for consideration, some of the contributions made by a number of author's to explain this phenomonen, to identify clinical presentations of an alienated child and to identify the impact of alienation on children.

Some legal and mental health professionals may be superficially child centered. If the child indicates they want nothing to do with a parent, with whom they have had a previously happy relationship. Some of these professionals may conclude the child's views are valid, must be respected and acted upon.

In these circumstances, there is a need to understand a child's strident rejection of one parent in terms of an enhanced inclusive framework rather than simple parental inadequacy (Lavandara, 2012) The research shows us, issues around parental attachment and estrangement are complex and do not lend themselves to easy answers. There is a large body of literature around this issue , Baker, (2010), Fidler & Bala (2010) Friedlander & Walters (2010) Johnston (2003) Kelly & Johnston (2001), Loweinstein (2010) and Warshak (2010) This suggests an intense interest around this issue.

A number of terms have been put forward, to explain this phenomenon such as parental alienation syndrome, alienated child, parental alienation (no syndrome), divorce related malacious mother syndrome, over burdened child, medea syndrome, parental alignments, programmed and brain washed children (Rand, 2011) regardless of which label is chosen. There is widespread agreement among experts in the international family law and mental health arena, as to the existence of a distinctive cluster of divorce related symptoms in a child that may result in psychological disturbance for that child.

Andre (2004) describes alienation as an observable constellation of hateful behaviours on the part of a child, who venomously rejects and directs undeserved anger towards a previously loved parent during or following a separation or a divorce.

Walters & Olsen (2005) conclude, child alienation is partially explained by the alienating behaviours on the part of an emotionally needy aligned parent, who is in role reversal with the child and who offers the child warm, and involved care in exchange for his or her allegiance.

Bernet et al (2010) suggest, a primary feature of alienation is where a child, usually one, whose parents are engaged in a high conflict divorce or separation allies himself or herself strongly with one parent and rejects the other parent without legitimate justification. For Bernet et al, a primary behavioural symptom is of a child, who refuses contact with a parent and is characterised by extreme withdrawal or contempt.

While it is agreed, parental programming may have a causal factor and that the child may make an active contribution to this dynamic. There is somewhat less agreement in relation to the role of the aligned and the rejected parent and the kinds of interventions that may be utilised.

There are multiple factors, both within the marriage and the separation, such as age, developmental level, psychological vulnerability of the child, the behaviours or personalities of both parents, sibling dynamics, the remarriage situation, and the adversarial nature of the custody battle to explain why some children reject a parent (Johnston, 2003)

It is important to distinguish alienated children from those who demonstrate differential preferences for one parent, based on expectable and normative reasons. (Kelly & Johnson, 2001)

Some children have good reason to be hostile or avoidant towards a parent. This is viewed as realistic estrangement, whereas a alienated child is described as expressing freely and persistently, unreasonable, negative beliefs, which are disproportionate to the child's actual experience with that parent.

Andre (2004) provides a number of questions or a checklist to aid in establishing the presence or absence of alienation. They are,

  1. Is there or was there a high conflict divorce/separation or a protracted battle in relation to custody and access?
  2. Is the child's anger, hatred or rejection disproportionate to any "crime" the parent is accused of?
  3. Did the child have a loving relationship with the now rejected parent?
  4. Is the rejection accompanied by extreme resistance to visit the rejected parent?
  5. Does the child shun the parent in public?
  6. Do the child's perceptions lack duality? Are they black and white?
  7. Does it seem there is only "bad" in the rejected parent with no gratitude or affection for the parent?
  8. Are the child's reasons for rejection of a parent scripted, lacking substance or accurate detail?
  9. Has the child added to or embellished the script with his or her own contributions to the rejected parent's badness?
  10. Doed the child insist, he or she has not been influenced by anyone, but that he/she has independently chosen his or her own actions, behaviour and opinions?
  11. Does the child protect and idealise the aligned parent?
  12. Do the actions of the aligned parent suggest an agenda of anger, negativity or destructiveness towards the rejected parent?
  13. Does the child appear to be functioning normally in other settings, but on closer inspection, has other problematic interpersonal relationships?
  14. Is there a distinct lack of guilt or remorse on the part of the child?

 

Kelly & Johnston (2001) provides us with a typical clinical presentation of an alienated child. They argue, this presentation is consistent with the observations of a child's behaviours and emotional responses as reported by others such as Gardner (1992) and Wallerstein & Kelly, (1980)

They describe, extreme disproportion between the child's perceptions or beliefs about the rejected parent and the actual history of the rejected parents behaviours and the parent-child relationship. The alienated child freely expresses hatred and an intense dislike for the rejected parent which contrasts with most estranged children. They demonise and vilify the rejected parent, they frequently point to trivial reasons to justify their hatred and they are usually not shy about broadcasting the percieved failings of the rejected parent to others. The child cannot see duality, is unable to put the good and bad qualities of a parent together. In the child's mind there is only bad.

Common behaviours, that have been identified, as consistent with that of an alienated child, is their strong resistence to contact with the rejected parent, their absolute refusal to see the parent in any setting and their determination to end the child-parent relationship. They strongly articulate their right, to choose, not to have contact with the rejected parent. They insist this decision is theirs and theirs alone.

Other common behaviours identified are around the child's story. Their allegations about the rejected parent are mostly identical to that of the aligned parent's allegations and stories. The story is scripted and repeated endlessly with little or no underlying detail to support the allegations, unlike children with true histories of abuse or neglect. The alienated child has adopted the allegations. The alienated child's story sounds rehearsed with frequent use of adult language and phrases. There is no obvious guilt as the child continues to viciously denigrate the rejected parent.

Alienated children have been given permission to be powerful, hostile and rude to the rejected parent and his or her extended family. Even previously cherished pet, living with the rejected parent may be discarded and denigrated with proud descriptions of their new perfect replacements provided by the aligned parent (kelly & Johnson 2001)

The alienated child idealises the aligned parent. They will not contemplate any other suggestion. They may describe how the aligned parent has been harmed emotionally, physically or financially by the rejected parent.

The aligned parent may believe their child does not need the rejected parent in his or her life. The aligned parent may insist, the child is free to visit the rejected parent, however attempts to contact or visit the child are viewed as harassment. Phone calls, messages or cards are not passed on to the child. Information about school, medication, special events or sports days and such like are not passed on to the rejected parent. All references to the rejected parent are removed from the residence including pictures, which may be torn up in front of the child. Most children quickly learn not to speak of the rejected parent. The rejected parent is effectively shut out of the child's life. The aligned parent will strongly support their angry child's right to make their own decisions in relation to contact with the rejected parent.

The alienated child may present, as very distraught and angry and yet appear, at least superficially, to be functioning adequately. They present as well adjusted in other settings such as schools, sports, hobbies and such like. however the child's black and white views, coupled with harshly strident views and feelings are usually reflected in their dealings with their peers and those in authority.

The behaviour of the alienated child within the home of the rejected parent may be severely problematic. They may destroy property. They prefer to be in contact constantly with the aligned parent, frequently speaking in code, and whispering hostile observations about the rejected parent's behaviours, meals, personality and words. 

When the alienated child is refusing contact with the rejected parent, all efforts by the rejected parent to communicate directly with the child will be to no avail. The alienated child may demand, the parent never contact them again. They may demand the rejected parent stop "harassing" them with presents and cards, which will likely go unopened and may be discarded. They may demand the rejected parent stop their useless legal efforts and court apperances.

Bone & Walsh (1999) provide four criteria which they suggest may be used as a guide in the process of considering the presence or absence of alienation. The first is around, the blocking of access and contact between the child and the targeted parent. Sometimes the aligned parent will cite access as being "unsettling" on the child, any deviations to schedules is used as an excuse to terminate access. Bone & Walsh suggest, access between the child and the targeted parent is relegated to a "chore". The absent parent is to be treated less like a key family member. This sends a clear but unspoken message to the child that one parent is "senior" to the other parent. This, they suggest, results in the erosion of the child's relationship with the absent parent.

The second criteria is around, unfounded allegations of emotional abuse. The authors suggest this may occur as a result of one parent allowing a child to stay up later than the other parent would, or one parent introducing the child to a "significant other" before the other parent feels they should or where one parent, enrols the child in a activity that the other person disagrees with.

These author's suggest this is a matter of simple differing parental judgement rather than emotional abuse. They suggest it is easier to allege emotional abuse as there is no physical evidence or third party witnesses.

Bone & Walsh caution against a parent who is eager to hurl allegations of abuse rather than a parent who is being cautious, careful and even reluctant to do so. They argue the latter approach is one of, a parent who is mindful of, supportive of and encouraging of a relationship between the child and absent parent. For Bone & Walsh, the responsible parent will only allege abuse after he or she has tried to rationalise why the issue at hand, is not abusive. They conclude they alienating parent will not miss an opportunity to make allegations of abuse against the absent parent.

The third criterion, provided is referred to as the deterioration of the parent-child relationship since a separation or divorce. They advocate for, a close evaluation of the pre-separation relationship between the child and now, absent parent. They suggest if this evaluation is omitted, there may be assumptions made by professionals, that the current child-parent relationship is a true reflection of the child-parent relationship. This may result in professional recommending reduced contact between the child and absent parent. This may add to the alienating process albeit, unknowingly so, on the part of the professionals.

The fourth criteria provided, is around the child's intense fear reaction. These author's suggest the child is frequently being placed into loyalty tests, thus forcing the child to choose a parent. They suggest this is characterised by the child who, begins to loudly protest when the appointed time of access arrives. The aligned parent presents, as bewildered in relation to the child's sudden change in feelings. The aligned parent will frequently appear to support the child's relationship with the absent parent. They conclude, this is an example of the child, being placed in a position to act out their loyalty to the aligned parent.

The impact of alienation on the child is well documented in the empirical literature. The inner self of the child may disappear as the child is brought up to fulfill the needs of the aligned parent. This may result in the child sacrificing their authentic desires, needs and characteristics. The inner reality of the child is likened to emotional abuse, buried beneath the hostility and rejection , the child feels the loss  of a once warm and nurturing parent with guilt over their rejection (Andre,2004) Some other examples provided by Baker & Ben Ami (2011) include, diminished self esteem which is associated with overly dependent behaviour, depression, insecure attachment style, difficulties with identity development and psychosomatic illness. Children of parents in high conflict divorces experience painful loyalty conflicts which creates sadness and depression (Baker,2007 & Buchanan et al,1991)Triangulation is one of the main elements of marital breakdown that is harmful to the child's long term adjustment (Emery, 2004)

Critics of this phenomenon broadly fall into two categories (Clarkson & Clarkson, 2007) The first category, suggest the concept of alienation has been invented to excuse neglectful or abusive parenting. The second category accepts the existence of the phenomenon but disputes the scientific formulation of it. Other critics, argue it is not listed in the DSM IV (TR) and therefore it does not exist.

Supporters of the concept of alienation suggest, healthy established parental relationships do not erode on their own, they must be attacked (Bone & Walsh,1999) They suggest children do not naturally lose interest in and become distant from their non resident parent simply as a result of the absence of that parent. They argue allegations of neglect or abuse ought to be fully investigated to ensure the safety of the child. They suggest, in cases of alienation, the allegations will be unsubstantiated (Ellis & Boyan,2010). They argue, there is a crucial need to distinguish between real estrangement and alienation. They argue, to suggest alienation is not real, as it is not listed in the DSM IV (TR) is like saying AIDS did not exist in 1980 because it was not then listed in the DSM.

Other supporters argue alienation is real, has been independently observed by many different contributors (Rand,2011). They further argue systemic research indicates the diagnostic criteria, demonstrates both test-retest validity and inter-rater reliability. More supporters suggest, the concept is universally accepted, by health professionals, who work with children of high conflict divorces despite controversies in relation to it's terminology and etiology

Currently in Ireland, there is a focus to give more status to the voice and opinions of the child, in proceedings that effect them. If we consider Baker (2006) study of adults, who had been alienated as children, in particular the participants disclosures, that despite their protestions of hatred towards one of their parents. They still held on to good feelings about that rejected parent and the participants disclosures, around their hopes and wishes, the rejected parent did not believe the anger and hatred they, as children were directing towards the "hated" parent.

Moreover, if we refer to Bala et al (2010) finding, in relation to unsubstantiated allegations of neglect and abuse within the Canadian Family Law Courts, coupled with the findings of Ceci & Bruck (1993), Trocme & Bala (2005) and Lavadera (2012) where they conclude, unsubstantiated allegations of neglect and abuse, do seem to occur more frequently in access and custody disputes.

As we place more focus on the child's voice and opinions in proceedings that effect them. It seems the concept of the Alienated Child, may be helpful in some circumstances to provide social, legal and mental health professionals with a more inclusive view, of a child's strident rejection of a previously loved parent rather than simple parental inadequacy.

 

AUTHOR'S NOTE:

The term "Alienated Child" is chosen as this places the focus on the child, his or her observable behaviours and the child-parent relationship. This facilitates a neutral and more inclusive framework for understanding why the child is now rejecting a parent and refusing contact. Brian is currently completing a four year Clinical M.S.c in Systemic (Family) Psychotherapy at the Family Therapy Unit, Department of Child & Family Psychiatry, Mater Misericordiae Hospital & The Faculty of Medicine and Medical Science, University College Dublin.  I can be contacted at brian@changes.ie in relation to this article.

 

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