When I first married, I didn’t realize there was a 50 percent chance that my marriage would end in divorce. During our marriage, we had a child and again, I didn’t realize that there was a one in six chance my divorce would turn out to be “high conflict,” and that my child would be used by an angry and vindictive ex to avenge the failure of our marriage. Over the years since my divorce, the mother’s behavior has only intensified. Eventually, I came to learn the meaning of terms such as Parental Alienation (PA), Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), and Hostile Aggressive Parenting (HAP), and experienced how easily the family court system can be manipulated by false allegations.
In 1985, Dr. Richard Garner, a forensic psychiatrist, introduced the concept of PAS in an article, “Recent Trends in Divorce and Custody Litigation,” in which he defined PAS as “a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child-custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of programming (brainwashing) by the other parent and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the targeted parent.” Several years later, Ira Daniel Turkat introduced “Divorce-Related Malicious Mother Syndrome.” Behaviors associated with both syndromes are relatively similar, encompassing hostile aggressive parenting behavior in an attempt to alienate the child from the other parent. However, the latter focuses on the mother’s behavior whereas PAS can relate to both the mother and the father. Presently, PA or PAS are the common terms used to define the practice of attempting to alienate a child or children from a parent, regardless of gender.
The American Psychological Association’s (APA) official statement on PAS notes “the lack of data to support so-called parental alienation syndrome and raises concern about the term’s use.” However, the APA states it has “no official position on the purported syndrome.” Advocates against PAS believe it is a form of psychological child abuse, and the APA’s refusal to address PAS leaves “targeted parents” lacking needed resources to fight the problem. At the same time, there are those who discount the validity of PAS and believe it is used as an excuse by abusive parents during custody challenges to explain “the animosity of their child or children toward them.” In certain cases, that may very well be true.
In his article, “New Definition of Parental Alienation: What is the Difference Between Parental Alienation (PA) and Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)?” Dr. Douglas Darnall focuses on the behavior and defines “parental alienation (PA), rather than PAS, as any constellation of behaviors, whether conscious or unconscious, that could evoke a disturbance in the relationship between a child and the other parent.” Simply put, PA is teaching the child to hate the other parent, leading to estrangement from the parent. By concentrating on the behavior, Dr. Darnall presents a more pragmatic approach to acceptance of PA by attorneys, therapist and family courts.
The tactics or tools that parents use to alienate a child range from simple badmouthing the other parent in front of the child; encouraging others to do likewise, until the child is bombarded with negative remarks on a daily basis; to reporting accusations of abuse or neglect to child protective services or family court. This behavior is known as Hostile Aggressive Parenting. One tactic that author John T. Steinbeck describes in Brainwashing Children is that some “hostile parents who remarry will have the child or children call the stepfather, ‘daddy,’ as a technique used to devalue the biological parent.” Parental Alienation Syndrome is a condition. Hostile Aggressive Parenting is the behavior.
Hostile aggressive parents are unable to move on. They are stuck in the past and focused on avenging the failure of their marriage and the control they had during the marriage. They manipulate the family court and child protective services in an attempt to continue control over their ex-spouse. They accept no responsibility for their actions, blame everyone, and place themselves above the child’s own interest. Therapist turned family law attorney Bill Eddy notes in his article “Personality Disorders and False Allegations in Family Court” that there is a “prevalence of personality disorders in high conflict divorce and custody cases in which false allegations are used.” The most prevalent of these is Borderline Personality Disorder, followed by Narcissistic Personality, and Anti-Social Personality Disorder. This accounts for the lack of empathy toward the child’s emotional state, and the ability to manipulate family court and child protective services so easily. Parents with anti-social personality disorders will play the “victim.” They are experts at manipulating and lying because they actually believe their lies to justify what they are doing.
Not all children can be taught to hate. Some have a very strong bond with the parent. Steinbeck also notes that in certain cases the “alienating parent feels that the other parent has a strong, highly functional relationship with the child or children and is irrationally worried that this positive relationship will somehow affect their relationship with the child.” A child old enough to decide with whom he or she wishes to live with may result in a reversal of financial obligations, as the non-custodial parent is obligated to pay child support and provide medical coverage for the child. HAP may simply be financially motivated. Regardless of the motives, attempting to alienate a child from a parent using hostile aggressive parenting or parental alienation tactics is psychological child abuse.
It is much easier to alienate a child when the child is separated from the parent. False allegations to family court of abuse or neglect will severely limit the relationship between the parent and child and the limited time spent will be under supervision. The Standard Divorce Decree has already reduced the non-custodial parent to a visitor in the child or children’s lives by a visitation schedule of the first, third, and fifth weekends of the month. Now the parent is limited to a “supervised” visitation schedule of three or four hours per month. Supervised visitation programs are just as easily manipulated as family court, e.g., parents simply need to call in at the last minute to seek rescheduling.
Family court will always side with the allegations and the court moves very slowly. Depending on the skill of an attorney, this period of separation could last for months. This gives the “targeting parent” additional time to teach the child to hate the “targeted parent,” as well as draining the “targeted parent’s” financial resources.
An attorney once told me that “the only place people lie more than in family court is at a bar.” Family court is plagued by false allegations simply because they are such an effective tool to quickly sever the parent-child relationship. Family court does not prosecute against false allegations, which is why false allegations have proliferated. Allegations do not need to be specific. Some attorneys advise clients to keep the allegations vague so as not to chance involving investigative agencies such as child protective services, as their reports carry so much weight with the court. An allegation to family court may be as vague as “The father is a danger to the child.” This is enough for the family court to order visitations withheld or supervised, but not specific enough to involve child protective services.
Family court is a guilt-by-accusation system. Once accused, it is the responsibility of the accused to prove the allegations false. The accused parent will most likely be court-ordered to supervised visitations with the child or children, as well as complete a psychological evaluation and meet with mediators and parent coordinators, all at personal cost. He or she also may pay for a forensic investigation, also referred to as a Social Study Evaluation, to prove the allegations false. The accused parent will spend thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands, of dollars proving the accusations false – and in the end, find him/herself financially drained and psychologically exhausted. An accused parent may lose a relationship with the child or children simply because they ran out of money to continue to fight. Unfortunately, this also results in a child losing a loving parent. David Levy, cofounder of the Children’s Rights Counsel and author of The Best Parent is Both Parents, stated: “President Obama talks a lot about absentee fathers who need to take responsibility. (But) he may not realize that there are millions of parents who want to be involved (in their children’s lives).” Fighting for the “child’s right to both parents” is a costly battle – both financially and psychologically. Many parents simply lose because they ran out of money.
The solution is to define “in the best interest of the child” as “the child’s right to both parents,” and then protect that right. Stop ignoring false allegations. Understandably, allegations need to be investigated; however, if proven false, the parent who made the false allegations should be prosecuted. Order that parent to complete a psychological evaluation. Step in to protect the child when you hear your friend or relative making negative remarks about the child’s parent or any other hostile aggressive parenting behavior. Let the child know that both parents love him/her. Encourage those hostile parents to seek therapy to find closure and stop using the child to “get even.” One thing is certain: when a parent is attempting to separate a child from a parent simply to avenge a failed marriage, the child suffers emotional pain. Because this pain was brought on purposely, it is psychological child abuse. If you participate or allow hostile aggressive parenting behavior in an attempt to alienate a child from a parent, you are an accomplice to psychological child abuse. Stand up and protect the child’s right to both parents.