The Center for Investigative Reporting at National Public Radio (NPR) published a report on March 9, 2019 about the longstanding controversy over parental alienation. The broadcast includes recordings of actual testimony from a New Jersey child custody proceeding where a father suggested that the mother’s relationship with the children was “toxic.” Parental alienation is a concept not formally embraced by the mental health community, which suggests that one parent can poison a child’s relationship with the other parent. If you are enmeshed in a grave child custody dispute where you think the other parent is actively interfering, you know the pain it causes.
The actions of the New Jersey trial judge seem radical, even dangerous. However, the psychologist who first identified parental alienation as a disorder, Richard Gardner, suggested that the only effective means to undo the damage of alienation was to place the child in the custody of the parent from whom the child was alienated.
As you listen to the actual conversations, the Judge’s conduct seems capricious. But, you need to listen further, including a later conversation with a judge from Florida who describes just how frustrating it is to manage cases where a child says he or she wants no relationship with a parent. These are not parents who have abused a child or otherwise engaged in criminal conduct. One also senses that the parents in the reported case were not emotionally “out there.” To this day, a decade after the custody case was concluded, the children report they are still scarred by the experience of losing contact with the parent they were most connected with. The case also recalls the conversation between Alec Baldwin and his daughter Ireland where Baldwin asserts that Ireland’s mother, Kim Bassinger is destroying his relationship with his child.
The NPR report notes correctly that alienation is not accepted as a condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the Bible of Mental Illness. The report also notes that Richard Gardner had some very peculiar views about not just parental alienation, but other issues related to child abuse. It is also suggested that parental alienation is a device used by fathers falsely to remove children from mothers and that the psychological community is complicit in these claims because there is a lot of money to be made in effecting “reunification” with a parent from whom the child is alienated.
One also hears from children, now adults, who claim that efforts to remedy “alienation” effectively destroyed their childhood by forcing them to live with a parent whom they disliked and depriving them of time they wanted to spend with a parent who they craved. The children are articulate in describing their anguish.
The courts and the psychological community take the rap. Even to this writer, the judicial interventions sound Orwellian, reminiscent of the “Kids for Cash” scandal that emerged in 2007 in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Having been involved in child custody cases for almost four decades, I have seen the parental alienation problem from both sides. Kids often tend to bond more to one parent than another and that bond can and often does change over time. Minor children of all ages also tend to engage in “good/bad rationalization.” It is only when we form adult relationships that we begin to see good and evil as relative. Thus, kids tend to buy into suggestions that a parent with whom they are not closely aligned is bad or unworthy of affection. But, now you are the judge; a 14 year old tells you that she doesn’t care if she ever sees her mother again. The facts do not support the concept that mother is a virago. In fact, the record often demonstrates with teenagers that the favored parent is one who tolerates whatever the child wants including absence from school, open sexual relationships with peers or patent refusal to obey rules of any kind. These kinds of behavior often drive judges to employ extreme measures in an effort to reign in the child to conform with societal norms. Other children will be “perfect” when in the custody of the favored parent but engage in intensely antisocial behavior when visiting the parent with whom they are at odds.
One thing is clear. Whether parental alienation merits it owns category in the DSM is not a real concern if you are a parent dealing with an alienated child. It also seems that Gardener’s idea of removing the child from any contact with the favored parent seems extreme if not dangerous. Yet, granting the wish of complete removal from contact with a disfavored parent seems to signal that children rule the world. That’s not a comforting thought either. As an observer, it seems clear to me that parental alienation has been debated too much and studied too little. I have watched a 10 year old tell a judge that he can see no redeeming qualities in a father. Yet, as the judge began to probe precisely what caused this irreconcilable rift it became quite clear that the child either could not explain the sources for his animosity or employed adult conclusions such as “My dad is verbally abusive” or “He doesn’t consider my needs.” In the end, alienation exists and rather than debate whether it belongs in a manual, we need to understand better what makes it form and fester. It is either that or accept that alienated children will grow up in a single parent world.
The discussion merits a listen. Click here to go directly to the site.