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Discredited “syndrome” has practical relevance:
Richard Gardner, psychiatrist, first described something he called
"parental alienation syndrome " in 1985 to explain problematic
behavior in children who rejected their access parent on the basis of
indoctrination or brainwashing by the custodial parent. While his research
and description of issues did not meet the requirements and professional
standards to establish a "syndrome", and many have criticized
his work, many still find merit in the concepts.
Gardner's description of what he called parental alienation syndrome (PAS) is differentiated from "parental alienation" (PA). PAS was presented as a diagnosis of the child who exhibits behaviour due to parental alienation where such behaviour further disrupts the relationship with the access parent. PA, however, refers to the alienating behaviour of the custodial parent specifically. Both are viewed as destructive to the social-familial development of children, considered manipulative and form of psychological abuse. The goal of parental alienation is to restrict or eliminate the role of the access parent in the life of the child. The motivation of the custodial parent may be anything from vengeance to financial gain.
defining variable of PA is a custodial parent who feigns interest in the
child’s access to the non-custodial parent, but where “serious
concerns” undermine successful access. Serious concerns range from
allegations of moral deficiencies to substandard parenting to abusive
behaviour. The serious concerns have no actual basis in fact or are gross
exaggerations of minor parental differences. There is no bona-fide
evidence of actual abuse. The upset, anger or depression felt and
displayed by the alienated parent is then used against them to support the
position of the alienating parent.
who engage in such behaviour are fully convincing of the righteousness of
their position particularly on the basis of a one-sided account of issues.
This elicits support from friends, lawyers and doctors who may be induced
into crusading the custodial parent’s cause thus reinforcing and
perpetuating the alienating behaviour.
lawyers and doctors are cautioned against necessarily accepting the
position of any parent on the basis of a one-sided argument during a child
custody or access dispute unless there is clear third party support for
claims of untoward behaviour by the access parent. This is not the same as
suggesting that parent’s unsupported claims and concerns be rejected.
Rather, people are advised to take a neutral position and
demonstrate concern for the well-being of the children until there has
been an assessment from an assessor familiar with these issues.
extreme cases alienating parents may not be amenable to changing their
behaviour on the basis of information, feedback or confrontation. As such,
some parents will require strict court orders to assure access with
sanctions for lack of follow-through.
regard to the child, time well spent in the company of the access parent
provides opportunity for learning and experiences that contradicts any
supposed concern with the access parent. In the event a child still has
difficulty adjusting, counseling may be in order for the access parent and
for the access parent would be to thicken their skin against the rejection
of the child and develop an understanding of their child’s loyalty bind
with the alienating parent. Counseling for the child takes a cognitive
approach whereby their positive experiences of the access parent are used
to challenge their negative beliefs. The approach presented as most
therapeutic for the custodial parent is considered to be structural. They
require a clearly defined access regime with sanctions for non-compliance
from the courts. Sanctions can range anywhere from monetary fines to
change of custody to supervised access for the alienating parent.
continued, children whose relationship to the access parent is
deliberately undermined may lose the opportunity for healthy parental
relationships, the foundation of future social and familial interpersonal
relationships. Understanding, identifying and intervening as necessary can
mitigate problems in the child. Interventions may require intrusive and
forthright court action.
Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
For information on Direnfeld's book, Raising Kids Without Raising Cane, click here.
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