Cutting Through the Noise on “Parental Alienation”—A controversial psychological theory that impacted custody cases for decades is now under fire

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Parental Alienation is a hotly disputed, widely misunderstood, and oft-misused concept that can distort custody cases—sometimes with dangerous or damaging outcomes.

It’s essential to understand the context and history of the Parental Alienation theory and how misapplication can have a detrimental—even devastating—effect in family court.

Under California law, the child’s best interests, except in rare cases, include consistent and meaningful contact with both parents. Efforts by one parent to isolate a child from the other parent, particularly in violation of custody orders, are taken very seriously by the court. For example, interfering with court-ordered parenting time by repeatedly canceling or ignoring set dates or refusing to communicate about co-parenting can result in reduced, restricted, or even lost custody.

But for decades, alleged attempts by one parent to disrupt or tarnish the child’s relationship with the other parent or turn the child against them—by speaking negatively, lying, pressuring the child to choose between parents, coaching the child to request a specific custody arrangement, and so forth—have influenced custody cases, including those involving accusations of domestic violence or child abuse.

While on the surface, it may seem plausible that an angry, vengeful parent could deliberately shape a child’s opinion of the other parent—” alienating” them by sowing hostility, distrust, and fear —the Parental Alienation theory is based on an unreliable and problematic premise.

The thorny history of parental Alienation

Parental Alienation, as initially defined, is the theory that a parent can effectively brainwash or program a child to falsely believe they have been abused (physically, sexually, or emotionally) by the other parent—resulting in the child developing a condition called Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), in which the child has been wrongly persuaded to hate, fear, and avoid the accused parent. Parental Alienation has been treated as a form of abuse:

  • Intentionally poisoning a child’s mind to damage a parental relationship
  • Weaponizing the child in an attempt to sway a custody case
  • Punishing an ex-spouse

But PA and PAS are highly disputed. Many experts dismiss PAS as “junk science” and is not recognized as a mental health disorder by psychiatric authorities. The American Psychological Association has continually declined to include it in their diagnostic manual, the DSM-V; both the World Health Organization and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges have condemned it. This past spring, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council released a special report calling parental Alienation a “pseudo-concept” and “recommended member states prohibit its use in family courts,” according to a report by ProPublica.

Where did the idea of parental Alienation come from, and why has it had so much influence in family court?

The parental alienation syndrome theory dates back to the 1980s, when Dr. Richard Gardner, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in New York, unilaterally identified this psychiatric condition, quickly seized upon by attorneys of parents battling it out in bitter custody cases.

Although he was a prolific writer with over 30 titles, Gardner’s books were self-published by his Creative Therapeutics company and not peer-reviewed.

It’s also crucial to note that Dr. Gardner had a lucrative side hustle as a paid expert witness in over 400 custody cases in 25 states—chiefly defending fathers who were accused of abuse. Many experts contend that his theory was aimed at discrediting children and, thereby, the mothers who allegedly manipulated and brainwashed them, thus giving custody rights to fathers whom Gardner believed were falsely accused.

Gardner’s own 1987 book, “The Parental Alienation Syndrome and the Differentiation Between Fabricated and Genuine Child Sex Abuse,” reads, “Although the mothers in these situations may have a variety of motivations for programming their children against their fathers, the most common one relates to the old saying, ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.'”

It’s also vital to view Gardner’s theory in light of other disturbing and radical opinions; for example, “In the 1990s, Gardner came under fire for arguing that pedophilia has benefits for human survival,” ProPublica’s research found.

Parental Alienation’s troubling impact on custody decisions

Although PAS as a psychological condition has been largely rejected, “the idea of parental alienation as a pattern of behavior” persists in family court, The Guardian reported last year, and the theory has many problems.

Invoking PA or PAS in court can unfairly paint the person who has made allegations of child abuse as unstable, unreliable, hysterical, delusional, vindictive, and even abusive—sometimes causing them to lose custody.

But the most insidious result is that false PA claims can invert, distort, and distract from confirmed child abuse cases. Any allegation or evidence of domestic violence or abuse must be treated seriously and thoroughly investigated.

It is telling that PAS “is diagnosed almost exclusively in family courts — either by privately hired expert witnesses or court-appointed custody evaluators,” as ProPublica reported. Despite its shady history, the notion of Parental Alienation has persisted in custody disputes partly because it is easy to suggest the concept without expressly calling it by its increasingly polarizing name.

The seasoned California custody lawyers at SFLG are skilled and focused legal advocates for custody, parental visitation, and child support.

By Debra Schoenberg


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