The American Psychiatric Association is trying to decide whether to add “Parental Alienation” to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
One possible definition if it makes it into DSM-5 is being offered by DR. William Bernet from Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine:
“[A] mental condition in which a child, usually one whose parents are engaged in a high conflict divorce, allies himself or herself strongly with one parent, and rejects a relationship with the other parent, without legitimate justification.”
There’s no doubt in my mind that in some divorces one parent will turn the children against the other. I’ve represented clients on both ends of this. And I’ve been a guardian ad litem trying to salvage the children’s lives in some extreme cases. In one, the children’s psychologist recommended institutionalization because the damage was so severe.
Like most things, the inclusion is embroiled in politics. Women’s rights groups and activists for victims of domestic abuse argue against including parental alienation in DSM-5. They see this as an issue being pushed by men who abuse and men who want an extra tool in their fight for custody.
I agree with these opponents that in almost every case I’ve seen, the father claims the mother caused the alienation.
But my experience does not square with the objections they raise.
Regardless of who tries to gain advantage in a proceeding, my experience with these cases is that, when a woman alienates her child from the father, the woman is angry. She has one goal in mind. To win the war by punishing the father. And her child is the single most powerful instrument she has to do the punishing with.
Having said that, there are times when a woman will have actually been abused and engage in unfortunate behavior which results in the children’s alienation from their father. But that’s not justification for avoiding the repair her abuse has caused to the children, whether her abuse was intentional or a reaction to the father’s abuse.
As a general rule, children love their parents. Both of them. And even in the face of extreme physical and sexual abuse I’ve seen kids express love for the abuser and a desire to maintain a relationship. They obviously would rather have that relationship not include the abuse. But kids don’t easily write a parent off.
I’ve also seen a parent’s abusive behavior change with treatment, so much so that the formerly abusive parent proves to be the better parent to care for the children.
All of this causes me to question at least part of the definition being offered by DR. Bernet. The last three words in his definition “without legitimate justification” don’t make sense. Looking from the child’s point of view, there is always legitimate justification for the child’s behavior. One of two adults who the child trusts more than anyone else in the world has caused the child to not want to have anything to do with the child’s other parent.
It’s looking from the parents’ angle that there is no justification. There may indeed be serious behavioral problems that the other parent (usually the father) has which need to be addressed before a relationship with the child is safe. But turning a child against that parent is not helpful in resolving those issues. And certainly I’ve seen no indication that it’s in the child’s best interest.
What’s more, looking at whether or not there is justification raises all sorts of treatment problems. Was there really abuse? Or did the parent doing the alienation plant that idea. I’ve even seen the interview techniques used by mental health worker’s leave a serious question as to whether or not the child’s answers were more a response to the questioning than a disclosure of actual abuse.
And what about the other justification I hear so often: Abandonment?
Again, it’s impossible many times to figure out what’s actually happening. Did the father abandon the child? Or did the mother engage in a campaign to keep the father away. Move without telling the father. Not provide a phone number or other way of contact. Call DCFS or the police every time the father finally located her and the children and obtained a parent time schedule from the court.
No matter the mother’s “justification,” the alienation has still happened, and it’s been to the extreme detriment of the child. That’s what matters. That’s all that matters.
Parental Alienation is real. Including it in the DSM-5 will greatly assist everyone involved in these heart wrenching cases address the problem. The issue is not whether a mother can somehow justify her actions, or even as Dr. Bernet seems to suggest, that there’s a legitimate reason for the alienation looking at it from the child’s angle.
The issue is resolving problems between a child and one or more parents, as well as resolving problems between the parents themselves.
By including parental alienation in the DSM-5 the, expert’s testimony in this area can be given more credence in court. This aids the court, the guardian ad litem, the mental health professional who is called as an expert, the DCFS case worker, and by far most important, the treating mental health worker for the child and the child’s parents.
Our goal needs to be that every parent encourages a relationship between their children and the other parent. If there’s abuse, lets concentrate on resolving that issue. But let’s not try to say that parental alienation isn’t real. Or somehow suggest that it’s real but can be legitimately justified.
There is no justification for parental alienation.
Written by Waine Riches