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Leave that child alone

How parent alienation is damaging children

Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

'Parental alienation' was first defined by Dr Richard Gardner as a syndrome in which one parent (the alienating parent) teaches the child to reject the other parent (the target parent) via conscious and subconscious techniques like brainwashing.

Additionally, the child is taught to be scared around the target parent and avoid contact with them. Parental alienation results in the breakdown of the child's relationship with the target parent.

The child will also be noted to contribute to the vilification of the allegedly hated parent. The defining feature of parental alienation is the alienating parent's attempt to eradicate the relationship between the child and the target parent without reasonable justification.

False allegations of abuse may also form a component of parental alienation and can be a powerful technique used by the alienating parent to achieve the elimination of the target parent from the child's life.Alienating parents pressure their children, consciously and unconsciously, to reject the target parent during court proceedings

Parental alienation is nowadays central in child custody litigation, with false allegations of abuse by the alienating parent against the target parent dominating the family court, to ensure custody or residency court rulings in their favour.

Furthermore, alienating parents pressure their children, consciously and unconsciously, to reject the target parent during court proceedings, resulting in additional distress for the child.

Cases of parental alienation require a synergistic combination of legal and clinical management if families are to be helped to function better. Judicial intervention will depend on the severity of the alienation rather than on the commonly applied yet ill-defined notion of an appropriate outcome for the child, as is often the unfortunate case.

Court decisions taken in the US and UK have included leaving the child with the alienating parent while the parents undergo therapy and ordering that the victim child reside with the target parent.

Interventions should take into account the severity of alienation, and treatment should be guided by three principles: a healthy redirection of the needs of the alienating parent, restoring the victim child’s healthy relationship with the target parent and hence the child’s appropriate role within the family, and avoiding blame.

Research proves that parental alienation can only be eliminated or improved by bestowing primary parental responsibility, including custody and residency, of the alienated child on the target parent. Separation of the target child from the alienating parent was not proven to harm the child.

Despite previous suggestions, no study recommends or supports waiting for parental alienation to spontaneously resolve itself, or allowing the target child to decide custody or residency.

The weight of evidence suggests that leaving the child under the care of the alienating parent was found to aggravate parental alienation. Such a strategy appears to enable the alienation to continue and even become more severe.

This continued alienation causes further damage to the target parent-child relationship and negative psychological and social outcomes for the target child, such as major depressive disorder, low self-esteem, and insecure attachment styles as adults.

A change in custody and residency in favour of the target parent is the only effective strategy supported by evidence to improve targeted relationships and reduce distress in the alienated child, especially since separating the child from the alienating parent was not observed to be harmful to the child.

These findings coincide with previous literature suggesting that courts should implement strict visitation schedules and changes in custody and residency to the target parent.

Court-ordered therapy was only effective in resolving parental alienation when implemented before parental alienation reaches the severe stage and becomes compounded by the adversarial court process.

However, traditional therapy in isolation does not address parental alienation effectively, and in these situations a change in custody and residency in favour of the target parent is warranted.

Sylvana Brannon is the author of an academic paper on parental alienation

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