Home > Professionals > Should Parental Alienation be a Diagnosis?

Should Parental Alienation be a Diagnosis?

Should Parental Alienation be a Diagnosis?

Original post by Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

I believe that some children are alienated against one of their parents for no specific appropriate reason. As a social worker, I believe that alienation can be a form of emotional abuse. As a lawyer, I have won changes of custody related to alienation. However, I do not believe that an alienated child should be diagnosed as having a mental disorder.

The American Psychiatric Association is currently considering revisions to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The next edition is due to come out sometime in 2012 – the DSM-V (the fifth edition). The APA has decided to consider including Parental Alienation Disorder in the DSM-V. On the surface, this could be a good thing, as it would bring legitimacy to an issue which has been highly controversial and misunderstood. But under the surface, I believe that it would create more problems, for the following five reasons:

1. It will feed the Culture of Blame in Family Courts: If it is a psychiatric diagnosis, then family courts will become further bogged down in fights over the diagnosis and who is the “all-bad” parent causing the parental alienation. Such high-conflict court battles are a significant factor in causing alienation, not solving it. A diagnosis will become a new weapon in the Family Court Culture of Blame – and create more alienation, not less, in high-conflict divorces.

2. It will build resistance to behavior change: I believe that child alienation is the result of high-conflict behavior by at least one person (usually with a personality disorder), but often by several people in a child’s environment – much of it inadvertent. I developed the New Ways for Families program of High Conflict Institute to take out the blaming and put in short-term skills training at the beginning of family court cases before anyone has been judged to be an “all-bad” parent. Once a parent has been identified as the all-bad parent, it is next to impossible to get him or her to change anything in their own behavior. Whereas, before such findings have been made, both parents can learn and use skills for dealing with each other and with their children through programs such as New Ways for Families. It’s much easier to get a parent to try flexible thinking, managed emotions and moderate behaviors, if they don’t have to be defensive about their past behavior.

3. It will further isolate children: Thirty years ago I started working with children as a therapist. They often loved the counseling, but hated having a psychiatric diagnosis. Their families and friends often teased them and they felt awkward, alone and different. If you give a child a diagnosis of parental alienation disorder, what will it mean to the child’s sense of identity growing up? Children of high conflict families often blame themselves already for the family’s problems. It seems to me that it will add more weight to the wrong person. It would be more appropriate to diagnose a parent with a personality disorder, because that is more often the driving force behind child alienation anyway.

4. It will distract from looking for other problems, such as abuse: I’m a social worker and I also believe that child abuse and domestic violence are real. Sometimes these problems are present when a child becomes alienated, and often they are not present. But there will be the temptation to see alienation as the one and only problem and identify one parent as the one and only cause. In many cases, this will cause those trying to help the family to miss other problems that also need attention.

5. It will distract from focusing on solutions: Child alienation (I prefer to call it child alienation rather than parental alienation, to avoid any presumptions that its one parent’s fault) is a result of the child’s exposure to excessive amounts of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors, by one or more people in the child’s environment. The child needs to learn that these three problems are not the way to live, rather than reinforcing them by eliminating one parent and then the other. The favored parent needs to change these behaviors as much as possible, regardless of who has physical custody. Often the rejected parent reinforces these problems by inadvertently getting angry at the child or prematurely giving up on the child (at the child’s insistence). Professionals need to show empathy for both parents and the children, rather than getting emotionally hooked into reinforcing that one parent is “all-good” (their client) and that the other parent is “all-bad.”

For more about my point of view as a therapist and attorney, see my book Don’t Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High Conflict Divorce.

What do you think on this controversial subject? Remember to be respectful of each other’s opinions.

Posted by Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq

To read more of Eddy’s work visit the High Conflict Institute

Re-Posted by Monika Logan, LBSW

Categories: Professionals
  1. September 23, 2010 at 4:12 AM

    As a social worker, I believe that parental alienation is a form of emotional abuse. I also think that some children are alienated against one of their parents for no specific appropriate reason. More accurately, I imply that some children have an affinity towards one parent due to personality traits or shared interests. Maybe, some parents do not understand “likeness” and believe they are alienated. This is just one of the countless reasons education is needed regarding parental alienation.

    The difference is that children, that are alienated for no specific reason, do not refuse to see the rejected parent. They also do not destroy property, spit on the parent, or report adult discussions that are way beyond their innocent ears and years to hear. I am speaking of conversations that are specific to his or her parent’s divorce such as, dating life, finances, alimony or the “cause” of the break-up. Clearly a child may overhear a few adult conversations, but a child that eternally reports adult matters should raise a red flag. Instead, alienated children of the no specific kind ,will tolerate the rejected parent. Stated another way, these kids at minimum can find a few redeeming qualities in the rejected parent.

    It appears that changing custody is necessary for alienated children (the brainwashed kind). Alienated kids that simply do not like to spend all their time with the other parent, such as adolescents, probably have a parent that might benefit from psycho-education and parenting classes. I agree, “that child alienation is the result of high-conflict behavior by at least one person (usually with a personality disorder) but often by the child’s environment.” However, there are those that try to intentionally alienate. And, others in the environment join in on the defamation.

    I sincerely hope the High-Conflict Institute and other efforts can reach families before this sad phenomenon shreds the hearts out of more parents and leaves kids to self-sort lies. It seems this would work best, as you mentioned, reaching before a parent has been deemed all bad. True, once the finger is pointed he or she may not change their behavior. Blaming often leads to defensiveness (may be one contributing factor to rejected parents earnest efforts—especially those rejected without cause).

    On the other hand, some parents defy court orders. And, as court is adversarial and costly, some parents opt out of multiple court appearances (to enforce the out-right defiance of the favored parent). Sadly, alienating parents may not change. One article describes these parents as vindictive, thinking they are above the law and are deliberate in their actions. Another article reported that a minority of parents suffer from personality and mental disorders may well ignore the court and spend their waking hours finding ways to exhaust the other parent emotionally and financially (Jaffe et al. 2010). Similarly, an additional study found “alienating parents did not respect the court orders” (Baker, 2010). While there are numerous, Kelly (2010)too noted that some parents defy court orders. It might be logical, although not popular, that some parents do not care (similar to Gardner’s observations).

    Consequently, if a parent opts out for court because his or her ex-spouse refuses to co-parent in peace, and the parent does not want to make the situation worse, they probably will at the least, desire for their kid to attend psycho-educational classes or attend counseling (to cope and learn proper responses).

    I also do not like labels. It makes sense to label (if we must) the alienating parent. However, as studies show, they will not get help. If they do, they do not apply what they learn (usually court ordered). As a social worker, I consider a person in his or her environment. Yet, I think it might be possible that a child can be alienated due to the behaviors of one parent. I know, not a popular view; tv shows do not favor this stance either. The fact is, many parents do not know how to respond, inadvertently making it worse (by over or under reacting). But, how are parents going to obtain these skills, if parental alienation is not deemed important (aka in the DSM). The reality of our current system is that DSM brings recognition, prompts systematic study and is linked to managed care.


    A social worker

  2. Jennifer Ryan
    September 23, 2010 at 2:33 PM

    This is the most convincing argument I have read against the diagnosis of parental alienation: because children may be further damaged. I also agree that before divorcing, parents should be educated just as they were educated before marrying so parents learn how to safeguard their children. A percentage of alienators will continue but those parents should be diagnosed with personality disorders. After all, the children are the victims (and the targeted parent), why not label the perpetrator rather than the victim.

    One factor which seems overlooked here however is the reason “all bad or all or nothing” have become standards in these custody battles. It’s again because people with personality disorders use these parameters. Others in the game understand this is not the case, but the parents with disorders do not and therefore oblige all of us to play by these rules. Shared custody is not possible with such parents because they refuse to cooperate honestly for the good of the child. Following this logic, the targeted parent can be trusted to balance time with uncooperative disordered parents even if they have complete custody. Also, if a parent has attended the course and continues so abuse his children the parent diserves to loose custody.

  3. Kay A. Sell
    October 7, 2010 at 4:08 AM

    Is sexual abuse a disorder for children? How about neglect, or physical abuse? Parental Alienation festers within the alienating parent. The effect of their inability to put the needs of their children a head of their own is evident. Their lack of compassion or unwillingness to even consider how deeply they are handicapping their children suggests that a serious and pathological disorder does exist–in the parent. Unfortunately, the evidence of the subtle brutality of brainwashing and manipulating your own children, behing closed doors is only seen in the vulnerable personalities of victims too young to even have their own identify.

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