The Malta Independent 17 May 2022, Tuesday

The hidden scourge of parental alienation

Sunday, 2 January 2022, 09:53 Last update: about 6 months ago

Mark Said

Some time ago, a study was commissioned by a technical committee set up by the government in January of last year to raise awareness about parental alienation. The result was unexpectedly shocking. More than 80% did not know what parental alienation means. Consequently, I believe that it is time to take stock of where we are now with parental alienation. Sadly, as in so many areas of life and law, our public debate appears to descend into pushing and shoving between two distinctly opposed groups. There is currently a battle raging between two camps: those who state that parental alienation is no more than another tool of an abusive parent who makes such allegation to cover up his own violence, and those who assert it is a prevalent and highly damaging form of emotional abuse.

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If you are newly divorced, going through a messy separation, or even if you split from a partner a while ago, you might easily feel the effects of parental alienation. It is a situation in which one parent uses strategies, brainwashing, alienating or programming, to distance a child from the other parent. Parental alienation syndrome is a description of the resulting symptoms in the child. The child psychologist, Richard Gardner, who first coined the term parental alienation syndrome (PAS) in 1985, used it to describe behaviours in a child who is exposed to parental alienation.

One parent might discredit the other parent to a child or children the two share. Accusations can be mild or they can become incredibly severe. This distorts the child’s perception of the alienated parent, regardless of how great their relationship was with that parent before. Basically, the parent-child relationship suffers, whether the allegations are true or not. The parent doing the bad-mouthing is called the alienator and the parent who is the subject of the criticism is the alienated. To be diagnosed with PAS, the child should have a strong bond with the alienator and previously have had a strong bond with the alienated and should show negative behaviours when with the alienated parent and have difficulty with custody transitions. These are just some of the forms parental alienation may take. All those concerned must be aware that PAS is a tricky thing to use in legal contexts when it comes to custody agreements because it is hard to prove. Ironically, it is in custody disputes that PAS comes up the most. PAS can also be used to continue, hide or reinforce abuse. This is a serious situation that can involve criminal allegations.

This is where the role of social workers becomes extremely important. They have to have a greater awareness of all possible symptoms and indications of parental alienation in order to be able to detect and identify parental alienation syndromes. Social workers are the front-liners in the fight against parental alienation. Social workers may encounter these problems in a number of settings, such as family service agencies, schools and family court, as well as in private practice working with high-conflict divorcing couples, parents who believe that the other parent has or will turn the children against them, alienated children refusing to see a parent, adults who are still alienated from a parent or elders who have “lost” their children to parental alienation. While some social workers may be unaware of the name for this particular phenomenon, they have probably dealt with it over the course of their careers. For example, clients may enter individual therapy presenting with anxiety, depression or relationship problems and later reveal that they have been cut off from one parent by another parent. These clients may be unaware of the meaning of the lost relationship and may even minimise its effect on their growth, development and current mental health concerns.

Children referred to a school social worker for acting out or experiencing academic problems may casually reveal that they have no contact with a “hated” parent. When questioned about the absent parent, these children may vehemently denounce the parent as “good riddance to bad rubbish”. The family of such a child may be manoeuvering behind the scenes to exclude the other parent from the child’s school life by misrepresenting that parent’s intentions to school staff, withholding information from that parent to create the appearance of a lack of interest and removing contact information from school records. Even though alienated children appear to be unduly influenced by the alienating parent, they will adamantly insist that the decision to reject the targeted parent is theirs alone. They deny that their feelings about the targeted parent are in any way influenced by the alienating parent and often invoke the concept of free will to describe their decision. Unless the social worker is familiar with parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome, he or she is missing a useful conceptual framework for understanding how one parent is able to poison a child’s relationship with the other parent in the absence of just cause.

Parental alienation is a live issue and has an adverse impact on the mental health and financial means of those affected while court orders are blatantly breached. Judges routinely minimise domestic abuse in the courtroom, mothers are disbelieved, dismissed and punished through the contact arrangements. Welfare reports are often carried out by unsuitable and underqualified assessors. In this sense, there was an excellent Report drawn up by Sylvana Brannon entitled A Review of Legal Interventions in Severe Parental Alienation Cases on behalf of ELSA Malta Review.

What matters here is the behaviour of some parents, its impact on the children and what we can do to get these very serious cases dealt with as quickly and fairly as possible. Time really is of the essence in such a situation. The more time that passes, the less likely any relationship between child and alienated parent will be restored. Parental alienation is an emotional act of violence that is aimed at an adult but critically wounds a child.

 

Dr Mark Said is an advocate

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