Caught Between Parents

Supporting children through the challenges of divorce

Domestic Violence by Proxy: Getting It Right and Getting It Wrong

A comment on Silberg's (2009) attempt to explain away parental alienation.

In 2009 Joyanna Silberg of the Leadership Council attempted to both acknowledge and discredit parental alienation. She is mostly wrong and a little bit right. The part she gets right is that some parents can and do wage a campaign of manipulation and abuse against their former spouse by attempting to convince the children that the other parent does not love them. So far so good. She recognizes the possibility that some children can be manipulated to reject a parent who does not deserve the loss of their child's love. This is the essence of parental alienation and what I, among many others, have been writing about for quite some time—with much resistance I might add on the part of the Leadership Council.

Here is what she gets wrong:

First, she claims that this is only something that fathers do against mothers as part of an overall program of domestic violence. In making this claim, she denies the possibility that mothers can engage in this kind of behavior and she refuses to accept that it can occur in the absence of other forms of domestic violence. There is not a shred of evidence that alienation only occurs by fathers and plenty of evidence to the contrary. Frankly, I am shocked and dismayed at the gender bias and utter insensitivity to the many fathers who have lost custody of their children due to parental alienation. Not only that but this position—that it only happens to mothers—denies the pain of women by dismissing the experience of step-mothers, grand-mothers, aunts, and daughters, all of whom suffer when a mother turns a child against the father. This is an ideologically based decision that has no place in a scientific discussion.

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Second, she claims that calling this behavior "parental alienation" is not strong enough to convey the criminal pattern of terroristic behaviors employed by batterers. This appears to be an aesthetic argument as opposed to a scientific one. I can only ask, "strong enough for what purposes?"

Third, she claims that, "Unlike battering fathers, PAS inducing parents, according to Gardner, are often unconscious of what they are doing." This is a misstatement as well as over-simplification of reality and of what Gardner wrote about. Gardner wrote about many possible motivational factors that could result in a parent engaging in alienation tactics but as far as I know he never claimed that all alienators were aware of their motives and the likely result of their behavior. Certainly, more recent parental alienation writers have acknowledged the multi-factorial nature of parental alienation and no one claims to know what is in the hearts and minds of all alienators.

Fourth, she writes, "The most dangerous aspect of Gardner's PAS theory is that that the alienating parent's behavior is theorized to be so subtle as to be unobservable." This is both untrue and misleading. No one in the field has made such a blatantly simplistic statement that it impossible to observe any parental alienation behaviors.

Fifth, she dismisses PAS as "overly general" and "not supported by careful research." While hundreds of articles now exist in dozens of countries documenting and describing parental alienation, there appear to be no published articles on the topic of domestic violence by proxy by the person who created the term, Alina Patterson, or anyone else. The scientific evidence to support the existence of PAS is mounting. In fact, July of last year I passed a Daubert hearing in the state of Massachusetts in which the science underlying PAS theory was thoroughly challenged by the courts, which ultimately decided that to accept the theory as scientifically sound. I call on the Leadership Council to cease its campaign of denigration against PAS and accept—as the courts have—that this is a real problem that affects parents—both mothers and fathers. To do anything less is to do great harm to children and families.

 

Amy J.L. Baker, Ph.D., researches parental alienation and children of divorce.

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