Parents Who Alienate Children: Malicious or Mentally Ill?

Etiology may matter far less than serving the child's best interest.

Posted Dec 09, 2019

Marcia contended that Donald, her husband, posed an extreme danger to her and their three children. She provided a vivid account of her husband’s emotionally and physically abusive behavior. Specifically, she alleged that Donald had thrown their five-year-old son down the stairs causing him to suffer head trauma.  She reported that her husband kicked open a basement window, entered the marital home, then terrorized her and the children with a knife.  Alleging that Donald had been attempting to poison her and the children, she continued to fear for their lives. She told police officers that Donald had punched their youngest child. Marcia filed numerous reports with hospital emergency room physicians, law enforcement officials, and social service agencies. She was frustrated and infuriated because, after conducting investigations, none of the personnel at these agencies seemed to believe her.

Marcia finally turned to a court for help in the “struggle to protect my children and myself.” During a psychological evaluation, she said about Donald, “Everything I thought he is, he is not. Has he hidden his true self? He is not the man I met or married.” 

Marcia asserted, “It’s easy to be stupid if you trust someone. I never doubted what he said. It wasn’t difficult to deceive me. My eyes are open.” Despairing, she told me, “We’re not finding help anywhere. All this empty investigation. I’m hopeless.” She had her lawyer petition the court for sole custody and requested that their children spend time with their father only in public places.

Donald was at a loss to understand what had happened. He thought that he and Marcia had a happy marriage. Their relationship was stable enough to have two children. He knew that his wife tended to be “black and white” about people but he did not know what produced such a radical transformation in her view of their marriage. He witnessed her allegations changing from the “frivolous and untrue” to the “very serious and untrue.” At first, he thought Marcia was just being “super overprotective” toward the children. Then he thought that she was inventing allegations.  As Marcia became more accusatory, he feared that she wasn’t just manufacturing allegations but believed them. “She does think I’m a danger, a Satan,” he commented.

Results of a psychological evaluation of Donald showed him to be a stable individual without any mental disorder. Psychological testing showed him as “wanting to avoid antagonistic confrontations” and as “somewhat more forgiving than the average child custody litigant.”  Moreover, his scores did “not suggest any particular tendency to dichotomize people as being for him or against him.” 

Results of a psychological evaluation of Marcia were somewhat equivocal. On the positive side, testing showed that she was empathic, had a high degree of self-control, had a well-controlled temper and demonstrated no significant potential for antisocial behavior.  However, test scores showed, “When she feels threatened, her ideas may be oddly connected and possibly difficult to follow.”  Testing also indicated “persisting difficulties in being able to forgive and forget.”  Marcia was able to hold a highly responsible professional job and was able to take care of regular tasks of daily living. She was, however, manifesting symptoms of a “paranoid personality disorder.”

In recent blog posts I discuss parental alienation, a dynamic that results in tragedy for children. This occurs when two adults who loved each other reach a point where one parent tries to turn the child or children against the other parent and end their relationship. Caught in the middle and not knowing whom to believe, the child adopts the view of the parent on whom he is more dependent.  The child is affected by doubts about her own judgment and thinks she must make a choice. She shuts off positive feelings toward a parent whom the child loved and opts to have little or nothing to do with the parent thereby complying with the wish of the other parent. Alienating parents try to persuade the child, relatives, neighbors, teachers, social service workers and anyone else whom they can find that the other parent is unstable and incapable of serving the child’s best interest.

The allegations may be vague or, as in the case of Donald and Marcia, blatant. They may be so extreme that it is difficult to determine whether the parent making them truly believes what he or she is saying. Does the alienating parent maliciously concoct and spread an evolving web of lies, then “support” them by exaggerating or manufacturing “evidence”?  Or is the etiology of this extreme behavior a mental illness such as delusional thinking or paranoia?  It may be a formidable task (and a lengthy one) to figure out which is the case.  Or there may be a combination of a mental disorder (e.g., paranoia) and deliberate misconduct such as lying. From the standpoint of the child’s welfare and the immediate task before a court, the etiology may not matter. Regardless of the alienating parent’s motivation, the child stands to lose his relationship with a parent who loved him. 

One might reasonably contend that any parent who severs a child’s relationship with a parent is himself or herself unfit to have primary custody.  In such extreme cases, a court must intervene.  Rescue of the child is all-important. Treating the alienating parent, even if there is appropriate treatment available, clearly is secondary.  In the case of Donald and Marcia, Donald was awarded sole custody of the child. Marcia was permitted supervised visitation with the children. She emphatically denied that she had a mental illness or that she needed treatment of any sort.

After the court hearing, Donald told me, “The optimist in me hopes she knows she does the kids harm by telling them their father tried to hurt them.” In this case, intervention came soon enough to rescue the children from a mother who was unrelenting in her contention that the father was toxic to her and the children.  Behaving quite differently, Donald was extremely careful throughout not to disparage Marcia to the children. As a result of the court’s decision and Donald’s conduct, their children were able to have a relationship with both parents.

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*The names have been changed from the actual case.