- A child's refusal to see a parent after a separation or divorce can be devastating to all involved.
- Parental alienation and realistic estrangement are two forms of a child's resistance.
- Other explanations must be considered in analyzing what is going on, including age and cognitive abilities.
When a child resists or refuses contact with a parent—usually in a separation or divorce—it can be devastating for the child, the parents, and everyone involved. Over the past 15 years or so, resist/refuse dynamics have been increasing to about 20% to 25% of contested child custody cases in family courts. In many of these situations, mental health professionals and legal professionals are involved in analyzing and arguing about who is to blame. A proper analysis requires a broad understanding of all possible explanations for the child’s behavior, with some ethical and clinical boundaries on how such an analysis is done.
Parental alienation has been defined as “a mental condition in which a child—usually one whose parents are engaged in a high-conflict separation or divorce—allies strongly with one parent (the preferred parent) and rejects a relationship with the other parent (the alienated parent) without legitimate justification.”1 While this has not been generally accepted as a syndrome, alienating behaviors by a preferred parent are commonly recognized in family courts and can influence the decision-making process. These can include badmouthing the other parent to the child, intense emotions (yelling, crying) about the other parent, interfering with the other parent’s time with the child, and so forth.
On the other hand, this is the term that is frequently used to describe when the child resists or refuses contact with a parent because of the rejected parent’s own behavior. This may include domestic violence, child abuse, emotionally intense parenting, very poor parenting, or the lack of a prior attachment bond with this parent. In this situation, the favored parent’s protective behaviors are usually considered realistic and not out of proportion to the abusive behavior of the rejected parent.
Since 2001, two leading researchers on parenting disputes in family law set several factors that must be considered when a child resists a parent. These are still widely recognized for family courts to consider:
- Child factors (age, cognitive abilities, etc.).
- Parent conflict (before and after separation).
- Sibling relationships.
- Preferred parent factors (negative beliefs, behaviors, personality disorders).
- Rejected parent factors (negative beliefs, behaviors, personality disorders).
- The adversarial court process.
- Third parties, such as professionals and family members aligned with one “side."
- Lack of functional co-parenting, poor or conflictual parental communication.2
In the 1980s and 1990s, when a child resisted contact with the rejected parent, it was assumed that this parent must have done something to the child, usually some form of child abuse (in extreme cases, child sexual abuse). Parental alienation was considered a non-existent problem. However, by 2000 and especially over the past 15 years, cases of resist/refuse dynamics have increased dramatically and both fathers and mothers have been the rejected parent. From this writer’s experience, most family law professionals and mental health professionals now agree that alienation is a problem and that it is not a gender problem.
Therefore, parental alienation is now a strong consideration when there is resistance or refusal by a child. However, assuming that a child’s resistance must be caused by the preferred parent is also problematic. As two of the strongest proponents of alienation theory have stated:
“This means that it is not possible to determine based solely on the rejecting behavior of a child whether that child is alienated or estranged. Any clinician who claims that all children who reject a parent are alienated or claims that it is possible to make a determination regarding whether a child is alienated based on the child’s behavior alone is failing to consider the total clinical picture and is therefore making a fundamental clinical error. No mental health professional should endorse this premise as it violates PA theory as well as sound clinical practice.”3
To avoid assumptions, a diagnosis of parental alienation relationship problem has been proposed to the committee for the diagnostic manual of mental health professionals (presently the DSM-5-TR), with five factors that should be considered: 1) child resists a relationship with a parent; 2) prior positive relationship with the rejected parent; 3) lack of abuse by the rejected parent; 4) alienating behaviors by the preferred parent; and 5) child behaviors consistent with alienation. If one of these five factors is not present, then it is not a case of parental alienation.4
For example, if the child had witnessed one parent punching, kicking, or strangling the other parent, that would be domestic violence and considered by many to be a form of child abuse (the children always know). Therefore, factor 3 would not be fulfilled because there is an abuse history.
How an Investigation Should Be Done
While it would be easy to make assumptions, a broadly experienced and open-minded mental health professional must fully investigate the situation, including interviewing all the children and adults involved. As one ethics expert has said: “Judges, attorneys, and clinicians have increasingly become aware that it is unethical to offer an opinion about child custody or access without having evaluated the entire family system.”5
This means that it would be inappropriate to form a plan after only interviewing the child, or one parent and the child. This would also exclude relying solely on reviewing documents without doing any interviews. In addition, since one cannot reach a conclusion based on the child’s behavior alone, there must be evidence that the preferred parent has actually engaged in alienating behaviors (factor 4).
“It is not sufficient to assume or infer that the behaviors are occurring. They must be observed (through actions, attitudes, written statements, interviews, reports from collaterals, and so forth).”6
Resistance and refusal dynamics must be carefully analyzed with no presumptions in order to be accurate. Making a mistake could expose a child to an abusive environment or ruin a parent’s reputation based on false allegations. It is essential to analyze these cases accurately, ethically, and with compassion for all.
1. Lorandos, D. and Bernet, W. Parental Alienation: Science and Law. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, 2020, 5-6.
2. Fidler, B.J. and Bala, N. "Conclusion: Concepts, Controversies and Conundrums of 'Alienation:' Lessons Learned in a Decade and Reflections on Challenges Ahead." Family Court Review, Vol. 58, No. 2, April 2020, 576-603, 579.
3. Lorandos and Bernet, Parental Alienation, 209.
4. Id. at 209-231.
5. Barsky, A. Clinicians in Court: A Guide to Subpoenas, Depositions, Testifying, and Everything Else You Need to Know , 2nd Ed. New York: Guilford Press, 2012, 209.
6. Lorandos and Bernet, Parental Alienation, 215.