Parental Alienation and the Bystander Effect
Combating the seeming indifference to suffering
Posted May 25, 2016
This is a true story. A parent recently made a call to the local Family Maintenance Enforcement Program, which had indicated by letter that should he have any concerns about ongoing child support issues, he could call the agency to discuss matters. His "concern" had in fact escalated over a period of thirteen years of forced estrangement from his child to a profound fear for the health and well-being of his son, now in his early twenties. Despite the invitation to call the agency, the curt reply to his desperate entreaties to the program officer was, first, that parental alienation was not an issue of professional concern to the agency as "the jury is still out on whether parental alienation even exists"; and second, that there was absolutely nothing the agency could do for him. The call was then abruptly ended by the program officer.
Tragically, this lack of response is routinely reported by parents alienated from their children, who seek the help of legal, child welfare and mental health professionals, and anyone who will listen to them, in a desperate attempt to find someone to intervene in this serious abuse of their children. As they muster the courage to break through shame and speak about their fears, anxiety, and profound grief, they continue to be subjected to a mean-spirited cultural response, where their woundedness is often ignored or, worse, mocked and ridiculed. In the rare instances where parents are listened to, there is rarely any offer of support in regard to the alienation. These responses are illustrations of the "bystander effect," which is the typical response not only of lay people but also, alarmingly, of child and family professionals, to reports of parental alienation.
In such an atmosphere alienated parents feel cut off and further alienated, isolated and alone, and their children remain at risk. The bystander effect is an attitude of indifference and apathy, a simple refusal to get involved or offer assistance to another in need. Most alienated parents are thus justifiably afraid of disclosing the alienation, trauma and abuse suffered by their children and themselves. They are repeatedly subjected to the bystander effect, particularly by professional helpers.
The "professional bystander" effect, where the lack of action of others discourages a professional service provider from intervening in an emergency situation, applies to the phenomenon of parental alienation; and the main features of the bystander effect, including ambiguity, a reticence to act, lack of empathy, perceiving abuse as "normal" human behavior, fear of becoming a target, and diffusion of responsibility, are all present in regard to parental alienation situations in which professionals become involved. Ambivalence and ambiguity exist among professionals despite what the research says about parental alienation; often, rather than immersing and educating themselves in the research, professionals monitor the reactions of other service providers to determine if it is necessary to intervene. If it is determined that others are not reacting to the situation, bystanders will interpret the situation as not an emergency and will not intervene, an example of pluralistic ignorance. Few people want to be the first to take action in ambiguous situations, particularly if they lack empathy in regard to the suffering of those affected; and they are slow to help a victim because they believe someone else will take responsibility. This is where the denial of parental alienation among some in the mental health field is most harmful.
The bystander phenomenon is particularly tragic and alarming because parental alienation is one of the most serious, yet largely unrecognized, forms of psychological abuse toward children, and affects a much larger number of North Americans than previously assumed. Alienating parents’ behavior constitutes psychological abuse when they manipulate and influence children to participate in depriving themselves of love, nurturance, and involvement with their other parent. Denial of and indifference to this form of abuse of children is reminiscent of society’s denial in the early twentieth century of the prevalence of physical and sexual abuse of children (Warshak, 2015). Parental alienation is also a form of psychological domestic violence, as the suffering of targeted parents is deep and unending, and represents a complex trauma of profound magnitude (Kruk, 2011). According to Bernet (2010), there is not only a large body of research validating the existence and harms of parental alienation, with over 500 articles on the subject, but also the published testimonies of thousands of adults who attest to having suffered through it as children, and other parents who are currently traumatized, watching helplessly as their relationships with their children are being destroyed. Harman & Biringen (in press) sampled a representative poll of adults in the United States, and found a startling rate of 13.4% of parents reporting that they have been alienated from one or more of their children by the other parent, with half of those reporting the alienation as severe. This percentage represents approximately 10.5 million parents in the US alone who are facing what they perceive to be parental alienation. The sheer magnitude of parental alienation indicates that this is a major social problem and a social justice issue for children and families. This takes the issue out of the realm of disinterested reportage and into the realm of action.
And this is where the problem lies: professional inaction in the face of abundant evidence of the large-scale and serious harms of parental alienation to children and parents. The real issue is the indifference of legal and mental health professionals who seem to be unaware of the existing research, deny the existence of parental alienation, and contribute to the harms suffered by children and parents through their inaction. Professional incompetence in both the assessment and treatment of parental alienation is a serious problem, as many mental health practitioners lack knowledge and competence in working with this population (Lorandos et al, 2013; Baker & Sauber, 2012).
This is not an acceptable state of affairs. Mental health professionals need to be held accountable, for both their denial and their inaction. It is the responsibility of professional service providers to support parents in the fulfillment of their parental responsibilities to their children's needs. The disregard of children's primary need for the love and care of both of their parents after parental separation requires a proactive approach on the part of professionally knowledgeable and competent mental health professionals working with this population.
In regard to parental alienation, the system is the problem; that is, the roots of alienation lie primarily in the adversarial nature of legal determination of parenting after divorce. Parents are set up to fight in an effort to win primary residence or custody of their children, and the system rewards those skilled in adversarial combat. Parents often win their case by disparaging the other parent as a parent, in effect engaging in alienating behavior, and alienating behavior is thereby encouraged. Once they obtain a court order, residential parents are placed in a position to exercise their revenge with impunity, confident that the non-resident parents have little or no rights. The saying, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” holds true in primary residence awards. Thus the removal of a fit and loving parent as a primary caregiver from the life of a child, I would argue, is in itself a form of parental alienation, as children are robbed of their parent’s routine care and nurture, as well as that of their extended family.
Shared parenting, on the other hand, reduces the risk and incidence of parental alienation, because children continue to maintain meaningful routine relationships with both of their parents, and are thus less susceptible to the toxic influence of an alienating parent. At the same time, with shared parenting parents are not threatened by the potential loss of their relationship with their children, and a parent is less likely to denigrate the other parent in an effort to bolster their own sense of parental identity and obtain a primary residence order. Thus it behooves service providers to advocate for shared parenting in the interests of the children and families with whom they work.
In the words of Dietrich Boenhoffer, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act." Each of us has great potential power to act to help those in need, and to influence others to act. Above all else, in regard to parental alienation as a largely unrecognized form of child abuse and domestic violence, the message to professionals and non-professional lay people alike should be, “Don't be a bystander.” It takes moral courage to act, and in the case of parental alienation, action is urgently needed.
Baker, A. & Sauber, R. (2012). Working with Alienated Children and Families: A Clinical Guidebook. New York: Routledge.
Bernet, W. (2010). Parental Alienation, DSM-V, and ICD-11. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas.
Harman, J. & Biringen, Z. (In Press). Prevalence of Parental Alienation Drawn from a Representative Poll, Children and Youth Services Review.
Kruk, E. (2011). Divorced Fathers: Children’s Needs and Parental Responsibilities, Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.
Lorandos, D. et al. (2013). Parental Alienation: The Handbook for Mental Health and Legal Professionals. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas.
Warshak, R. (2015). Ten Parental Alienation Fallacies that Compromise Decisions in Court and in Therapy. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice.