Shrink Rap: Parental Alienation, What’s It All About?

Shrink Rap: Parental Alienation, What’s It All About?

In the circle of forensic evaluators, and families dealing with parental alienation issues, the fact that alienation exists is quite real. Dr. Susannah Smith speaks out on the subject.

There was some concern about “Parental Alienation Syndrome” or PAS, which developed as a result of a questionnaire produced by by Richard Gardner, M.D., who did some of the first research on the subject. The PAS was discredited because the survey was not found to pass measures of test reliability and validity. However, the concept of alienation is quite valid and describes what happens when a child becomes detached from or hostile towards a parent.

The parent favored by the child(ren) is often responsible for influencing the child(ren)’s attitude toward the unfavored parent. Children often resist visiting the other parent, or refuse a visit altogether. That creates problems for everyone.

When helping families with these issues, it is necessary to clarify the fact the issues as set forth in this article do not apply to families in which there has been domestic violence. In those families, protecting children from an abusive parent is clearly indicated.

There are 6 criteria used for determining if parental alienation has occurred and, if so, to what extent: (Bill Fyfe, Ed.D):

• The child expresses unreasonable negative beliefs, feelings and/or behaviors about the rejected parent that are disproportionate to the child’s actual experience of the rejected parent, and the child denigrates this parent for absurd reasons.
• The child’s use of language is indicative of undue influence by the favored parent.
• The favored parent exhibits alienating behaviors (described below).
• The favored parent intentionally provides substantially false and/or inaccurate information about the unfavored or rejected parent
• There is no evidence of abuse or neglect by the rejected parent; the rejected parent is not a deficient parent.
• The rejected parent does not intentionally misrepresent relevant information.

Alienating behaviors of the favored parent include: bad mouthing; erasing or changing the children’s memories; limiting or excluding contact; and undermining trust, respect, authority and love of the other parent. Until approximately the ages of 6 or 7, children cannot always distinguish between their own experience and memory, versus what others have said, or what they saw happen to others. Parents can influence their memory of events.

The effects of such behavior are that the child begins to split off from one parent and favor another. Children align with the favored parent and often begin to malign and dislike the unfavored parent. Children are often cruel without guilt toward this parent. The degree of alienation is viewed on a continuum from mild, to moderate, to severe. In mild alienation, children express some protest to seeing the other parent. In severe alienation, the children are refusing to visit or talk to the parent.

Reunification therapy has been devised to help intervene in these difficult situations.

The alienating parent (the favored parent) is usually required to insure that children participate. If they claim the children refuse to go, the current professional, and hopefully judicial, attitude is that children do what is considered in their best interest, like going to school, etc. And if a parent is unable to get their child to cooperate, the child might be considered out of control of the parent. Some children have been taken away from those parents who continue to alienate and will not enforce cooperation.

Therapists trained in family systems and alienation can work with these alienating parents, and with the children and the unfavored parent to re-establish a bond. It is important to understand that children need both parents, and cutting them off completely from one parent for no justifiable reason causes harm to the child.

Again, it must be reiterated that the findings do not apply to families in which there has been domestic violence, or the unfavored parent has been found to be deficient in any way.

About Dr. Susannah Smith:

Dr. Susannah Smith

Dr. Susannah Smith is a licensed practicing clinical psychologist and organizational development consultant, with offices in Telluride and Ridgway. She is licensed in Colorado, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Dr. Smith has conducted workshops on child sexual abuse, domestic violence, and sexual assault, and is a mediator and custody evaluator. If you would like to contact her, she can be reached at;; or 970-728-5234.

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