Hope for alienated parents

'Parental Alienation – Science and Law' by Demosthenes Lorandos and William Bernet (Charles C Thomas Pub Ltd), reviewed by Dr Sue Whitcombe.

In the last 30-40 years there has been an explosion in research, enquiry and consequent understanding of the factors which impact on the healthy development of a child. Child abuse, exploitation, domestic violence, parental mental health and functioning – including drawing these factors together in an understanding of the cumulative and multiplicative effect in Adverse Childhood Experiences. Where research and enquiry has led, improved public awareness, practitioner training, evidence-based intervention and protection in law has followed.

Parental alienation – a child’s resistance to, rejection of or refusal to engage in their relationship with a good-enough loving parent – is the latest of these factors. In some sectors, the suggestion that a child can and does resist a parent or care-giver who has not caused them harm is rejected out of hand. However, those who work with children and families forensically and therapeutically increasingly recognise this psychological response and the impact it has on the child. Parental Alienation – Science and Law seeks to bring together the research that creates the foundation for the assessment, identification and intervention in such cases.

The first section of the book – Clinical Considerations and Research – brings together theory, assessment, prevention and intervention as well as empirical research. Several chapters challenge the myths and misinformation around parental alienation. As a psychologist who works with children and families, I found Freeman’s chapter on The Psychosocial Assessment of Contact Refusal useful. Of utmost importance, particularly to those engaged as an expert in family law cases, is the recognition that we do not seek to find evidence of parental alienation, but we seek to identify why a child appears resistant to a parent. Freeman details an unbiased assessment and differential diagnostic approach which considers all the reasons a child may be refusing – including maltreatment, avoidance of conflict and normal preference. A range of psychometric instruments, the five factor model for assessment of parental alienation and a protocol for the assessment sequence are covered.

Of importance and relevance to everyone who works with children and families is Harman and Matthewson’s chapter Parental Alienating Behaviors. Increasingly, there is an understanding of parental alienation as a form of family violence, with many of the identified alienating behaviours firmly rooted in power and control. A modified ‘Power and Control’ wheel is included with clear explication of abusive behaviours including emotional, economic and physical abuse, coercion, using threats and intimidation, isolation and use of privilege. 

Warshak’s chapter on prevention, management and remedy takes us through the rationale of intervention, before outlining a range of approaches applicable in particular categorisations. As yet, there is a lack of comprehensive awareness of parental alienation in the workforce who encounter children and families as a core function of their practice. Far too often, children and families do not come to the attention of services, including child protection services, until their maladaptive functioning is entrenched and much damage has occurred. As wider recognition and understanding is reached, there will be a greater opportunity to ensure early intervention aimed at preventing entrenchment – with far better outcomes for the children involved. Such interventions include education, psychotherapeutic interventions and firm, timely judicial response. This chapter usefully draws together these early interventions with those for more complex and entrenched cases. These include Multi Modal Family Interventions (MMFI), placing children with a rejected parent and temporary removal of children from a harmful parent. 

The second section of the book – Legal Issues – brings together chapters on historical accounts of alienating behaviours, the admissibility of the construct of parental alienation in law, international perspectives, public policy initiatives and tips for expert testimony. While the international perspective is included, there is a heavy emphasis on case law from the USA. As a psychologist who provides expert assessment in the family courts in the UK, I have found this to be much less burdensome than is often suggested in the international literature. In UK courts, particularly family courts, there is much less reliance on a diagnostic framework. British psychologists are more inclined to work from a formulation approach where they seek to help the court understand how the functioning of individuals, the dynamics in a family and contextual factors, impact on a child. Diagnosis without a clear recommendation to improve outcomes for a child is less than helpful. 

The final chapter – Public Policy Initiatives Related to Parental Alienation – is an excellent round-up of proposals which seek to change the landscape for children and families caught up in this dynamic. From prevention policies, recognition of parental alienation through to the education of mental health and legal professionals: there is much here to bring hope to children and families and those working with them, wherever you are in the world. 

- Reviewed by Dr Sue Whitcombe, Counselling Psychologist

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