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Troubled Parent-Child Relationships and Parental Alienation: A Brief Timeline of Progress

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Whether we are a parent, grandparent, neighbor, or a helping professional, we all can find opportunities to educate others about the damaging effects of child physical and/or emotional abuse.  I began my message in 2008, which at the time was described as “Parental Alienation Syndrome” in some professional circles, after reading my first article on the subject.  While the vocabulary linked to this horrific family and social problem will continue to change, one thing is certain:  troubled parent-child relationships are a problem that is not going away any time soon.  We all must be vigilant and strive do our part.  

It is vital that the messages and lessons we endeavor to share are conducted with kindness, compassion, and humility.  I recall an instance from several years ago involving a women’s group in which I co-led with another counselor.  A tearful woman attending the group sobbed as she described how she had not spoken to her children or met her grandchildren.  Once we left the group, my tenured, soft-hearted, and well-intended colleague however naïve, turned to me and said, “I wonder what that woman did?”  

That was my teaching opportunity and I seized it.  I respectfully replied, “Perhaps nothing, other than being a fallible human being.”  She later thanked me and said she had never heard of “Parental Alienation”.  While we never know for certain what role, if any, the woman may have played in her children not speaking to her, my co-worker left with a new understanding.  She was now aware and open to the possibility that this tearful grandmother may have been irrationally rejected by her children.  

FACT: The problem of troubled-parent child relationships has been around a very long time.  

  1. 1949 – Psychoanalyst Dr. Wilhelm Reich wrote in “Character Analysis” about parents who seek revenge on the partner through robbing him or her of the pleasure in the child. 

  2. 1980 – Dr. Judith S. Wallerstein and Dr. Joan B. Kelly described an “unholy alliance” between a narcissistically enraged parent and a particularly vulnerable older child, who together waged battle in effort to hurt and punish the other parent. 

  3. 1985 – Dr. Richard Gardner described, “Of the many types of psychological disturbance that can be brought about by such litigation, there is one that I focus on here.  Although this syndrome certainly existed in the past, it is occurring with such increasing frequency at this point that it deserves a special name.  The term I prefer to use is parental alienation syndrome.  I have introduced this term to refer to a disturbance in which children are obsessed with deprecation and criticism of a parent – denigration that is unjustified and/or exaggerated.” 

  4. 1988 – A book was published called, “The Psychologically Battered Child”.  While the term Parental Alienation was not explicitly named, concepts such “marital discord” and “family breakdown” were discussed.    

  5. 1997 – Dr. Douglas Darnall differentiated Parental Alienation from Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS).  He described Parental Alienation, rather than PAS, as any constellation of behaviors, whether conscious or unconscious, that could evoke a disturbance in the relationship between a child and the other parent.  You can't assume that the targeted parent is without fault. 

  6. 2000 – A researcher, Dr. Joan B. Kelly described “It is the embattled parent, often the one who opposes the divorce in the first place, who initiates and fuels the alignment.“

  7. 2001 – Dr. Stanley S. Clawar and Dr. Brynne V. Rivlin noted the process of parental alienation as “programming” and “brainwashing.”  They described programing as a belief system designed to damage the child’s image of the target parent in terms of his or her moral, physical, intellectual, social, emotional, and educational qualifies.  Whereas they described brainwashing to mean the application of specific techniques to control and change the child’s thoughts and perceptions.

  8. 2001 – Dr. Richard Gardner described Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) as a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child-custody disputes.  Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification.  It results from the combination of programming (brainwashing), parent’s indoctrinations, and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent.  When true parental abuse and/or neglect is present, the child’s animosity may be justified, and so the Parental Alienation Syndrome explanation for the child’s hostility is not applicable.  Different than many clinicians, he described that the programming parent is primarily responsible for the creation of the disorder in the child, and if the programming did not take place, the disorder would not have arisen. 

  9. 2001Dr. Richard Warshak described three components that must be present for parental alienation:

    1. A persistent, not occasional, rejection or denigration of a parent that reaches the level of a “relentless campaign”.

    2. An unjustified, or irrational rejection by the child, and rejection by the child.

    3. Rejection by a child that is least a partial result of the alienating parent’s influence.   

  10. 2001 – Dr. Joan B. Kelly and Dr. Janet R. Johnston produced a seminal article titled, “The Alienated Child: A Reformulation of Parental Alienation Syndrome”.  They defined an alienated child as one who expresses freely and persistently unreasonable negative feelings and beliefs (such as anger, hatred, rejection, and/or fear) toward a parent that are significantly disproportionate to the child’s actual experience with that parent.  They noted in contrast to Dr. Gardner, who believed one parent was the primary cause of a child rejecting a parent, that there are multiple reasons that children resist visitation.  Kelly and Johnston described that only in very specific circumstances does this behavior qualify as alienation.  Their message was that alienation is often not the “fault” of only one parent.

  11. 2001 – Dr. Joan B. Kelly and Dr. Janet R. Johnston also introduce the concept of estrangement in their article titled, “The Alienated Child.  A Reformulation of Parental Alienation Syndrome”.  They described Children who are realistically estranged from one of their parents, as a consequence of that parent’s history of family violence, abuse, or neglect need to be clearly distinguished from alienated children.  (Some helping professionals use the term “estrangement”, as defined in the dictionary: Estrange implies the development of indifference or hostility with consequent separation or divorcement), whereas others use the term to differentiate between the children who irrationally reject a parent, alienated children.)

  12. 2003 – Dr .Joan B. Kelly pointed out that conflict is not always perpetrated or maintained by both parents.  Conundrums exist when the parent caring for the child a majority of time is also the one to unreasonably reject or block the meaningful participation of the other parent.  Severe borderline pathology and/or rage associated with the separation often underlie the unreasonable behavior and accompanying conflict.

  13. 2006 – Dr. Richard Warshak described Parental Alienation as “A disturbance in which children, usually in the context of sharing a parent’s negative attitudes, suffer unreasonable aversion to a person or persons with whom they formerly enjoyed normal relationships or with whom they would normally develop affectionate relationships.”

  14. 2007 – Dr. Amy J. L. Baker outlined the perils of Parental Alienation.  She described that alienated children have higher rates of depression, relationships difficulties, and substance abuse.

  15. 2009 – Dr. Stephen Dr. Carter, Dr. Bonnie Haave, & Dr. Shirley Vandersteen define alienation as:

    1. Either the deliberate or accidental behavior of a parent or another family member, such as a grandparent or sibling.

    2. Alignment as a child’s response to high conflict that does not involve actual rejection.

    3. Attachment that is age or gender appropriate affinity, separation anxiety and

    4. Appropriate as justified rejection or realistic estrangement.
  16. 2010 – Dr. William Bernet described that Parental Alienation Syndrome includes the idea that one of the parents actively influenced the child to fear and avoid the other parent.  He described that it is not necessary to have an alienating parent for parental alienation to occur.  Parental alienation may occur simply in the context of a high-conflict divorce, in which the parents fight and the child aligns with one side to get out of the middle of the battle, even with no indoctrination by the favored parent.

  17. 2010 – D. Leslie M. Drozd and Dr. Nancy Williams Olesen described behaviors by the alienating parent as engaging in sabotaging behaviors and noted this process of sabotaging involves a violent or abusive parent who turns the child against and undermines the victim parent.

  18. 2010 – Dr. Steven Friedlander and Dr. Marjorie Gans Walters described, “A child's proclivity or affinity for a particular parent is a normal developmental phenomenon and can be related to temperament, gender, shared interests, identification with a parent's physical and psychological attributes, the parenting style of a particular parent, and also attachment security with one parent.  This is not a divorce-specific phenomenon as such preferences occur in intact families as well.” 

  19. 2010 – Dr. Richard Warshak and Dr. Mark Otis described working in an emerging area of practice requires a delicate balance of courage and caution – courage to pursue new paths, caution to ensure the well-being of those we serve.  This balance is expressed through the virtue of “humbition:” a fusion of humility and ambition (Warshak, 2002, 2007).  Applied to the field of healing disrupted parent-child relationships, humbition allows social scientists and practitioners to balance an ambitious application, extrapolation, and expansion of available knowledge, experience, materials, and procedures with an acceptance of realistic limits to our ability to help parents and children manage the dynamics of alienation.

  20. 2013 –  Mitchell Rosen, M.A. described, in referencing others work, the need to differentiate between a truly alienated child, due to a parent's undue influence, from a non-alienated child who might resist or refuse contact with a parent for justifiable reasons.  Many children are falsely labeled as alienated for rejecting a parent based on the child's actual experiences with that parent.

  21. 2013 – Dr. Stanley Clawar and Dr. Brynne Rivlin discussed that loyalty conflicts frequently arise out of parental competition, rather than from what may be in the child’s best interest.  Some may appeal to their child’s mercurial, materialistic desires, outdoing each other in providing expensive homes, clothes, trips, cars, or toys.

  22. 2013 – Dr. Stanley Clawar and Dr. Brynne Rivlin described that programming and brainwashing parents virtually always blame others for problems, issues, and circumstances that arise.

  23. 2016 – In the Family Court Review, an article titled, “‘Bending’ Evidence for a Cause: Scholar-Advocacy Bias in Family Law” cautions that, Combining the terms advocacy and research produces an oxymoron – advocacy research.  Research involves seeking knowledge about, or solutions to, problems that can be objectively demonstrated to others; advocacy implies one already knows the solution and the task is convincing others to mobilize resources accordingly.

 

As a counselor, I believe the research and methods for treating children, adolescents, and young adults, who irrationally reject a parent, have and continue to make great strides forward.  Even in light of all of our progress, we continue to have a long way to progress in treating children who are estranged and alienated from one or more family members. 

 “The wise man doesn't give the right answers, he poses the right questions.”  Claude Levi Strauss 


Monika Logan
, M.A., LPC, LSOTP, is the director of Texas Premier Counseling Services and works as a counselor based in Dallas, Texas.  She specializes in working with high-conflict couples, mending troubled parent-child relationships, and treating individuals who exhibit sexual behavioral problems.  
 

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