Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals have recently debated whether parental alienation syndrome qualifies as a mental disorder. Of course, family law lawyers across North America see examples of it every day.
In my experience the circumstances that give rise to allegations of parental alienation follow three typical patterns:
1. A parent who has been a victim of spousal abuse, either physical, mental or emotional, who refuses to permit a young child’s father or mother to be alone with the child or spend quality time with the child;
2. A parent who harbours extreme anger at his or her partner for events that took place during the marriage or after its breakdown. This parent involves his or her children in the minutia of the marriage breakdown and creates a picture of their father or mother as an uncaring “rogue” who is abusive, cheap and doesn’t care about them. Every nuance of the marital separation is fodder to denigrate the parent who has left the family unit;
3. A parent, usually a mother, who believes that her children belong to her and since her spouse has left her, he has no right to see the children. This parent typically enlists support from friends and relatives who all subscribe to the mother’s theory of parenting after marital breakdown.
Obviously there are situations where the custodial parent’s protection of a child is warranted. For example, where a parent has no parenting skills, or is generally unreliable or disinterested, steps must be taken to ensure the child is not at risk.
Parenting skills can be learned and most jurisdictions offer free classes on parenting after separation. A parent who is unreliable must have structured parenting time with his or her child until the parent understands that children require consistent and reliable relationships, particularly after marriage breakdown.
Even for parents who have only a passing interest in their children, it is the child’s right to have a relationship with each parent and a custodial parent is acting in their child’s best interests if they foster a relationship between their child and the child’s “occasional” father or mother.
The harder cases are ones where the parent seeking parenting time is debilitated by substance abuse or alcohol, mental illness or other anti-social behavior. Even in these cases, where a parenting arrangement can be put in place that ensures the child is not at risk, children do better with two parents in their lives. These scenarios call for supervised access with a trustworthy friend or relative or a trained, paid access supervisor.
Frequently, people who make lousy husbands or wives are wonderful, caring parents. A bad marriage marked by abuse does not necessarily translate into an abusive parent. However, where there has been abuse in the family, a psychological assessment of the family members is necessary.
Angry, vengeful parents who interfere with a child’s relationship with his or her other parent victimize their former partner, but worse yet, they set their child up for future failure. European studies show that children who are victims of parental brainwashing are more likely to suffer from emotional disorders than children who are not alienated from a parent.
As a family law litigator I have seen both sides of the coin: Mothers and fathers who refuse to recognize that their child needs his or her other parent; and parents who are tormented to the point of emotional and financial bankruptcy, desperate to restore relationships that should never have been severed.
The American Psychiatric Association, who will update their manual of psychiatric diagnoses in 2013, have recently decided against including parental alienation syndrome as a psychiatric disorder, a decision that will no doubt be greeted with disappointment by parent victims of this terrible behavior.
Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang