Dealing with children who resist parental contact after a separation or divorce may require “extensive and highly skilled services from mental health professionals.” Interest in the problem of alienated and/or estranged children increases, and parents face frustrations with the courts and legal system in handling these difficult cases. Legal and mental health professionals need to improve their understanding of and response to fractured families struggling with this difficulty.
An alienated child is 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.”
According to Howard Hurwitz, a social worker specializing in high-conflict families, a child is not necessarily alienated from a parent simply because the child resists contact with that individual, which may happen, for example, when a child has been abused. Nor, however, is it correct to assume that simply because a child is not resisting contact that the child has not been subjected to efforts by the other parent to alienate him or her.
The visitation parent not in contact may believe that a child is being alienated by the custodial parent, but labeling this situation alienation without a full assessment by a mental health practitioner trained in high-conflict situations is highly problematic. There can be a whole host of possible explanations for the child not wanting contact. Alienation is only one explanation and the literature about alienation states that the frequency of verified cases of alienation in divorcing families is relatively small.
Instead, other more viable explanations for the child’s lack of parental contact must be considered. Incorrectly diagnosing alienation when there is no clinical basis for this could be harmful to the child and each parent’s relationship with that child.
Instead of labeling a child’s refusal to have contact with a parent as alienation, mental health experts need to more accurately label it as “a child refusing to have contact,” which is estrangement. This happens in situations:
- where a child is close to one parent because of developmental or psychological reasons. For example, adolescent boys may identify more closely with their father; an 8-year-old girl may relate easier to their mother. Sometimes, children may have a similar temperament with one parent that causes them to have a closer relationship; and
- where a child may limit contact with a parent because there are concerns and fears about that parent’s behavior, for example, when the child has seen one parent to be violent to the other. The child may intensify his or her relationship to the victim parent out of protectiveness or fear for the other parent.
In actual cases of alienation, the child formerly enjoyed a positive relationship with the parent he or she now refuses to see. In these situations, the alienating parent makes deliberate efforts to prevent the child from contact with the visitation parent by telling the child that the other parent is bad. Also, the child is dissuaded from having any contact with the extended family members of the other parent.
Alienation does happen, and it can have life-long emotional and psychological consequences. Amy Baker (2010) in her book Adult Children of Parental Alienation conducted research on the long-term effects of alienation from following up with adult children who experienced alienation as children. She notes the pattern of emotional harm that these adults suffered as children.
In summary, understanding the source of the disrupted contact is important because treating alienation is different from treating realistic estrangement. Choosing the right therapist who understands the differing dynamics is critical to repairing the relationships among all family members. A child’s refusal to see a parent affects everyone in the family, even the ‘favored’ parent who has a relationship with the child. In order to help the family repair, correctly assessing the situation is essential for developing a therapeutic treatment plan.
The evaluator must suspend judgment until the allegations have been fully and completely investigated, and he or she should forego making the hasty assumption the truth of the allegation.
Estranged children often display similar characteristics of alienated children, including rigidity in their opinion of the ostracized parent and a negative, polarized and unambivalent view of that parent.
In order to distinguish alienated children from estranged children, the practitioner must determine whether a child has been subjected to emotional, physical or sexual abuse or neglect, extremely deficient parenting or has witnessed violence between the parents. The mental health professional must carefully interview both parents and the child. In situations where alienation appears likely, even if the child is not currently resisting contact, the examiner must assess the child’s alignment with each parent and make appropriate recommendations to the court.