"One of my goals is to demonstrate that parental alienating behaviors are both intentional and cannot be justified by provocation. I hope this scientific evidence will get parental alienation recognized as a form of domestic violence, and as a crime punishable by law. Only once rejected parents are no longer blamed for their suffering and are recognized as victims of domestic violence will we be able to find solutions befitting the scale of this devastative epidemic.” ~ Dr. Jennifer J. Harman
Parental alienation is devastating. Based on data, DSM-5 acknowledges it is a form of child abuse. However, as a social psychologist and someone who has experienced parental alienation first-hand, I take a slightly different perspective on this problem. No doubt, children are hurt because of the lost or damaged relationship with the rejected parent. However, if we stop there, we are only looking at one outcome of the problem, failing to fully understand the source that has vast and devastating consequences for millions of people.
Who is the intended target of the alienator’s behaviors? You got it, the targeted/rejected parent, not the child. It is for this reason – motivation – that I consider parental alienation a form of domestic violence. Domestic violence is defined as a pattern of behavior that involves violence or other abuse by one individual against another in a domestic setting and it can take many forms (e.g., physical, financial, or psychological) and have many outcomes.
Motive is an important factor when the outcomes of violence are legally prosecuted. If we take the example of the unlawful killing in a common law jurisdiction, the actual criminal charge – and the resulting sentence – depends in large part on the subjective intent of the perpetrator:
First-degree murder involves premeditation, deliberate planning, or malice;
Second-degree murder involves malice, but no premeditation or deliberate planning;
Voluntary manslaughter involves unlawful killing after adequate provocation (e.g., crimes of passion); and
Involuntary manslaughter is unintentional murder (e.g., negligence).
Alienating parents engage in behaviors to hurt the other parent deliberately, intentionally, and methodically. For example, a common tactic is to convince (or brainwash) a child that the targeted parent did certain things in the past that are not true; this is achieved over time with intentional effort. Some parents with personality disorder traits (e.g., borderline) may actually believe their own false or exaggerated stories, but this does not justify sharing them with a child. Similarly, involving other people in the alienation (e.g., neighbors or teachers) reflects strategic planning on behalf of the alienator with the aim of pushing the targeted parent out of the child’s life. The alienating behaviors may be blatant or subtle, but they are nearly always intentional.
What has concerned me in some of my discussions about parental alienation with other professional colleagues is that while many of them agree that the alienating parent’s behaviors are negative, they believe they should be considered “justifiable” because they are that parent’s “only defense” when they are in an abusive relationship. This sanctioning of parental alienating behaviors is concerning to me for two reasons:
This belief reflects an assumption that the alienator is or has been the victim of violence in the relationship. Results of my own research and interviews with alienated parents have demonstrated that the reverse is actually true. Parents who alienate often engaged in other forms of domestic violence (e.g., physical abuse or stalking) before their relationship with the targeted parent ended. Parental alienation is a continuation, in a different form, of the abuse. Therefore, alienators are far from the victims that they portray themselves to be. Careful and critical scrutiny of abuse claims (e.g., requiring police reports or hospital records) can elucidate the truth, if the time is taken to do so.
Even if a parent is abusive, dangerous or has other serious – substantiated and verifiable—problems, the children still have a right to have a relationship with that parent under safe conditions. For example, I recently interviewed a young man whose father had abused one of his siblings. Throughout his childhood, he was only allowed supervised visits with his father. Despite this situation, his mother never spoke badly of his father. Indeed, his mother encouraged a relationship with his father and spoke of his good qualities to all of her children. This young man knew his father had done some bad things and had problems, but that did not make him all-bad or unworthy of his love. As he matured, he appreciated how hard it must have been for his mother to encourage a relationship with his father because of what he had done. His mother was motivated by what was best for him and, as such, put her own feelings aside to enable him to know and love his father despite his limitations, in a safe and protected way.
One of my long-term professional goals is to demonstrate through research that parental alienating behaviors are both intentional and cannot be justified by provocation. I hope this scientific evidence will help in getting parental alienation recognized as a form of domestic violence, and as a crime punishable by law.
I know that much work remains to be done: even as a form of child abuse, parental alienation is yet to be acknowledged as a crime. However, we must persevere because only once rejected parents are no longer blamed for their suffering and are recognized as victims of domestic violence will we be able to find solutions befitting the scale of this devastative epidemic. Only then will effective methods of identification and treatment enter the practices and vernacular of professionals and the legal system. Only then will every family that desperately needs support will be able find it. This is my goal, and my hope.
Dr. Harman is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Colorado State University and the coauthor of Parents Acting Badly: How Institutions and Societies Promote the Alienation of Children from their Loving Families, and a Director of Simply Parent.