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Warshak's Ten Fallacies about Parental Alienation

Warshak says One of the primary excuses alienating parents give for allowing alienated children to avoid contact with the targeted parent is that the child doesn't wish to see the parent.

"…One of the primary excuses alienating parents give for allowing alienated children to avoid contact with the targeted parent is that the child doesn’t wish to see the parent. The answer to that, for children of whatever age, is that having or not having contact with the parent isn’t their decision. There is a court order that must be obeyed by all parties. If it’s the wrong order for whatever reason, then someone needs to seek a modification. But the child is not the one who decides about contact with the targeted parent…."

Common false beliefs about parental alienation lead therapists and lawyers to give bad advice to their clients, evaluators to give inadequate recommendations to courts, and judges to reach injudicious decisions. The increasing recognition of the phenomenon of children’s pathological alienation from parents brings with it a proliferation of mistaken assumptions about the problem’s roots and remedies. These assumptions fail to hold up in the light of research, case law, or experience.

With those words, Professor Richard Warshak opens his latest paper that seeks to bring mental health professionals, lawyers and judges into line with the current science on parental alienation. It’s published in the peer-reviewed journal, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. If he’s successful, he’ll help prevent the type of errors made by the court in the case I wrote about yesterday. There, the judge squandered 10 years of three girls’ lives by failing to intervene and stop their extreme alienation from their father by their mother. That occurred despite one psychologist’s warning eight years previously that the mother was bent on removing their father from the girls’ upbringing.

So Warshak has set out to help decision makers in family courts better come to grips with the realities of parental alienation. Needless to say, judges, lawyers and mental health professionals involved in deciding custody and parenting time should take heed.

Warshak identifies 10 common fallacies about PA that may derail appropriate decisions in custody cases. Five come in the diagnosis of PA and the rest in how it’s dealt with.

1. The first fallacy is that “Children Never Unreasonably Reject the Parent With Whom They Spend the Most Time.” I’ve said before, and it’s true, that PA is an opportunistic phenomenon. That is, the parent who sees the child most is the parent who’s best positioned to alienate the child and the parent who sees the child the least is most likely to be targeted. But that doesn’t mean the alienator is always the custodial parent.

One survey found that in 16% of cases the alienated parent had either primary or joint physical custody (Bala, Hunt, McCarney, 2010)…

Operating under fallacy #1 some evaluators have stated unequivocally that the children’s rejection of their primary residential parent (usually the mother) could not possibly constitute pathological alienation. These evaluators assume that a child who spends a lot of time with a parent is sufficiently familiar with the parent to be invulnerable to cognitive distortions about the parent. Thus if a child rejects a parent who has primary custody, the child must have a valid reason. This mistaken assumption predisposes evaluators to search for flaws in the rejected parent…

2. Fallacy number two is much like fallacy number one: “Children Never Unreasonably Reject Mothers.” Mothers are usually the custodial parent, but, as I’ve said many times, fathers are as capable as mothers of alienating a child and have the same motivations to do so.

3. Each Parent Contributes Equally to a Child’s Alienation. While it’s true that alienation often begins in the dynamics of the parents’ interactions prior to divorce and merely continues (and often escalates) afterward, that doesn’t mean that the two are equally responsible. One parent seeks to alienate the child and the other parent allows that to happen. The target parent therefore shares some of the blame, but the instigator is the main actor.

Kelly (2003) was one of the first to expose this fallacy. Drawing on 40 years of experience as a researcher, custody evaluator, mediator, and Special Master, she found that in as many as one third of entrenched parental disputes, one parent was clearly responsible for initiating and sustaining conflict. Clinical reports and some large-scale empirical studies describe disturbed and disturbing behavior on the part of favored parents, often characteristic of borderline and narcissistic psychopathology (Eddy, 2010; Friedman, 2004; Kopetski, 1998; Rand, 1997a, 1997b, 2011).

As is often the case, family systems therapists and other mental health professionals disagree on this topic.

4. Alienation Is a Child’s Transient, Short-Lived Response to the Parents’ Separation. Of course, this is one possible outcome of the parents’ divorce, but often it merely masks alienation.

Therapists who predict that a child’s resistance to spending time with a parent will evaporate in the near future are apt to focus therapy on helping the child cope with unpleasant feelings aroused by the parents’ breakup. In such cases therapists may encourage parents to passively accept their children’s reluctance or refusal to spend time with them, and often advise a “cooling off period” in which the rejected parent temporarily relinquishes active efforts to reestablish regular contact with the children (Darnall & Steinberg, 2008b).

But numerous studies show alienation failing to dissipate and indeed lasting for years.

5. Rejecting a Parent Is a Short-Term Healthy Coping Mechanism. This notion is similar to the fourth fallacy. Again, it seems to represent a sort of wishful thinking on the parts of all concerned — targeted parents, judges, lawyers and therapists alike. No one wants to believe alienation is occurring, so adults can easily interpret antagonistic behavior by the child in ways that reflect their own preferences rather than the reality of the situation.

Studies converge to suggest a conservative estimate that 2% to 4% of children become alienated from a parent after the divorce (Warshak, in press). Although this represents a large number of children, an alienated relationship with a parent is clearly a deviation from the norm even among children whose parents are divorced. Most children want regular contact with both parents after divorce (Fabricius, 2003; Fabricius & Hall, 2000; Hetherington & Kelly, 2002; Parkinson, Cashmore, & Single, 2005; Schwartz & Finley, 2009; Warshak & Santrock, 1983).

Therapists who believe that rejection of a parent is a healthy adaptation encourage parents to accept the children’s negativity until the children feel ready to discard it. This is especially true when therapists assume that the alienation is destined to be short-lived. But as discussed above, the alienation may not be transient, and is not healthy if the children’s negative attitudes and avoidant behavior harden into a long-term or permanent problem. Growing up with a severely conflicted or absent relationship with a parent is associated with impaired development (McLanahan, Tach, & Schneider, 2013).

The common fallacies about parental alienation Warshak numbers six through 10 involve intervention and fixing an alienating situation.

6. Young Children Living With an Alienating Parent Need No Intervention.

One of the primary excuses alienating parents give for allowing alienated children to avoid contact with the targeted parent is that the child doesn’t wish to see the parent. The answer to that, for children of whatever age, is that having or not having contact with the parent isn’t their decision. There is a court order that must be obeyed by all parties. If it’s the wrong order for whatever reason, then someone needs to seek a modification. But the child is not the one who decides about contact with the targeted parent.

That’s the law; here’s the science:

Toddlers and preschoolers may fulfill a parent’s expectations by acting fearful and resistant during scheduled transfers to the other parent’s care (Fidler et al., 2008, p. 243; Lund, 1995). If the child’s overt, albeit temporary, feelings are indulged, and the child’s protests allowed to abort the planned exchange, the protests are likely to emerge and become more intense at each subsequent attempt to implement the parenting time plan. If instead the child is given the opportunity to spend time with the denigrated parent outside the orbit of the alienating parent, the fearful and angry behavior quickly evaporates (Fidleret al., 2008, p. 242; Kelly & Johnston, 2001; Lund, 1995; Warshak, 2010b; Weir, 2011).

Because the young child loses the negative reaction and warms up to the denigrated parent during contacts with the parent, and does not show stable and chronic negative attitudes and behavior, a common mistake is to overlook the need for intervention (Weir, 2011)… Depending on their severity and cruelty, alienating behaviors may approach or reach levels of psychological abuse and children may need protection from the abusive parent.

7. Alienated Adolescents’ Stated Preferences Should Dominate Custody Decisions.

This fallacy builds on the previous one. As children mature, courts are more and more willing to consider their preferences regarding custody. Most state laws establish an age at which courts can listen to a child’s preferences and consider them based on the demonstrated maturity of the child. But courts must be aware that those children may have been alienated by one parent against the other and their preferences affected.

[Adolescents] are also better able to convince others that their wish to avoid or disown a parent is a reasonable, thoughtful, and proportionate response to the treatment they claim to have suffered at the hands of the rejected parent.

Despite their more mature cognitive capacities compared with younger children, adolescents are suggestible, highly vulnerable to external influence, and highly susceptible to immature judgments and ßehavior (Loftus, 2003; Steinberg, Cauffman, Woolard, Graham,&Banich,2009;Steinberg&Scott,2003).

Adolescents’ vulnerability to external influence is why parents are wise to worry about the company their teenagers keep. At times adolescents show extreme deference to others’ views. Other times they make choices primarily to oppose another’s preferences (Steinberg & Cauffman, 1996). Both of these dynamics can result in the formation of a pathological alliance with one parent against the other. Grisso (1997) points out that the preferences of adolescents often are unstable. Choices made early in the process of identity formation often are inconsistent with choices that would be made when a coherent sense of identity is established, generally not before age 18. For these reasons, even the preferences of adolescents merit cautious scrutiny, rather than automatic endorsement.

8. Children Who Irrationally Reject a Parent But Thrive in Other Respects Need No Intervention.

First, children’s apparent good adjustment may be superficial or coexist with significant psychosocial problems. Second, regardless of adjustment in other spheres, the state of being irrationally alienated from a loving parent is a significant problem in its own right and is accompanied by other indices of psychological impairment. Third, growing up apart from and in severe conflict with an able parent risks compromising children’s future psychological development and interpersonal relationships.

Yes, whatever else may be true, parental alienation can have profound, long lasting and detrimental effects on a child’s emotional well-being. For that reason, any judge faced with an alienated child is bound by his/her brief of acting in the “best interests of the child” to try to put a stop to the alienation. Any other course of action would endorse child abuse.

9. Severely Alienated Children Are Best Treated With Traditional Therapy Techniques While Living Primarily With Their Favored Parent.

Research on interventions for severely alienated children is an emerging field (Saini, Johnston, Fidler, & Bala, 2012). Case studies and clinical experience suggest that psychotherapy while children remain under the care of their favored parent is unlikely to repair damaged parent–child relationships and may make things worse (Dunne & Hedrick, 1994; Fidler & Bala, 2010; Garber, 2015; Lampel,1986; Lowenstein, 2006; Rand&Rand,2006; Rand et al., 2005; Warshak, 2003a; Weir & Sturge, 2006). No study has demonstrated effectiveness of any form of psychotherapy in overcoming severe alienation in children who have no regular contact with the rejected parent.

The usual treatment of phobic patients has been demonstrated to have limited-to-no efficacy with alienated children primarily because their rejection of the target parent isn’t a phobic response, whatever it may look like.

As opposed to the poor response of alienation to traditional therapy techniques, marked reduction of alienation has been reported for children who were placed for an extended period of time with their rejected parent (Clawar & Rivlin, 2013; DeJong & Davies, 2012; Dunne & Hedrick, 1994; Gardner, 2001; Lampel, 1986; Rand et al., 2005; Warshak, 2010b, in press). Despite limitations such as small sample sizes and lack of random assignment to treatment conditions, the collective weight of the literature suggests that contact with the rejected parent is essential to healing a damaged parent–child relationship.

10. Separating Children From an Alienating Parent Is Traumatic.

No peer-reviewed study has documented harm to severely alienated children from the reversal of custody. No study has reported that adults, who as children complied with expectations to repair a damaged relationship with a parent, later regretted having been obliged to do so. On the other hand, studies of adults who were allowed to disown a parent find that they regretted that decision and reported long-term problems with guilt and depression that they attributed to having been allowed to reject one of their parents (Baker, 2005).

The literature that suggests children may be traumatized comes from studies of children in orphanages who’ve lost both their parents. Those studies have limited or no applicability to children who have two fit parents, one of whom is an alienator and the other a target.

It’s good that mental health professionals, lawyers and judges now have an analysis of some of the typical mistakes made in diagnosing and treating parental alienation. Our understanding of PA has grown significantly over the past decade or so. It is now widely understood by mental health and legal professionals alike. We’re now honing that understanding to better serve children and their parents who are caught up in one of the most destructive of all family dynamics. Thanks to Professor Warshak for his most recent contribution to that effort…

Dr. Richard Warshak.

.  Dr. Richard Warshak’s groundbreaking research, trenchant challenges to gender stereotypes, and passionate advocacy for children have made him one the world’s most respected authorities on divorce, child custody, and the psychology of alienated children. As a White House consultant, and through his writing, speeches, legislative and courtroom testimony, videos, and workshops, Dr. Warshak has had a profound impact on the law and well-being of families where parents live apart from each other.

.  Since 1977 Dr. Warshak has examined assumptions and practices in family law in the light of logic and scientific data. His studies on father and mother custody, remarriage, relocation, parenting plans for young children, the approximation rule, children’s preferences in custody disputes, and parental alienation appear in 13 books, more than 65 articles, and more than 100 presentations, and are cited often in the professional literature and in case law and legislatures throughout the world. His most recent work is a law review article analyzing judicial discretion, the best-interest standard, and alternative custody presumptions. Dr. Warshak has delivered keynote speeches throughout the U.S., Canada, and abroad.

.  A graduate of Cornell University, Dr. Warshak is a clinical, research, and consulting psychologist, Clinical Professor of psychology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and a member of the Editorial Board of three professional journals.

.  Dr. Warshak was a White House consultant on child custody and one of 60 top experts invited to participate in an American Bar Association family law reform initiative. His amicus brief on relocation, endorsed by the leading authorities on divorce, was accepted by the Supreme Court of the State of California.

.  Dr. Warshak’s book, The Custody Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 1992), advocated mediation of custody disputes and greater father involvement, two reforms that have since become mainstream in U. S. law and practice. His second book, Divorce Poison: How To Protect Your Family From Bad-Mouthing And Brainwashing (HarperCollins, 2002/2010), now in its 25th printing, is translated in six languages and is the world’s best-selling resource on parental alienation.

.  Dr. Warshak appears in the PBS documentary Kids And Divorce, and is co-author of a DVD for children and parents titled, Welcome Back Pluto: Understanding, Preventing, And Overcoming Parental Alienation.

.  As an international media guest commentator Dr. Warshak has contributed to segments on more than 75 topics including celebrity divorces, custody disputes, parental alienation, child abuse, stepfamilies, child psychology and parenting, and helping children cope with fears and trauma. He has been interviewed by National Public Radio and the major television networks in the U.S., Canada, England, and Germany, including ABC 20/20, NBC Today, NBC Dateline, CBS, CNN, BBC, CTV, Fox, Geraldo, and CourtTV. His work has been featured in international print media in the U.S., Canada, England, Scotland, Italy, Germany, Columbia, and New Zealand, including the New York Times (Sunday front page story), Washington Post (cover story), USA Today (cover story), London Sunday Telegraph, Il Giornale (Italy), Toronto Star, Globe and Mail (editorial, front page, & Life section), Macleans (Canada), and Time magazine (1980, 2004, and 2011).

.  Dr. Warshak lives and works with his wife in Dallas, Texas. He is available for broadcast and print media interviews.

Contact him at:
16970 Dallas Parkway - Suite 202, Dallas, TX 75248 USA

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Executive Secretary - Shared Parenting Council of Australia
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