The negative affects that divorce has on children are well documented.1 With about half of all marriages ending in divorce, many children are likely to be affected.2 But in the face of this fact, many parents and families (not to mention the legal system) have become adept at anticipating how a child will react to divorce, and what services and support can make the process as smooth as possible.
A more alarming trend, however, is the increase in cases of parental alienation. Over the past two decades a number of scholarly works have attempted to understand and address the topic, and the subject has hit the mainstream due to celebrity divorces.3 4
The Parental Alienation Awareness Association, an advocacy group out of Ireland, is now pushing for the implementation of criminal laws against parents who engage in parental alienation.5 While courts in the US have tried to address the issue through mandated therapy and custody orders, federal and state laws do not yet directly address parental alienation. Whether they should is a debate currently raging amongst child advocacy groups, divorced-parent’s rights groups, and psychologists.
A History of Parental Alienation
The term “parental alienation” was first used by Richard Gardner in 1985 to describe the process by which children obsessively villainize one parent largely because of the encouragement of the opposing parent.6 Gardner described the process as, “one parent…systematically and consciously programming the child to denigrate the other parent.”7
This typically occurs during heated divorce or custody battles, and often results in the child refusing to visit with the vilified parent. Parental alienation is unique in this way, because it often manifests itself separate from the parental-cause.
In the 30 years since Gardner’s first assessment, child psychologists and scholars have developed the theory, elaborating and vindicating some aspects while critiquing others. The basic reasoning behind the term remains intact, although it has not yet become so widely accepted as to find its way into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the gold-standard for the field of psychiatry).
Still, courts have begun to recognize allegations of parental alienation during custody proceedings. A number of courts have tried mandating intensive therapy to try to repair damaged relationships and reverse the effects of alienation by a parent.8
Parental Alienation as Child Abuse
Those who advocate for the passage of criminal laws against parental alienation argue that the process amounts to child abuse.9 They point out that parental alienation has long-lasting negative affects on a child’s wellbeing, and that criminal laws could help deter parents from engaging in alienating behavior.
Opponents point out that parental alienation syndrome is not yet a widely-accepted psychological diagnosis. They also fear that charges of parental alienation can be a cover for actual abuse, which may be the real source of a child’s refusal to visit with a parent.
Tell Us What You Think
Should California enact criminal laws against parental alienation? Or is this an issue best left to family courts? Let us know if you think criminal laws would be an effective way to address the growing problem of child alienation. Please comment in the section below.