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since June 19, 2001



Family Wars (PAS) — The Alienation of Children


By Peggie Ward, Ph.D. & J. Campbell Harvey, J.D.


The Alienation of Children Composite case from actual examples

Custody Newsletter, Issue #9, 1993

The parents of Amy (age 10) and Kevin (age 7) are divorcing after 13 years of marriage. Their father, by temporary stipulation, has moved from the marital home.  He is entitled to visit the children on alternating weekends and one evening during the week.  Soon, the children refuse to go with him. 
   At first, they do not want to leave Mom; they say they are afraid to go.  When Dad comes to the house, Mom tells him that she will "not force the children to go." "Visitation is up to them," and she will "not interfere in their decision."  The children refuse to talk with him on the phone.  Mom calls him names when he phones and complains constantly about her financial situation, blaming him, all within hearing of the children. 

Dad attempts to talk with the children about the situation, then to bribe them with movies, shopping trips, toys.  They become sullen with him and resistant to coming.  Anything, routine doctor visits or invitations from a friend, serve as excuses to avoid visits.  When asked, the children say "Dad is mean to us.  "When asked to give specific examples, their stories are not convincing.  "He yells too loud when we make noise."  "He made me climb all the way to the top of a mountain."  "He gets mad at me about my homework."  They say he has never hit them, but are afraid he will. 

These children are in the process of becoming alienated from their father. 

I. Definitions

Parental alienation is the creation of a singular relationship between a child and one parent, to the exclusion of the other parent.  The fully alienated child is a child who does not wish to have any contact whatsoever with one parent and who expresses only negative feelings for that parent and only positive feelings for the other parent.  This child has lost the range of feelings for both parents that is normal for a child. 

We will call the parent who acts to create such a singular relationship between the child and himself the "alienating parent." [1].  The parent who is excluded from the singular relationship is "the target parent."  We note that alienation can occur both ways, each parent attempting to alienate the child from the other. 

II. Harm to the Child

The persistent quality of the conflict combined with its enduring nature seriously endangers the mental health of the parents and the psychological development of the children.  Under the guise of fighting for the child, the parents may succeed in inflicting severe emotional suffering on the very person whose protection and well-being is the presumed rationale for the battle." (emphasis added) [2, 3]

It is psychologically harmful to children to be deprived of a healthy relationship with one parent.  "Visitation agreements must insure that the emotional bond of the child with both parents is protected.  There is substantial research that indicates that children need contact with adults of both sexes for balanced development." [4]

With the exception of abuse, there is no good reason why a child should not want to spend some time with each of her parents, and, even with abuse, most children still want to maintain some relationship with the abusive parent.  It is the job of the parents, the professionals and the courts to see that such contact is possible under safe circumstances. [5]

While alienating messages and behavior affect a child negatively and impact upon the child's growth and development, the impact on the child may not vary with the parent's intentions.  The effect will be to place the child in a severe loyalty bind, a position wherein the child believes she must choose which of her two parents she will "love" more.  To have to choose between parents is itself damaging to the child, and, if the end result is the exclusion of a parent from the child's life, the injury is irreparable. 

There is a continuum of alienating parental behaviors which cause harm to children, and all positions on this continuum need be of concern to the professionals and the courts. 

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