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Standing Strong for Your Rights

Is Your Ex Brainwashing Your Kid?

Controversial Condition Influences Countless Custody Cases Each Year

A mental disorder not yet widely recognized by the medical community is at the center of a debate among family law attorneys and mental health professionals alike. This disorder, known as “parental alienation syndrome” sometimes called “hostile aggressive parenting”, involves the alleged brainwashing of a child by one parent in order to turn the child against the other parent. When a child succumbs to the negative influences of one parent, he or she will often see the other parent as an enemy or a source of fear. This situation commonly occurs in hotly contested custody battles.

Parental alienation syndrome is a term coined by child psychiatrist Richard A. Gardner in the 1980s. The circumstances of parental alienation may vary in severity from putting the other parent down in the child’s presence to relocating without reason to making false accusations of child sexual abuse with the intent to intentionally destroy the children’s relationship with the other parent. While many children can deal with a parent occasionally badmouthing the other parent when irritated, most children cannot withstand the emotional turmoil of a parent’s determined malicious scheme of isolation from the other parent.

Of course, if actual abuse is present, a parent will be protective of their child. Such protective actions are not to be considered alienation. Additionally, the parent would be expected to have proof of the abuse allegations and to be cooperating with child protective services and other law enforcement agencies.

Often, in Texas, a social study evaluation will be completed which can reveal the parental alienation. This requires a court order and the participation of both parents and the children.

Parental Alienation Syndrome encompasses a wide range of behaviors. These include:

  • Making unfounded allegations of sexual or physical abuse
  • Making defamatory statements about the other parent (like that the parent is in a cult or has committed a criminal act)
  • Not recognizing an older child’s preference to see a parent
  • Refusing to let the child have any contact with the other parent in person, via telephone, through the mail or by e-mail
  • Telling the child too many details about the marital relationship or reasons for the breakup
  • Refusing to allow the children take their belongings between residences
  • Not allowing the other parent access to or giving information to school or medical records and schedules of extracurricular activities
  • Blaming the other parent for financial problems, the break up, etc.
  • Using child to spy or gather information for the parent’s own use
  • Parents scheduling events that interfere with the child’s visitation or discussing fun activities they will miss
  • The parent asking the child about the other parent’s personal life
  • Listening in on the children’s phone conversation with the other parent.

Douglas Darnall, Ph.D. designates three types of parental alienators according to the level of severity:

  • Naïve alienators are parents who are passive about the children’s relationship with the other parent but will occasionally do or say something that can alienate. All parents will occasionally be naïve alienators.
  • Active alienators also know better than to alienate, but their intense hurt or anger causes them to impulsively lose control over their behavior or what they say. Later, they may feel very guilty about how they behaved.
  • Obsessed alienators have a fervent cause to destroy the targeted parent.

Frequently a parent can be a blend between two types of alienators, usually a combination between the naïve and active alienator. Rarely does the obsessed alienator have enough self-control or insight to blend with the other types. These three patterns of alienating behaviors are not intended to be used as a diagnosis. The types have not been validated sufficient for litigation.

Custody disputes can be significantly influenced by parental alienation syndrome. For example, even if allegations of abuse are unfounded, there can be a lengthy period of separation from the child while those allegations are investigated. During that time, a parent seeking to taint the child’s opinion can make strides in influencing the child.

Is Hostile Aggressive Parenting a Real Mental Disorder?

There is a push by some mental health professionals (including psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, social workers and clinicians) to have parental alienation designated an official mental disorder for treatment purposes. Those advocates want to have the disorder included in a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the definitive authority on recognized psychiatric disorders. The next version of the DSM will be released in 2013, so professionals seeking its recognition as a valid condition are busy performing and compiling research data to validate the effects of parental alienation syndrome.

While the debate about the recognition of parental alienation syndrome continues, it could very well be playing a role in your custody dispute. If you suspect parental alienation, or you need help with any other custody-related matter, you should contact a skilled family law attorney in your area for more information.