Allegations of parental alienation are common in high conflict divorces. They are usually a function of deeper issues in the family including exposure to high intense marital conflict, humiliating separation, and professional mismanagement (Kelly & Johnston, 2001). The concept of family alienation was popularized by Gardner (2002) who describes it as a syndrome. This implies a specific set of symptoms that are displayed by the alienated child. The syndrome has not been validated by empirical research. Rather, alienation is more accurately described as a set of behaviors on the part of a parent which may or may not result in a child becoming alienated (Kelly & Johnston, 2001).
The alienated child is described by Kelly and Johnston (2001) as one who expresses disproportionately negative behavior about the alienated parent that is not consistent with his or her actual experience. Alienation may be expressed in degrees (Paul, 2014). Mild alienation may result in resistance towards visitation. Moderate alienation may involve the degradation of the alienated parent by the child. Severe alienation takes the form of false allegations and/or actual fear of contact with the alienated parent.
In an article by Baker and Darnall (2006), the most frequently reported alienated behaviors included “badmouthing”, interference with parental visitation and contact, limitation of mail and phone contact, interfering with information such as updating school or medical issues, emotional manipulation, unhealthy alliances such as spying and reporting back, and symbolic interferences such as returning Christmas cards.
Two of the major consequences of alienation on the child are fearfulness and low self-esteem (Mone & Biringen, 2006). These consequences can last into adulthood. Alienation has also been found in intact, high conflict marriages. The longer the alienation, the worse the outcome. Parental alienation may be described as a form of propaganda (Gottlieb, 2014) in which the alienated parent is characterized as dangerous, untrustworthy and harassing. The alienating parent expresses these beliefs in the presence of the child.
The treatment for parent alienation is reunification therapy. It should begin as soon as alienation is detected. Jones, Hardy, and Smyth (2015) warn that there is no guarantee of a successful outcome. This writer views parental unification therapy as a developmental process beginning with addressing time-sharing issues with the child(ren), and then the child(ren) and alienated parent, and finally if possible, the child(ren) and both parents. Dagan and Ailon (2015) offer a checklist for therapists when consulting with lawyers to set up the process of reunification therapy. It includes arranging a conference call with both lawyers at the beginning of the case, reviewing the consent order to treat with emphasis upon the child’s best interests and indemnification of the mental health professional, reviewing the importance of the lawyers assistance, submission of the retainer agreement, review of the limits of confidentiality, reviewing the limitations of psychotherapy, and lastly the agreement of both lawyers to submit any pertinent documents.