Parental Alienation: Parents Behaving Badly or a Mental Disorder?

Photo of Barbara L. Drury

In what are usually highly contentious divorces or child custody disputes, the term “parental alienation” has been coined to describe what is a form of emotional abuse that occurs when one parent actively works to align their child with him/her to the exclusion of the other parent, without justification, resulting in the child’s rejection of the estranged parent. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines alienation as “a withdrawing or separation of a person or a person’s affections from an object or position of former attachment; estrangement.” In cases involving parental alienation, there is destruction of a child’s once positive relationship with both parents. As one parent poisons the child against the other, the child’s affinity shifts to only one parent while he/she alienates or rejects the other.

In recent years, parental alienation has been the focus of much debate among mental health professionals, who have coined the terms “Parental Alienation Syndrome” (PAS) or “Parental Alienation Disorder” (PAD) to describe parental alienation as psychiatric disorder that some believe should be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). Although the DSM-V is not expected to be published until the Spring 2013, the American Psychiatric Association made the decision not to include parental alienation in the updated DSM-V, which catalogs mental disorders. Rather, Dr. Darrel Regier, vice chair of the task force drafting the DSM-V, has explained, “It’s a relationship problem – parent-child or parent-parent. Relationship problems per se are not mental disorders.”

Although it may not be considered mental disorder, the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court has recognized the severe and negative impact of parental alienation in child custody disputes. For example, recently a Middlesex Probate and Family Court Judge ruled that the father’s complete alienation of the mother from the children constituted the requisite material change in circumstance sufficient to warrant the modification – and complete reversal — of the child custody provisions of the parties’ divorce judgment. In that case, the parties’ divorce judgment provided that they share joint legal and joint physical custody of their minor child. Following the divorce, however, the father engaged in a campaign to alienate the mother form the children that resulted in the mother having no parenting time with the children. After hearing evidence that included the father (i) set out to paint the mother as unstable (when there was nothing to substantiate this allegation); (ii) failed to encourage the children to spend time with the mother; (iii) failed to consult with the mother about important decisions impacting the children’s lives; and (iv) intentionally concealed information about the children’s wellbeing from the mother, the Court found there was complete alienation of the mother from the children, and an obvious inability of the parties to co-parent. In short, the father’s egregious behavior in alienating the mother resulted in the mother being awarded sole physical and legal custody of the children [Hendren v. Lee (Lawyers Weekly No. 15-001-12) (41 pages) (Kagan, J.) (Middlesex Probate & Family Court) (Docket No. 05D-1313DV1) (June 8, 2012)].


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