Discussing parental alienation: Mel Feit and Dr. Ken on the "Dr. Phil" show.

Parental Alienation Q&A

On Friday, October 3, 2008, the "Dr. Phil" show aired a national program devoted to the subject of Parental Alienation. National Center For Men director, Mel Feit, participated in a panel discussion which included a debate about whether parental alienation syndrome really exists. The show was rebroadcast on December 26, 2008.

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Questions and Answers Regarding Parental Alienation

1.) What is the definition of parental alienation?

Parental alienation usually occurs within the context of a child custody battle and can be defined as the programming of a child by one parent into a campaign of denigration against the other parent, without justification.

The programming can be deliberate, arising out of a malicious attempt to hurt the other parent and gain control, but it doesn't have to be. Sometimes the denigration campaign evolves naturally out of the dynamics of divorce but without malicious intent.

2.) What is "parental alienation syndrome?"

The term "parental alienation syndrome" describes what happens to a child who is the victim of parental alienation. The syndrome was first identified by Dr. Richard Gardner who described these eight characteristics:

• A campaign of denigration… The maligning of the targeted parent is not occasional; it is the result of an aggressive campaign.

• Weak, frivolous, or absurd rationalizations for the denigration… In one of the cases that has come to The National Center For Men, the children claimed they didn't want to see their father because he selected an unqualified therapist for them. In another case, a child claimed his father locked him in a closet for three weeks without any food.

• A lack of ambivalence… The denigration is ferociously one-sided and unrestrained.

• There is an "independent thinker" phenomenon… The children insist they thought of everything on their own, with no coaching or influence from anyone else.

• A reflexive support of the alienating parent in the parental conflict.

• An absence of guilt over cruelty to and/or exploitation of the alienated parent.

• The presence of borrowed scenarios… The children's explanations for their anger sound borrowed and contrived, that is, they originated with other people.

• The spread of the animosity to the extended family and friends of the alienated parent.

3.) What are the statistics on parental alienation?

There appear to be no authoritative statistics on parental alienation and anyone who gives you a statistic is probably guessing. Some activists say that parental alienation occurs in most divorces, but that mis-states the case. While it may be true that most divorces involve some instances of maligning an ex, that can usually be described as "bad divorce" and not parental alienation, a far more serious problem.

The only interesting statistic we have come across comes from Dr. Gardner. Quoting from his website, "In those cases in which the court saw fit to transfer custody from the alienating to the alienated parent there was 100 percent success rate regarding alleviation, if not complete evaporation of PAS symptoms. In contrast, when the court chose to allow PAS children to remain with the indoctrinating parent, there was a 91 percent rate of permanent alienation from the targeted parent."

4.) What is the biggest roadblock?

Severe cases of parental alienation, once identified, can often be resolved quickly and easily. All it takes is the determination of a judge to protect children by removing them from the alienating parent. However, most judges fail to act, assuming they are playing it safe by doing nothing. But by doing nothing, they are doing something dangerous: they are leaving the children in an alienating home, which is an abusive home.

The biggest roadblock is judicial inaction which comes from judicial cowardice or laziness or ignorance.

5.) What do people need to know about parental alienation?

We have answered this question in a position paper, "Four things you should know about parental alienation," which we will send to you in exchange for a small donation. We ask for donations because without your donations we would not be able to continue our work.

Here are the four bullet points from our paper:

• It's Never As Bad As It Looks
• It's Always Worse Than It Looks
• Never Give Up On Your Kids
• In Severe Cases Of Parental Alienation, There Is Only One Solution That Will Work: The Children Must Be Removed From The Alienating Parent

6.) How can you tell the difference between a child who has been abused by a non-custodial parent and one who has been alienated from him?

In our experience, alienated children are often vague about the reasons for their intense anger. But this is not always the case and sometimes false accusations take on a detailed life of their own.

Psychologists tell us that a more reliable way to make a differential diagnosis is to look at how the children present their complaints. Alienated children tend to broadcast their anger. They want the whole world to know what a horrible parent they have. There is no subtlety or qualification to their accusations. There is no sympathy or compassion for the targeted parent. There is no response to therapy because there is nothing for the therapist to grab hold of.

On the other hand, children who have been abused tend to be more reserved and shy about expressing themselves. They may feel shame or guilt or fear. They are not as eager to announce the abuse but they respond to therapy. They may even defend the abusing parent.

If you think of an alienating parent as an abusive parent, then perhaps it is not a surprise that alienated children can so aggressively come to her (or his) defense.

7.) What are the latest trends?

The theory on PAS remains controversial and is infused with gender politics but here is what is slowly changing: States are modifying child custody rules by instructing judges to give preference to parents who facilitate and encourage contact of their children with the other parent. Many judges are doing exactly that and passively recognizing parental alienation syndrome, even though they may not always call it that. The trend is positive but slow.

8.) What can parents look out for?

The cardinal rule of divorce remains this: Thou shall not say anything bad to your children about your ex. Parents need to be constantly on guard by reminding themselves of this rule.

If a parent feels that his children are being alienated from him, it is important to address the problem early by having discussions with his ex-spouse, school officials, psychologists, etc. If necessary, a letter should be sent to the court having jurisdiction over the children, putting the judge on notice that parental alienation is occurring and should not be tolerated.

9.) Why is attention being given to this subject lately? Have psychologists only recently identified an old problem or is this a new problem which is getting worse?

Both. Certainly the problem has gotten worse as more fathers have sought to enforce their rights to custody and access to their children. Parental alienation turns out to be an extraordinarily effective means to prevent a father from having a relationship with his kids. It is a strategy which thwarts a father from asserting his legal rights and protecting his children.

But as more fathers obtain custody of their children, they may also resort to alienating them. Ultimately, the answer lies in reforming winner-take-all child custody rules which wind up rewarding contentiousness and the alienation of children from their parents.