Parental Alienation Theory

The nature of allegations of domestic violence used to alienate a target parent is a is a highly complex one. It is therefore important that any service utilised in family dispute resolution has a comprehensive understanding of parental alienation theories, both for and against.  It remains contentious, as there are vast differences in in perspective from the relatively limited research which has been undertaken internationally, and in Australia. However parental alienation is now widely accepted as existing, particularly in family law matters.

The concept of Parental Alienation Syndrome was first widely canvassed by US Psychiatrist, Richard Gardner, although the theory was in place long before Gardner came to speak publicly about the issue.

US Psychologist Lundy Bancroft is an advocate for the protective mothers alliance against abusive male ‘batterers’. In his paper he discusses the use of parental alienation theory as a disingenuous method of diverting attention from male aggressors. However, Bancroft rightly highlights that the need to protect children and their mothers from violence is of paramount importance. [1]

Regardless of beliefs on what causes PAS, be that a pathological behaviour or a conspiracy theory intended to shift blame, the feeling of exclusion parent feels when removed from their children is real and must be sensitively addressed. Even when family violence is a causal factor, the parent removed from the parental duties and involvement experiences a great sense of loss, often described as grieving a child who is still alive. There is a high correlation to suicidal ideation rafted from a multitude of factors, in parents who feel alienated and excluded from their children’s lives. [2]

There is also a wide body of research on the negative emotional outcomes of children who are victims of parental alienation. They are prone to low self esteem, isolation, anxiety and poorer educational outcomes, among many others. [3] This therefore makes this a vital component of parenting disputes and family law in Australia to consider PAS contributors ‘in the best interests of the child’ and not simply a matter of ‘mothers rights’ v. ‘fathers rights’.

How can Family Dispute Resolution help?

Current research being undertaken by Dr Mandy Matthewson of the University of Tasmania is exploring the target parent perspectives on the impact of alienation. Targeted parents consistently report common tactics of allegations of abuse which, after thorough investigation and determination of the courts are found to be unsubstantiated. Matthewson reports:

“One of the most important findings of the present study was that the targeted parents’ perceptions of situational threat to current and/or future wellbeing could be significantly predicted by increases in the severity of exposure to parental alienation tactics.

The finding that parental alienation is perceived to represent a risk of harm is important because this perception may be a function of escalating conflict as well as a contributing factor in the conflict. This is because decision-making and emotional wellbeing can be negatively influenced when an individual feels threatened. Therefore, it would be important for clinicians working with targeted parents to take into account the level of actual and perceived threat experienced by the targeted parent.” [4]

Therefore, in order to minimise the likely escalation of conflict and potentially domestic violence and abuse, a target parents perspective needs to be acknowledged and heard. Family Dispute Practitioners who are well versed in PAS theory can provide a much needed first point of contact for parents who feel they are targets.

Similarly, any real or perceived risks of physical harm identified by the other parent or child need to be considered with keeping safety as the priority. A comprehensive risk assessment identifying the risk and severity of family violence would be required prior to commencing mediation.

For the ‘protective’ parent who believes there is a high risk or has experienced family violence they are often unlikely to want to facilitate shared parenting or time with the other parent. If the risk of violence is high, in the majority of cases it is the mother and children who are at risk and the father who is the perpetrator.  However it can and does frequently occur in all relationship dynamics including same sex couples and fathers in heterosexual couples as the victims. Regardless of gender, the victims of family violence should be protected and their safety considered as an absolute priority in mediating these cases.

Child inclusive mediation will assist in parental attunement, potentially minimising conflict in hearing the voice of the child. Research conducted by Jenn McIntosh [5]  strongly correlates the Child Inclusive Practice model with improved shared parenting outcomes and decreased acrimony.

By its nature, the family dispute resolution process facilitates a place where parental concerns can be aired and resolutions in parenting disputes can be achieved. The family dispute resolution practitioner is able to facilitate parents to come to a workable agreement for shared parenting time and decision making regarding the children.

In cases where family violence is a factor, parenting time for the perpetrator may involve supervised contact for a period of time. This can be facilitated at a contact centre or may be by private arrangement between the parties if they can agree upon it.

Behaviour Change

For lasting change to occur, people who have perpetrated violence must take responsibility for their actions and learn to adapt to the new family dynamic without the use of abuse, aggression or violence.

For men, referrals to men’s behaviour change programs through the men’s referral service are advantageous to help them minimise the blame and accept responsibility.

No current behaviour change programs appear to exist for women who perpetrate family violence, including the effects of abuse from parental alienation. For women, the only current available help is through clinical psychology.

Suicide Prevention

Parents who feel the effects of alienation or removal from their children feel isolated and lost with no sense of purpose or direction. They can experience rapidly escalating anger which if unchecked can turn to abuse and violence of the other party or themselves. Parents who feel excluded from their children’s lives also feel isolated and lost with no sense of purpose. They are prone to experience deep, prolonged depression and also experience anger and suicidal ideation. [6]  Services such as Parents Beyond Breakup support groups for ‘mums in distress’ and ‘dads in distress’ can assist these parents in removing the sense of isolation they are experiencing. The Eeny Meeny Miney Mo Foundation is another such organisation and works exclusively with target parents of parental alienation.