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Is parental alienation real or a psychological hoax?

It's an all-too familiar story: One parent--let's say the father--wins primary custody of the children. The mother looks forward to her parenting time but starts to notice the children acting differently over time. They ask why she doesn't love them. They say they want to go back to their father's house. The father starts making excuses for why they don't want to visit. Eventually, they just stop showing up. They stop calling. The mother who gave life to these children finds her connection to them unravelling.

This is what Pennsylvania's courts refer to as "parental alienation." Parental alienation was introduced in the 1980s as a mental health syndrome, but more than 30 years later, it still has not been added to the DSM or recognized by the American Psychiatric Society. Nonetheless, the term persists, backed by the suffering of roughly 22 million alienated parents, and has factored prominently in cases brought before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Some say parental alienation is a real and troubling phenomenon

Divorce studies of all varieties show that children of divorce can grow up to be healthy and successful people. But those same studies show that children do best when they have the loving support of two emotionally stable parents who do their best to avoid unnecessary conflict. The more recent studies of parental alienation, such as those from Colorado State University, don't claim it's a syndrome, but they argue that parents act against the child's best interests when they engage in alienating behaviors:

  • Using lies, threats and coercion to manipulate the child
  • Discouraging a relationship with the other parent
  • Bringing the child directly into the middle of conflict between parents

People who claim that parental alienation is real will say that it resembles brainwashing or abuse. Parents who engage in these behaviors value the child's loyalty over the child's health, and they're willing to damage the children to gain control over their emotions.

Others say parental alienation is a dangerous psychological hoax

Critics argue that after 30 years, psychologists have still not gathered enough evidence to show that parental alienation is real. Instead, they cite examples in which lawyers used the term to conceal abuses and won judgments made against the children's best interests:

  • Children have their testimony dismissed as delusions resulting from "parental alienation"
  • The psychologists who support the use of parental alienation may benefit from expensive treatment
  • Treatment often causes children trauma as it rips them away from their preferred parent

For these reasons and others, critics argue that courts shouldn't admit arguments based on this "junk science."

Arm yourself with the facts

Pennsylvania's courts aim to rule in favor of the child's best interests. Currently, that includes the consideration of potential parental alienation. Children want two, healthy, loving and emotionally stable parents--even if those parents don't live together--so the best thing you can do after your divorce is be a cooperative and supportive partner. If, however, you suspect your ex is systematically lying to your children and abusing their emotions to win their loyalty away from you, you want to talk to an attorney. A custody modification could help protect your relationship with your children.

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