Parental Alienation: The Relevance of Psychoanalytic Thinking
by Ronald C. Naso, Ph.D., ABPP
Few divorces are finalized without conflict. Immured in scenarios of disappointment and anger, the parties are frequently critical of each other. Ten to fifteen percent of parents are so thoroughly embroiled in conflict that they provoke significant loyalty conflicts with the children. They cannot agree on the most elemental issues or communicate without rancor (Stahl, 2011). Years before physically separating, they traumatize, sometimes abuse, their children. Rather than creating a safe psychological space for the child, they recruit him or her as an ally, undermining attachments to the nonaligned parent—all in the name of love. The term parental alienation describes the final common pathway for negative parental influences and their intersection with the personality and dynamics of the child.
Psychoanalysts are exquisitely sensitive to children’s resentments as well as to the various alliances they form with each parent as they negotiate the oedipal and post-oedipal phases of development. The legacy of these conflicts is accorded the highest priority in understanding psychopathology as well as personality and moral development generally. From a psychoanalytic perspective, intense anger directed toward one parent is both predictable, even normative.
The resurgence of psychoanalytic interest in trauma and the dissociative defenses it inspires offers yet another framework for understanding parental alienation. On the one hand, anger at the abuser and subsequent alignment with the non-abusive parent is often a healthy response to trauma, one to be witnessed and supported by the analyst. On the other hand, even parental influence that does not rise to the level of abuse may intensify splitting and projective identification, causing anger to devolve into hatred. Whereas anger can be esteem-enhancing and adaptive because it represents a triumph over victimization, hatred is a more inflexible perspective, supported by powerful rationalizations and shifts in core morality (Kernberg, 1991). Hating someone who previously was loved and to whom the child was clearly attached presents the clinician with the child’s intense feelings that are not easily explained by the behavior of the nonaligned parent. Are the child’s feelings reasonable in light of how the child has been treated by one or both parents? Or, has he or she unconsciously projected disavowed feelings onto that individual?
The Court’s interest in parental alienation follows from its role in making custody and visitation determinations, ultimately from its responsibility to fashion living arrangements that are in the child’s best interests. While some investigators view transient symptoms of parental alienation as expectable in a divorce, when a child’s hatred of or refusal to visit with one parent is supported by other parent, the Court may seek guidance from mental health professionals. In the role of custody evaluator, the analyst must opine as to whether the child’s feelings are reasonable in light of the nonaligned parent’s behavior, better understood as a deliberate strategy on the part of the aligned parent, or the result of processes independent of the parental conflict. At bottom, he or she must advise the Court about the relative benefits and the risks of mandated contact. It is a unique and solemn task, requiring all of listening skills that have been honed through one’s training and clinical experience, awareness of the strong countertransference feelings such evaluations routinely elicit, as well as a commitment to using multiple data sources so that all available evidence is considered before reaching one’s conclusions.
I shall argue a finding of parental alienation rarely is a matter of establishing one’s parent’s complicity or the other’s innocence. It is a motivationally complex phenomenon more often engendered by the mutual, but selective dissociation of moral reckoning and reconfiguration of conflicts, anxieties, and external influences in accordance with unspoken parental mandates. Parental rejection is almost always multiply determined. Johnson & Szurek’s (1952) work on superego lacunae offers key insights into the dynamics of this process. By evaluating both the child and parents with respect to the degree to which moral beliefs have been sequestered and the capacity for guilt compromised, the clinician may more accurately distinguish alienation from estrangement and thoughtfully fashion interventions helpful to affected families.
What is Parental Alienation?
Gardner (1992) coined the term parental alienation syndrome (PAS) to describe the unjustified “campaign[s] of denigration” (p. 77) he observed in many children of divorce. The disorder was diagnosed when there were findings of both explicit parental programming and active vilification of a target parent by the child. Whether PAS symptoms were mild or severe, Gardner viewed alienating parents as “consciously and deliberately” influencing their children, fully recognizing “…the implications and effects of their machinations and often plan[ning] the details assiduously” (p. 71). “The term PAS refers only to the situation in which the parental programming is combined with the child’s own scenarios of disparagement of the vilified parent” (p. 73-74). To repeat, parental programming and vulnerability in the child were necessary conditions of this disorder.
While the potential for parental alienation in high conflict families is ever-present, its validity as a psychiatric syndrome has been seriously challenged (Bruch, 2001). Is it appropriate to label children who react angrily to their parents’ divorce as suffering from a psychiatric disorder? Walker & Shapiro (2010) believe it is problematic to do so. They argue that alienated children share broad similarities with other victims of trauma, loss, and abuse. As a result, their reactions are more parsimoniously conceptualized in accordance with contemporary trauma research. Consistent with prevailing understandings of Acute and Post Traumatic Stress Disorders, it is the child’s reaction rather than the traumatogenic event itself (or the perpetrator/parent) that merits emphasis psychologically. This is not to ignore the actions of abusive parents, but rather to distinguish the clinical/diagnostic perspective from a legal one. Kelly & Johnson (2001) claim that to do otherwise obscures rather than clarifies the etiology of alienated children’s reactions. Regarding the aligned parent’s behavior as the primary cause leads potentially to the improper use of the parental alienation concept in custody disputes. Misuse, in turn, may wrongly deny a parent access to his or her children. Therefore, these investigators urge extreme caution in evaluating this phenomenon. Contra Gardner, Kelly & Johnson view parental alienation as occupying the negative extreme on a continuum of parent-child relationships. They distinguish alienated and estranged children: The former’s angry feelings follow from undue parental influence whereas the latter are justified by negative parental behavior.
A Closer Look at Parental Alienation
Gardner emphasized the child’s obsessive hatred and devaluation of the nonaligned parent. When supported by the aligned parent, he concluded that the relationship between the child’s hatred and the parent’s behavior was a unidirectional and causal one. He interpreted the child’s vilification of the parent “without embarrassment or guilt” as evidence for this inference (1989, p. 266), noticing the same lacunae in alienating parents who often appear oblivious about the cruelty they visit upon the nonaligned parent. Unfortunately, some investigators have interpreted valid criticisms of PAS in a way that diminishes attention to unconscious processes, especially those promoting subversion of moral values. They have focused instead on evidence of alienating behavior that is conscious, overt, and deliberate. Consider the following statement made by Mark, a seventeen-year-old young man whose parents were embroiled in a contentious divorce:
It wasn’t until my parents filed for divorce that I realized I was an abused child. I hate my mother. She’s crazy. She’s a controlling, paranoid bitch who is only interested in getting her own way. She doesn’t give a shit about us. All she cares about is getting her way. My father is so different: he loves me and lets me do what I want. I can talk to him because he doesn’t try control and doesn’t punish me if I make a mistake. My mother’s a bitch; I wish she’d get cancer and die. I could kill her!
Mark was an honors student in high school who had been accepted to a prestigious university. He enjoyed longstanding relationships with friends and a two year relationship with a girl whom he loved. Most importantly, outside of the tumultuous relationship with his mother, he functioned effectively and largely without conflict. He demonstrated concern for and empathy with others’ feelings, experienced guilt when he hurt or offended those he cared about, and was generally respectful of others’ points of view. However, over the course of the last year, he appeared increasingly angry and irritable at home, evidencing significant symptoms of depression.
Mark’s relationship with his father was strong. He perceived him as someone with whom he could discuss anything, good or bad, without fear of disappointment or anger. The divorce brought them closer and Mark felt reassured when his father decided to discuss his decision to file for divorce before filing a motion with the court. He felt it was a sign of his father’s respect and concern for he and his sister’s feelings. Unfortunately, his father’s decision had exactly the opposite effect on Mark’s feelings about his mother. It crystallized Mark’s resentment, the sense that he had been victimized by her. He looked back at their interactions with bitterness, feeling he had been manipulated and controlled. He concluded that she did not deserve to be treated with respect. Indeed, he took it upon himself to humiliate and demean her, behaving in a way that was completely out of keeping with his general comportment. When queried about his actions, he expressed no remorse. Rather, he reiterated his feeling that “she’s a bitch. I wish she’d die.”
Compare Mark’s comments with those of his fourteen year old sister, Sarah:
I can’t stand my mother. I can’t stand the person she’s become. I don’t want to live with her and don’t want anything to do with her. At least, not now. We used to be close, but she’s no longer someone I can talk to. She just wants to be with her boyfriend. That’s all she cares about. She doesn’t care about us, just about having a man. I can sit down with Dad, tell him how I feel or what I’ve done and he doesn’t get crazy about it. If I tell Mom anything, she makes me feel ashamed, like I’ve failed. Maybe I’ll be able to spend time with her in the future, but right now I need space—I need to live with my Dad.
Although angry with her mother and, like her brother, struggling with depression, Sarah’s description differs markedly from her brother’s. One senses possibilities for the diminishment of conflict because her anger is neither fixed nor immutable. In contrast to her brother’s unconditional hatred, Sarah recalls having enjoyed a closer relationship with her mother and struggles with its loss. She longs for safety rather than revenge. She seeks a life without conflict, anger, and shame. Her anger toward her mother is especially uncomfortable. Only if she is permitted to live with her father can she imagine escaping her negative emotions. Otherwise, she envisions continued suffering and struggling with acting in a manner inconsistent with whom she experiences herself to be.
Dissociation of Moral Values
The absence of guilt is one of the most striking features of parental alienation. It is especially noteworthy when it occurs in the context of otherwise morally intact children. The child’s hatred of the parent stands in marked contrast to a personality organization that is generally modulated by guilt. How is it possible to feel hatred for one who previously has been loved?
Johnson and Szurek noticed the paradox of antisocial behavior in delinquent children who otherwise presented no pervasive disorder of conscience. These children violated norms and acted on forbidden impulses selectively rather than universally. In other spheres of their lives, they lived in accordance with rules and social conventions. They evidenced a capacity for moral deliberation and, in some instances, possessed a developed ethical sense. Johnson and Szurek explained the paradox thusly:
“…[P]arents may find vicarious gratification of their own poorly-integrated forbidden impulses in the acting out of the child, through their unconscious permissiveness or inconsistency toward the child in these spheres of behavior. The child’s superego lacunae correspond to similar (unconscious) defects of the parents’ superego…” (p. 324). In circumstances of uncertainty, conflict, and moral ambiguity, the child adopts attitudes on the basis of unconscious fantasies that find direct expression in transgressive action. Whereas these attitudes may be activated when the child interprets parental passivity as tacit approval of antisocial actions, they are engendered as well by wishes to protect a vulnerable parent or right a perceived wrong. While motives vary, what is critical is that the child’s fantasy correspond to an aporia in the aligned parent’s value system. This correspondence promotes and sustains dissociation and explains the intractability of alienation over time. Unconscious encouragement leads the child, first, to believe that it is permissible to act on otherwise forbidden wishes; and, second, that focusing of his or her frustration and hatred on the alienated parent will be respected, reinforced, and interpreted as an expression of love.
Especially important about Johnson & Szurek’s view is its appreciation of how parents unconsciously influence particular attitudes and behaviors in their children. Unlike Gardner whose view rests on conscious and deliberate programming, these investigators draw attention to how a child may interpret his or her actions as permissible when they are sanctioned tacitly by the parent. On this view, parental alienation requires neither indoctrination nor brainwashing in the strict sense of these terms. Rather, it rests on the creation of an intersubjective space in which selective transgressions no longer are perceived as wrong. A high conflict divorce provides fertile soil for this dynamic to root.
Mrs. X., the mother of Mark and Sarah, engaged in a host of behaviors that were alienating. They were offensive to her children and strained their relationships directly. She seemed to impose her will arbitrarily, without regard for the children’s needs and interests. She held Mark especially to standards so high that successes were treated like failures. Teachers were horrified by her criticisms of the children. She berated them even when they won awards, turning triumphs into failures. It was not enough to take first place in a contest or competition; the children had to meet her standards. She was so competitive, demanding, and intrusive that she alienated all of the local professionals working with children, such that she had to spend hours per day transporting them for voice, dance, and acting lessons. By all accounts, she was relentless and uncompromising, intolerant of any advice to give her children some space.
At the same time, Mr. X. was not blameless in this matter. He contributed to the children’s estrangement from their mother by passively acceding to her wishes, however much he privately disagreed with them. His were largely sins of omission. He feared vicious recrimination when he took the children’s side. Feeling powerless and fearful of making matters worse for everyone, he rationalized his inaction as the only way to keep the peace. Ultimately, he concluded that divorce would protect him and the children from abuse. He felt ashamed, a failure as a husband and as a father. He secretly turned to the affections of another woman, leaving his children emotionally on their own to deal with their mother.
From the examiner’s perspective, parental alienation in this case was significant, but failed to conform to Gardner’s paradigm. It was sustained and deepened by Mr. X.’s behavior, but not unilaterally caused by it. Instead, the children had legitimate grievances with their mother. Various family members and third party witnesses described her as impossibly controlling, devaluing of the children’s efforts, and oblivious to the impact of her behavior on the children. Sarah’s wish to escape from her mother’s influence was no different from that of the many adults who avoided her—there was no way to avoid her wrath when one did not do what she wanted.
Yet, his mother’s impossible behavior did not completely explain the intensity of Mark’s hatred. He seemed to feel nothing but contempt for her, even when she took a conciliatory stance. On one occasion, when she refused to allow his sister to attend a social function, he pounded on her bedroom door, screaming obscenities at her. His father intervened only after the door began to tear away from its hinges, preventing any further escalation of Mark’s aggression.
To say that Mark presented with parental alienation does not do justice to what was transpiring psychologically within him. He exhibited an extreme form of hatred whose aim was to dehumanize or symbolically destroy his mother (Kernberg, 1991). So consuming was this hatred that it compromised any ability to mourn the loss of his relationship with his mother. This degree of dysregulation always implicates a reliance on primitive defenses and affects personality as a whole. In concert with a strong identification with his father and intolerance of the latter’s helplessness, Mark endeavored to coerce, dominate and punish his mother, taking a perverse delight in causing her emotional pain. While both children averted guilt through actions designed unconsciously to protect their father, Mark actively sought revenge for the wrongs that had been perpetrated. His mother would enjoy no mercy.
That children act on unconscious identifications and wishes in order to avenge injustices suffered by one of their parents enlarges Hartmann’s (1960) claim that moral beliefs and behavior do not follow directly from identifications and internalized prohibitions. Rather, they are continually reshaped by contemporary influences and must accord, at least in part, with rational standards as well as with the rest of personality. On this reading, parental alienation represents a compromise formation, an effort by the child to preserve an idealized, loving, nurturing relationship with a good object at the expense of estrangement from or the symbolic destruction of a bad one. Sadly, the dissociative processes that undergird this stance do not always accord with the reality of the situation, which is typically more complex. While parental behavior plays a key role, it is but one factor whose contribution must be evaluated in the context of the child’s personality organization as a whole. Mr. X.’s passivity and refusal to hold Mark accountable for his actions caused his statements to the children for greater love and respect of their mother to fall on deaf ears. He neither insisted on compliance nor imposed consequences when the children behaved poorly. Even when evidence emerged suggesting that Mr. X. encouraged an “us against her” mentality, Mark’s reactions remained out of keeping with what was communicated. It is important that Sarah felt and acted differently, although she had arguably endured the same “abuse.”
The Significance of a Psychoanalytic Perspective for the Court
The concept of parental alienation is important in forensic circles and accorded great weight in custody determinations. Its importance follows from its intrinsic link with the best interests of the child. In Connecticut, for example, the Best Interests statute encompasses sixteen factors, two of which are particularly sensitive to a finding of parental alienation. Specifically, the Court (CT. Gen. Statute § 46b-56c) requires evaluators to consider: (a) “the willingness and ability of each parent to facilitate and encourage such continuing parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent as is appropriate, including compliance with any court orders;” and (b) “any manipulation by or coercive behavior of the parents in an effort to involve the child in the parents’ dispute.” Surely a finding of parental alienation calls into question the capacity to appreciate and respond appropriately to the child’s needs (also a Best Interestsfactor in most jurisdictions). By definition it is manipulative and actively undermines the target parent’s relationship with the child. However, linkages between parental behavior and the child’s mental state are complex and multiply determined. Kelly & Johnson criticize the exclusive focus on the alienating parent as sole cause of the child’s alienation. They argue that this inference “…is not supported by considerable clinical research that shows that in high-conflict divorce, many parents engage in indoctrinating behaviors, but only a small proportion of children become alienated…In other cases, it can be shown that some children (especially adolescents) develop unjustified animosity…and fears…in the absence of alienating behaviors by a parent” (p. 249). They suggest that a finding of parental alienation be made only when the following criteria are satisfied: (a) the child’s hatred is new, never before a prominent feature of the parent-child relationship; (b) the child’s hatred, contempt, and beliefs are irrational, which is to say, unsupported in light of the history of the parent-child relationship and all other available evidence; and (c) parental alienation cannot be a finding in circumstances of abuse, neglect, and/or mistreatment, nor may it used to establish claims of abuse. The psychoanalyst’s appreciation of the context and motivational complexity of this phenomenon places him or her in a unique position to decipher the wide array of intra- and interpersonal factors that inspire alienation and educate the Court as to its emotional impact. Psychoanalytic understanding contextualizes irrational beliefs and disregulated emotions in accordance with the child’s development as well as his or her cognitive, social, and emotional capacities.
A greater appreciation of unconscious factors allows evaluators to explain parental alienation without inappropriately scapegoating the nonaligned parent. Recognizing unconscious or dissociated influences provides a more accurate picture of what transpires within families, especially when there is little evidence to support allegations of brainwashing. Gardner is to be credited with noticing the role of unconscious factors, an insight all but forgotten with rejection of PAS as a diagnosable psychiatric disorder.
The Court is interested in objective, accurate portrayals of parental behavior and, especially, its psychological impact on the child. Kelly & Johnson have done a great service by urging those involved in custody determinations to speak of parental alienation as a finding with multiple causes. Unfortunately, this has led many practitioners to disregard the role of unconscious factors and focus exclusively on parental behavior that is consciously planned and overt. Invisible in this perspective is the aligned parent’s unconscious sanctioning of hostility, whose primary indicant is an absence of guilt and mourning in the affected child. While brainwashing does occur, parental alienation is often a response to disavowed parental emotions, beliefs, and signals that are experienced as acts of love. In such instances, the child does not simply act on forbidden wishes, but on the basis of identifications, conflicts, anxieties, and influences that have been reconfigured by the circumstances of the divorce. This “transvaluation” (Hartmann, p. 30) deserves clinical attention in its own right. A child embarks on a campaign of denigration only when he or she feels justified in doing so. It is especially likely when this behavior is supported by a parent, such that the child no longer experiences a disparity between his or her actions and what is morally permissible.
- Bruch, C. (2001). Parental alienation syndrome and parental alienation: Getting it wrong in child custody cases. Family Law Quarterly, 35, 527.
- Gardner, R. (1992). The Parental Alienation Syndrome. Creskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.
- Kelly, J. & Johnson, J.R. (2001). The alienated child: A reformulation of parental alienation syndrome. Family Court Review, 39, 249-266.
- Kernberg, O. (1991). The psychopathology of hatred. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 39, 209-238.
- Hartmann, H. (1960). Psychoanalysis and Moral Values. New York: International Universities Press.
- Johnson, A. & Szurek, S. (1952). The genesis of antisocial acting out in children and adults. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 21, 323-343.
- Stahl, P. (2011). Conducting Child Custody Evaluations: From Basic to Complex Issues. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- State of Connecticut. (2011). Best interest of the child standard in Connecticut. Judicial Branch, State of CT, http://www.jud.ct.gov/lawlib/Notebooks/Pathfinders/BestInterest.pdf, downloaded 2/3/2011.
- Walker, L. & Shapiro, D. (2010). Parental alienation disorder: Why label children with a mental diagnosis? Journal of Child Custody, 7, 266-286.
By: Ronald C. Naso, Ph.D., ABPP
Ronald C. Naso, PhD, ABPP is psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist in independent practice in Stamford, CT. He also is a consultant and supervisor in the Internship and Postdoctoral Fellowship training programs at the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut. The author of numerous papers on psychoanalytic topics, associate editor of Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies and consulting editor of Division/Review, his book, entitled Hypocrisy Unmasked: Dissociation, Shame, and the Ethics of Inauthenticity, was published by Aronson in 2010.