Sound practice in clinical work with alienated children and their targeted parents suggests that assessment and recognition of parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome is a critical starting point. In the absence of valid, reliable and readily available assessment tools, as well as evidence-based psychotherapeutic approaches to treatment, sound practice guidelines are offered. Key treatment considerations for both alienated children and targeted parents are offered, as are next steps for societal change, including increasing public awareness and providing more training for mental health and legal professionals.
Divorce affects one million new children every year. Of these children, approximately 20% of their parents remain in conflict, with little, if any, cooperation (Garrity & Baris, 1994; Kelly, 2005). When children get caught in the middle of parental conflict, they are at risk for many psychosocial problems, including alignment with one parent against the other (e.g., Amato, 1994; Johnston, 1994; Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee, 2001; Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1996). Especially problematic is when the alignment becomes so entrenched that children join forces with one parent to completely reject and denigrate the other, once-loved parent (Darnall, 1998; Wallerstein & Kelly 1980; Warshak, 2001).
Parents who encourage such alignments employ parental alienation (PA) strategies designed to turn a child against the other, targeted parent. The alienating parent is often filled with hatred, blame, anger, and shame and lacks awareness of the separate and independent needs of the children to have a relationship with the other parent (Ellis, 2005; Gardner, 1998; Rand, 1997). Through various strategies such as bad-mouthing, limiting contact, belittling, and withdrawing love, the alienating parent creates the impression that the targeted parent is dangerous, unloving, or unworthy, thus compelling the child to reject that parent (Baker, 2007a; Baker & Darnall, 2006). At its most extreme, when a child completely rejects the targeted parent, the result is referred to as severe alienation or parental alienation syndrome (PAS) (Gardner, 1998).
Mental health providers are among the first professionals to whom the targeted parents of alienated children turn to for help for their children or to whom courts refer for answers to accusations of brainwashing (Ellis, 2000). These parents and courts count on therapists to help whether it is to prevent continuing litigation in clogged courtrooms, or to intervene with counseling, as well as to give the parents supportive tools to repair and sustain the parent-child relationship. Because therapists are one of the first resources courts and parents use, they must be knowledgeable in the field of parental alienation and high-conflict divorce. They must be able to tolerate conflicting data from parents and children while searching for emotional truth within the children being counseled (Vestal, 1999). Along the same lines, Wallerstein insightfully comments in her forward to Marquardt's (2005) book Between Two Worlds that what is needed is "an honest recognition of the experience of children" (p. xvii). In order to more honestly recognize and understand the experience of these children, mental health professionals must begin with the available knowledge that they currently have, incomplete as...
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