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Attorneys Vic Hill and Brad MacDonald

Parental Alienation: Fiction or Well Established?

Among the responses that the term “parental alienation” elicits, indifference is clearly not one of them. As the American Psychiatric Association seeks to update its manual of diagnostic disorders, the question of whether parental alienation should formally qualify as a mental health syndrome is being hotly debated. “We’ve gotten an enormous amount of mail,” says Dr. Darrel Regier, vice chair of the association’s task force that is drafting the manual. “The passions on both sides of this are exceptional.”

Parental alienation – a term that most often surfaces in a divorce and child custody dispute – seeks to convey the manner and degree to which a child’s relationship with an estranged parent can be manipulated and undermined by the other parent, acting out of vindictiveness.

When it comes to the concept, there are both naysayers and strong believers. The former camp is well represented by Joan Meier, a professor whose work centers on child custody and domestic violence. “This is a fabricated notion – there’s no science to support it,” she says. Meier and others believe that the concept is often raised disingenuously by estranged parents who are trying to mask deeper problems that they have with their children, including abusive behavior.

That claim is nonsense, responds Dr. William Bernet, a Vanderbilt University psychiatrist. “This is a problem that causes horrible outcomes for children,” Bernet says. “All the arguments I’ve heard against it are trivial.”

Others say that is might be essentially irrelevant how the phenomenon is classified, and that it does in fact happen in many cases, however it is defined. Says Texas Supreme Court Justice Debra Lerhmann: “Even if it’s not in the manual, relevant evidence can still be brought in.”

Related Resource: “Psychiatric experts assess parental alienation” October 3, 2010