There are signs of a growing awareness in both the legal system and the mental health community of parental alienation, a disturbing divorce phenomenon in which one parent turns a child against the other parent.
Not only did the World Health Organization recently classify the behavior as a form of child abuse, but a much-need resource is on its way, too.
A pair of Canadian experts on parental alienation — law professor and researcher Nicolas Bata, and clinical psychologist Dr. Barbara Fidler — are writing a parental alienation guidebook for lawyers, judges and doctors around the world.
“Alienation is a problem of emotional abuse,” Bala said. “If a child is being pressured, manipulated by one parent to reject the other parent or perhaps the grandparents and others as well, it can be very emotionally damaging to the children involved.”
In a CTV interview, Fidler said parental alienation “is a campaign of denigration” waged by one parent against the other, with the recruited child making unfounded and exaggerated complaints and allegations against the alienated mother or father.
She said the allegations are often irrational, depending on the level of severity of alienation, and that the campaign is a “toxic stress” for the child.
“We know without dispute the negative impact on children short- and long-term,” Fidler said.
Bala added that there is a “very disturbing” long-term, intergenerational impact of parental alienation as well. Adults who were as children involved in a parental alienation dynamic are often later rejected by their own children.
Plus, he said, as they grow older, children who are coaxed or pushed by one parent to alienate the other parent often struggle with depression and substance abuse.
Bala said that his concern as a legal researcher is with how attorneys and judges respond to these cases. Far too often, he said, they aren’t aware of parental alienation and don’t know how to respond to it appropriately. That lack of familiarity extends to many mental health professionals as well, he said.
Their collaborative book is to be a resource for members of both professions, helping them to recognize and understand the phenomenon and deal with it in ways that serve to limit the damage to the child and alienated parent.