Definitions Of And Common Judicial Myths About Alienation

Parental Alienation – Part 2 of 3: Judicial Misconceptions. How Judges & Lawyers Often Get It Wrong

Although very experienced in all aspects of family law, Kelly Peterson also has specific expertise for and specializes in cases involving parental alienation, gatekeeping, and parent time interference.

Definitions Of And Common Judicial Myths About Alienation

In this article, you will discover:

  • Definitions of parental alienation and estrangement
  • Common myths surrounding alienation and estrangement
  • Common pitfalls of therapists and guardians ad litem
  • How seriously the preferences of the alienated child should be taken

Alienation and estrangement are related but slightly different concepts. I’ll give two definitions for alienation.

First, an alienated child expresses freely and persistently unreasonable, negative feelings and beliefs (such as anger, hatred, rejection, and/or fear) toward a parent significantly disproportionate to the child’s actual experience with that parent.

Another definition of alienation is when a child rejects a parent without a good reason, while the child’s rejection is far out of proportion to anything the rejected parent has done.

On the other hand, estrangement is when a child rejects a parent for a good reason, such as abuse or neglect.

Many alienation cases are “hybrid cases” where the child has some valid reason to be estranged from a parent. However, the child’s rejection of that parent is still disproportionate to what the parent did wrong. In other words, the child is both estranged and alienated.

Common Judicial Myths And Misperceptions Regarding Parental Alienation

Many myths and misconceptions surround alienation and estrangement, which even skew the perspectives of judges, therapists, and guardians ad litem. Some of the most prevalent are as follows:

Myth #1: Alienated Children Thriving In Other Areas Of Their Lives Are Just Fine And Need No Interventions.

Many litigants, judges, guardians ad litem, therapists, etc. believe that if the child is doing well with friends, school, and other facets of life (who avoid substance abuse, behave politely, and demonstrate other favorable markers) an alienated child does not really need court intervention even if they are rejecting one of their parents. Research does not support this concept. However, this concept is often argued in part as a way to leverage the fear of a court in disrupting an otherwise functional child’s life. Courts generally do not wish to make changes without a significant reason to do so. In other words, if the child seems happy and well-adjusted, courts often want to leave that situation alone.

Thus, many courts fall into the trap of thinking that if everything seems to be going well in a child’s life, changing custody or otherwise intervening with the alienated child would be more harmful than, or rather could be more damaging, than long-term psychological damage caused by alienation. Put differently, courts or professionals can be more skeptical that an alienated child is significantly damaged by parental alienation so long as the other aspects of the child’s life seem good. This belief is a myth, and the available research does not support it.

Myth #2: Putting The Child In Therapy Will Fix The Problem.

Many courts, guardians ad litem, therapists, and litigants believe that simply putting a child in therapy or even conjoint or family therapy with the non-favored parent is an adequate remedy. Courts may tell litigants to put the child in treatment, come back in three months, and reevaluate the situation. Still, the research demonstrates that traditional therapy will not work ,and can even solidify the child’s negative feelings towards the non-favored parent. In my practice, I have repeatedly observed that traditional therapy will incentivize the alienated child to emphasize and reiterate their negative complaints against the non-favored parent.

Both the favored parent and the alienated child have an incentive to exaggerate and emphasize the non-favored parent’s deficiencies and repeat them throughout therapy, thus solidifying their negative feelings. Also, a traditional therapist will often attempt to convince the non-favored parent to “give the child some space” or “back off,” not exercising their parenting time while traditional therapeutic remedies are being attempted. This has the effect of conveying the message to the child that they are “in charge.” Finally, the favored parent has an incentive to delay therapy, not pay for it, sabotage it, and convince the therapist how horrible the non-favored parent is, or attempt to convince the therapist that they, the favored parent, are helpless to do anything about the problem. Research demonstrates that traditional therapy rarely works for these and similar reasons.

Myth #3: Supervising Or Limiting The Non-Favored Parent’s Visitation Is A Good Idea, At Least Initially.

Supervising visitation and/or limiting the non-favored parent’s parent time sends a message to the child that the other parent is too dangerous to be left alone with the child or that the child will be harmed unless parent time is supervised or otherwise limited. Court-ordered parenting time should be enforced. Supervision or a cooling-off period will more likely embolden the alienated child and the favored parent to continue pounding the drum of how horrible the non-favored parent is. This will also show the child that for them to be in charge, all they have to do is dig their heels in, throw a fit, emphasize the negatives about the non-favored parent, or demonstrate other negative behaviors.

Myth #4: Separating The Child From The Favored Parent Will Traumatize The Child.

Research demonstrates that this is a myth. The words trauma, traumatized, and similar expressions are bandied about in the courtroom, but no peer-reviewed study has documented harm coming to severely alienated children by changing custody. Furthermore, no study has reported that the children are “traumatized” in the proper psychological sense. Courts, guardians ad litem, and therapists who claim the child will be traumatized should be challenged to support that assertion with valid psychological research; they will be unable to do it.

Myth #5: The Alienated Child’s Preference Should Govern, Especially In Their Teens.

A child does not have a fundamental or constitutional right to reject a parent, and a child’s wishes are not controlling until they become adults. In Utah, when a child becomes 14 years of age, the court must give a child preference added weight in determining custody (NOT enforcement of parent time), but that preference is not controlling. Also, the court is not required to assign a child’s preference to limit their contact with the non-favored parent any weight whatsoever. The child’s preference is only to be considered in a custody determination, and NOT to restrict the non-favored parent’s court-ordered parent time.

Myth #6: Courts Cannot Realistically Enforce Parenting Time Against A Rejecting Child’s Wishes, Especially If They Are A Teenager.

Research shows that children’s protests against an alienated parent tend to evaporate when they are reunited with that rejected parent in the right way for a suitable period of time, and if the alienating parent’s influence can be limited. For example, courts can change custody and order a period of no contact between an alienating parent and the alienated child. The court can order supervision or order the favored parent to write apology letters to the alienated child explaining what they’ve done wrong (e.g., how they have alienated the child or engaged in similar inappropriate behavior).

Teenagers need to learn to comply with rules just like everybody else. Research demonstrates it is an error to assume that children do not benefit from any assertion of authority on the part of the courts and their parents. Suppose children learn early that their refusals, rejections, etc., can have negative consequences. In that case, they will learn to cope with those consequences rather than continuing their behavior instead of if they will, they can.

Suppose an alienated child were to announce to the favored parent that they would refuse to go to school and begin using alcohol or drugs. In that case, it is unlikely the favored parent would say, “I encourage you not to do that but I can’t do anything besides encourage you, and I can’t physically stop you.” Often the favored parent will adopt this posture of “learned helplessness” when enforcing the parent time of the non-favored parent. However, they do not adopt this posture of helplessness when enforcing the rules in their own home. Even the favored parent will say “no, kiddo, get your rear end in the car. You’re going to school. If you fail to do so, I’m going to take away your driver’s license, phone, extracurricular activities, time with friends; you will be grounded for the foreseeable future.”

Additionally, favored parents can provide incentives for their children that are positive rather than negative, which the court can force from the favored parent.

Myth #7: A Good, Stiff Lecture From The Judge Will Get Through To The Interfering Or Alienating Parent.

Frustrated judges often lecture the favored parent or both parents to get along, support the other parent, and if they fail to, “there will be consequences.” Sometimes, judges do this because they don’t know what else to do, and they hope that a threat from the bench will get the job done. However, people “are who they are,” and while people can change, change generally takes consistent effort. Generally speaking, people have to want to change before doing so. The best indicator of future behavior is past patterns of behavior. There is no research to suggest that a lecture from the judge, even if future sanctions are threatened, will transform an alienating parent into being supportive of the non-favored parent. Experience does not bear out the belief that a lecture from the bench will have much impact.

Myth #8: Parental Alienation Is “Junk Science.”

Opponents of parental alienation as a valid phenomenon claim that the term parental alienation is not to be found in the DSM-5. However, as actual authors of the DSM have indicated, parental alienation may be categorized in the DSM-5 under three different sections:

  1. V6 1.29. A child affected by parental relationship distress. This diagnosis should be used when treatment focuses on the adverse effects of parental relationship, conflict, discord, disparagement—etc. on a child in the family, including the effects on a child’s family.
  2. V6. 1.20. A parent-child relational problem involves negative attributions of the other’s intentions, hostility towards or scapegoating the other, and unwarranted feelings of estrangement.
  3. 995.51. Child psychological abuse which can include harming people or things that the child cares about.

Common Pitfalls Of Therapists And Guardian Ad Litems In Alienation Cases And Unreasonable Preferences Of The Alienated Child

What Are The Most Common Pitfalls Of Therapists And Guardians Ad Litem In Alienation Cases?

Parental alienation is a very specialized, complex, and counterintuitive field. Unfortunately, many professionals, such as therapists and guardians ad litem, rely mostly on their own experience – their gut. They think that because they have been a practitioner for a long time, they can intuit or feel their way correctly to right solutions. Research shows that even psychologists very often fail to use the intervention supported by the science and instead rely on their own clinical experience. However, this is problematic for a variety of reasons.

There is a disconnect between what science has discovered and what occurs in the clinician’s/professional’s office. A therapist who fails to stay well-informed on the research and well-trained on how to implement the research-based interventions can easily harm a family and an alienated child. For example, an insufficiently trained clinician can confuse an unhealthy and enmeshed relationship between a parent and a child with a healthy close bond between the child and the favored parent. In the parlance of medical science, we must first “do no harm,” but therapists and guardians ad litem who are unaware of the research often do such things as simply send an alienated child to traditional therapy. Traditional therapy has been found to be not only ineffective, but often harmful and contraindicated. Oftentimes, it merely provides a platform for the child’s distorted view to be further entrenched and reiterated by the favored parent and also by the alienated child. The child lists their grievances about the non-favored parent repeatedly to the therapist.

Sometimes, the therapist will require the non-favored parent to “show empathy” for this distorted view, and even to apologize in a way that reinforces the distorted view. Guardians ad litem and therapists also often recommend a “cooling off” period for the non-favored parent during which that parent is required to give the alienated child “space” with the hope that the child’s angst against the target parent will somehow magically disappear. Although well-meaning, these kinds of strategies often advocated by ill-trained professionals can feed and embolden the alienated child and alienated parent. After all, by complaining loudly about the non-favored parent, the goals of the alienating parent and alienated child have been realized. Thus, they will consider it to be a working strategy and continue more of the same.

Additionally, private guardians ad litem often spend little effort in ensuring that the appointed therapist has the requisite training, knowledge, skill, and experience in dealing with alienation in a potential alienation case.

In Utah, a private guardian ad litem is tasked with representing both the child’s best interests and the child’s wishes. However, guardians ad litem in alienation cases, particularly if they are insufficiently trained, often do not know what is in the child’s best interest. Because of this, they latch on to the one clear piece of evidence in their possession: the child’s preference. When they latch on in this way, they become a “supercharge” to the alienating parent and alienated child’s arguments in court, thus causing more harm than good. What guardians ad litem often fail to realize or to sufficiently take into account is that they should not advocate for their client’s preference if the child lacks sufficient capacity to make a reasoned decision because of the influence of the alienating parent. Where a guardian ad litem does not know what is in the child’s best interest but evidence if alienation exists, the guardian ad litem should candidly admit that, and suspend the judgment rather than advocating for the child’s preference to diminish parent time with the non-favored parent.

Guardians ad litem should thoroughly study this alienation and its affects so that they may understand how profoundly counterintuitive this area can be. Often, guardians ad litem are either volunteer or are paid very little. This creates a disincentive for them to thoroughly research and understand alienation or to fully familiarize themselves with the facts: historical patterns, police reports, DCFS records, school records, mental health records etc. These should be studied by the guardian ad litem.

Professionals who do not understand this area can also mistake the anxiety or frustration of the non-favored parent to actually be the grounds to limit their parenting time. In other words, the child or the alienating parent makes vague statements about how angry the target parent is, and when the target parent expresses their frustration over losing their parent time and the relationship with the child, the alienated parent’s explanations seem validated. It is easy for an untrained or unmotivated professional to stop investigating the reasons behind the alienated child’s displeasure at that point.

Without clear evidence of abuse, guardians ad litem should advocate for strict adherence to parent time rather than “taking a step back” from parent time to give the child “a break”. Guardians ad litem should understand that court orders must have teeth and must be enforced.

How Seriously Should The Court, Therapists Or Private Guardians Ad Litem Take The Preferences Of The Alienated Child?

Where a child’s preference and opinions regarding their own best interests are reasonable, these should be taken into account. Unfortunately, all too often, therapists and private guardians ad litem heavily weight the unreasonable preferences and opinions of an alienated child. Just because the child expresses an opinion that is strong or clear does not make it reasonable. Indeed, even a 16-year old’s preference and capacity to make a preference can be tainted and compromised.

Unfortunately, courts, guardians ad litem, therapists and other professionals often fail to adequately investigate whether the child has “diminished capacity” due to alienation or undue influence. Such an investigation would include looking under every available rock to determine the validity of any abuse claims, the origin of them, collateral interviews with teachers, therapists, family members of both sides, doctors, friends, etc. This is particularly true if the CPS or DCFS investigation resulted in an “Unsupported” or “Unfounded” finding meaning that they investigated and could not find that abuse had occurred.

If a private guardian ad litem, therapist, or court believes that the child’s capacity has been diminished, such preference should be given much less weight, if any. Finally, professionals should keep in mind that a child’s preference is only one of approximately 15 different factors that court considers in determining a child’s best interest. Professionals should not allow this single factor to eclipse the others. Sending a child to Reconciliation Therapy for an hour or so a week will be ineffective when the child spends the other 167 hours that week with the alienating favored parent.

Although very experienced in all aspects of family law, Kelly Peterson also has specific expertise for and specializes in cases involving parental alienation, gatekeeping, and parent time interference.

For more information on Definitions Of And Common Judicial Myths About Alienation In Utah, an initial consultation is your next best step. Get the information and legal answers you seek by calling (801) 616-3301 today.

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