by Despina Vassiliou
Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling, McGill University
3700 McTavish, Montreal, QC, Canada H3A 1Y2
REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
A review of the literature concerning the development of parental alienation in families requires a review of the main theories surrounding the development of PAS. The main postulates include: (a) heightened levels of conflict, (b) divorce, (c) the contributions or influence of the legal system, and (d) a combination of various other factors that may contribute to the development of PAS.
HIGH CONFLICT SITUATIONS
As the dissolution of a marriage proceeds and court proceedings begin regarding the custody of the children, there is likely to be increasing conflict among the divorcing parents. It is believed that this conflict propels and heightens the occurrence of PAS. Family conflict may contribute to many difficulties that the individual family members encounter — such as problems in social development, emotional stability, and cognitive skills. These difficulties may instigate long-term consequences that may persist long after the finalization of the divorce (Kurdek, 1981).
Further, when the conflict occurring in a family (whether divorced or intact) is ongoing and heightened, the individual family members have been found to express feelings of lowered self-esteem, increased anxiety, and diminished self control (Slater & Haber, 1984). Particularly at risk are the children. There are reports that adolescents have a greater risk of developing adjustment problems whether the family goes through divorce or remains intact (Hoffman, 1971). Therefore, the level of family conflict is an important dimension which can alter the family structure and affects children’s well-being (Demo & Acock, 1988).
PAS is a syndrome that is usually associated with a heightened level of conflict. Further, the children in PAS families are present not only in the conflictual situation (in this case the denigration of one parent) but often contribute additional conflict to the situation. These conflicts tend to occur in conjunction with long custody proceedings. Johnston, Gonzalez, and Campbell (1987) examined the behaviour of children from separated and/or divorced families who were subjected to “entrenched” parental conflict regarding their custody. These researchers assessed 56 children between the ages of four and twelve during custody disputes and 2.5 years later.
The assessment consisted of three measures:
(1) parental conflict as measured by the Straus Conflict Tactics Scale;
(2) Clinical rating scales that were completed by each family’s counsellor; and
(3) the Achenbach Child Behaviour Checklist which measured the children’s adjustment on four scales: Depression, Withdrawn/Uncommunicative, Somatic Complaints, and Aggression, as well as overall problem behavior. Johnston and her colleagues (1987) found that at the time of the custody disputes, overall behavior problems and aggression could be predicted by (a) the extent to which children became involved in the custody dispute and (b) the occurrence and extent of role reversal between the child and parent.
Specifically, aggression between parents, both physical and verbal, was found to be a significant predictor of overall behavioural problems two years later. Moreover, involving the child in the custody dispute was a more important predictor of overall behaviour problems when it was the father who involved the child rather than the mother. If both parents involved the child in the disputes, then the child was more likely to have a tendency to display more withdrawn and uncommunicative behaviours two years after the dispute.
Finally, overall behavioural problems and depression were also predicted by the role reversal between father and child. These findings are related to the development of parental alienation in that PAS children who are exposed to heightened levels of conflict in combination with the denigration of one parent by the other.
As a means of coping with the heightened levels of stress, PAS children may copy the alienating parent’s behavior primarily by denigrating the lost parent. In doing so, they reduce some stress by believing that one parent is bad while the other is good. Subsequently, they focus on pleasing the alienating parent who is usually the custodial parent. Therefore, they ensure their survival in the alienating home by supporting the alienating parent’s beliefs. Children who do not adapt in this way may feel they run the risk of also being rejected by the alienating parent and losing that parent’s love.
The effect of divorce itself on the family can be devastating. What was once decided amongst the parents is now decided by third parties like lawyers and judges (Girdner, 1985). Further, access to the children by each parent changes. Where before everyone lived together and parents and children had the freedom to interact whenever they wished, divorce dictates they must now abide by rules set by others.
The most common effect of divorce is that the child remains primarily with one parent while the other parent becomes a “visitor” who is only allowed to see the child on certain occasions. In theory, this “visitor” is allowed to have parental authority, that is to engage in the decision making process regarding the children (e.g., what school they should attend) (Turkat, 1994).
However, divorce often occurs because the parents can no longer make decisions together. Consequently, the visiting parent does not always have the visitation that he or she should have and may be unable to participate in the decision making process for important issues in their children’s lives. One time significant parents can become unwanted visitors for their children. The Children’s Rights Council in 1994 reported that an estimated six million children in the U.S. were victims of interfered visitation by their custodial parents.
Arditti (1992) found that as high as 50% of fathers (usually the non-custodial parents) reported that their visitation with their children had been interfered with by their ex-wives.
Further, as many as 40% of custodial mothers admitted denying their ex-husbands their right to visitation as a means of punishing them (Kressel, 1985). In PAS families, the interference with child visitation is but one of the symptoms, though the most important. It is believed that the goal of the alienating parent is to not only interfere in the lost parent’s visits, but to eliminate both the visits, and the visiting parent as well from the child’s life.
Gardner (1992) postulated that PAS is of a serious nature that may be provoked by a serious emotional issue, such as custody. Consequently, Cartwright (1993) noted that PAS may also be provoked by other serious and emotional issues such as property divisions or finances.
CONTRIBUTIONS OF THE LEGAL SYSTEM
According to Gardner (1992), the legal system contributes to the occurrence of PAS. In his book, The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals, Gardner devotes two chapters to the history of the legal system and its impact on the occurrence of PAS. He postulates that parental alienation began to occur when courts began replacing the “tender-years” presumption with that of the “best-interests-of-the-child” presumption. The “tender-years” presumption stipulates that certain psychological benefits exist for children who remain with the mother, therefore custody was usually awarded to the mother. In the 1970s the courts began to favour the “best-interests-of-the-child” presumption, a less sexist position. With this presumption, the courts attempted to award custody to the parent who the best custodian for the child regardless of the parent’s gender.
Gardner believes that this change in the legal system exacerbated mothers’ fears that they might lose custody of their children to the fathers. Moreover, for mothers to strengthen their cases they needed to denigrate the fathers, engendering the beginnings of PAS. Gardner supports this notion by reporting that in 90% of his PAS cases, it was the mother who was the alienating parent (Gardner, 1991, conference).
Further changes in the legal system during the 1970s and 1980s, according to Gardner, contributed to the occurrence of PAS. Specific was the adoption in many jurisdictions of the notion of joint custody. Ideally in joint custody, both parents are to contribute equally to the upbringing of the children instead of one parent being the custodian and the other the “visitor”.
For joint custody to be granted it must be established that both parents can communicate with each other and can participate in the upbringing of the child. However, when joint custody is granted, the parents are often placed back in the same situation that led them to seek a divorce initially: the inability to communicate and make decisions together. Although some couples can do so successfully, Gardner notes that this situation presents the opportunity for the children to be used as weapons in parental conflicts that may arise.
Gardner developed several other related notions concerning the development of PAS and the contributions of the legal system are simply a part of this influence on PAS development. Unfortunately, the only statistics that Gardner provided were those that demonstrated that mothers were usually the alienators without detailing the procedure by which he attained these results.
Cartwright (1993) noted that the involvement of lawyers and the prolonged involvement of the court contributes not only to the occurrence of PAS but also to the increase in the severity of PAS. Clawar and Rivlin (1991) conducted a twelve year study regarding the parental programming of children “to influence the outcome of disputes” which was commissioned by the American Bar Association Section of Family Law. They found that 80% of divorcing parents practiced parental programming to varying degrees and 20% of whom did so at least once a day.
Further, Rand (1997) postulated that many allegations of either sexual or physical abuse may be an alienating technique. These allegations are powerful factors in the courts’ decisions for custody and therefore an invaluable tool to the alienators. Cartwright noted that the court requires adequate time to assess each case in order to determine the best interests of the child. However, he cautioned that once identified as a PAS case, then the court needs to make speedy judgments in order to stop the alienation process immediately. Unfortunately, the usual procedure of court postponements and continuances permit the PAS process to continue.
Further, Goldwater (1991) had postulated that the longer the children are in the alienating custodial situation, the “further they will drift away from their non-custodial parent” (p.130). Cartwright also noted that forceful judgment is required to counter the force of alienation. Specifically, clear and forceful judgments are believed to deter possible alienating parents from even beginning the alienation process as they may immediately lose custody of their children.
This is only possible if the judge is aware of PAS as a syndrome and if it has been clearly identified in each case. A second consequence of a clear and forceful judgment against the alienating parent is that such judgements can stop existing alienating processes from continuing.
Support for the notion that the court can counter the occurrence of PAS has been found in a study conducted by Dunne and Hedrick (1994). These researchers are two of the very few who conducted research specifically on PAS. In a qualitative study they interviewed sixteen families who exhibited a specified set of characteristics that met Gardner’s (1992) criteria for PAS.
The findings suggested that various family characteristics, such as the degree of PAS severity, were not indicators of the degree or effect of alienation on the family. Further, they found that the only effective intervention to counter alienation was a court implemented custody change that resulted in the children being removed from the alienating home.
The various types of therapy demonstrated no improvement in any of the families that had undergone therapy; in two of these cases the alienation actually became worse. It appears that the legal system is the most effective mean of terminating the process of alienation, reflecting the strong influence exerted by the legal system on the occurrence of PAS.
Girdner (1985), in an ethnographic study, examined the structure of custody litigation and the strategies used by parents who were contesting the custody of their children. She immersed herself in the legal culture for eighteen months. By observing court proceedings regarding custody she examined the relationships between the legal and the familial processes within the context of those proceedings.
She found that the final custody arrangements were usually made with respect to the economic issues of the divorce. Specifically, her findings suggested that the factors which influenced custody agreements included: (a) the negotiating style of the attorneys involved; (b) the dynamics of bargaining in the legal system; and (c) at which stage of the emotional process of divorce in which the clients were.
A number of factors influence the occurrence of PAS. The family unit does not function in isolation. Individual characteristics of family members may also play a role on the occurrence of PAS. A study conducted by Calabrese, Miller, and Dooley (1987) examined the characteristics of 49 parents and their children from two fourth grade classes.
These researchers assessed the parents’ alienation of their children using the Dean Alienation Scale that provides an overall measure of alienation through examining the following dimensions: Isolation, Powerlessness, and Normalesness. They also assessed the children’s school achievement by examining their percentiles, as well as the children’s attitudes toward school.
However, these researchers found that the best predictors of alienation was unrelated to the children’s academic attitudes or performance, but rather to the characteristics of the individuals involved. Specifically, they reported that high levels of alienation were found to be associated with unemployed, single mothers, whose child was female and the child had only a few perceived friends.
While these findings appear to support Gardner’s contention that the alienator is usually the mother, they provide little support for Gardner’s theory that the introduction of the “best-interests-of-the-child” presumption contributed to this phenomenon.
Lund (1995) examined factors that contributed to the development of parental alienation. She assessed families in terms of
(a) developmental factors in the child,
(b) parenting styles, and
(c) level of stress experienced by the child.
She postulated that contributing factors in the occurrence of PAS included the following:
(1) Separation difficulties that are developmentally inappropriate. Specifically, PAS could be related to the occurrence of pre-schooler’s separation problems that may normally occur but are heightened by the stress occurring within a separated home.
(2) The child exhibiting oppositional behaviour. With older children in adolescence and preadolescence the development of oppositional behaviour may be manifested as a rejection of the lost parent in a family with conflicts.
(3) The deterioration of the non-custodial parental skills. The alienated parent usually displays a distant, rigid, and sometimes authoritarian style of parenting, whereas the alienating parent is indulgent and clinging. The children can then more easily reject the harsher parent and defend the more indulgent one.
(4) Conflicts occurring during the divorce. According to Lund (1995), these may prompt the child to seek means of escaping the stress related to such conflict.
Therefore, the child may denigrate the lost parent as a justification of the alienating parent’s actions.
Relatively few research studies have been conducted specifically on PAS. The literature examined in this section pertained primarily to several articles that described parental alienation, however the majority were not empirical studies. The literature suggests that several factors may contribute to the occurrence of PAS. The heightened levels of conflict that are often associated with the dissolution of a marriage have been shown to have several short- and long-term effects on family members (Demo & Acock, 1988; Hoffman, 1971; Kurdek 1981). Johnston et al., 1987 found that involving the children in the disputes tended to result in the children displaying behavioural problems (e.g., withdrawing and not communicating).
PAS is one area in which heightened levels of conflict are believed to play a large role in the lives of the family members. Therefore, it is postulated that the heightened conflict levels may be an important factor in the occurrence of PAS. Divorce is a difficult time for all family members. With divorce comes a stressful restructuring where one parent, who was once involved in the child’s life, may suddenly become an unwanted visitor (Turkat, 1994).
This is difficult for those involved and there are indicators that these visiting parents (usually the fathers) encounter difficulties with their visits. For instance, Arditi (1992) found that as many as 50% of fathers reported an interference in their visitation rights; similarly, Kressel (1985) found that 40% of mothers admitted to attempting to interfere in the father’s visitation. Some circumstance or factor that occurs in the process of divorce may result in the rejection of one parent by the other.
If this occurs, it is postulated that PAS may follow. The circumstances that lead to the rejection of a parent are as yet to be determined. There may be high levels of conflict or stress involved in the dissolution of the marriage and thus further research is necessary to examine the degree to which these factors are important in the occurrence of PAS.
With the initiation of a divorce, the legal proceedings involved may pertain not only to the divorce but to custody agreements as well. Most of the literature on PAS suggests that various aspects of the legal system have contributed to the occurrence of PAS (Gardner, 1992) and has even heightened the severity of PAS (Cartwright, 1993). Moreover, Dunne and Hedrick (1994) found that the legal system can play an important role in the termination of PAS.
Specifically, a court ordered change in custody was found to be the most effective intervention that resulted in the termination of PAS with time. As Calabrese et al., (1987), and Lund (1995) found, many factors from individual characteristics to stress on the children have been linked to the occurrence of alienation. The number of possible factors that instigate PAS are legion, therefore, there is a need to examine PAS qualitatively to gain better comprehension. A better understanding of how PAS occurs may be helpful in learning how to treat and perhaps prevent PAS.