NORTH DAKOTA LAW REVIEW, Volume 75, 1999, p 323-364
PARENTAL ALIENATION: NOT IN THE BEST INTEREST OF THE CHILDREN
by Douglas Darnall
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Douglas Darnall is a practicing licensed psychologist and the CEO of PsyCare, Inc., an outpatient psychiatric clinic in Youngstown, Ohio. He is the author of DIVORCE CASUALTIES: PROTECTING YOUR CHILDREN FROM PARENTAL ALIENATION (Taylor Publishing Company, 1998). In the following essay, Dr. Darnall, drawing largely from his book, discusses how attorneys and judges can serve clients by recognizing, dealing with, and seeking to stop and prevent parental alienation. Because the essay is based largely on Dr. Darnall’s book and because he is not a legal or academic professional, a bibliography of sources employed in his book appears at the end of the essay instead of traditional footnotes.
During the crisis of divorce, most parents fear whether their children will emerge unscathed. Any reasonable and empathetic parent sincerely believes in the value of his or her children having a healthy relationship with both parents. Ideally, parents deliberately work on comforting and reassuring the children that no harm will come to them. At the same time, both try to strengthen their parent-child relationships without degrading the other parent or causing the children to feel divided loyalty. They encourage visits, talk kindly of the other parent in the children’s presence, and set aside their own negative feelings to avoid causing the children distress. They are sensitive to the children’s needs and encourage positive feelings toward the other parent. This outcome is the goal of not only the parents and children, but also the attorneys and judge involved in the case.
However, any number of events can destroy the fragile balance of peace between parents. If this happens, an injured parent may seek comfort by aligning with the children, especially since be or she may feel threatened by the children’s love for the other parent. A pattern of alienation usually begins without any malicious or conscious intent to harm or destroy the relationship between the other parent and the children. Though most parents mean well, they are often unaware of how subtle behaviors and comments can hurt the relationship between the children and the targeted parent. In effect, alienation can occur in even the friendliest of divorces.
In unfriendly divorces, the effects are predictable. Custody litigation or struggles for parenting time creates unavoidable competition between parents. Children feel pulled in many directions as long as both parents want custody or feel they must fight for their fair share of time. Afraid of losing custody, a parent may feel an urgency to align with the children to help ensure victory. The other parent may retaliate with an insurgence of passion for winning their cause. They may have difficulty accepting that they must compete against each other to prove to the court that making them the custodial parent is in the children’s best interest. The struggle between two passionate parents is a byproduct of modern-day divorce, and it sets the stage for alienation.
Alienation will continue as long as divorces — and custody battles — continue to increase at alarming rates. More fathers are becoming more comfortable in a nurturing and caretaking role and no longer adhere to the belief that they are genetically predisposed to be the inferior parent, and as a result they are seeking and being granted custody. Therefore, courts no longer automatically assume children are better off living with their mother. Meanwhile, mothers are realizing that the all-American dream of marriage, a home, and children is not a guarantee of emotional fulfillment. Many women now want an identity in both the workplace and the home. The high costs of living and supporting a family force women to work outside the home even when their children are very young. Consequently, women can no longer argue for custody because of an inherent birthright or ability to care for the children at home.
After the attorneys are gone and the case is closed, the parents must somehow pick up the pieces and establish a working relationship for the children’s best interest. The issue for attorneys and the court is what they see as their role and responsibility for setting the stage in helping families to repair damaged relationships. Attorneys who take an active role in educating clients about parental alienation, parental alienation syndrome and where to get help if needed can help families get on with their lives with some semblance of harmony. While attorneys and judges should not become therapists, they can help set the stage for parents to work together in harmony by educating divorcing parents during litigation about parental alienation and how such behavior impacts the children.