A common problem in conflicted family court cases is the rejection of a parent by a child who had a positive and nurturing relationship with the now-rejected parent prior to the divorce. During the past 25 years, mental health professionals have spent much of their energy on this topic, arguing over the appropriate label or diagnostic formulation to describe this phenomenon. Little, if any, attention has been given understanding the cognitive changes a child has undergone.
I argue that therapy for alienated children and adolescents should include a strong focus on helping children to understand and modify their cognitive belief systems. This should be considered when drafting court-ordered treatment plans and when examining clinicians working with parentchild conflicts.
The history of the parental alienation phenomenon began in 1985 when psychiatrist Richard Gardner, M.D. coined the term “parental alienation syndrome” in a psychoanalytic journal. Following the medical model, syndromes consist of a grouping of symptoms assumed to be caused by an underlying disease. The syndrome can be assumed to exist even if only a few of these symptoms are present. Gardner went on to write many books and articles and became a strong advocate for his position.
In the early 1990s, Gardner’s notion of a syndrome, and some of his other controversial ideas, became increasingly criticized by attorneys and mental health professionals. With the start of the new millennium, several alternative descriptions of various forms of parental rejection have been developed. Rather than looking at a unitary “syndrome,” these models often include hybrid, nuanced descriptions of the different forms of parental alienation and estrangement that can occur.
Journal articles published during the past 25 years have developed improved descriptive labels of the various phenomena observed in children who express some form of displeasure with one of their divorced parents. While labels describe observed phenomena, they do not explain the mental process the child has undergone. We can only assume that the expressed parental rejection has been caused by the undue influence of the alienating parent.
This poses a significant problem when alienated children and one parent or both parents are referred for “reunification” therapy. A therapist, possibly aided by the results of a custody evaluation, must piece together the family dynamics and try to improve them on a once-per-week therapy basis. The emerging research on treatment of alienated children often suggests forming a treatment team involving individual and family therapists, and possibly a parenting plan coordinator (“special master”). This treatment format is beyond the financial means of most persons, takes a long time and has, as yet, no supportive outcome data.
Little attention has been paid in the literature to the cognitive belief system of the child. Children who express beliefs about a parent that are not based in their actual experiences with that parent have demonstrated the development of a faulty belief system that is surprisingly resistant to change. Any form of treatment that does not take this into consideration, is unlikely to be particularly effective.
The mechanism through which people develop false perceptions when confronted with conflicting beliefs is reasonably well understood. Social psychologist Leon Festinger developed his theory of “cognitive dissonance” in the late 1950s. Subsequent research has strongly supported this theory. Festinger found that people find it unpleasant to entertain two inconsistent ideas at the same time. To remove this source of irritation or dissonance, they may choose one viewpoint and reject the other. Once the decision to accept one set of beliefs is made, changing an opinion is difficult.
Children in divorcing families often are exposed to competing beliefs regarding one or both of their parents. If the pressures under which they are placed are sufficiently troubling, they can resolve the dissonance they experience by accepting one set of beliefs. They experience relief from the dissonance and begin to shape their perceptions around the belief they have adopted. Recent research has shown that people whose beliefs are challenged will tend to become even stronger advocates of the position they have accepted.
These concepts may explain how children in a conflicted divorce reject a parent in spite of relatively good experiences with that parent. It explains why their beliefs are difficult to change and why they can become very intransigent at the idea of examining and modifying their beliefs.
Fortunately, procedures known as cognitive behavior therapy (“CBT”) have proven to be beneficial to improving the behavior of children and adults in many clinical settings during the past 50 years. CBT helps a child develop the ability to monitor, understand and control their beliefs and perceptions. Any child would benefit from developing these skills. The issue of parent relationships can be addressed after the child develops some cognitive skills.
Working on the family system, addressing depression, anxiety and other problems are other components of an overall treatment plan. However, if CBT is not included in the treatment plan, the likelihood of meaningful outcomes is limited.
The goal of reunification therapy should not be reunification of the child and the rejected parent! The goal should be to equip the child with the means to understand and objectify their thinking and behavior.
These are skills that they can carry with them throughout their lives. Reunification with the rejected parent can be seen as a positive side effect and may occur during therapy or in the years after therapy.
Gary Rick, Ph.D. is a clinical and forensic psychologist who has worked in the area of child custody evaluation and treatment for over 30 years. He has offices in Ventura and Pasadena. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.drgaryrick.com.