Most child psychiatrists have encountered warring separated or divorced parents, where one or even both are determined to exclude the other from contact with the children. This is accomplished by convincing the children that the other parent is disinterested, drunk, dangerous or otherwise unfit to parent them. This is a minefield for the unwary psychiatrist, replete with misinterpretations, mistaken assumptions, or downright lies. Great difficulties can be encountered with children who have been thoroughly brainwashed and programmed. They are completely unaware of, and unable to comprehend, how they have been misled. This book promised a better understanding of this problem, and some guidelines for management.
The forty subjects were recruited on the internet and by word of mouth. They were self-selected; people who believed that one parent had alienated them from the other. The interviews followed the semi-structured protocol often used in qualitative research. Subjects ranged in age from 19 to 67 years; 25 were female and 15 male. The alienating parents described consisted of 34 mothers and 6 fathers. In most cases the subjects’ parents were separated and divorced, but several described the process of alienation in an intact but extremely dysfunctional family. The author claims to be debunking myths about Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), emphasising that the syndrome is complex, and not just a matter of hostile, bitter ex-wives seeking revenge on the men who abandoned them. She identifies three patterns: “the narcissistic mother in the divorced family,” (p. 23–29) “the narcissistic mother in the intact family” (p. 29–32) and “the rejecting/abusive alienating parent” (p. 32–34). The agenda of debunking myths could have been better served by using the term narcissistic parent, as one of the six fathers fell in a narcissistic group and another had a mixed pattern.
Common strategies used by the alienating parent were: badmouthing; limiting the other parent and their extended family’s contact with the children; withdrawing love or getting angry at the child; telling the child that their other parent did not love them, forcing the child to chose between parents; insisting that the other parent was dangerous; discussing adult relationships with the child; avoiding mention and removing photos of the other parent; forcing child to reject the other parent; limiting contact with the extended family; belittling the other parent; creating conflict; cultivating dependency; and throwing out letters and gifts.
Some subjects realised by their late teens that they had been manipulated, but others did not see the situation clearly until their thirties or later, or until they became parents themselves and had similar struggles with an exspouse. Sometimes realisation that one was a child victim of parental alienation came with maturation, but in other cases a significant person or event appeared to propel new insight. Catalysts included: therapy; reaching a major life milestone such as becoming a parent; intervention of a significant other or family; being the recipient of hostility from the alienating parent, or seeing them be dishonest or mistreat others; the targeted parent returning; and becoming alienated from one’s own children.
The author tries to extrapolate from these retrospective accounts to create guidelines for working with alienated children. This chapter is brief, and has little to offer the experienced child psychiatrist or counsellor. The author likens the child with PAS to a cult victim who can be helped by exit counselling strategies. The strategies appear relevant to youth in their mid to late teens, but are not practical for younger children.
The case descriptions in this book are interesting, but become repetitive as they are quoted and re-quoted to illustrate the various patterns, characteristics, strategies and catalysts that the author describes. In my opinion, the essence of the book could have been distilled into a couple of articles. It may be of value to beginning therapists and consumers, but is not recommended for more experienced professionals.