The severity of parental alienating behaviors is challenging to quantify as research has yet to clearly determine what specific behaviors and other determinants result in mild, moderate, and severe forms of parental alienation—there is only preliminary
empirical research drawing this direct connection based on theory (Baker & Eichler, 2016). For example, we do not yet know whether certain specific behaviors are more damaging than others, and which behaviors, or clusters of behaviors, cause very severe alienation. Badmouthing the TP is not healthy for a child, but are particular characterizations of the TP more damaging than others?
Does badmouthing also need to be paired with other behaviors (e.g., interference of parenting time), and to what extent? Severity could also be determined by length of time and frequency with which behaviors are used, regardless of how “bad” individual behaviors are. For example, if an AP only badmouths the TP in offhanded comments that are not blatantly demeaning, does this behavior eventually result in mild, moderate, or severe alienation if done regularly for five or 10 years?
There is some evidence that factors such as age of the child (Fidler & Bala, 2010; Kelly & Johnston, 2001) are associated with outcome severity, with older children (adolescents) being more likely to manifest severe parental alienation symptoms (e.g., complete rejection of the TP). Are the severe outcomes due to exposure to very severe behaviors such as blocking all access to the TP or due to persistent exposure of
milder clusters of behavior over long periods of time? Or, does the number of behaviors matter, but only in conjunction with particular vulnerabilities at particular stages of social and cognitive development?
From legal and clinical perspectives, the issue of severity is exceptionally important, as it drives how practitioners are to intervene. When an AP causes severe parental alienation due to their behaviors, they are likely guilty of child abuse, but an AP who
causes mild or moderate parental alienation may not yet meet the threshold of child abuse. Such cases would need to be determined on a case-by-case basis by specialists who are well trained in the diagnosis of parental alienation, child abuse, IPV, and its precursors. More systematic and empirically based research on the etiology of parental alienation will aid in this diagnosis.
Reciprocation of IPV varies by the type of aggression. About 4% of cases in a large sample of divorcing couples have reported mutual high levels of coercive controlling violence (domination tactics and physical violence; Beck, Anderson, O’Hara, & Benjamin, 2013), although there is evidence that psychological aggression is often reciprocal (Cuenca Montesino, Graña Gómez, & Martínez Arias, 2014; Straus & Sweet, 1992). Psychological (Kar& O’Leary, 2013) and physical aggression LanghinrichsenRohling, Misra, Selwyn, & Rohling, 2012; Madsen, Stith, Thomsen, & McCollum, 2012) among intact couples is typically reciprocal rather than unilateral, yet we know little about how this reciprocity operates or about the balance of power and aggression within the relationships. Research on IPV has been primarily
studied with partners in intact relationships, so we know even less about whether such aggressive behaviors are reciprocal among families that have dissolved.
Many professionals believe parental alienation only occurs in relationships that are high in conflict; in other words, both parents are presumed to be responsible for the conflict that they present to mental health or legal professionals, such as when a parent has to ask for the court to enforce their parenting time. When the parental
figures appear in court over this conflict, the judge or magistrate will then assume that both parents must be engaging in parental alienating behaviors (Warshak, 2015c). Using the example above, the court will perceive the parents as having high conflict, despite the conflict being caused by the parental alienating behavior of the
AP (e.g., restricting access of the child). While some researchers have found evidence that both parents in divorced families may report alienating behaviors committed by the other (Braver, Coatsworth, & Peralta, n.d.), the reciprocity myth has been debunked by many researchers, legal professionals, and clinicians, because
one parent is often responsible for instigating and continuing conflict (Kelly, 2003) and was often an abusive partner before the relationship ended (Godbout & Parent, 2012; Harman & Biringen, 2016).
The AP is the more likely parent to engage in controlling and coercive behaviors, display paranoid and hostile behaviors, and promote enmeshment with the child (Warshak, 2015c). Indeed, the AP’s behavior is the primary driver of the child’s
rejection of the TP (Baker & Eichler, 2016; Clawar & Rivlin, 2013).
The TP may respond in maladaptive ways to the alienating behaviors of the AP, but it is important to interpret such behaviors in light of the alienation. For example, if an AP has sustained along campaign of derogation about the TP to friends, neighbors,
community members, and extended family, the TP may retaliate in defense of their reputation (Reay, 2011), such as send an e-mail to such individuals calling the AP a liar. Retaliatory behaviors are certainly aggressive and a form of IPV, but they would not be considered parental alienating behaviors, which are clusters of behaviors enacted over extended periods of time with the intent to harm the TP and damage/destroy their relationship with their child (Darnall, 1998). This distinction between the APs’ and TPs’ behaviors is an important one to make for legal and clinical purposes when interpreting the cause and maintenance of parental alienating