Concepts, Controversies And Conundrums Of “Alienation:” Lessons Learned In A Decade And Reflections On Challenges Ahead

There have been significant advances in understandings and practice related parent–child contact problems (PCCPs), with a growing consensus about some issues and continuing controversy about others. It is widely acknowledged that PCCP cases are most fruitfully understood from a multi‐factorial perspective. While some cases may be totally the “fault” of one parent (a parent perpetrating violence or abuse, or a parent exhibiting alienating behavior), in many situations both parents bear some responsibility: focusing on a single cause is rarely helpful. Most professionals and researchers agree that the challenge in practice is to distinguish between false positives and false negatives for both alienation (or unjustified rejection) and realistic estrangement (justified rejection). There is continuing controversy over whether the concept of “alienation” should be used, especially in court proceedings, and a related disagreement about the extent to which family courts are now failing to respond adequately to cases of intimate partner violence (IPV) or child abuse when alienation is also raised. Continuing education, intentional exploration of alternative hypotheses, and active perspective‐taking will contribute to effective professional involvement. Increased parent education and prevention can play an important role, although for the more severe PCCP cases the family courts system will continue to play a critical role. While more research must be done, given the complexity of issues, conclusive findings are unlikely in the near future. Legislators and family justice professionals must make decisions based on a thorough analysis of each family’s circumstances in the context of our present knowledge, taking account of the limits of the law. They will often face the conundrum of making decisions in the face of uncertainty.

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