Managing Contact Difficulties: A Child-Centred Approach



From various sources

To increase our understanding of the formulations concerning contact difficulties and the controversy surrounding the concepts of parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome, we collected all the definitions we could find in the literature for comparison purposes. They are provided here for readers to make their own assessment of the similarity and differences in definition.

Clawar & Rivlin (1991: 9)

"In most divorce cases where there is animosity and conflict between the parents, there is some degree of brainwashing and programming of children."

Darnall (1998: 3-5)

"Parental alienation (PA) is any constellation of behaviors, whether conscious or unconscious, that could evoke a disturbance in the relationship between a child and the other parent." This definition is different from parental alienation syndrome (PAS) originally coined by Dr. Richard Gardner in 1987.

"There is a difference between parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome, though the symptoms or what is observed in the children can be similar. The distinction between the two is that parental alienation focusses on how the alienating parent behaves toward the children and the targeted parent. Parental alienation syndrome symptoms describe the child's behaviours and attitudes toward the targeted parent after the child has been effectively programmed and severely alienated from the targeted parent."

"Understanding parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome is paramount for a child's welfare and a parent's peace of mind. Divorced parents, grandparents, judges, attorneys, and mental-health workers all need to understand the dynamics of parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome, recognize the symptomatic behavior, and execute tactics for combating this malady."

"You can't assume that the targeted parent is without fault. Targeted parents can become alienators when they retaliate because of their hurt. This puts them in the role of the alienator while the other parent becomes the victim. The roles become blurred because it's difficult to know who is the alienator and who is the targeted parent. Often both parents feel victimized. It is important to remember that alienation is a process, not a person".

Darnall (1997: 1)

"With either definition [Gardner or Darnell] the motivation for the alienating parent has both a conscious as well as a subconscious or unconscious component. The children themselves may have motivations that will make the alienation worse...The children are frequently unaware of how they are being used. It is most important to understand that if the child is angry and refuses to visit the targeted parent because of actual abuse or neglect, the child's behavior is not a manifestation of PAS. This is why the issue of false allegations is so important."

"Another my emphasis on the alienating parents rather then on the severity of the symptoms...alienation is a reciprocal process where both parents get caught up in alienation."

Ellis (2000: 209, 228)

"Gardner's term has now come to be the standard used to describe this phenomenon, although sometimes it describes the children's behavior and at other times the parent's behavior as well. This point may be subtle, but it is an important one, because it contributes to confusion in this field...Although the term PAS is widely used, it is not universally respected. It is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association because no research has established the specific criteria for a diagnosis of this syndrome. Furthermore, there are no data establishing incidence rates, the course of the syndrome over time, sex differences, or prognosis...All these objections aside, PAS has found acceptance by clinicians as it is consistently seen in cases of protracted, hostile custody and visitation disputes".

"PAS is defined as a variant and milder form of folie a deux. The essential feature of this disorder is a persistent resistance to contact with the targeted parent and a persecutory belief system held by a child toward that parent. This delusional system develops as a result of an enmeshed relationship with a parent who already has a distorted belief system of having been and continuing to be persecuted by the ex-spouse. The distortions of the parent and child are identical. The content of the beliefs is usually within the realm of possibility and often is based on common past experiences of the parent and child".

Gardner (1992: 62, 64)

"The disorder refers to a situation in which the parental programming is combined with the child's own scenarios of denigration of the allegedly hated parent. Were we to be dealing here with simply parental indoctrination, I would have probably stuck with the term brainwashing or programming. Because the disorder involves the aforementioned combination, I decided a new term was warranted, a term that would encompass both contributory factors…It is the exaggeration of minor weaknesses and deficiencies that is the hallmark of the parental alienation syndrome. When bona fide abuse does exist, then the child's responding hostility is warranted and the concept of the parental alienation syndrome is not applicable".

"It is important for the reader to appreciate that in the parental alienation syndrome, as is true for all psychiatric disorders, there is a continuum from the mildest, through the moderate, to the most severe".

Garrity & Baris (1994: 65-66)

"...many parents and professionals, viewing parental alienation as a rough equivalent of "brainwashing," use the term to pin blame solely on one parent for a child's rejection of the other. Parent-child relations, however, are seldom so simple. Rejection of a parent is a complex process to which both children and parents contribute according to their individual tolerance for conflict...In considering the parental alienation syndrome, it is important to keep in mind that it is defined by no agreed-upon set of criteria; nor has the scientific research documented its existence or completely described its clinical manifestations. Nonetheless, parental alienation is very real. It occurs when one parent convinces the children that the other parent is not trustworthy, lovable, or caring-in short, not a good parent. This persuasion may be consciously malicious and intended to destroy the children's relationship with the other parent. Or it may take a more insidious, even unconscious form, arising from the personality issues as yet unresolved in the childhood of one parent."

Hayward (1999: 1-2)

"The Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is the systematic denigration by one parent [sic] by the other with the intent of alienating the child against the other parent. The purpose of alienation is usually to gain or retain custody without the involvement of the non-custodial parent (NCP). The alienation usually extends to the NCP's family and friends as well. Though this document is written with the father in mind, it must be clear that there are many cases of PAS where the NCP is the mother...".

"But where fathers gain custody, they may also, and quite commonly alienate the children against the mother. There are cases of Guardians who will alienate children against the parent. I am aware of cases where the mother's own mother (the grandmother) gained custody of the child, another case of the mother's sister gaining custody of the child, and these children were alienated against the mother. I am also aware of a mother alienating her children against her own family, and a cases [sic] a child alienating her siblings against the father".

Hobbs (2002: 381)

"PAS is a condition through which one parent will, by any means available, inappropriately seek to subvert the other parent's power and consequent ability to care for, or even to continue to have any relationship with, their child. This is done at immense cost to the child. Such is the nature of PAS that these parents will seek to exploit any potential opportunity to further their cause within the legal system; as indeed, they also do within any other system in which they are involved...".

Johnston (1993: 110-111)

"...reluctance of a child to visit with a nonresidential parent has often been used interchangeably with, and hence confounded with, parent-child alignment (or parent-child alienation). Distinctions need to be made between these two sets of phenomena. Reluctance to visit includes a broad range of observable behavior in which the child, for any reason, verbally or gesturally complains about and resists spending time with the nonresidential parent. The resistance may be manifested only at the time of transition from one home to the other, or it may involve intermittent or ongoing complaints about visits. In extreme cases, it can encompass a complete refusal to have any contact with the other parent....the child may or may not be hostile or negative to the parent he or she is resistant to visiting, although, in extreme cases, there is often expressed fear and negativity....reluctance to visit and alignment/alienation are empirically overlapping but distinct phenomena".

Kelly & Johnston (2001: 251)

"This formulation proposes to focus on the alienated child rather than on parental alienation. An alienated child is defined here as one who expresses, freely and persistently, unreasonable negative feelings and beliefs (such as anger, hatred, rejection, and/or fear) toward a parent that are significantly disproportionate to the child's actual experience with that parent. From this viewpoint, the pernicious behaviors of a "programming" parent are no longer the starting point. Rather, the problem of the alienated child begins with a primary focus on the child, his or her observable behaviors, and parent-child relationships. This objective and neutral focus enables the professionals involved in the custody dispute to consider whether the child fits the definition of an alienated child and, if so, to pursue a more inclusive framework for assessing why the child is now rejecting a parent and refusing contact".

McDonough and Bartha (1999: 108, 110)

"In parental alienation syndrome, with little or no evidence a parent is convinced the child is better off without the other parent. The parent lets the child know that she hates the other parent. She does this either subtly, or by her attitude, or overtly, through her behavior and words. She conveys to the child her disgust with the other parent. The parent sending these messages to the child is called 'the alienating parent.' The alienating parent can be either parent, although it is more commonly the parent with whom the child lives. The other parent is called 'the alienated parent."

"Parental alienation syndrome is misnamed: it should be called 'child alienation syndrome' because it is really the child who becomes alienated".

Stahl (2000: 120)

"Alienation of a child—by one parent against the other—occurs when a child is coerced by a parent, either subtly or overtly, to form a loyalty to one parent and feel disdain for the other. This often occurs in bitter custody battles where children constantly hear derogatory messages about the other parent. Some are brainwashed and made to feel afraid of the other parent. Parents alienate their children against the other parent when they are hurt or angry with the other parent."

Stoltz & Ney (2002: 226)

"Resistance to visitation' is defined as any set of behaviours on the part of the child, parents, and others involved in the conflict that leads to the cessation of or significantly impedes visitation with the non-custodial parent. Resistance thus includes the broad continuum of behaviours of all parties involved (parent, children, lawyers, family, professionals, etc.) ranging from (for example) voiced complaints, to repeated incidences of lateness in dropping the child off, to a child's refusal to go with the non-custodial parent, and so on. Note that the term 'resistance' is preferred over 'rejection of the non-custodial parent which in our opinion moves too far from fact to inference to be useful".

Sturge & Glaser (2000: 622)

Parental Alienation Syndrome does not exist in the sense that it is: not recognised in either the American classification of mental disorders (DSMIV) or the international classification of disorders (ICD10); not generally recognised in our or allied child mental health specialties.

We do not consider it to be a helpful concept and consider that the sort of problems that the title of this disorder is trying to address is better thought of as implacable hostility. The essential and important difference is that the Parental Alienation Syndrome assumes a cause (seen as misguided or malign on the part of the resident parent) which leads to a prescribed intervention whereas the concept (which no one claims to be a ‘syndrome') is simply a statement aimed at the understanding of particular situations but for which a range of explanations is possible and for which there is no single and prescribed solution, this depending on the nature and individuality of each case.

The basic concept in the Parental Alienation Syndrome is a uni-directional one as if such situations are a linear process when they are, in fact, dynamic and interactional with aspects of each parent's relationship to the other interacting to produce the difficult and stuck situation.

Swerdlow-Freed (undated: 1)

"...children caught in the middle of parental disputes and to be enlisted by one parent as an ally against the other parent in a campaign of systematic denigration and alienation of affection. These disputes tend to possess prototypical characteristics; one of which is a continuous level of high conflict and the other of which involves one or both parents being compromised with respect to the ability to act in the best interests of the child."

Vestal (1999: 489)

"PAS refers to a disturbance in which children are preoccupied with viewing one parent as all good and the other parent as all bad. The bad parent is hated and verbally maligned, whereas the good parent is loved and idealized. Another hallmark of PAS is the false charging of child abuse, which comes about when one parent is intent upon driving away the other parent".

Waldron & Joanis (1996: 121)

"Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is a special case of postdivorce conflict in which one parent appears to go to great lengths, at times including making fictitious allegations of physical and/or sexual abuse, to turn a child against the other parent…Gardner's conceptualization of the problem and the dynamics underlying the problem proved at best incomplete, if not simplistic and erroneous."

Wallerstein & Kelly (1985: 77)

These young people were particularly vulnerable to being swept up into the anger of one parent against the other. They were faithful and valuable battle allies in efforts to hurt the other parent. Not infrequently, they turned on the parent they had loved and been very close to prior to the marital separation.

The most extreme identification with the parent's cause we have called an "alignment"—a divorce-specific relationship that occurs when a parent and one or more children join in a vigorous attack on the other parent.

Ward & Harvey (1993: 4) angry divorce is not necessarily an alienating one. The focus in determining whether or not there is alienation in an angry divorce must be, not on the degree or rage or loss expressed, but on the behavioral willingness to involve the children. Alienation occurs when a parent uses the child to meet personal emotional needs, as a vehicle to express or carry her own intense emotions or as a pawn to manipulate as a way of inflicting retribution on the other side.

Parental alienation occurs along a broad continuum, based on the level of internal distress of the alienating parent, the vulnerability of the child and the responses of the target parent, as well as on the responses of the external system (family, attorneys, mental health professionals, the legal system). The range may be from children who experience significant discomfort at transition times (mild), through children who feel compelled to keep separate worlds and identities when with each parent (moderate); to children who refuse to have anything to do with the target parent and become obsessed with their hatred (severe).

Warshak (2001: 29-30)

"Parental alienation syndrome refers to a disturbance whose primary manifestation is a child's unjustified campaign of denigration against, or rejection of, one parent, due to the influence of the other parent combined with the child's own contributions. Note three essential elements in this definition: 1) rejection or denigration of a parent that reaches the level of a campaign, i.e., it is persistent and not merely an occasional episode; 2) the rejection is unjustified, i.e., the alienation is not a reasonable response to the alienated parent's behavior, and 3) it is a partial result of the nonalienated parent's influence. If either of these there elements is absent, the term PAS is not applicable".

Williams (1990: 1)

"Parentectomy is the removal, erasure, or severe diminution of a caring parent in a child's life following separation or divorce. Parentectomy covers a large range of parent removal from partial parentectomy, "You may visit your Daddy or Mommy every other Sunday" to total parentectomy, as in Parental Alienation Syndrome, described by Gardner; or complete parent absence or removal."

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