by Arlene Shovald
Special to The Mail
Jennifer Harman, a Colorado State University social psychologist, is urging those working with abused children and adults to recognize parental alienation as an understudied form of child abuse.
According to a report co-authored by Harman, about 22 million American parents have been the victims of behaviors that lead to parental alienation.
A typical example is this. Following a bitter divorce and custody battle, one parent sets out to destroy the relationship of a child with the other parent, telling lies about the other parent’s behavior, planting seeds of doubt about the other parent and sabotaging the other parent’s efforts to see the child.
Having researched this phenomenon for several years, Harman is urging psychological, legal and child custodial disciplines to recognize parental alienation as a form of both child abuse and intimate partner violence.
An associate professor in CSU’s Department of Psychology, Harman has authored a review article in Psychological Bulletin defining the behaviors associated with parental alienation and advocating for more research into its prevalence and outcomes. She and her co-authors explain how these behaviors are the source of long-term negative consequences for the psychological health and well-being of children and adults.
“We have to stop denying this exists,” said Harman, who previously co-authored a book about parental alienation with Zeynep Biringen, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies.
“You have to treat an alienated parent like an abused person. You have to treat the child like an abused child. You take the child out of that abusive environment. You get treatment for the abusive parent and you put the child in a safe environment – the healthier parent.”
On the local level, Rachel Holder, executive director of The Alliance, said, “My understanding is keeping a child from one parent and giving confusing messages can be detrimental for the child. It’s human nature for kids to love parents and caregivers and to have mixed messages and emotionally abusive things said about one parent can be very confusing for kids.
“Changing the narrative about the victim is something offenders do to stay in power over that victim. They do it with friends and family also. It’s a way of keeping that person from regaining control of their relationship.”
In their new paper, Harman and co-authors Edward Kruk of University of British Columbia and Denise Hines of Clark University categorize parental alienation as an outcome of aggressive behaviors directed toward another individual with the intent to cause harm. They draw direct lines between widely recognized patterns of abuse, like emotional or psychological aggression and the behavior of alienating parents.
For example, psychological aggression is a common form of child maltreatment that involves “attacking a child’s emotional and social well-being.” In a similar manner, alienating parents terrorize their children by targeting the other parent, purposely creating fear that the other parent might be dangerous or unstable – when no evidence of such danger exists. Alienating parents will further reject, shame or guilt-trip their children for showing loyalty or warmth to the other parent.
The authors also argue that such alienating behaviors are abusive to the targeted parent, and they liken these behaviors to more familiar forms of intimate partner violence between spouses or dating partners.
Harman is an expert in power dynamics in human relationships. Her research has found that parental alienation is similar to what is known as “intimate terrorism.” Intimate terrorism is chiefly characterized by a lopsided power dynamic in which one partner subjugates the other through intimidation, coercion, threats or actual violence.
Such a scenario is distinct from situational couple violence in which both partners have relatively equal power in the relationship but can’t get along and resort to physical or emotional violence.
Analogously, children are used as weapons in the form of intimate terrorism known as parental alienation. The power imbalance in such intimate terrorism can be seen in custody disputes in which one parent is awarded full custody. This parent wields that court-ordained power to subjugate the other by withholding contact or actively seeking to destroy the other parent’s relationship with the child.
Family court systems see these situations every day, Harman said, but judges, lawyers and social workers aren’t attuned to the prevalence of parental alienation as child abuse or intimate partner abuse. Instead such situations are regarded as simple custody disputes or the inability of parents to get along.
Harman hopes her reframing of parental alienation will spur other social scientists to continue studying the problem
On the local level Holder said, “Kids are not aware of these dynamics but are more impacted depending on where their brain development is. They can get help to help normalize feelings and validate. Such things like using direct, clear communications, skills training and working with a mediator can help.”
For more information on a local level, call Holder at 539-7347.