If you’re struggling to manage your relationship with your child during a high-conflict separation or divorce, you’ve likely heard the term “parental alienation.” Maybe you’ve even come across “clinical” definitions that resonate with you and your current situation. However, “parental alienation” itself has a complicated history, and negative connotations in clinical, legal, and emotional terms. We believe that “parental alienation” fails to capture the nuances of a challenging family dynamic, and can often create barriers to recovery and restoring the bond between you and your child.
Read on to learn more about the problems with the term “parental alienation,” as well as how adopting a more accurate outlook on family bond obstruction can help you counteract its symptoms.
A Loaded Term
The term “parental alienation” was first used in the 1980s by Dr. Richard Gardner to describe a “mental condition in which a child (usually one whose parents are engaged in a high-conflict divorce) allies himself or herself strongly with one parent and rejects a relationship with the other parent without legitimate justification.” Later, Dr. Craig Childress elaborated on this definition, describing a complex family trauma involving “attachment-based pathology” caused by “child psychological abuse” by the parent that the child aligns with.
While the term “parental alienation” seems to describe how a parent-child relationship deteriorates over time, it can be problematic from clinical, legal, and emotional standpoints.
First and foremost, “parental alienation” has never been recognized as a mental health condition by the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization, or any other medical governing body. To date, there is no recognized standard for diagnosing this complex family dynamic.
Family courts have followed the medical profession’s lead, generally frowning upon the use of “parental alienation” in legal arguments. Far too often, it is used alongside other poorly-defined terms such as “malicious mother syndrome” and “toxic masculinity” to construct polarizing, adversarial arguments that seldom help a parents’ case. As such, using the term in court may prevent you from being taken seriously and obtaining a fair ruling.
Because of its origins and uses, the term “parental alienation” enforces a “black-and-white” mentality that often does parents more emotional harm than good. In reality, the entire family suffers from trauma; thinking in terms of “victims” and “perpetrators” often fails to capture the situation adequately. Both parents are working through the trauma of high-conflict separation, in-turn causing damage to the parent-child bond.
To be clear, we do not deny that the symptoms of “parental alienation” exist, nor do we deny the very real effects they have on a parent-child relationship. Although the works of Dr. Gardner and Dr. Childress are useful in identifying “parental alienation”, their definitions often perpetuate an “us-versus-them” mentality that can prevent emotional healing and restoring your bond with your child.
Renaming and Reframing “Parental Alienation”
Whenever we try to label something as nuanced as a changing family dynamic, we tend to focus more on the label itself than solving the problem and beginning the healing journey. The desire for justification, validation, or simply “winning” will keep you stuck in conflict (with your child stuck in the middle). When dealing with symptoms of “parental alienation,” the focus needs to shift to being the best you can for your child, helping the whole family heal and move forward. Separation and divorce do not end a family; they only restructure it.
Nonetheless, it can be helpful to use less controversial terms to describe the alienation process between a child and their parent. We find the term family bond obstruction more completely describes these situations than “parental alienation,” while the terms favoured and disfavoured parents avoid adding unnecessary adversity and conflict to the healing process.
Overcoming “Parental Alienation” with Pathways
Pathways Family Coaching offers online courses and resources for managing your relationship with your child in light of separation and divorce. Our step-by-step approach will help you regain and maintain control of your situation, with expert coaches’ guidance through every phase. Each course is designed to educate, empower, and guide you through alienation, rejection, and reconnection in whatever form they may take.
The Alienation Code teaches you every aspect of family bond obstruction, including understanding your child’s perspective, the motivation behind your ex’s actions, and how your mindset can impact your relationship with your child for better or worse. This five-module course covers the causes of “parental alienation,” the importance of repairing your parent-child bond, and the mindset shift required to overcome alienation and rejection.
Trapped in Trauma is our newest course offering, focused on building your understanding of the impact trauma has on your family. Available on its own or bundled with The Alienation Code, Trapped in Trauma will educate you on the emotional and neurological effects of trauma and alienation while equipping you with the tools and practices to overcome trauma through compassion and understanding.
No matter where you are in your journey towards reconnecting with your child, Pathways Family Coaching provides the tools and resources you need to strengthen your relationship. Our online courses support every step towards recovery and rekindling healthy, loving relationships with your child.
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Book a free consultation today to speak with our expert coaches about how Pathways Family Coaching can help restore your parent-child relationship.
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