Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Parental Alienation Disorder

In my May 20th post, Babies and Bathwater, I remarked how I am constantly amazed by how people can take obviously extreme positions and then argue vehemently for them. I came across another example of this in a column and a series of letters to the editor in Clinical Psychiatric News about something called Parental Alienation Syndrome or even Parental Alienation Disorder (PAD). The original column was by Dr. Paul J. Fink, M.D.

A group called Fathers & Families has been organizing a letter-writing campaign urging the APA to list PAD as a disorder in the DSM ( They define PAD as "a disorder that arises primarily in the context of divorce/separation and/or child-custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing) of a parent’s indoctrinations and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the targeted parent. Parental Alienation is also sometimes referred to as 'Parental Alienation Disorder' or 'Parental Alienation Syndrome.'”

In other words, this group wants the APA to recognize that sometimes, in a nasty divorce, one parent (usually the custodial parent) turns the child against the other parent so that the second parent can not have a normal relationship with his or her child. The group recognizes that PAD may be more of what is referred to as "relational disorder" in the DSM rather than a true psychiatric illness. However, they believe that including it in the DSM will "...increase PA’s recognition and legitimacy in the eyes of family court judges, mediators, custody evaluators, family law attorneys, and the legal and mental health community in general. Adding PAS would also "spur insurance coverage, stimulate more systematic research, lend credence to a charge of parental alienation in court, and raise the odds that children would get timely treatment.”

Since the custodial parent is even now still more frequently the mother after a divorce, Fathers & Families was organized originally to advocate for the rights of fathers, and to protest the way fathers are often portrayed negatively in the media.

In nasty divorces, one tactic that is sometimes employed - and quite effectively - to keep the father out of the child's life is to falsely accuse the father of having sexually or physically abused the child. Children under adult influence can in fact easily be manipulated into making accusations that are not true. (For reasons I discuss in my book, in the infrequent incidents when adults make false accusations of having been abused as children, that is an entirely different story. I know this remark might generate some flack from the False Memory Syndrome Foundation types, but I will not get involved in a debate about it on this post).

Such false accusations are clearly reprehensible. However, a big problem is created. How do we know that the accusations are indeed false? Perhaps the reason the mother wishes to keep the child away from the father in the first place is that he is actually abusive. The abusive father might then turn around and falsely accuse the mother of making up allegations of abuse in order to cause PAD.

Dr. Fink deservedly got into some hot water for saying in a column advocating the position that PAD is junk science that those advocating inclusion of PAD in the DSM "don't like to be interfered with when they are sexually abusing their children." I am amazed that the editor of the newpaper allowed that in. Dr. Fink apologized in response to the critical letters to the editor that followed the publication of his column.

His statement is clearly one of those extreme positions I decry, although hopefully he was sincere when he retracted it. How can anyone think that parents never turn their children against an ex, or that any father who thinks this is happening is a pedophile?

Thankfully, the Fathers & Families group does not, at least at first glance, seem to go to the opposite extreme. They say on their website, "as we’ve often noted, simply because false claims of Parental Alienation can and are made doesn’t mean that Parental Alienation doesn’t exist or isn’t a problem."

Clearly, all claims of abuse and PAD (or just parental alienation if you object to its being included in the DSM), should be investigated on their own merit with out a pre-determination of who is telling the truth and who is lying. In nasty divorces, all bets are off.

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