PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME: PROBLEMATIC KID, MANIPULATIVE PARENT OR DYSFUNCTIONAL PARENTING?

In the psychological-forensic area, the topic of Parental Alienation is one of the most debated in the last few years. There are a lot of international scientific publications on it and, even today, there is much confusion about this topic, especially for the use of the term that is made by the population.

When a child refuses to meet the noncustodial parent, normally the father, saying he fears him, and the mother supports this, the Parental Alienation Syndrome (PSA) is evoked.

The child would refuse to meet the father not because he fears him, but because the mother would have manipulated him that way.

The PAS is presented this way as a scientific diagnosis, in which the kid’s fears and the hypothesis of violence acts towards him tend to be underrated. (Crisma & Romito, 2007). It’s clear that the legal and psychological use of PAS is fundamental in the protection of minors and in the resolution of the separation, respecting the right of co-parenting of the minor.

The phenomenon of the disputed kid significantly damages this right.

The right of bigenitoriality must be understood as the common presence of parents in children’s life, able to guarantee them stable affective relationships with both and a good quality of daily life, with the duty of cooperation in his assistance, education, and instruction. (Cass. Civ., 23 September 2015, n. 18817).

The Syndrome of Parental Alienation (PAS) is a construct formulated in 1985 by forensic psychologist Richard Gardner by which we mean a group of symptoms that arise in conflictual situations and, above all, in the context of disputes over the custody of children (Di Blasio, 2013). The symptoms in the child are formed as a result of a situation of programming and indoctrination of the child by the alienating parent, against the alienated one, through a disparaging campaign to which the child participates, or actively as a result of behavior deemed actually negative or aligning passively to the parent because moved by a conflict of loyalty.

Gardner’s PAS Theory was criticized early because of the identification of eight symptoms and, lately, other four factors that must be all satisfied to place diagnosis. Talking about syndrome involves a return to a medical model of normality/pathology, long abandoned by the psychological discipline that today prefers the bio-psycho-social approach and supports the idea of an evolutive individual pathology, instead of a relational dysfunction.

The formulation of the PAS assumes that, in the phase of separation of the pairs, there is a high number of complaints of paternal abuses on children, done by mothers, and that these complaints are most of the time false. However, the available data disputes this assumption. In research done in the United States, in less than 2% of cases, one of the parents had filed a complaint of sexual abuse. Among the complaints made in the context of conflicting divorces, half was well founded; a third was not. (Crisma & Romito, 2007). Although the PAS has no scientific value, its power to support judges’ decisions and social health services in the event of foster care in conflict separations, seems to be strong. An explanation of this paradox lies in the fact that it responds perfectly to needs, in terms of scientific legitimacy, or at least pseudo-scientific, of that current “negationist” that denies the frequency, gravity and the responsibility of sexual abuse of minors, especially if the act is performed by men belonging to the family or the social circle of the child. (Foti, 2007).

To overcome the problem of weakness of the construct of PAS, Darnall (1999) had suggested using the expression Parental Alienating (PA) to define a type of behaviors, conscious or unconscious, that can bring to a disorder in the child-parent relationship. This has permitted us to focus on the behavior of the adult and over his influence on the behavior of the child.

How to overcome the medical model?

Kelly and Johnston (2001) developed the concentric model, in which the relations between parents and child following a conflictual separation are arranged along a continuum that provides a negative pole and a positive one. So, the child can have a good relationship with both, a major affinity with one of the two, a real alliance, up to the unjustified rejection of a parent without feelings of ambivalence and guilt, overlapping with the concept of parental alienation. This view, currently in use, means alienation as a multidimensional process (and not syndrome), determined by multiple individual and relational characteristics of the parent couple, which can influence the response of the child during and after the phase of family breakdown (Maugeri, 2014).

The data that emerge from field studies and practice converge to indicate that parental alienation represents a factor of evolutionary risk for the onset of different disorders of psychopathological interest, as described in the Psychoforensic Document on Parental Alienation (2012).

In addition to this document, the Psychoforensic Document on obstacles to the right to bigenitoriality (2012) was distributed, in which it was reiterated that parental alienation is not the result of an individual problem of the child, but of a relational difficulty between family members (Di Blasio, 2013).

How can we intervene?

Interventions aimed at parents whose children are at risk due to exposure to high conflict, consist of social evaluation and control interventions (such as Office Technical Consultancies, Spaces Neutral, Parental Coordination), accompanied and coordinated by individual psychotherapy, both for the child than for the individual parents of the separated family and, where possible, an intervention to support parenting (Maugeri, 2014).

Written by: Luna Piccinelli
Translated by: Lisa Nespoli

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