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Some judges can’t accept reality of parental alienation, says psychiatry professor
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31 Aug 2021 / family law Print

Some judges can’t accept parental alienation, says psychiatry professor

A webinar on parental alienation last evening (30 August) heard that, though the concept of parental alienation is recognised in psychiatric textbooks, some judges have yet to accept its validity. 

In these cases, the court may need to be educated on the concept, the webinar heard.

Parental alienation is the rejection of one parent without good reason, while estrangement is rejection for a good reason.

DSM–5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental-health professionals in the United States.

The latest volume acknowledges the concept of parental alienation, without using the actual phrase, Dr William Bernet told the webinar.

Dr Bernet (small picture) leads the Parental Alienation Study Group, which is an international, not-for-profit corporation consisting of 800 mental-health and legal professionals from 62 countries.

The organisation points out that parental alienation sometimes occurs when parents engage in a high-conflict separation or divorce.

Parental alienation means that the child has become enmeshed with one parent (the preferred parent), and has rejected a relationship with the other parent (the target parent) without legitimate justification.


Dr Bernet said that alienated children are much more rejecting than abused children, in general.

An emeritus professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre, Dr Bernet said that, eventually, parental alienation will be recognised by both the DSM and the ICD (International Classification of Diseases).

Dr Bernet added that when the recent edition was published, he was “somewhat happy” that there were now three different diagnoses that could be used by therapists, social workers or psychologists, when parental alienation occurs.

Dr Bernet is the co-author of ‘Parental Alienation ­– Science and Law’ which sets out the steps and underlying evidence required for testifying about the reality of parental alienation in court.

He said that judges usually ‘catch on’ to alienating behaviour by one parent in preventing visits to the other parent.

The alienated parent should document and record the alienating behaviour, Dr Bernet advised.


“How do you convince the judge? Well, you have to make a case that parental alienation is a real thing. And then you have to make a case that it’s happening in this family. But, sometimes, the evidence is so blatant that the court can see.

“Sadly, there are some judges who don’t like the idea, who don’t accept this concept,” Dr Bernet said. 

A lawyer may know this from past experience, and may advise against bringing up the concept at all.

“You can make your case without ever even mentioning the words ‘parental alienation’… you can bring up all the behaviours,” Dr Bernet said.

A new diagnosis of ‘child affected by parental relationship distress’ (CAPRD) is in the DSM manual, and the definition includes the negative effects of discord, such as distress and disparagement.

‘Parent-child relational problem’ has been part of the DSM for many years, Dr Bernet explained, and covers unwarranted feelings of estrangement, or negative attributions of the other’s intentions.

Child psychological abuse is defined in the DSM as “harming or abandoning things that the child cares about”, such as the other parent.

Therefore, clinicians may use the ‘caregiver-child relational problem’ diagnosis if they see a case of parental alienation.

“I hope, in about a year from now, to go back to the DSM revision committee and make a proposal for parental alienation to be added as a mental disorder,” Dr Bernet added. “We hope to make a big deal out of this,” he said.

“It matters because, if it’s in the book, it will be taught,” he said.

“It will be accepted in training programmes for social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists, and nurses, and attorneys.

“It will be part of the training programme because it will be an official condition that people need to know about,” he continued.

Psychiatric diagnoses

There are legal implications, in that, when parental alienation is brought up in court, it cannot be dismissed as a hoax, because it’s accepted by the people in charge of psychiatric diagnoses, he said.

Parental alienation may be one reason for contact refusal by a child, Dr Bernet said, though a child may naturally have an affinity or preference for one parent, or may suffer from separation anxiety.

Alienating behaviour may start from birth, he added, with one parent excluded from a relationship with the baby.

In cases of parental alienation, the rejection will be out of proportion to anything that the rejected parent has done.

“We don’t expect people to be perfect. Obviously, moms and dads all have things they could have done better,” he said.

However, in cases of alienation, the behaviours will include constant disparaging remarks, not just to the child, but also to the wider community, influencing the child to think the parent is dangerous.

Campaigns of denigration

There may be frivolous reasons for these campaigns of denigration, and the child may engage in ‘splitting’ – regarding one parent as totally good, and the other as totally evil, with a lack of ambivalence.

Parental alienation may be mild, moderate, or severe, Dr Bernet added.

In severe cases, the children are “pretty horrible towards the rejected parent,” he said.

“We also have mild, moderate, and severe levels of alienating behaviours,” he said, from transiently undermining remarks, to undermining the entire parent-child relationship.

“These people, with counselling, can usually turn it around,” Dr Bernet said, since moderately alienating parents are reachable, once they can see what they are doing.

“The really severe alienating parents are obsessed with destroying the child’s relationship with the other parent. They are absolutely convinced, and usually everyday counselling isn’t very effective, and you have to have some specialised counselling.

“Sometimes, this reaches the level of a delusion, for instance, the preferred parent may have a delusion that the dad is abusing the child in some way, and it’s totally untrue.

“But the mother conveys that illusion to the child, so both of them end up with the same false belief.”

Alienating behaviours and bad remarks by parents are extremely common when couples split up, Dr Bernet said, but severe parental alienation is less common.


“Maybe 80% of divorcing parents say negative things about the other parent, but that’s not the same as the child actually becoming alienated.

“Many, many children hear alienating comments, but only a few of them actually become alienated.”

At a rough estimate, Dr Bernet said fewer than 1% of children become alienated, but 80% of parents engage in some alienating activity.

In the US, about 20% of children have parents who separate or divorce.

Of those who divorce, about 20% have high conflict, and keep on going back to court.

Of those in high-conflict divorces, about 20% have parental alienation.

In mild cases of alienation, the parents are responsive to advice, and a judge may order them to stop badmouthing.

Moderate cases may need separate parenting coaches, and counselling for the children, under court order.

Child abuse

Severe cases of parental alienation are very difficult and may be considered as child abuse, Dr Bernet said. In that situation, the child may need to be removed from the home and placed in a neutral environment, at least for a while.

Alienating parents often have very little insight into what they are doing, he concluded.

The webinar may be viewed online: http://alienated.ie/solutions-parental-alienation-acf-webinar-3/

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland