By Kenneth Braswell and Dr. Stacey Bouchet
Early Thanksgiving morning, I (Braswell) was jolted out of my holiday spirit by a breaking story that a father had murdered his child and then turned the gun on himself to do the same. In addition to this horrible circumstance, there was another child in the back seat of the car watching this drama unfold. I’ve seen this type of headline far too many times. As always, I quietly mourned the losses and whispered a silent prayer for all parties involved. I followed these actions by self-examining my work to determine whether Fathers Incorporated is doing enough to prevent something like this from happening again. I followed that up by thinking about my own family and children, my staff and their families, and the fathers we serve.
This particular tragedy struck a deeper chord in my spirit. In watching this story, emotions of embarrassment, shame, and cowardness resonated in my soul. I also felt helpless as I wanted to do something but did not know what. I could not get my hands around why I had not found the language in my work to express the critical need to address the stress, depression, and violence associated with parental conflict. Over the last week, I’ve spent much of my time digging through academic knowledge, my life experiences, and my conscience searching for reasons why society so often fails at addressing and resolving parental conflict, especially because children suffer and become collateral damage.
In addition to these thoughts, I publicly addressed the headline throughout my personal and professional social media platforms – something else I often refrain from doing, primarily because you can’t say all you need to say in a 240-character post. The post stated: “We (Fathers Incorporated) are still shaken by this tragedy. Mere words cannot express the weight of agony I know all the families involved must be experiencing. The nature of this story and the fact that it involves a father stirs up the urgency for us to pay closer attention to the mental health of our families and, in this case, man/dad. With the story still unraveling, we are sure that, at its core, it is an individual overwhelmed with emotions and unable to manage conflict, decisions, and choices, ending in an irreconcilable outcome. If you are a dad dealing with a parental situation stressing you and you feel overwhelmed and have nobody to turn to, please call us at 770.804.9800.” So why do I feel like this is still not enough? I (we) must do more.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – Chinese proverb.
In this blog, we discuss specific forms of parental conflict that can lead to devastating headlines involving families and children. Fathers Incorporated will do what it does best: raise awareness, educate, and provide context to the issue of parental conflict, especially regarding fathers, families, and child well-being. We do this not by creating villains or pointing blame in any direction but by framing the issue in a way that allows parental conflict to be discussed with gender parity and with a focus on formulating solutions for healthy child well-being and family stability/harmony. Specifically and critically, we aim to eradicate high-conflict parental relations, particularly as they pertain to parental alienation.
Parental Alienation (PA)
A search for parental alienation on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s website (SAMHSA.gov) produces no results. In fact, no US government website introduces the term and the potential for its existence beyond funded study abstracts. This is because no federal or state laws that incorporate recognition of parental alienation have been passed despite the fact that multiple courts and jurisdictions do recognize it. Additionally, in May 2019, despite the efforts of political ideological groups to prevent it, the World Health Organization accepted the term “parental alienation” in its International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-11), classified as a Caregiver-Child Relationship Problem.
On its website, Psychology Today states, “Parental alienation occurs when a child refuses to have a relationship with a parent due to manipulation, such as the conveying of exaggerated or false information, by the other parent. The situation most often arises during a divorce or custody battle. Still, it can happen in intact families as well.” The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) describes it as “a strategy whereby one parent intentionally displays unjustified negativity aimed at the other parent to the child. The purpose of this strategy is to damage the child’s relationship with the other parent and to turn the child’s emotions against that other parent.” The NCSC references Parental Alienation Can Be Emotional Child Abuse by Ken Lewis, Director of the Child Custody Evaluation Services of Philadelphia, Inc., as a resource created to help judges understand and navigate parental alienation issues in their cases.
Polarized personal and political agendas undergird most information and research on parental alienation. The published discourse is dominated by a few authors attempting to build their cases for or against it. Competing political agendas have resulted in a lack of a universally agreed-upon definition for PA and evaluations of treatments and long-term effects on children. In an attempt to determine the legitimacy of PA, Doughty et al. (2018) reviewed research and case law on parental alienation. They found ample research supporting the use of PA by both genders/parents in high-conflict heterosexual relationships. They note that custodial parents are accused of parental alienation much more than noncustodial parents. They also find distinct gender differences in the alienating strategies used by each, finding, for example, that alienating mothers tend to disparage fathers to the child while alienating fathers are more likely to encourage child defiance towards the mother.
In fact, 17 parental alienating strategies used by parents to estrange their children from the other parent have been identified in empirical studies of PA:
- Limiting Contact
- Interfering with communication
- Interfering with symbolic communication (i.e., pictures and photos)
- Withdrawal of love or threat of by alienating parent to child
- Telling the child the targeted parent is dangerous
- Forcing the child to choose between parents
- Telling the child the targeted parent does not love him or her
- Confiding in the child
- Forcing the child to reject the targeted parent
- Asking the child to spy on the targeted parent
- Asking the child to keep secrets from the targeted parent
- Referring to the targeted parent by the first name and encouraging the child to do the same
- Referring to a stepparent as “Mom” or “Dad” and encouraging the child to do the same
- Withholding medical, academic, and other important information from the targeted parent/keeping the targeted parent’s name off medical, educational, and other relevant documents (see California Family Code 3025)
- Changing the child’s name to remove association with the targeted parent
- Cultivating dependency/undermining the authority of the targeted parent (may include overly permissive parenting by the alienating parent)
We are aware of the controversies, opposing views, and personal experiences of parents, primarily those going through extremely high-conflict custody battles, around PA and the critical need to distinguish parental alienation from justifiable estrangement due to abuse or violence. However, discussing PA’s validity is not within this article’s scope. Our assumption here is that—regardless of gender–elements of parental alienation occur far too often within the context of parental conflict in general (i.e., demonizing and undermining the other parent).
We know there are a variety of ways to frame parental alienation, and the ways we offer will be viewed as biased by many, as most of them find that mothers use this strategy more than fathers, much as we find a predominance of available information reporting that men perpetrate most domestic violence incidents. Neither justifies the other, and they are of equal consequence for victims, given that both profoundly impact the children involved. The worst element of parenting is when it is based on the need to control. Both parental alienation and domestic violence are embedded in the dysfunctional and selfish desire to control.
To be sure, many elements of parental alienation are unclear and need to be explored, understood, and curated. However, in our work with fathers attempting to identify and reduce parental conflict, noncustodial dads have named most of the alienating strategies listed above as significant barriers to connecting with their children. What we find particularly disturbing about PA is the critical voices missing from this discourse that are vital to the discussion. Understanding the prevalence and magnitude of parental alienation has not considered the informed views of organizations that serve fathers in their programming and services (i.e., responsible fatherhood programs, not father’s rights organizations, and attorneys).
Organizations that work in the responsible fatherhood field are dedicated (and required by most funding sources) to make serious, measurable efforts to address male violence in all its forms and to help fathers and mothers establish co-parenting relationships and agreements that increase the safety of all family members and operate in the best interest of their children. These efforts should be recognized and contextualized as progress toward improving the safety of mothers, children, and communities. We say this as one of those organizations but also as leaders in the responsible fatherhood field called upon to share best practices nationally and with individual organizations. The input of fatherhood efforts regarding potential parental alienation should be elicited, valued, and incorporated into PA discourse because their work with fathers does not affect nor diminish their recognition of the importance of mothers. In that way, they are objective sources and potential partners to those who advocate for the safety of mothers and children. In addition, their experiences addressing parental conflict and alienation are crucially important to their organization’s effectiveness because many of their staff are women and mothers who deeply understand these issues, many as former victims themselves.
Like Fathers Incorporated, fatherhood programs are deeply committed to stopping cycles of violence and abuse and are heartbroken by tragic news headlines like the most recent described above. What we know about parental alienation from what we see in the headlines alone should concern all who care about child well-being and inspire us to increase our efforts to end parental conflict in all its forms.
Additional Conversation on I Am Dad Podcast:
Managing Holiday Grief and Depression w/ Dr. Jeff Gardere – www.iamdadpodcast.com
 Doughty, J., Maxwell, N., & Slater, T. (2018). Review of research and case law on parental alienation. Available at https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Review-of-research-and-case-law-on-parental-Doughty-Maxwell/498b222cd562d7624481bbafa0fd40e869a6319b
 Baker, A. J. L., & Darnall, D. (2006). Behaviors and Strategies Employed in Parental Alienation: A Survey of Parental Experiences. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 45(1-2), 97–124. https://doi.org/10.1300/J087v45n01_06