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Understanding the Impact of Parental Alienation: Insights from Leading Experts in Psychology and Law

Updated: Jan 31

Raymond Havlicek, Ph.D., is one of these esteemed experts. He is a forensic and clinical psychologist who is a Diplomat of the American Board of Professional Psychology and a Fellow at the American Academy of Clinical Psychology. He is a founding member of the Parent Coordinator Association of New York. Dr. Havlicek has completed hundreds of child custody evaluations for County and Supreme Family Courts. He is currently developing an educational program for upstate New York judges concerning issues of child custody and parental alienation. Dr. Havlicek asserted, “The trust that children place in both parents is to their mental health what the foundation is to a building. If you undermine that trust, there is no stability.”

Dr. Havlicek declares, "There is no question that alienating/interfering behaviors is a form of child abuse. It is a horror show. The damage to children is enormous. When a child loses a parent, they are killing off a part of themselves because there is an identity between the child and both parents. The result is that they become self-injurious. I see all the warning signs and all the red flags of this self-hatred: nightmares, anxiety, oppositional behaviors in school, presence of gastrointestinal syndromes, falling school grades, more susceptibility to peers with oppositional behaviors, juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, depression.”

Amy Baker holds a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology with a specialization in Early Social and Emotional Development. She is the Director of Research at the Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection at the New York Foundling. In her well-researched book, Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome, Baker (2007) concluded that alienation is a form of emotional child abuse due to the devastating effects to children when a parent is eradicated or abridged from their lives.

These devastating effects include but are not limited to

1) Damage to the child's self-esteem resulting from the pain of being "enlightened" that the targeted parent does not love and has rejected her/him;

2) Feeling bad about herself/himself resulting from the introjected negative view of a parent, with whom a child instinctively identifies;

3) Being ignored by the alienating/interfering parent for association with the targeted parent;

4) Terrorizing the child, who is criticized and/or punished by the alienating/interfering for expressing normal feelings and opinions;

5) Corruption of the child whereby the alienating/interfering parent tolerates extreme acting out behaviors in exchange for the child's allegiance and also because the child's maltreatment of the targeted parent

is normalized;

6) Exploiting the child's dependency as a captive audience of the alienating/interfering parent, who chooses to expose the child to adult information that exceed the child's cognitive and emotional capabilities to handle;

7) Formation of shame and guilt resulting from the child's inability to fulfill the alienating/interfering parent's expectation as her/his problem solver;

8) Subjecting the child to the fear of abandonment as a punishment for the child's desire for contact with the targeted parent (pp. 84-99).

Baker (2007) summarized her findings as follows: 65% of the study's participants were afflicted with low self-esteem; 70% suffered episodes of depression due to the belief of being unloved by the targeted parent and from extended separation from that parent; 35% engaged in substance abuse as a means to mask their feelings of pain and loss; 40% lacked trust in themselves as well as in meaningful relationships because the trust was broken with their parents; 50% suffered the heartbreaking repetition of the alienation by becoming alienated from their own children; and 57.5% were beset by divorce, higher than the national average of 52%. (pp. 180-191)

Barbara Burkhard, Ph.D., co-founded Child and Family Psychological Services, P.C., in Smithtown, New York, with Jane Albertson-Kelly, Ph.D. This agency provides research-informed therapy for children and families. It has a contract with Suffolk County Department of Social Services to provide therapeutic child/parent visits and evaluations of parents who have been accused of abuse and neglect. They also receive referrals from Suffolk County Supreme and Family Courts for custody evaluations, therapeutic visitation, reunification therapy, and forensic mental health evaluations and risk assessments. Both Dr. Burkhard and Dr. Kelly affirmed, “Children generally benefit from a relationship with each parent with respect to the attainment of healthy long-term relationships and for their optimal social, psychological, and cognitive development.” Dr. Burkhard addressed how children who were initially assessed by her to be “high functioning” became “highly

disturbed” as a result of the process of alienation or parental interference. Dr. Burkhard compares alienated children to a group of traumatized children who have been raped, burned, beaten, sexually abused, and/or victims of crime, and she concluded that the latter group “don't hold a candle in terms of symptoms and prognosis to alienated children, who have dropped out of school, become addicted to drugs, born children out of wedlock addicted to drugs, and engaged in other antisocial behaviors.” Dr. Burkhard maintains that childhood is a time to develop a sense of responsibility. It is a time to develop a conscience. Children who become alienated have this fundamental aspect of their development derailed. They are not only not held accountable for their mistakes and misdeeds, they may be encouraged to tell lies or exaggerate the truth and otherwise act in ways that are disrespectful of others. The maladaptive behaviors of these children are reinforced by a trusted parent, and this further undermines normal moral development as well as the development of the child’s ability to develop healthy relationships. According to Dr. Burkhard, to engage in alienating/interfering behaviors, “is maltreatment of children in the most profound way."

Dr. Kelly asserted that children who become victims of alienation or parental interference suffer lifetime damage. She expressed, "They do not learn interpersonal problem solving because they are often prevented from working out realistic everyday conflicts with a parent. This is simply not healthy in the long run. This affects them in a very negative way. Having permission from a parent to maltreat the other parent is going to have a very deleterious effect on the child’s ability to interact with others.” Dr. Kelly is also concerned about the serious damage to children resulting from false sex abuse allegations, which are a frequently employed alienating maneuver. She stated, "It confirms damage to the child as if the abuse really happened." She further commented, “Alienation undermines healthy family functioning, such as family hierarchy in that the boundaries between the parental and child subsystems breakdown when the child is elevated by the alienating parent to an adult level as a result of their coalition. This explains why such children often do not respond appropriately to authority figures such a school principals, teachers, and others.” According to Dr. Kelly, “Another lifelong penalty is that alienated children often pay a dear price resulting from the guilt that they bear for having abused their targeted parent. And should the targeted parent no longer be available to them when they come to the realization of what has occurred in their family, there is no possibility for atonement.”

Matrimonial attorney, Robert Hiltzik, stated that he believes that alienating/interfering behavior is a form of child abuse, and he described what he has witnessed in his 22 years of family law practice: “The alienating parent is not enforcing discipline. The crucial dynamic is that the alienating parent strives to be the child's best friend while the other parent is left with the responsibility of being the disciplinarian. The children then run amok, and the alienating parent is sanctioning this because they are saying to their child, 'I won't enforce the rules as long as you do what I say and give your other parent a hard time.’ I think the damage is pervasive. If you allow a child to conduct himself/herself in such a conflicted way, the child carries that throughout life. If the child can be so disrespectful to a parent without any justification whatsoever, then there is no doubt the child will exhibit similar conduct before other authority figures.”

Matrimonial attorney, Mr. Robert Previto, graphically described what he has encountered in his 17 years of practice as a marital attorney as to the damage done to children resulting from alienating/interfering behaviors when he stated, "If a child is walking the across the train tracks, gets an electrical shock from the third rail but is not killed, the scars will be there for the rest of his life. The emotional scars resulting from an alienation are not going away either." Mr. Previto described some of these injuries to children as having to live with tremendous guilt for having allowed themselves to be manipulated into being so abusive to a parent.

Matrimonial attorney and Attorney for the Child, Susan Saltz, stated that alienation is a form of child abuse because "alienated children do not form healthy relationships as adults. And very often as adults, they don't have healthy relationships with their own children." Ms. Saltz added, "It's not healthy for these children not to see the non-custodial parent. I think children need to know where they come from, and if they are missing a parent, they are missing a part of themselves. If they miss out on one of their parents, there is a hole inside of them. And they don't fill that hole with good stuff. These children tend to hate themselves as a result of hating a parent. And when you hate yourself, you are likely to act out."

Matrimonial attorney, Joshua Hecht, believes that the negative effects to children of alienating or interfering behaviors are "impactful and severe."

Attorney for the Child, Evie Zarkadas, asserts that she has witnessed during her 20 years of practice severe detrimental affects to children as a result of alienating/interfering behaviors. She stated that these difficulties run the gamut from problems in education, difficulties in peer relationships, illegal substance use, engaging in criminal activities, development of mental health disturbances. Ms. Zarkadas expressed, "These children are being asked to deal with adult situations that even adults don't know how to handle. The child will walk away with the idea, ‘What did I do wrong?’ These kids walk away from these messes feeling that they are to blame." Ms. Zarkadas insists that the alienating behavior “be criminalized” because “the pain these children suffer because of the decision by one parent to erase the other parent out of their life----is criminal!"

Matrimonial attorney, Dorothy Courten, stands with the others that alienating/interfering behavior is a form of child abuse. She described what she sees happening to these children: “In terms of showing disrespect for authority, it is absolutely there. You get really mixed up little kids out of it. Because these kids lack control over what is happening to them by finding themselves in an upside down world----a world in which they are manipulated into believing that love is hate; that disrespect, defiance and maltreatment are acceptable; that their feelings must be denied----I do not see a good outcome for them. They become self-destructive. They attempt to take back control by adopting behaviors over which they do have control, such as bedwetting, drug use, eating disorders, drinking, and stealing. They become violent people.”

In his article, “Father? What father? Parental Alienation and its Effect on Children," appearing in the Law Guardian Reporter, Chaim Steinberger, Esq., (2006) painstakingly summarizes the literature which addresses the detrimental effects on children from the loss of a relationship with a parent. These effects include but are not limited to anxiety, self-loathing, rigidity, hopelessness, powerlessness, confusion, withdrawal, isolation, and hypocrisy.

All the recent research indicates that children who have a parent either eradicated from their lives or only marginally involved develop very poor outcomes. And I suggest referring to the book, Fatherneed, by child psychiatrist, Dr. Kyle Pruitt, in which he summarizes the alarming research by Yale University when a father is only minimally involved in his children's lives or was completely eradicated from his children's lives. Dr. Pruitt conveys that when fathers are absent or are involved only on a limited basis, children have a significantly high vulnerability to acting out behaviors, dropping out of school, suicidal ideation and other serious mental disorders, engaging in sexually inappropriate activities, and other serious issues. Other research indicates the following alarming statistics to children resulting from father-deprivation: 72% of all teenage murders, 60% of rapists, 70% of kids incarcerated, twice as likely to quit school, 11 times more likely to be violent, 3 out of 4 suicides, 80% of adolescents in psychiatric hospitals, 90% of runaways. The conclusion is that “Father-deprivation is a more reliable predictor of criminal activity than race, environment or poverty.” (National Fatherhood Initiative, US Bureau of Census, FBI)

I am unequivocal that the same findings would apply to the eradication or minimization of a mother from a child’s life. We are already beginning to develop this research about mothers now that more fathers are receiving residential custody.

The child of a high-conflict divorce is like a rope in a tug-of-war between her/his parents. And just like the rope, the child will also unravel. It is a double-bind situation in which the child cannot have both parents because of the pressure to align with one parent against the other. Usually, but not always, the residential parent has the greater influence due to opportunity and due to the child’s utter dependence upon that parent. This detrimental family dynamic in which the child must chose between her/his parents had been first observed by the child psychiatrists who later founded the family therapy movement; they documented it on the psychiatric ward when observing their psychotic child patients during family visits. This dysfunctional family dynamic, labeled by child psychiatrist, Murray Bowen as the “pathological triangle,” was adapted by Bowen’s peers, and they include but are not limited to Don Jackson, Nathan Ackerman, and Salvador Minuchin, my mentor.

I have witnessed in my practice the detrimental effects to children as a result of the triangulation or alienating/interfering behavior. And due to the influences that technology has now afforded the younger population, I am seeing socio-pathology in addition to psychosis in this population. I deem this family dynamic to be severe child abuse in that the targeted parent’s love and nurturing is labeled for the child as maltreatment and rejection; deceit and cruelty are normalized; there is a fostering of a dependency upon a manipulative parent; there is a suppression of the child’s superego, or conscience; there is a self-alienation resulting from the repression one’s true feelings; there is a chronic state of anxiety that a slip of behavior will expose the true positive feelings and longing for the alienated parent; there is the loss of self as a result of the rejection of the alienated parent; there is a malaise or depression that overtakes the child due to the loss of one of only two of the most significant figures in the child’s life; there is an undermining of the child’s cognitive, moral, and emotional development.


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