The scene: a bitter divorce and a battle for the custody of the couple's 7-year-old son. Awarded full custody, the mother – perhaps in search of revenge? – undertakes to destroy the son's relationship with his father. The mother says that the son lies on the father's behavior, sowing doubt about his ability to be a parent and sabotages the father's efforts to see his son. The son begins to believe the lies; as he grows older, his relationship with his father becomes tense.
According to social psychologist Jennifer Harman of Colorado State University, about 22 million American parents, like this fictional father, have been victims of behaviors leading to a phenomenon known as parental alienation. After studying the phenomenon for several years, Harman urges psychological, legal and child-care disciplines to recognize that parental alienation is both a form of child abuse and intimate partner violence.
Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology of the CSU, Harman wrote a review article in Psychological Bulletin define behaviors associated with parental alienation and advocate for more research on its prevalence and outcomes. She and her co-authors explain how these behaviors are at the root of long-term negative consequences for the psychological health and well-being of children and adults around the world.
"We must stop denying that this exists," said Harman, co-author of a book on parental alienation with Zeynep Biringen, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies. "You have to treat an alienated parent as an abused person You have to treat the child as an abused child You take the child out of this abusive environment You receive treatment for the abusive parent and you put it in a safe environment – the parent in better health. "
In their new article, Harman and co-authors Edward Kruk of the University of British Columbia and Denise Hines of Clark University consider parental alienation as a result of aggressive behaviors directed against a other person, with the intention of causing harm. They establish direct lines between widely recognized types of violence, such as emotional or psychological aggression, and the behavior of alienating parents.
For example, psychological aggression is a common form of child abuse that involves "attacking the emotional and social well-being of a child". In the same way, alienated parents terrorize their children by targeting the other parent, which makes them deliberately fear that the other parent is dangerous or unstable, even though there is no evidence of such a danger. Alienating parents will also reject, shame or make their children feel guilty for showing loyalty or warmth to the other parent.
The authors also argue that such alienating behaviors are abusive to the targeted parent and compare these behaviors to more familiar forms of intimate partner violence between spouses or romantic partners.
Harman is an expert in power dynamics in human relations. His research has shown that parental alienation is similar to what is called "intimate terrorism". Intimate terrorism is characterized primarily by an imbalanced power dynamics, in which one partner subjugates the other by intimidation, coercion or threats of physical (or actual) violence. Such a scenario is distinct from situation-related intimate partner violence, in which both partners have relatively equal power in the relationship but can not hear and resort to physical or emotional abuse.
Similarly, children are used as weapons in the form of an intimate terrorism called parental alienation, according to Harman. The imbalance of powers in such intimate terrorism can be found in custody disputes, in which one parent is granted full custody of a child. This parent has the power, ordered by the court, to subjugate the other parent by preventing any contact or by actively seeking to destroy the other parent's relationship with the child.
According to Justice Harman, family courts face these situations on a daily basis, but judges, lawyers and social workers are not sensitive to the prevalence of parental alienation as child abuse. or intimate partner. Instead, such situations are considered mere disputes about custody or the inability of parents to hear.
Harman says she hopes her refocusing on parental alienation will prompt other social scientists to continue studying the problem. More research on this particular form of family violence will raise awareness and mobilize resources to better identify and stop these behaviors.
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Material provided by Colorado State University. Original written by Anne Manning. Note: Content can be changed for style and length.