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Parental alienation: Mental disorder or relationship problem?

In emotionally charged divorce cases, children are often caught in the middle. Sometimes, one parent will try to poison the child’s relationship with the other parent to gain leverage in a custody fight.

It’s a phenomenon dubbed “parental alienation,” a phrase coined in the 1980s but a concept that has been around for much longer. It got a lot of attention a few years back during actor Alec Baldwin’s very public divorce. Baldwin felt his wife was turning his daughter against him and he lashed out in a widely played voice mail message in which he called his pre-teen daughter, “a rude, thoughtless little pig.”

Baldwin also referred to his wife as a “thoughtless pain in the ass.” But parental alienation goes well beyond one parent bad mouthing the other parent to a child.

“Parental alienation ultimately exists in the child’s mind, so the parent can be bad mouthing the other parent and if it really does not affect the child’s feelings about that other parent, that’s not really parental alienation,” said Seattle area psychiatrist John Dunne.

It’s a controversial condition that some critics reject as unproven. Dunne believes that parental alienation is real and that it can have a dramatic impact on a child. “It’s very powerful, incredibly powerful, I mean these are the most emotionally challenging cases that I face in my office.”

The phenomenon is most often associated with mothers but Dunne says his experience is that about one-third of the time, the parent aligned with the child is the father. Dr. Dunne is struck by how parents will react when he confronts one of them about parental alienation.

“These parents become incredibly irate, ‘Are you accusing my child of lying,’ they’ll say. “They get red-faced and stand six inches from my nose,” said Dunne.

Still, the phenomenon does not have formal standing. After intense lobbying, the American Psychiatric Association has decided not to include “parental alienation” in its updated manual of official mental disorders. It’s a crucial decision “because there are some people who think that if you make this a diagnosis, it creates – for lack of better words – opportunities in the legal system and they are afraid that this would be used in some way for one parent to punish or coerce the other,” explained Dunne.

It’s not clear if the phenomenon, syndrome, condition, whatever you call it, is common. Dunne says he usually sees just the most severe cases. Once a child is poisoned, he says treatment can be futile and children often carry the damage from parental alienation into adulthood.

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