Research Proposal: Parental Alienation Syndrome a Family Systems Perspective

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Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Systemic Perspective

One of the unfortunate consequences of marital dissolution is the impact that it can have on the children of the marriage, particularly younger children. In those situations where children are trapped in the middle of parental conflict and leads to separation or divorce, studies have shown that they are at a higher risk for a number of psychosocial problems, including intentional efforts to ally children with one parent in ways that pit the parent against the other. These efforts become particularly harmful in those cases where the alignment becomes sufficiently entrenched in children that they actually collude with one parent to reject the other parent entirely, or to denigrate the other parent who had previously been cherished and loved. Parents who intentionally encourage these types of alignment are using what has been termed parental alienation (PA) strategies that are intended to turn a child against the other, targeted parent. In many cases, the parent employing these strategies is still highly resentful of the events that led to the dissolution of the marriage -- which may include violence, ruined finances or infidelity -- and their rage spills over in ways that intentionally involve the children of the marriage in an effort to strike back at the other parent. These efforts, though, can adversely affect the feelings of the alienated child for the targeted parent, in some cases for life. These efforts by the alienating parent also ignore the fundamental needs for children to have a separate and independent relationship with the other parent, which is typically the father (Gardner, 1998).

Although the reference is of fairly recent origin, Andre (2003) suggests that, "Parental alienation and PAS have probably existed for as long as contested divorces have occurred, but they were first identified in professional literature about two decades ago by Wallerstein and Kelly. Wallerstein and Kelly (1980) described a pathological alignment between an angry divorcing parent and his or her child" (p. 8). According to Baker and Andre (2008), the parent with primary custody of the child or children of the marriage holds most of the cards, at least from a logically perspective if not a legalistic one. In this regard, Baker and Andre note that, "Through various strategies such as bad-mouthing, limiting contact, belittling, and withdrawing love, the alienating parent creates the impression that the targeted parent is dangerous, unloving, or unworthy, thus compelling the child to reject that parent" (p. 10). When these types of behaviors are taken to their extreme and a child rejects the targeted parent entirely, the result is known as severe alienation or parental alienation syndrome (PAS) (Gardner, 1998).

During the 1980s, a grassroots movement emerged among fathers whose children were being used as virtual weapons in divorce proceedings for purposes of vindictiveness, leverage, or even extortion. According to Carbone (2000), fathers' advocacy groups also co-opted the reference to "parental alienation syndrome" to describe their plight in gaining equitable access to their children following a hotly contested divorce. These fathers maintained that many mothers, angry as a result of the emotional conflicts that produced the divorce, poisoned their children's relationships with their fathers and interfered with the father's efforts to maintain a meaningful relationship with their children. As a result, Carbone emphasizes that, "Custody and visitation fights had replaced fault-based accusations as the new divorce battleground" (p. 184). Whether these trends were a result of a more enlightened group of fathers or the result of an increasingly litigious society, the fact remains that these early efforts have spawned new interest in identifying what course of action is best for the interests of the children involved rather than a rubber-stamp approach to divorce that automatically awards custody of minor children to the mother and all of the expenses of the relationship to the father. As Carbone points out, "These fathers embraced joint custody and the 'friendly parent provisions' that provided for the award of custody to the parent most likely to insure the continued involvement of both, as a way to secure recognition of a right to continued contact with their children and to enhance their bargaining power in the custody and visitation wars" (Carbone, 2000, p. 184). Alas, "war" reference is all-too-common when it comes to how many divorces are perceived by both the litigants as well as the children involved, and it is these issues that form the problem to be considered by the study proposed herein and which is discussed further below.

Statement of the Problem

When minor children are used as weapons in the divorce war, no one wins and indeed, everyone involved loses to some extent. A hate-filled mother, for example, may succeed in persuading her children that their father is unworthy of their love and affection and they should try to avoid contact with him at all costs, but this will only harm the children and their relationship with the estranged father. In such cases, the mother may win a brief legal and emotional battle but she will have lost the moral war. Likewise, the children will lose out on a meaningful and close relationship with their father (although in parental alienation syndrome, the roles can easily be reversed but because the vast majority of cases involved the mother as being the alienating parent and the father being the targeted parent, these references will be used throughout the proposed study).

When family law attorneys weigh in on these issues and manage to convince a court of competent jurisdiction that it is in the children's best interests to have sole custody assigned to the mother in spite of these alienation efforts on her part, the problem is further exacerbated. In contrast to sole custody of children following a divorce, joint physical custody contrast, requires that the child or children reside with both of the parents, typically on an alternating basis (Carbone, 2000). The author of the Parental Alienation Syndrome, Richard Gardner, recommends a change in custody in just a relatively small percentage of parental alienation cases, but emphasizes that family courts rarely follow his recommendations even in the most extreme situations. In this regard, Gardner uses the term, "parental alienation syndrome," to mean inculcating or programming (e.g., "brainwashing") the children of the marriage by one parent in order to denigrate the targeted parent, but also to describe self-created contributions by the children involved in ways that reinforce the preferred parent's efforts to denigrate the targeted parent.

Moreover, Gardner emphasizes that such denigration efforts inevitably succeed when the campaign is unrelenting and children are not provided with a balanced view of the issues involved. According to Andre (2004), "In 1985, Richard a. Gardner, MD, further delineated the pathological alignment as occurring between a 'brainwashing' parent and a contributing child, and named the phenomenon Parent Alienation Syndrome (PAS)" (p. 8). Regrettably, Andre adds, Gardner's seminal work is largely ignored in favor of criticisms leveled against his recommendation that severely alienated children should be completely removed from the home of the alienating parent. As Andre points out, "This has stirred considerable inquiry into whether or not this can be effective without traumatizing the child. Gardner has also been criticized for his initial position that most brainwashing parents are women. This position is one which he later reversed, in part due to changes in societal mores, noting that 'men and women are equally likely to be PAS indoctrinators' (Gardner, 2001 quoted in Andre at p. 8),

It is important to note, though, that not all cases wherein the children of a failed marriage are cautioned to avoid further contact with a noncustodial parent are misplaced. There may be past instances of physical or sexual abuse involved, for example, or problems with substance abuse, and the custodial parent may have legitimate fears concerning the safety of the children during unsupervised visitations or in a joint custody arrangement. Nevertheless, the incidence of hostile parents using their children as tools to manipulate both the courts and to harm the targeted parent have become increasingly well documented. For instance, according to Greif, "The PAS and Gardner's work are well-known within the legal system. As such they are part of the collective conscience of parents' seeking changes in custody. The refusal of a child to visit a parent can be considered part of the PAS or have nothing to do with such a syndrome" (p. 134). Moreover, Andre (2004) emphasizes that, "Proponents applaud PAS as a distinctly diagnosable phenomenon and appreciate the clarity it brings to diagnosis and treatment of intra and interfamily dynamics. Critics sometimes go so far as to deny it exists. Some courts have recognized it, while other courts have barred testimony on it" (p. 7).

Therefore, it is not possible to assert that all cases where allegations of mistreatment or unfitness for parental involved are unfounded, but rather it is possible -- and important -- to take the parental alienation syndrome into account when formulating these decisions on a case-by-case basis. In this regard, Greif emphasizes that, "As with many… [END OF PREVIEW]

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