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Is parental alienation a diagnosis?

Divorce and child custody lead to difficult changes for parents and children. After divorce is final, one parent (Parent A) may use the child as a weapon by severely denigrating the other parent (Parent B) to the extent that the child hates Parent B. This dynamic has been called Parental Alienation Syndrome when it creates a complete breakdown in communication and the child deeply hates and fears the targeted parent.

The phrase was coined by Dr. Richard A. Gardner, a psychiatrist, who worked extensively with divorce issues and its impact on children. From 1963 until he passed, he was a professor of child psychiatry at Columbia University and wrote about parent alienation in his self-published 1987 work ''The Parental Alienation Syndrome and the Differentiation Between Fabricated and Genuine Child Sex Abuse." 

Gardner described parental alienation syndrome as a "...disorder that arises primarily in the context of child custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child's campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent's indoctrinations and the child's own contributions to the vilification of the target parent."

To date, parental alienation syndrome has not been added to the DSM or been recognized by the American Psychiatric Association or the American Medical Association as an official diagnosis. Critics of the syndrome use the lack of medical acceptance to attack the validity of this syndrome in court.

Further, critics state that the "syndrome" argument is used primarily against women. They argue that not only does it have a disparate impact on mothers; it may prevent the court from taking genuine allegations of child abuse seriously. It can undermine the credibility of the mother (or accused parent) so that all statements are viewed as questionable.

Supporters of the syndrome point to the claim that it leads to false allegations of child abuse and causes long-term emotional and psychological damage to the child. It requires evidence of extreme, systematic actions and words on the part of the accused parent that make the child also denigrate the targeted parent to the degree that the child wants nothing to do with the person.

Children during and after divorce still need healthy relationships with both parents. Ideally, the parents understand that need and remain civil about each other for the sake of the child. Hurt feelings underlie divorce, and the breakup may not have been mutually agreed upon. However, intentionally preventing a child from maintaining a relationship with his or her other parent causes lasting emotional damage.

If you are going through a divorce and believe that a spouse may be trying to alienate your children from you, contact a family law attorney who can protect your rights and represent your best interests.

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