The Form of Child Abuse Known as Parental Alienation

By: Howie Dennison
Last Update: February 23, 2017

Slowly, hope is building for children suffering from a form of psychological abuse known as "parental alienation" because of the growing awareness about parental alienation and its harm to children. One example is the relevant authors of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) saying that parental alienation is in DSM-5.

From time to time, one may hear someone say, “Parental alienation is pure fantasy because it is not listed in the psychological diagnostic manual, DSM-5.” Then someone else may say, “It is in there, just not the exact words.”

Why does DSM-5 matter? According to Wikipedia, "In the United States, the DSM serves as a universal authority for psychiatric diagnoses." 

Parental Alienation Is Included in DSM-5 

Now the microphone has been placed at the horse’s mouth. The people who wrote DSM-5 say that parental alienation is indeed included in DSM-5. And they end all further speculation by saying why they did not use the exact words “parental alienation.”

In a 2016 scientific paper, DSM authors Dr. Narrow and Dr. Wamboldt say that parental alienation may be diagnosed as Child Affected by Parental Alienation Distress (V61.29) if one is talking about the child. Parental alienation may be diagnosed as Child Psychological Abuse (V995.51) if one is talking about a parent alienating their child. This confirms that parental alienation is indeed in DSM-5.

The authors explain why they didn’t use the exact words “parental alienation.” They feared that an under-informed therapist might misdiagnose something as parental alienation when, in reality, there was physical abuse, sexual abuse, or exposure to domestic violence.

This contributes to the opposite problem, where countless children are being psychologically abused by parental alienation because many mental-health professionals are not aware of parental alienation, or they get fooled, because parental alienation is so counter-intuitive.

In their 2016 technical paper, the authors of DSM-5 also explain why parental alienation is so counter-intuitive and why so many people have a hard time understanding it: "It is remarkable that abused children frequently remain attached to their abusive parents, whom they might perceive as charming and charismatic. Through various mental processes, maltreated children persist in fearing, loving, hating, being dependent on, and longing for the love and acceptance of their abusive and neglectful mothers and fathers."

13.4% of Parents Believe They've Been Alienated from at Least One Child

In a survey of 610 parents in North Carolina, Dr. Harman found that 13.4% of parents believe they have been alienated from at least one child, with half believing it is severe. The American Psychological Association issued a press release saying that child psychological abuse is the most prevalent form of abuse and that it is as harmful as sexual abuse, but remarkably, it is not taboo.

What should happen instead, is that alienated children should be declared to be a “special population” so they are diagnosed and treated by therapists having all the requisite backgrounds, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, personality disorders, family systems, and attachment theory. They can also utilize Dr. Childress' rigorous criteria for severe parental alienation, which he refers to as pathogenic parenting. Otherwise, many therapists will continue to be fooled and become complicit in child abuse. Every child deserves a fully accurate assessment.

Besides DSM-5, there are other positive developments in general awareness about parental alienation:

  1. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a clinical report in 2016 that tells doctors what to do about parental alienation.

  2. The American Psychological Association's 2015 Handbook of Forensic Psychology provides useful information for custody evaluators on parental alienation.

  3. The American Psychological Association published a technical paper in 2016 by Dr. Richard Warshak that confirms that parental alienation is child abuse, calling it "psychologically abusive" and "emotional abuse."

  4. The Massachusetts General Hospital published a book that notes that "withholding of interactions with other caregiver" is psychological abuse. This hospital is currently ranked number one for psychiatry.

  5. A 2009 position statement prepared for the Australian Psychological Society notes that "Parental alienation is defined as a child’s unreasonable rejection of one parent due to the influence of the other parent combined with the child’s own contributions (Kelly & Johnston, 2001). Early intervention (and usually this requires specialist intervention) in alienation and estrangement is advocated."

  6. The US Department of Justice notes on its website that “damaging one’s relationship with his or her children” is “emotional abuse” and that “forcing isolation from family, friends" is “psychological abuse.”

  7. Mexico and Brazil have passed legislation specific to parental alienation.

Slowly, hope is building for children suffering from the psychological abuse known as parental alienation.


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