Author after author has pointed out that as yet there is no established way of identifying cases in which a child rejects one parent because of persuasion by the other parent (parental alienation, by definition). No one has shown a valid and reliable method of discriminating those cases from others in which various different events may be the cause of the child’s resistance or refusal to have contact with one parent (not parental alienation, by definition).
Nevertheless, proponents assert that they have a method for identifying PA cases. This method involves their five factor model, as put forward by William Bernet and others. But is that model anything more than a listicle with other listicles embedded in it? Certainly it has never been shown to be valid and reliable by empirical work—but it could be that such work will appear in the future. Meanwhile, let’s look at the factors and consider how they are applied. I draw this list of factors from Bradley Freeman’s chapter in the 2020 PA book edited by Lorandos and Bernet.
Factor One: The child actively avoids, resists, or refuses a relationship with a parent.
Interestingly, at one time the child was described as rejecting contact with a parent. Now we have rejection of a relationship, which is rather different. Along these lines, Steven Miller (the emergency medicine physician and PA expert witness) has said in a presentation that the problem is rejection of a normal relationship with the parent; this, like other aspects of the five factors, is certainly left open to interpretation.
But how is this factor actually used in assigning the PA category to children’s behavior? In one case I am familiar with, a girl asked for contact with her father but he refused on the grounds that he feared she would accuse him of sexual abuse. The father nevertheless sought custody and alleged PA. In another case, a 17-year-old girl who had spent week on and week off with her parents for 8 years asked to change to weekdays at her mother’s, weekends and holidays at her father’s. This led to the father alleging PA on the part of the mother. In a third case, children did not resist visiting their father but behaved very badly (e.g. throwing food at him). Apparently helpless to control the children, he alleged that PA by the mother was the source of this bad behavior.
Factor One is thus, in practice, excessively broadly and vaguely defined and has the potential to be identified in many situations where a supposedly alienated parent is simply not pleased with the child’s attitude or behavior.
Factor Two: Presence of a prior positive relationship between the child and the rejected parent.
Factor Two may be difficult to demonstrate except through the testimony of teachers, neighbors, and distant family members. The reunification therapy Turning Points asks attendees to bring photos and videos from the past that show the child and parent together in positive ways, and these are used to show the child that in the past they liked the parent whom they now reject. But how many families photograph screaming arguments between parent and child or record one of the other refusing to speak? Any records from the past are likely to be of positive events, however frequent or infrequent they may have been.
Even in intact families, developmental and other changes are often linked with more and with less positive relationships in the course of a child’s life. A parent may be temperamentally well-suited to dealing with a cuddly, dependent baby but less able to care for a negative, tantrum-throwing four-year-old—or vice versa. The period around puberty is for most families a time when earlier pleasant relationships seem to falter, in part because of a child’s negative emotionality and desire for autonomy, as well as for reasons in the parents’ own lives. Divorced families too go through relationship changes of this kind, which may be interpreted as PA by certain proponents but are not necessarily caused by parental persuasion.
In the absence of empirical work showing that early positive relationships are normally followed by consistently positive later relationships, and that periods of negativity are not developmentally appropriate, PA proponents cannot argue effectively for Factor Two as a reasonable way to demonstrate whether or not parental alienation exists in many cases. In addition, demonstrating that there was an initial positive relationship in a specific case may be difficult or impossible, even with extensive investigation.
Factor Three: Absence of abuse or neglect or seriously deficient parenting on the part of the now rejected parent.
As is generally the case about proof of absence, the absence of abuse, neglect, and seriously deficient parenting is difficult to demonstrate. When allegations of abuse are investigated by child protective services and said to be unfounded, this is by no means evidence that abuse did not occur, but simply shows that there was no clear evidence that it did occur. As Freeman himself point out, there are no clear definitions of seriously deficient parenting. Psychological injury remains vaguely defined in that evidence of such injury might not be apparent for years after an event occurred and the event would commonly be accompanied by other events that might be actual causes of any demonstrable psychological injury.
As Madelyn Milchman has noted, parent-child relationships may be negatively affected by single or repeated events which individually could not be considered abuse or seriously deficient parenting. In one alleged PA case, a father repeatedly tickled a child severely even though she begged him to stop. In another, a 12-year-old girl got her period when at her father’s house and asked him to go out to get her menstrual hygiene supplies; he refused and told her to just use toilet paper. In a third, a father posted signs reading “no parental alienation” in all the rooms of his house. None of these actions could be considered abuse or even seriously deficient parenting, and they did not cause demonstrable harm to the children. Nevertheless, each of these situations could easily have played a role in causing a child’s estrangement, especially in combination with repetitions or other similar actions.
Absence of abuse, neglect, or seriously deficient parenting can thus not be considered the proof that a child’s rejection must be caused by the persuasion of the preferred parent.
Factor Four: Use of multiple alienating behaviors on the part of the preferred parent.
Freeman points out that “it is necessary for the evaluator to identify specific [alienating behaviors] that have apparently caused the symptoms of PA” (2020, p. 68). Here is where an additional listicle enters the picture: PA proponents refer to a list of alienating behaviors established by Amy Baker and colleagues, who interviewed about 40 adults on the ways their parents had behaved one or more decades previously. Baker created a list of alienating behaviors based on the interviewees reported recollections but did not look for objective evidence that might have supported or failed to support her list. Nor did she (or anyone else) investigate whether parents alleged to be alienators performed these behaviors more or less frequently than others who were not said to be alienators.
It has thus never been clarified empirically whether children who reject a parent are more likely than others to have a parent who carries out behaviors from Baker’s list. An additional problem is that some of the listed behaviors are likely to occur in private and are rarely to be observed by people outside the family, although others may be noticed by close friends or relatives and reported during an investigation.
Critics of the PA belief system have expressed concern that if a child rejects one parent, it is too easy to assume that the preferred parent’s actions are the cause of the rejection. It is certainly true that quite ordinary statements or actions can be interpreted as alienating behaviors. At the height of the COVID pandemic, a major PA proponent told me that it was alienating behavior when a mother told her 14-year-old that he could go to visit his father but would have to quarantine for 14 days when he came home (at this time, people were told to quarantine after travel or other exposures outside the home). A mother’s failure to tell her children daily about their father’s goodness and importance can be considered alienating behavior.
The alienating behaviors that are the subject of Factor Four thus remain ill-defined and seriously under-researched, and do not provide useful evidence for decisions in cases of alleged PA.
Factor Five: Exhibition of many of the eight behavioral manifestations .of alienation by the child.
A listicle conveying behaviors that he considered diagnostic of PA was published by Richard Gardner decades ago and has been used by PA proponents ever since. Once again, there has been no empirical work to show how often these behaviors occur in children alleged to show PA and how often they occur in other children. Without empirical evidence, it would be a mistake to assume that some behaviors occur exclusively, or much more frequently, in children alleged to have PA.
Absence of guilt about an action, for example, can and does occur in both children and adults when they feel justified in the behavior, even though it may cause discomfort and harm to another person. A child or adolescent who is told that a parent is unhappy because of their rejection may reminisce about the parent’s remembered offenses (of commission or omission) and think, “it serves her right if she’s upset.” Older children and adolescents can certainly understand that in some situations, whatever they may have done, they are not to blame and are not expected to experience guilt. Failing to experience guilt when distress seems to be deserved is by no means a predictor of a lack of empathy or the capacity for remorse.
The decision that a child’s rationale for rejecting a parent may be “frivolous” or “absurd” cannot be made objectively or out of context, as the reason for the rejection is a matter of the child’s own perceptions. These may be childish and egocentric or based on naïve worldviews, but they are real and require responses for the best outcome. Indeed, to claim that childish rationales are most characteristic of children alleged to have PA is not logical unless it can be shown that other children of the same age are less inclined to give childish reasons for issues like staying home from school or starting a fight with their brothers. Children who give childish reasons for any issue may be more likely to give such reasons for rejecting a parent than those who rarely give childish reasons for anything.
Young adolescents are especially likely to say they are “independent thinkers” about every issue as they fight for autonomy. Unless it is shown empirically that children in PA cases are more likely than others to display this belief, it makes no sense to say that being an “independent thinker” is symptomatic of PA.
Examining these various PA listicles, it becomes plain that we have no data-driven reasons to accept them as providing a way to identify PA in children. If PA proponents want to support their claim that they can identify PA – and treat children to restore good relationships—they will need to get to work and provide good information from well-designed and well-implemented research. To date, this has not happened. But the listicle approach is not sufficient to justify upending people’s lives.