Parental alienation: a controversial “syndrome”

Parental alienation: a controversial “syndrome”

The phenomenon of “parental alienation” establishes that during the conflict separation of a couple, one of the parents (the alienating parent) manipulates the child so that the latter denigrates and rejects the other parent (the alienated). This notion of “manipulation” has been described by some experts as a “syndrome”, which has no scientific basis. But this concept is increasingly used on a legal level to instill doubt about the accusations made by the child. In Europe, the notion is debated: Jean-Luc Viaux and Gérard Poussin, psychologists, each give us their opinion on the question.

A simple concept for a complex reality

Little known to the general public, parental alienation is nevertheless a well-documented concept, which excites experts. In its simplest expression, it designates a situation in which children, caught in the heart of a conflictual separation, turn away from a parent, denigrate them and refuse to see them. The “syndrome” of parental alienation, as it has been defined for several years, goes further since it designates a real work of manipulation and influence on the part of the alienating parent so that the child, in an unjustified manner , disqualifies and develops real hatred, even violence (psychic, psychological, verbal), towards the other parent (the alienated parent). The alienating parent would thus act in such a way as to discredit the words of the other parent and would encourage the child to distance himself from the latter by subtly leading him to take a position against him. This unjustified rejection, based on “unreasonable” beliefs, would then lead to a deterioration of the relationship between the child and the other parent, going as far as the severance of ties. The goal of this psychological manipulation (of the alienating parent on the child, who becomes alienated): reach the target parent and emerge victorious from this contentious conflict – separation or divorce. In doing so, she would act as “brainwashing” on the child, sowing confusion in him and cutting him off from his roots. A process which would not be without consequences on its identity construction. According to the psychologist Jean-Pierre Cambefort, author of “Broken families, manipulated children” (ed. Albin Michel), this enterprise of systematic disqualification of the ex-spouse concerns approximately 7% of divorces involving children from 0 to 12 years.

The origins of parental alienation

Parental alienation syndrome (or SAP) was developed and theorized by an American psychiatrist, Richard Alan Gardner, in 1985. This theory, which he describes as a self-defense mechanism for mothers mainly to be able to maintain custody of their children, is based on his personal observations of families experiencing child custody conflicts. Richard Alan Gardner has thus defined a list of criteria which, according to him, make it possible to establish with certainty the alienation of the child by the manipulative parent. In 2001, two American psychologists, Janet Johnston and Joan Kelly, attempted to impose a new definition of parental alienation described as a “phenomenon where a child freely and persistently expresses unreasonable feelings and beliefs – rage, hatred, rejection, fear – towards a parent and which are significantly disproportionate to the child’s actual experiences with that parent.

This concept has found great resonance across the Atlantic: in Canada and Quebec in particular, it is a commonly accepted notion. Some European countries such as Denmark, Belgium and Central Europe have also recognized it. But in Europe, the concept raises numerous debates. For years, supporters and opponents have been tackling this question, the clinical reality of which has still not been demonstrated to date (it is not recognized by the World Health Organization). Regularly, the term parental alienation resurfaces, thanks to media events (as was the case in the Outreau trial in 2005). The psychiatrist Paul Bensussan, legal expert, is particularly an ardent defender of this controversial concept. Recently, the subject has come back to the forefront again, following the broadcast of documentaries on incest, including that of Emmanuelle Béart (“Un silence si bois”). The actress-director returns to the excesses of this concept which influences legal decisions and shows that it particularly harms mothers seeking to protect their children in the context of incest.

Indicators to detect it

According to Richard Alan Gardner, several symptoms would indicate the existence of parental alienation syndrome (PAS):

  • A smear campaign : The child is obsessed with hating a parent and constantly denigrates them. This parent is designated as evil personified.
  • Weak, absurd justifications : The child puts forward irrational, absurd and changing arguments towards the hated parent.
  • A lack of ambivalence : The child does not hide his animosity; according to him, everything is bad about this hated parent.
  • The phenomenon of the “independent thinker” : the child affirms that this rejection is his own decision. He says no one influenced him.
  • Unconditional support for the “alienating” parent : even if he is presented with proof of his lies, he continues to unwaveringly support the alienating parent.
  • Indifference to the feelings of the hated parent : The child does not feel guilty towards the parent who receives the parental alienation attacks, and does not seem to have feelings for them.
  • The presence of borrowed arguments : The child uses words and arguments that are not part of his language and are visibly dictated by the alienating parent.
  • An extension of hatred to the extended family of the “alienated” parent : The child breaks ties with the targeted parent but also with the entire branch of the family to which the latter belongs and which once represented an important part of his life.

According to the Association Carrefour Aliénation parentale Québec, this syndrome includes several stages, classified according to their intensity. The symptoms can be of mild intensity (little denigration and contact with the targeted parent), medium (more denigration, reluctance to come into contact with the targeted parent) or severe (ideas of the alienating parent integrated by the child, rupture contact with the targeted parent; attempted escape, paralysis, in their presence.)

Parental alienation versus conflict of loyalty

Gérard Poussin, psychologist and author, was thus able to observe cases of parental alienation in his practice, recognizable according to him in the words used by the child: “In these situations of rejection, the child is dispossessed of his way of thinking. The words used are not his, they are not even his age. The terminology is the same as that used by the relative with whom he is allying.”

He thus emphasizes the distinction between parental alienation and conflict of loyalty, which is also often used in the context of painful separation situations. “Parental alienation is a process in which a child, as part of parental conflict, allies with one parent to reject the other parentdefines the psychologist. This is a different phenomenon from loyalty conflict, because in the latter, the child is not influenced by a parent. Torn between his parents, he simply feels obliged to take sides or choose between the two. It is an internal conflict experienced by the child, which is not the case with parental alienation which is caused by an external influence.

A notion that is debated in Europe

Regularly discussed, parental alienation has still not been the subject of a consensus within Europe. In legal circles, the term is used, but with caution. The mention of SAP in fact requires a psychiatric evaluation which tends to complicate divorce procedures. “The expertise is very complicatedrecognizes Gérard Poussin. Proving parental alienation is difficult. The problem with the definition provided by Richard Alan Gardner is that it denies the child’s free will. Yes, there are clearly situations where we are able to prove the influence of a parent in the comments made by the child, but other times, using the concept of parental alienation amounts to penalizing the parent trying to protect the child.” It is indeed difficult to differentiate founded parental alienation, in relation to real dysfunctions of the alienating parent, from unjustified denigration, as understood in this notion. The symptoms described by Richard A. Gardner are both non-specific and caricatured, and experts are often unable to verify the veracity of the accusations made. In Europe, certain psychologists, such as Gérard Poussin, recognize the existence of parental alienation (Gérard Poussin also described this phenomenon under the title “The Allied Child and the Rejected Parent” during an intervention at the 3rd Congress International Research in Family Education in May 1991), while adding nuances: “In my opinion, parental alienation is a reality independent of the definition given by Richard A. Gardner.”insists Gérard Poussin.

In the opinion of Jean-Luc Viaux, psychologist, expert at the Rouen Court of Appeal and author, it is simply a concept as “useless as it is tricky”: “First of all, I think that the word ‘syndrome’ is abusive. A syndrome is a medical term, a…