Episode 37 – Understanding Parental Alienation

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A parental alienation book sitting on a judge’s desk. | New Direction Family Law

Ex-It Strategy
Podcast Episode 37

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Elizabeth Stephenson and Sarah Hink


Dr. Julianne Ludlam, PhD, Clinical Psychologist at KKJ Forensic and Psychological Services

Elizabeth: Hi everyone. It’s Elizabeth Stephenson with New Direction Family Law.

Sarah: And I’m her law partner, Sarah Hink. Thank you for joining us today. We have a repeat guest. So this will be the second time Dr. Julianne Ludlam is gonna be joining us. Don’t remember our first topic, I believe it was evaluation. Custody evaluation.  And sometimes you might need a custody evaluation if there’s perhaps parent alienation going on. Today we are talking about parent alienation and I know we see it. We see accusations of it. We see it happen. Not always are the accusations true.

Elizabeth: People throw the word. It’s just generic now. So what does it really mean? 

Dr. Julianne: It’s a really good question. And it honestly has a super fascinating history that I could talk way too long about, but I, and I will a little bit, but right. You’re absolutely right. The idea around parental alienation is that one parent is doing things to alienate their child from the other parent, right? Saying bad things about the parent. Not allowing communication, restricting access, something like that. That’s all winded up, but the term parental alienation is not really a very good term. It’s not really well defined, like in literature. But it’s become so popular, right, that parents know about it, attorneys know about it and yeah, it gets thrown about really easily. The history of it is super fascinating. So, the guy who coined the term parental alienation was Richard Gardner in 1985. He came out with it – Parental Alienation Syndrome. Do you already know this?

Elizabeth: I was a social worker in my former life.

Dr. Julianne: Oh yeah. So, he coined this term. He had no research experience. It was based on nothing but clinical opinion. He was like a part-time clinical professor on a psychoanalyst. He only based it on his clinical opinions, no research. Just his own opinions. And it was horrible. It was very misogynistic, so he would always say 90% of the time it was mothers alienating a father. It was never, he didn’t really think about it the other way. And it was really popular at the time. So very famous cases like Woody Allen, Mia Farrow picked it up. They actually cited parental alienation syndrome in the case saying that Mia Farrow was alienating Woody Allen from his children based on false claims of sexual abuse in the documentary. And it got really popular in the courts, despite not, it was never accepted right by the psychological community or anybody else, but it got really popular in the courts and even worse, and then I’ll stop about the history, but even worse, like he had really problematic views on women and child sexual abuse and pedophilia. So he actually downplayed child sexual abuse and the problems stemmed from, he said the only problem with child sexual abuse, the only reason kids suffer is because of how society reacts to it. He said it was like it served procreative purposes. It was natural. He didn’t feel fathers obviously should be punished for it. Because he said it was just normal human behavior. He said it was widespread. 

Sarah: So think about that before you start throwing the accusing parent, right?

Dr. Julianne: And he also thought that if child sexual abuse happened, it was usually the fault of the mother who wasn’t satisfying the husband. So he had to turn to his daughter. So anyway, it was never accepted, and came from really bad roots. 

Elizabeth: Now, you should not be using the term parental alienation?

Dr. Julianne: You shouldn’t use the term parental alien alienation syndrome. That was Gardeners’ thing. I think the thing with parental alienation is that term really stuck. I think it captures something that parents or an attorney may latch onto. And I think because it’s a blaming term, right in the word “alienation.” One blame is being placed on one person.

Sarah: And that’s what you say in court, they’re alienating the child, right? The judge is like you’re alienating the child and that’s the terms, simple terms used by us, non-doctors, non-researchers. 

Dr. Julianne: That’s I think, I don’t think we’re getting rid of that term, even though the literature is all like, we need a better term. I get it. Yeah, we do. And we have better terms, but it’s not going away, so I think that’s what is difficult about it. It’s just simplistic and it’s not well defined. So now what we try to do instead of just parental alienation is talk about parental alienating behaviors, because those can be more operationalized or defined, like you can list what those are.

Sarah: And that’s what we would have to show in court. That’s evidence that’s actually happening. You just accuse someone of it and expect the court to be like, okay, I believe you. Hundred percent.

Dr. Julianne: And we do have other terms that are more neutral. So now they recommend things like Parent Child Contact Problems or Resist Refused Dynamics. 

Elizabeth: I’m not putting that in my opening or closing. 

Dr. Julianne: It just doesn’t roll off the tongue. 

Sarah: Keep it simple for the judge.

Dr. Julianne: I know, but they are more neutral. They don’t assign blame and I think that’s maybe why it doesn’t work. 

Sarah; So we might read those terms used more so in a custody evaluation?

Dr. Julianne: Correct. That’s what you probably read a lot about in an evaluation instead of, we would probably mention parental alienation or that there were allegations of alienation. And then we would talk about the behaviors that we could actually show evidence of. And then we might talk about Resist Refused Dynamics and things like that, and how to remedy that. 

Elizabeth: So what are the behaviors that you would look for? 

Dr. Julianne: Yeah, so there are a lot of possibilities, right? There are a lot of possible parental alienation behaviors. It’s supposed to be a pattern, if we’re gonna talk about a parent really doing this. It’s not just a couple times, right? It’s supposed to be a pattern of ongoing behavior that alienates the parent. So, this could be telling false stories about the parent negative ones. Usually, not communicating with the parent, with the other parent, not allowing access. It can be rigidly adhering to the custody schedule. Sometimes, obviously the custody schedule’s good, but being really rigid about it. Totally inflexible, that’s pretty restricting. Acting like the other parent is dangerous, portraying them as dangerous or scary to the child. These are all things that can make damage to child’s relationship with that parent 

Elizabeth: So how do you…so here’s our dilemma: how do you know this is happening? Because especially for us, I can’t say what nobody knows about that child, what happens in that child when they’re with the other parent or the child says something and hearsay. So how do you guys find that? 

Dr. Julianne: So what they say is when, so usually this is in the context of a custody eval right? What they recommend is that you have, there’s a couple of protocols that evaluators can use in that case, right? Leslie draws like a child resist, refused, dynamic checklist with everything list off and then you can, I think William Austin has like a whole protocol, a justification protocol. You can go through to see if these behaviors are happening. So you do it through interviews. You do it through records. You talk with both the parents, you talk with the kids. Kids don’t quite know what parents are or are not supposed to do. So they often will say my mom says daddy is XY, whatever X, Y, Z, or my dad says my mommy, that’s a pretty clear indicator if the parent is talking poorly about the other parent, right? 


Dr. Julianne: Again, and some of this you can understand in the context of divorce, there’s gonna be some of that, but when it’s a pattern, that’s I think that’s a big problem for a child.

Sarah: Yeah. And like false allegations. I’ve heard before that a child will describe them. Obviously, we’re not well versed in this. Doctors can tell if it’s something that was told to the child versus something that the child experienced by the language they use, right?

Dr. Julianne: Yes. Oftentimes you’ll hear a child say exactly the same thing that the parent says. The parent will say, “oh my gosh, my ex is doing all of these things and all the,” and you can hear almost the same words come out of the child’s mouth. And often the child will talk a lot in detail about the court case. The custody case. The things they really shouldn’t be involved in, obviously. 

Sarah: Yeah. It’s so hard for us because we can’t use what the child says in court, unless the child’s brought to court, which obviously has its own issues. And so it’s, how do we get that evidence in? That’s our job as attorneys is figuring out how are we gonna let the court know this is actually happening?

Elizabeth: So do you see it though? Does it happen? Prior, is it just a pattern throughout the relationship with these two people or does it really manifest itself more because of the separation and divorce? 

Dr. Julianne: I think, it could probably happen in a lot of different ways and what we’ve really found well, and what the literature says is we used to think about it very simplistically, right? That it was only. Only was this, or it was one or the other, it was either the alienation or there were actually things going on. Couldn’t be both. And so now we think about it in a much more complex manner and look at it in the many ways it can present. What I see more anecdotally in custody evals the parents may have had some conflict in their marriage before, but usually this is coming out as a result of sometimes the divorce, sometimes another partner being added to the dynamic, that dad gets remarried or the mom gets remarried and things become a little, much more conflictual and problematic. And that’s, I think a lot of times it is around the divorce that it really ramps up. 

Sarah: Yeah, because if you were together, it’s harder to alienate someone that’s in the home, a hundred percent of the time. And in court, I see it. And the cases that are most strongly presented to the court is when there’s actual physical withholding of the children, they’re not gonna go in the visit and you have the text messages or communications of just not good reasons why the child shouldn’t go in the visit. And, everyone asks at what point can the child decide they don’t wanna go on the visit and it’s not gonna matter? And there’s no real special age for that. And the court takes this into consideration. I’ve seen judges completely reverse a custody schedule. Like mom, you’re withholding the kids. Fine. Dad gets pretty much primary custody. Cause I don’t trust you. And I think you’re doing damage. And then I’ve seen when they’re, the children are older, the judge just giving up right? And being like they are like 16, 17.. And I’ve been in court for the last eight years dealing with this and nothing’s changed. Just for them, they can figure it out when they’re 18 and we’re just gonna leave it as is. 

Dr. Julianne: I think it does become especially hard at those older ages. It does. That’s really difficult. And I have a couple things they have. Yeah. I think that age is hard. What is a judge gonna do? As soon as they’re 18, they can make their own decisions about that. And you do wanna take their ideas into account. And I think the long, but I do think the longer these problems go on, the more entrenched they become. So I think the earlier we can intervene the better. 

Sarah: Yeah. And in one case in particular that comes to my mind, they tried reunification therapy for years that failed. And I think it’s because of the parents’ dynamic. Like it’s just like the judge at that point was just like, I don’t know what else to do. Both of your parents suck. 

Dr. Julianne: Like you mentioned, it’s a pretty drastic solution, but it’s not necessarily a bad solution. It’s not necessarily a bad solution because really that child probably does need separation from the parent who’s doing the alienating. And they need to repair that relationship with the other parent and the way to do that is with contact. In severe cases, I can see a custody reversal happening. 

Elizabeth: I hope parents who are listening hear this, what are the effects on the children of this behavior by their parents? 

Dr. Julianne: Oh, I think it’s so psychological. I think it’s a really good question. It’s so psychologically damaging. And I think about this in a couple ways, when you have a child thinks about themselves, I’m part mom I’m part dad, right? I’m both of those people who made me. They’re part of who I am. And so when a parent is denigrating the other parent psychologically, you’re, it’s a little about the child too, right? The child doesn’t, I’m not saying a child’s conscious of that, I’m saying that though, somehow they know on some level that’s their parent. It is a hit to self-esteem right there. 

Sarah: If dad’s bad, then I must be bad. I’m half bad. 

Dr. Julianne: Exactly. That was very clear. We also look at it from a developmental model or social capital model that each parent brings unique things to a child’s life to a child’s development. Both of those things have value. Parents bring different things. They all have different skills, some have fewer than others, but everybody brings something to that child when they’re involved in their lives, each parent does. And that those things have value. So when you remove that from that child or withhold it, restrict it, that’s damaging. You’re taking away something that a child has. And it’s also so incredibly confusing for a child being a pawn like that is a really difficult place to be.  A lot of guilt feelings, a lot of confusion. So really psychologically, quite damaging 

Sarah: And it’s lasting damage. I tell some people, “okay when they’re 18 and over, they’ll look at the court record and they can see for themselves, like what was going on.” And at that point, I’m like what is that 18 plus-year-old gonna think. You could be 30 then discover everything your mom said about your dad when you were little was a lie. And then what? You’re just gonna be all kinds of traumatized.

Elizabeth: So interesting when you said that you’re part of the other, the child is part of the parent and I had a judge he’ll remain nameless in Joco, that I would never have, would have thought, would think that way and did, and that I, he probably said that 10 years ago and I have always lived by that standard personally. Cause I divorced when my child was two and I, that made me think, never say anything. Bad about that other parent. 

Dr. Julianne: And I get it that it’s gotta be so hard, I have not personally experienced divorce. It is very, I get it. Like you are so mad. You’re hurt. Maybe you’re betrayed, maybe you’re furious, but maybe you’re just depressed. Sad. So many emotions with divorce. So I get the desire, but it is harmful to a child to hear that. And it’s hurtful at a level that they don’t even know how to explain. They don’t know how to process. It’s really difficult. It’s tough. 

Sarah: When the parent, my client, says that they know that it’s going on by what their child says to them. And there’s no way to really prove it. And, we have these provisions and court orders that say, oh, you can’t speak derogatory about the other parent. And I call them like, feel good provisions because how are we really gonna prove it unless you have it recorded? Or if you go to the steps to have a custody evaluation, in some cases, it’s just not worth having an evaluation done.

Dr. Julianne: They’re expensive and long.  And it’s just really sad. 

Elizabeth: What tips would you give to the other parent? The non-offending I don’t wanna say it that way, but the non alienating?  

Dr. Julianne: Right. We usually use rejected and favored. So the parent who’s favored, you mean what tips for them? I think other than the basics of watching what you say about your ex don’t say anything bad. You want the parent to boost the image of the other parent. That’s what you should do. If you are a parent, a co-parent right. You should talk good about the other parent. Tell good stories if you’re gonna tell stories at all. If you could manage to tell stories, tell good ones, boost their image, be flexible, promote access, promote that relationship, your child benefits from that relationship, right? If you damage that relationship, you are damaging your child. Parental alienation when it’s severe is considered child abuse. Yeah. So I’ve said that to some parents, that, when you’re alienating your child this much, that’s abusive. And that’s maybe a tough statement.

Sarah: And don’t you want your child to have a good dad and a good mom? That’s what I want. At the end of the day, you want him to step up. 

Dr. Julianne: You want your child to have as many loving figures in their life and their parents should be there. 

Sarah: And encourage that.

Elizabeth: But it’s hard, you’re so mad. 

Dr. Julianne: And some parents do have legitimate concerns about the other parent. Yeah. There’s some alienation that doesn’t always happen in a vacuum. Sometimes there are, you can have alienation and you could have problems with the parent. So maybe one parent does have a substance problem, an unmanaged psychological disorder, or maybe there was some abuse. And maybe if there was domestic violence, like there can be legitimate concerns along with alienation, right? So not always are those allegations false. 

Sarah: And in that case, my attorney mind thinks it’s not alienating the child. You’re just keeping them away from danger, but let’s get a court order that says that so you’re not the one doing the withholding in the eyes of everyone else. 

Elizabeth: So what, do you have any tips for kids that are having to deal with this? 

Sarah: Not that kids are listening. You shouldn’t be listening to this if you’re a kid. (Laughing)

Elizabeth: But that I could talk to my client who is not the offending client to help their child when they’re with them?

Dr. Julianne: Yes, no, that makes sense. I think if a kid is old enough and feels comfortable, I think I would advise them as much as possible to speak up or say I’m uncomfortable with you talking about my mom and my dad that way. With younger kids, I think it could be really difficult. But with older kids, I think you could maybe have a conversation about it. Or a therapist could have a conversation or like you guys meeting with them could have a conversation. To say, “it’s not okay. I don’t like it when you talk about my other parent that way. It hurts my feelings, I love them. I wanna have a relationship with them.” That might be a tall order for a little kid. 

Elizabeth: A tall order for adults sometimes. 

Sarah: So just encourage that relationship with your child’s other parent. I know you don’t have to like it. 

Elizabeth: You don’t have to like it. At the end of the day, is it hard for you when you say you do an evaluation and this is clearly what’s going on and you’re just the evaluator? You can’t make people do shit. 

Dr. Julianne: I always think I can’t, but yeah. Sometimes it’s a little shocking the degree to which the parents will go. And again I think it stems from feeling very hurt and angry and betrayed and them maybe having poor relationships in the past and or maybe difficult parents themselves. It comes from somewhere and I can recognize that, but it is shocking. Sometimes to see what one parent will do to block that other parent. And it is surprising. 

Sarah: And hurtful and harmful. 

Elizabeth: Yeah, it is. Sarah and I love what we do, but some days it’s just, it’s hard some days, when you see that and there’s nothing, we can’t do anything either. It’s the man or woman in the black robe that’s gonna make the decision. 

Dr. Julianne: I would say what I do see in these cases though, is that a lot of, most of the time, both parents share some of the responsibility for this. Maybe one parent is alienating from doing a lot of those behaviors, but the other parent might be doing some as well. Parents often have room for improvement. And maybe one parent did need to step up and do better. Sometimes again, a parent could be inadequate. Maybe it was absent before, maybe it wasn’t that great of a parent. So sometimes, you know that again, that alienation wouldn’t talk about it as alienation, we use the terms like gatekeeping is another one.  Are they doing that protective gatekeeping with their child to see if the other parent has been problematic in the past and so maybe that other parent does need to do the work. Whether it’s individual therapy or their own work to become a better parent.

Sarah: And in the court, if you’re withholding the child, they might file contempt. And the way to show that is the way, was it willful and unjustifiable. So there might be cases where you’re withholding the child and it is justifiable. 

Dr. Julianne: And that actually is the basic question in these cases: is that restriction justified? 

Elizabeth: There are some it’s like you say, if they have a substance abuse problem or they’re not safe there that’s completely different.  So at KKJ psychology, if I have somebody and they want help, what can you, what services can you guys offer?

Dr. Julianne: Oh, so if you’re treating the problem?

Elizabeth: Yes. 

Dr. Julianne: So what they recommend for cases that aren’t too severe, which is probably the bulk of them, usually there’s mild to moderate alienating behaviors going on. For that they usually recommend, as soon as possible that you get that it’s like reunification is reunification therapy is one option. Family therapy can also be an option to repair that relationship between the alienated or rejected parent and the child. That’s the goal. And so family therapy is a way to start. They call it, they start with safe, structured contact, so it’s usually in the context of family therapy or medication therapy you start with that.

But a lot of times along with that, or sometimes before that, there needs to be individual therapy for either parent and/or the child. Because sometimes the problem has gone on so long that there’s a lot of emotional dysregulation people can’t they can’t cope with being together. So sometimes you’ll have individual therapy first to make sure people have the coping skills and aren’t completely dysregulated before they can start family therapy. 

Sarah: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I feel like everyone needs that.

Dr. Julianne: But the thing is, again, maybe I said this already, but like delays are usually bad. Because the longer that problem goes on, the more entrenched people get really polarized. Negative experiences really accumulate. And so it just makes things worse. Like the problem just gets really entrenched. And so you wanna get to that family therapy stage as soon as possible. That’s, in most cases, that’s where you’re gonna go. 

Sarah: Yeah, I do see it get pretty entrenched.

Elizabeth: It does. It’s this human nature, these court cases. 

Sarah: And if you can’t get into court soon enough, you can’t get someone a court order for an eval. Because both parents have to agree to work together to have it done. 

Dr. Julianne: Custody evaluations take forever.  Oh my God. I have one right now. That’s going on so long. They are forever, they take up a long time. It’s I, and I get it. I say it. And then I’m part of the problem, right? 

Sarah: So if you’re listening out there and you think this might be happening, the quicker and the better to get in touch with an attorney and a doctor, psychological evaluation, to bring that up to your attorney and look at your options.

Dr. Julianne: Time is really not on your side. And especially if you’re the rejected parent, you get that. But really that the favorite parent should really think about this too.  And also because children switch sometimes. So sometimes, a child will reject one parent for a while and then flip. And so even if you’re the favorite parent…don’t think…

Sarah: They learn the power of manipulation. 

Elizabeth: So you may be the favorite parent right now, but may not be tomorrow.

Dr. Julianne: Be careful. This is not a strategy or pattern you want your kid to be doing. Even though you might be working for you right now. 

Sarah: And just don’t play with people like that. 

Dr. Julianne: I agree. You don’t want your kids learning that, right? 

Sarah: No. That’s awful. Thank you so much for joining us. 

Dr. Julianne: Of course. It’s always good to see you guys! 

Sarah: And we’ll have another good topic I’m sure in the future to have you back. We’ll list Dr. Julianne’s contact information and everything on the website and on the content of this episode. 

All: And just as always, ain’t that some shit.

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