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Parental Alienation: Child Abuse?

Parental alienation often arises during highly contested custody matters when one parent's actions cause a child to side with that parent and to refuse or resist a relationship with the other parent. Sadly, this behavior is often encouraged by the parent with whom the child has aligned herself, but does it rise to the level of child abuse?

Brazil and Mexico consider parental alienation a criminal act due to the strong arguments that suggest the prevalence of parental alienation is a form of psychological abuse. In the United States, the Department of Justice has previously noted on its website that parental alienation is indeed a form of domestic violence because it damages one parent's relationship with the children.

In 1985, a child psychiatrist named Richard A. Gardner coined the term Parental Alienation Syndrome ("PAS"). Dr. Gardner claimed that PAS manifests itself when a child's "campaign of denigration against the parent" has no justification, and the disorder results from "indoctrinations by the alienating parent and the child's own contributions to the vilification of the alienated parent." PAS has never been accepted by the APA as a valid mental disorder, and has been widely criticized by mental health community.

In 2008, the APA's official position on parental alienation was that it had no position whatsoever on the issue. In 2013, the APA released Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5), which included new diagnoses of "child psychological abuse" and "child affected by parental relationship distress." DSM-5 also discusses "parent-child relational problem" Thus, the APA recognized parental alienation without using the words "parental alienation." Earlier this year, the APA changed its official stance on parental alienation in response to a petition entitled "New APA Position Statement: Some children are manipulated into rejecting a parent," and confirmed its view that parental alienation is psychological child abuse.

Regardless of where you stand on this issue, encouraging a child to reject the other parent is highly inappropriate (and family law attorneys should strongly advise clients to refrain from this type of behavior). Further, a recurring theme in Tennessee statutes and caselaw is the willingness of separated parents to encourage and foster a continuing relationship between the children and the other parent. Tennessee courts have held that when one parent "has attempted to alienate the affections of the children from the other parent...this conduct mitigates in favor of an award of custody to the other parent in order to preserve the children's relationships with both parents." Marlow v. Parkinson, 236 S.W.3d 744 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2007) (internal citations omitted).

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