Psychology: about parental alienation and manipulation

As a healthcare professional, I am concerned with evidence-based research, especially in areas that affect disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in encounters with public institutions such as hospitals, the primary healthcare service, or municipal institutions, child welfare and the judiciary.

Norway (as many other western countries) follows a principle where children are given as much co-determination as possible when it comes to contact with their parents after a break-up or divorce. This entails a number of challenges, both for parents, but not least for children who are placed in difficult situations. The Children's Act (from the 1990s) lays the foundation for this and is criticized from many quarters, both from academic circles but also from politicians, as being outdated and not in the best interests of the child.

It is therefore gratifying to see publications like the one I would like to present in more detail here, published in April 2023 in the international and peer-reviewed journal Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, with the title: "Parental alienation – a valid experience?"

Eivind Meland (University of Bergen), Dag Furuholmen and David Jahnlu (both University of Oslo) shed light on a topic that at first glance may seem a bit far-fetched, but a closer reading shows a problem that I myself unfortunately have observed on a number of occasions: 

One parent manipulates the child into feeling unhappy with the other parent to the extent that the child consequently seeks distance from the person concerned. 

The topic is controversial because the semantics have been used inside and outside the courtroom in domestic violence cases where the violent party accused the injured party of precisely such manipulation.
Torsteinson, S., van der Weele, J., & Steinsvåg, P. Ø. (2008). Barnefordelingssaker der det er påstander om vold. Psykologfaglig informasjon til dommere, advokater og sakkyndige Barne-og likestillingsdepartementet (ed.) Oslo: Barne-og likestillingsdepartementet.
(Child custody cases where there are allegations of violence, Ministry of Children and Equality).

Of course, we strongly distance ourselves from violence and a rhetoric that denigrates victims of violence. The study presented here by Meland et al, on the other hand, focuses on another issue: Children who have been exposed to parental alienation, a phenomenon widespread in as much as almost 10% of the population in the USA, face lifelong consequences such as increased crime, school dropout, depression and becoming repeat offenders of the same type of behaviour.
Harman, J. J., Kruk, E., & Hines, D. A. (2018). Parental alienating behaviors: An unacknowledged form of family violence. Psychological bulletin, 144(12), 1275.

The affected parent, who can be of either gender/role, but is most often the father, develops symptoms such as severe anxiety, depression, lost hope, social isolation, lost part of his identity as a result of losing his role as a parent and a greatly increased likelihood of suicidality (risk of suicide).
Harman, J. J., Warshak, R. A., Lorandos, D., & Florian, M. J. (2022). Developmental psychology and the scientific status of parental alienation. Developmental Psychology, 58(10), 1887.

The author Meland et al argues that the aforementioned, as well as a large number of other studies in the source-heavy article indicate that the theme of parental alienation HAS validity and should be taken seriously. In contrast to the past, where the problem was dismissed in court as an argument in cases involving physical violence against women, there is now a newer guide that sheds light on the problem, such as the report from the Institute of Public Health.
Ames, H. M. R., Hestevik, C. H., Langøien, L. J., & Rosness, T. A. (2021). Hvordan forstå og håndtere barn som avviser en forelder: En systematisk kartleggingsoversikt. (How to understand and deal with children who reject a parent: A systematic review.)

If you are wondering whether you, or someone you are responsible for, has been exposed to this relational problem, I quote here from the article with a source in Bernet, W., Baker, A. J., & Adkins, K. L. (2022). Definitions and terminology regarding child alignments, estrangement, and alienation: A survey of custody evaluators. Journal of forensic sciences, 67(1), 279-288.

Five main criteria must be met, these read: 

1. The child avoids, opposes or refuses to have a relationship with the parent 

2. The child previously had a positive relationship with the parent who has now become estranged 

3. The estranged parent has not exposed the child to abuse or neglect 

4. The favored parent uses several alienating strategies and methods 

5. The child shows signs of behavioral disturbances that indicate alienation.

Source: Meland E, Furuholmen D, Jahanlu D. Parental alienation – a valid experience? Scandinavian Journal of Public Health. 2023;0(0). doi:10.1177/14034948231168978


I can strongly recommend reading through the entire study.

If you experience this or face a similar problem, have input or would like a conversation, get in touch!



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