Brainwashing? Syndrome? Unreasonable Estrangement?

High conflict custody and visitation cases are emotionally charged and complex proceedings. During the tug-of-war, some children exhibit emotional detachment from one or both parents. Is it because of brainwashing? Is it because the child exhibits symptoms that can be clustered into a syndrome? Is it because someone has created an unreasonable estrangement? We refer to this phenomenon as Parental Alienation. Why? Because PA was a concept developed by child psychiatrist Dr. Richard Gardner in the 1970’s and 1980’s when he reviewed the scientific and legal literature on adults alienating the affections of one adult from another. Reviewing historical cases and comparing them to his own observations, Gardner coined the term Parental Alienation Syndrome to describe the effect of a combination of parental programming and the child’s own contribution to the vilification of the targeted parent.

Alienation of Affections & Parental Alienation Syndrome

Dr. Gardner noted that in PA cases, the alienating parent uses denigration, depreciation, and harsh criticism to destroy a child’s affection for the targeted parent. Everyone knows that someone can be alienated from another. We all know the phrase “to poison the well”. When Dr. Gardner studied cases about alienation of children from a previously loved parent, there was ample evidence that this terrible process occurred all too often.  He knew that some referred to this process as “brainwashing”.  He knew that others described this process as “The Medea Syndrome”. Instead of using these terms, Gardner relied on a long history in law of the alienation of affections.  That is why he chose to call the phenomenon he was researching the Parental Alienation Syndrome.

The earliest reported case of the alienation of a child’s affections from his parent began at the turn of the nineteenth century when Leonard Thomas De Manneville literally “snatched his nursing daughter from the breast of his wife. . .” (Wright, 2002 discussing King v. De Manneville, 1804). Early cases in America were In re Barry, in 1844 and In re Burrus in 1890. It was also apparent that the terrible impact of parental alienation could affect the smartest man in the world. During his contentious divorce in 1914, Albert Einstein wrote to his friend Heinrich Zangger, at University of Zurich that his soon to be ex-wife was “poisoning” the children against him. Einstein wrote that, “My fine boy had been alienated from me … by my wife, who has a vengeful disposition” (Isaacson, 2007; Rand, 2013).

Children, exposed to high conflict custody conflicts suffer tremendously. The challenge for counselors is to find ways of sparing children the emotional pain, guilt, and stress that result when they are caught in their parents’ crossfire. Too often counselors over-identify with polarized parents and children and are co-opted. The particular challenge for lawyers is to discern whether the actions taken and allegations made by a client are based on genuine concerns for their children’s safety and well-being, or motivated by revenge, leverage for child support, and fear of losing his/her children. Too often lawyers get sucked in to these polarized conflicts and merely want to win for their clients.