Parental Alienation: A Mental Diagnosis?

Some experts say the extreme hatred some kids feel toward a parent in a divorce is a mental illness.

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In any case, divorcing parents should be aware that hostilities may seriously harm the kids. Sometimes manipulation is blatant, as with parents who conceal phone calls, gifts, or letters, then use the "lack of contact" as proof that the other parent doesn't love the child. Sometimes the influence is more subtle ("I'm sure nothing bad will happen to you at Mommy's house") or even unintentional ("I've put a cellphone in your suitcase. Call when everyone's asleep to tell me you're OK"). It's important to shield kids from harmful communication, says Richard Warshak, a clinical professor of psychology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and author of Divorce Poison. If something potentially upsetting about an ex must be conveyed, he advises imagining how you would have handled the conversation while happily married; how would you have explained Mom's depression, say?

"The long-term implications [of alienation] are pretty severe," says Amy Baker, director of research at the Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection in New York and a contributing author of Bernet's proposal. In a study culminating in a 2007 book, Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome, she interviewed 40 "survivors" and found that many were depressed, guilt ridden, and filled with self-loathing. Kids develop identity through relationships with both their parents, she says. When they are told one is no good, they believe, "I'm half no good."

Now 23, divorced, and a parent herself, Anne has recognized only recently that she was manipulated, that her long-held view of her father isn't accurate. They live 2,000 miles apart but now try to speak daily. "I've missed out on a great friendship with my dad," she says. "It hurts."