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Today’s article is a guest post by Carolyn J. Woodruff, JD, CPA, CVA.  In her post, Carolyn discusses parental alienation syndrome as it relates to a review of the popular book “Divorce Poison”, written by Dr. Richard A. Warshak.


Estrangement of a child from a parent is a huge problem in high conflict families. While psychologists differ in what label to assign, if any, to this problem, Divorce Poison deals with continuum of bad mouthing, bashing, and brainwashing ending in parental alienation (sometimes referred to as parental alienation syndrome (PAS). Psychologists, who differ with Dr. Warshak, may describe the alienated parent-child relationship as “in groups and out groups”. There is a body of literature worth studying on “in groups and out groups” that are not part of Dr. Warshak’s discussion. Further, PAS has not been added to the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV); although I understand it has been a subject of debate among psychologists. 


PAS: Very Real and Damaging in High Conflict Divorces

As a family lawyer of many years, I can tell you that parent-child estrangement is very real and devastating in high conflict divorces. The damages to the family and the child are extensive, and these situations need special care by family lawyers who regularly handle high conflict divorces or unmarried parents. The book has help for parents who are 1) the “target” of the manipulative parenting of the other parent and 2) the falsely accused parent.  Both situations arise, but this particular book review concentrates on the situation of the non-falsely accused parent where alienation is actually occurring. 

Dr. Warshak comments that the hallmark of good parenting is the presentation by the parents of a united front to the children. The gold standard of good parenting is not to let the child know the parents disagree about something. (See page 5). In Parental Alienation Syndrome, one parent may be undermined by the other parent in virtually every aspect of the child’s life. The “targeted” parent may become unworthy of even the smallest amount of regard or respect. (Page 32). 

Dr. Warshak asks key questions: “When parents or judges ask therapists to treat alienated children, the therapist’s understanding of the roots of the problem will guide the treatment. Is the alienation justified or unjustified? Is it primarily the result of divorce poison, mistreatment by the target parent, or the child’s own mistaken decisions.?” (Page 63) 


It Starts with Bad Mouthing…and Ends with Brainwashing

Generally, the alienation process starts with bad mouthing, progresses to bashing and ends in brainwashing. Malignant Motives are generally present in the alienating parent. Revenge, anger and hanging on to hate are frequently motives. The personality disorder of narcissism can be a factor. Remarriage and third parties can play a factor. Dr. Warshak gives excellent strategies for dealing with each of the malignant motives. For example, as an antidote to revenge he offers several strategies such as eliminating the provocation, if possible; taking responsibility for your part in the provocation; sending a peace offering letter; and getting joint therapy. (Page 84). 

Watch out for the alienating environment. Typical alienating environments are isolation of the child from the parent; kidnapping; and pure fear. 


Focus on the Positive 

Chapter 7 is “Poison Control”. Memorializing the positive is important. Keeping photo albums of the good times you had with the child and keeping these good times in the forefront of the child’s mind is key. Take great vacations with the child and create memories that will never fade. While no one wants to involve a child in the parental conflict, when brainwashing has happened, it may be necessary in the conjunction with a therapist to educate the child about brainwashing. “The key to recovering from divorce poison is to gain the insight that one has been influenced by it. It will be easier for the child to grasp and accept that he has been brainwashed if he understands and accepts the possibility of such an occurrence.” (Page 227). 

Hire the Right Family Law Attorney

Dr. Warshak has a section on hiring the right family law attorney. If you find yourself the target of an alienator, you must have an attorney experienced and knowledgeable about alienation of the parent-child relationship. Sometimes careful negotiation and de-escalation are appropriate, but on other occasions litigation is the only answer; that litigation has to be planned carefully not to back-fire with appropriate psychological reports and witnesses. Alienators can be convincing, so careful corroboration is key. 

Divorce Poison is a must read for a “targeted parent” whose child is being alienated from that “targeted parent.”