Parental Alienation, Parent-Child Contact Problems, and Gatekeeping

A Summary of Current Research on Concepts, Issues, Interventions, and Best Practices

By Dr. Julianne Ludlam

The concept of parental alienation has been the subject of much controversy in the mental health and legal fields, and related concepts, such as gatekeeping, are often poorly understood. Johnston and Sullivan (2020) noted that controversy over parental alienation has lasted over three decades, and the concept has managed to remain a “complaint du jour” in high-conflict family court disputes. Simplistic ideas about parental alienation are currently promoted on the internet and in the media and unfortunately sometimes referenced in court cases (Fidler and Bala, 2020). Deutsch, Drozd, and Ajoku (2020) noted that cases involving children who resist contact with a parent are challenging for courts, clinicians, and attorneys and typically require significant resources.

This series of articles will describe the current research on parental alienation and parent-child contact problems. The present installment will describe the overlapping terms and concepts related to parental alienation and some of the models used to assess and describe the problem. The second article will describe some of the major issues surrounding alienation, and the third article will discuss interventions and offer recommendations for attorneys and evaluators involved in such cases.


Terms and Concepts Related to Parental Alienation

Parental Alienating Behaviors
Johnston and Sullivan (2020) provided the definition of parental alienation from Wikipedia:

“‘Parental Alienation’ is the process, and the result, of psychological manipulation of a child into showing unwarranted fear, disrespect or hostility toward a parent and/or other family members” (p. 270).

The authors maintained that this definition of parental alienation (PA) is inadequate. PA can refer to three different aspects of a child-parent relationship problem: the alienating behavior of the parent, the characteristics of an alienated child, and a general theory of how alienation occurs (Johnston & Sullivan, 2020). The researchers also describe the importance of focusing on parental alienating behaviors, or PABs, in order to clearly operationalize the problem. PAB is broadly defined as:

…an ongoing pattern of observable negative attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of one parent (or agent) that denigrate, demean, vilify, malign, ridicule, or dismiss the child’s other parent (p. 283).

There are many examples of PABs, including communicating false beliefs or stories about the parent, withholding positive information about the parent, or not assisting in the development or maintenance of a child’s relationship with the parent. PABs also include portraying the other parent as dangerous or exaggerating their negative qualities or behaviors.

Gatekeeping

In a 2013 bench book (an updated compendium of guidance for judges’ immediate reference about court procedure), the related concept of parental gatekeeping was defined as “how parents’ attitudes and actions affect the involvement and quality of the relationship between the other parent and child” (Austin, Fieldstone, & Pruett, 2013, p. 2-3). One way of understanding gatekeeping is to consider whether a parent is “either opening the gate to support the other parent’s relationship with the child or closing the gate to restrict the other parent’s relationship with the child” (Saini, Drozd, & Olesen, 2017, p. 261). The bench book notes that gatekeeping can be productive in intact families, defining parental roles and responsibilities, but after separation, those roles must be re-negotiated, which is challenging. Austin (2018) reported that gatekeeping has become increasingly useful in family law due to its research base, although he pointed out that gatekeeping overlaps with other concepts, such as co-parenting and parental alienation. Saini and colleagues (2017) stated that gatekeeping “is a useful framework for assessing parental behaviors and attitudes that can facilitate, protect, or restrict the involvement of the other parent with the child” (p. 260). Although the concept was originally developed to describe maternal behaviors that either facilitated or restricted the involvement of fathers, it has become more gender-neutral and is applied to either or both parents.

As the concept of gatekeeping has evolved, researchers have expanded the definition to describe it as a continuum that varies in degree (low, medium, and high), in quality (how facilitative or restrictive a parent is), and across specific behavioral domains (such as information sharing, communication, or appreciation of the other parent; Austin, 2018). The quality of gatekeeping behavior has been a subject of much research and has been divided into two primary types or patterns: facilitative gatekeeping (FG) or restrictive gatekeeping (RG). The 2013 bench book provided a table to illustrate the range of behaviors and attitudes associated with each end of the continuum (Austin, Fieldstone, & Pruett, 2013, p. 4):

According to these authors, FG involves a parent supporting involvement and a meaningful relationship with the other parent, whereas RG involves a parent interfering with or not supporting such involvement. Facilitating behaviors are considered to be “proactive, inclusive, and demonstrate for the child that the parent values the other parent’s contributions,” while restricting behaviors would be expected to negatively impact the quality of a child’s relationship with the other parent (p. 5). FG is often included in state lists of factors that promote the best interests of children.

In addition to the broad continuum involving FG and RG, researchers have described protective gatekeeping (PG), which is a form of RG (Austin et al., 2013). PG involves restricting the other parent’s involvement or criticizing the other parent’s parenting skills due to concern about possible harm to the child. Reasons for PG include a history of intimate partner violence (IPV), harsh parenting, substance use, or a psychological disorder; these claims clearly require evidence.

Austin (2018) developed a justification analysis protocol for PG to assess whether the restrictive parent’s “gateclosing” behaviors were justified; he noted the importance of identifying the specific sources of potential harm and implementing protective measures. Based on an evaluator’s investigation, PG may be assessed as either unjustified restrictive gatekeeping (URG) or justified restrictive gatekeeping (JRG). URG refers to cases in which there is insufficient evidence to support restricting the other parent, and JRG refers to cases in which there is cause to restrict the other parent’s access (Austin, 2018). The 2013 bench book indicates that access may be limited in several ways when JRG is present, including supervising telephone calls or visitation (Austin, Fieldstone, & Pruett, 2013). It also notes that considering whether or not restrictive gatekeeping is justified is “essential” and “central” in cases involving abuse, relocation, or alleged alienation. The bench book provides a table to illustrate the safety issues that are the primary way to distinguish JRG from URG (p. 6):

The bench book states that parental alienating behaviors are considered a form of RG, as they would be expected to negatively impact the other parent-child relationship (Austin et al., 2013).  The authors also noted, “A behavioral pattern of alienation occupies the extreme, restrictive end of the gatekeeping continuum” (p. 11).  However, Saini et al. (2017) suggested that gatekeeping should be assessed not only in terms of facilitation and restriction, but also in terms of the consequences for or impacts on the child (either positive or negative).  They argue that the child’s sense of safety and well being should be “the paramount focus” (p. 265).  These authors add the terms adaptive gatekeeping (either facilitative behaviors that benefit the child or restrictive behaviors that protect the child) and maladaptive gatekeeping (either facilitative behaviors that fail to address a child’s safety or well being or restrictive behaviors that are unjustified).  Adding the dimension of adaptive and maladaptive gatekeeping “emphasizes that not all facilitative gatekeeping supports and protects the child’s safety and well-being, and not all restrictive gatekeeping should be considered maladaptive” (p. 268).

Conclusion: PA Terms and Concepts

Overall, researchers suggest that describing “parental alienating behaviors” (PABs) is preferable to using the broad, loosely defined concept of parental alienation.  The concept of gatekeeping may also be clearer and more relevant than alienation.  Gatekeeping is believed to occur on a continuum that varies in degree (low, medium, and high), in quality (how facilitative or restrictive a parent is), and across specific behavioral domains (such as information sharing, communication, or appreciation of the other parent).  Gatekeeping has been divided into two primary patterns, facilitative or restrictive, and restrictive gatekeeping can be considered either justified or unjustified.  Other researchers suggest using the terms of adaptive or maladaptive gatekeeping to emphasize that the safety and well being of the child may be protected by either facilitative or restrictive parental behaviors, depending on the situation.

Current Issues

The Utility of PA as a Concept
Due to the lack of consensus around definition, etiology, and prevalence, many researchers have reported concerns about the continuing use of the concept of PA, particularly in court proceedings (Fidler & Bala, 2020). There are no valid empirical assessment protocols or tools that can reliably measure or establish the presence of alienation nor distinguish it from other types of parent-child problems, such as estrangement or justified rejection (Fidler & Bala, 2020).

For this reason, some researchers have suggested alternative terms, such as parent-child contact problems (PCCPs) and resist-refuse dynamics (Fidler & Bala, 2020). However, others have argued that changing the terms does not resolve the issue, as PA concepts may still be applied loosely and without standards (Johnston & Sullivan, 2020). Fidler and Bala (2020) noted that most professionals involved in these cases are dedicated to the best outcomes for children and families and agree that the goal is to determine if rejection of a parent is justified (realistic estrangement) or unjustified (alienation). Disagreement arises around the utility of the concept of PA. However, there is general agreement that there are different types of PCCPs with multiple contributing factors, and that resisting or rejecting a parent may occur for either justifiable or unjustifiable reasons.

Glossary
This is an acronym- and terminology-dense area of research and discussion. Note that the following terms have substantial overlap, as they are all essentially attempts to describe the same problem: children who appear to be resisting contact with a parent.

  • Parental alienation (PA)
    A poorly defined but frequently used term usually intended to describe the adverse effects of one parent interfering with the other parent’s relationship with a child.
  • Parental alienating behaviors (PABs)
    An alternative (and preferred) term intended to aid in the reliable measurement and assessment of PA; it refers to a pattern of negative attitudes or behaviors communicated by one parent about the other parent to their child, resulting in that child resisting the maligned parent.
  • Parent-child contract problems (PCCPs) and resist-refuse dynamics
    Alternative terms suggested in the research to describe cases in which a child resists contact with a parent; these broader terms are preferred in the research, as they shift the focus from one parent’s negative attitudes or behaviors to the many possible reasons a child might resist a parent in a high-conflict divorce.
  • Gatekeeping
    Behaviors and attitudes by one parent that either facilitate or restrict contact between the other parent and the child; gatekeeping is a well-researched concept thought to occur on a continuum and to vary in degree and quality as well as across behavioral domains.

Single Factor vs. Multifactor Models
Theories developed to explain PA have been expanded from a single-factor model to a multifactorial predictive model, but beliefs and assumptions based on the single-factor model persist. Johnston and Sullivan (2020) explained that the single-factor model – that the alienating parent is primarily the source of a child’s rejection of a parent – continues to be widely believed despite the actual complexity of the problem. A single-factor model assumes a child is either a victim of abuse or a victim of PA, precluding the possibility of both. It also assumes that any alienation present must be the fault of the favored parent, and that the alienated parent is without parenting deficits if no abuse is found (Johnston & Sullivan 2020).

In contrast, the multifactorial model (initially developed by Kelly & Johnston in 2001) is based on substantial social science research and considers an array of factors that can create an alliance with one parent over another (Deutsch, Drozd, & Ajoku, 2020; Johnston & Sullivan, 2020; Fidler & Bala, 2020). Resistance to contact with a parent may involve, for example, a history of inadequate parenting by the alienated parent, an overanxious and protective favored parent, and/or a child’s discomfort with the custody schedule (Johnston & Sullivan, 2020).

In the multifactorial model, parental alienating behaviors (PABs) are viewed as one factor that may account for a child’s resistance or refusal of contact; many other factors, such as developmental or attachment issues, divorce and step-family transition issues, a previous absence of an alienated parent, problematic parenting by either or both parents, third-party influences, chronic litigation, a history of marital conflict, and psychological disorders in a parent are possible. Fidler and Bala (2020) stated that although some cases of PCCPs may be due to one parent, both parents often bear some responsibility, and “focusing on a single cause is rarely helpful” (p. 576). They listed eight broad contributing factors to PCCPs:

  1. 1
    child factors (age, cognitive capacity, temperament, vulnerability, special needs and resilience);
  2. 2
    parent conflict before and after the separation;
  3. 3
    sibling relationships;
  4. 4
    favored parent factors (parenting style and capacity, negative beliefs and behaviors, mental health, and personality, including responsiveness and willingness to change);
  5. 5
    rejected parent factors (parenting style and capacity, negative reactions, beliefs and behaviors, mental health, and personality, including willingness to change);
  6. 6
    the adversarial process and litigation;
  7. 7
    third parties such as aligned professionals and extended family; and
  8. 8
    lack of functional co-parenting and poor or conflictual parental communication (p. 579).

Reunification in Cases of PCCPs and Abuse

Another issue related to cases of PA, PCCPs, and gatekeeping involves the goal of family reunification or of maintaining contact with both parents, even in situations involving abuse or IPV. Several authors noted there is substantial research to support the idea that children benefit from good relationships with both parents when no safety issues are present, and the law generally follows that presumption (Austin, Fieldstone, & Pruett, 2013; Fidler & Bala, 2020). Some researchers suggest it may still be in a child’s best interest to repair and maintain a relationship with a rejected parent even in cases of abuse, neglect, or poor parenting, and “even when the child has good reasons to be fearful or feel stressed, uncomfortable, hurt or angry with a parent,” as long as safety issues are no longer present (Fidler & Bala, 2020, p. 590; Deutsch et al., 2020). Fidler and Bala (2020) stated:

Developmental research and legal policy in child protection, as well as in custody and access contexts, support children having healthy and safe relationships with both parents; this applies to children who may have been abused and those who may have been alienated (p. 585).

Deutsch and colleagues (2020) agreed that reunification with a resisted parent may be in a child’s best interest even with confirmation of abuse but stated that each case should be evaluated individually to determine the best approach. Both reviews warned that some children who experience abuse do not resist an abusive parent and may seek out contact with that parent. Both also agreed that there are cases in which a relationship between a parent and child should not be supported, such as when safety risks continue despite interventions or when children who have experienced abuse are resisting the parent who abused them (Fidler & Bala, 2020; Deutsch et al., 2020).

Conclusions: Current Issues Related to Parental Alienation
The concept of PA is heavily criticized in the research due to problems with clarity, validity, and reliable measurement. Less ambiguous alternatives, such as parent-child contact problems (PCCPs) or resist-refuse dynamics, have been suggested. PCCPs are now believed to have multiple contributing factors, and resisting or rejecting a parent can be considered either justifiable or unjustifiable. Current issues involve cases of both PCCPs and child abuse. Despite significant research indicating that a child’s rejection of a parent is likely complex and multifactorial, family courts may tend to frame such problems simplistically, as either abuse or alienation. Finally, although research generally supports reunification with resisted or even formerly abusive parents, there are cases in which such relationships should not be supported.

As the concept of gatekeeping has evolved, researchers have expanded the definition to describe it as a continuum that varies in degree (low, medium, and high), in quality (how facilitative or restrictive a parent is), and across specific behavioral domains (such as information sharing, communication, or appreciation of the other parent; Austin, 2018). The quality of gatekeeping behavior has been a subject of much research and has been divided into two primary types or patterns: facilitative gatekeeping (FG) or restrictive gatekeeping (RG). The 2013 bench book provided a table to illustrate the range of behaviors and attitudes associated with each end of the continuum (Austin, Fieldstone, & Pruett, 2013, p. 4):

Interventions
Researchers suggest that the goal of interventions for PA or PCCPs should be to restore or repair the relationship with the rejected parent, unless the parent poses risks to the child. Risks that indicate a child must be protected from a rejected parent include ongoing risk of violence or abuse or evidence of severe alienation, usually involving emotional abuse (Fidler & Bala, 2020). Deutsch, Drozd, and Ajoku (2020) stated that delaying interventions designed to repair a parent-child relationship or delaying contact with a rejected parent generally leads to additional polarization, negative experiences, and anxiety; conflict and resistance tend to become more entrenched as time passes. They recommend “safe, structured contact to begin the process of desensitization” as soon as both the parent and child have sufficient coping skills and the ability manage distressing thoughts and feelings (p. 470). The authors note that when trauma or abuse is not severe, a child may benefit from resuming a relationship with the parent, if that parent can take responsibility in a meaningful form or demonstrate a change in behavior.

Recommended interventions for cases involving PA or PCCPs vary based on severity, regardless of the exact cause of the problem. Mild and moderate cases are believed to be best addressed with attempts to repair the parent-child relationship with a family systems-based intervention coordinated by the courts (Fidler & Bala, 2020). When concerns of violence or abuse are not present, many therapies may be useful and appropriate, including multi-modal family therapy (MMFI), child-centered conjoint therapy (CCCT), family restructuring therapy, integrative family therapy (IFT), structural family therapy, family reintegration therapy (RT), family reunification therapy (FRT), multi-faceted family therapy (MFFT), and reconciliation therapy (Fidler & Bala, 2020). All these interventions use a family systems approach that involves all family members, in various combinations. They may include a variety of specific therapeutic approaches, including psychoeducation, cognitive-behavioral techniques, solution-focused strategies, motivational interviewing, and targeted skills trainings. Importantly, the authors note that interventions may fail to resolve alienation or a PCCP if all family members are not involved; they also indicate that while individual therapy may be beneficial for both parents and children, individual therapy can exacerbate PCCPs if an individual therapist is unskilled or uninformed about PCCP issues.

According to Fidler and Bala (2020), severe cases of PCCPs are not likely to be resolved by the family systems-based interventions described above and are treated differently depending on whether or not the case involves alienation or realistic estrangement – essentially, whether the child’s rejection of the parent was unjustified or justified. In cases of severe alienation (unjustified rejection), the authors recommend a “custody reversal,” in which the rejected parent is granted custody and contact with the favored parent is suspended temporarily; this may be accompanied by therapeutic or educational interventions (e.g., Family Bridges; p. 586). This intervention can be followed by additional interventions to assist the favored parent in ending any PABs before shared custody is attempted. Alternatively, attempts at repair and reunification could be abandoned, with the child or children being told that the rejected parent is not abandoning them but instead leaving contact up to them. The authors note that although some children do eventually contact the rejected parent in late adolescence or adulthood, there is little research on such reconciliations.

In severe cases of justified rejection or realistic estrangement, abuse and trauma are likely to be present, and family members may be struggling with trauma-related disorders. In these cases, it is recommended that the problematic parent and the child each receive individual treatment, with ongoing assessment and case management implemented to determine if reunification is appropriate. In all severe cases (whether alienation or justified estrangement), careful monitoring by the court and professionals is required to ensure the child is protected; a period of supervised contact may be recommended.

Recommendations and Best Practices
Evaluations of PCCPs in custody cases should include identification of all gatekeeping behaviors between the parents. Austin (2018) recommended that custody evaluators rate and describe the gatekeeping for the court in terms of both degree and quality (low, medium, or high in terms of facilitative and restrictive gatekeeping). Gatekeeping should also be examined across multiple behavioral domains, including information sharing, willingness to communicate, compliance with schedules, support of the parenting plan, flexibility, criticisms of the other parent, and demonstrating to the child an appreciation of the other parent’s value. Although many domains should be assessed as part of a multifactorial analysis, evaluators are often required to provide an overall or general rating of each parent’s quality of gatekeeping.

Evaluations of any problematic parent-child relationship should give careful consideration to the role of trauma and chronic stress, as trauma has been found to frequently precede and predict resist-refuse dynamics (Johnston & Sullivan, 2020; Deutsch, Drozd, & Ajoku, 2020; Fidler & Bala, 2020). Authors also note that PCCPs or PA can also exacerbate or elicit a trauma or a stress response in a child and/or in one or both parents. Screenings for traumatic experiences are recommended “in every case where parent-child contact problems are suspected or found,” and screenings should be conducted with each family member prior to any interventions (Deutsch, Drozd, & Ajoku, 2020; p. 473). If trauma is present, a comprehensive assessment of trauma-related symptoms is recommended.

Researchers have also recommended that careful consideration be given to the types, targets, and order of interventions provided. Fidler and Bala (2020) note that screenings for violence, forms of IPV, and psychological disorders are necessary in order to plan and implement effective interventions. In addition, based on assessments of physical, emotional, and psychological safety, clinicians and evaluators must determine whether all family members should be included in an intervention, when trauma-focused treatment is required, and when parenting interventions are necessary (Deutsch, Drozd, & Ajoku, 2020). The order of interventions must also be determined; some treatments may be able to be implemented concurrently, but some may need to occur sequentially. For example, if a parent or child is struggling with emotion regulation or a traumatic reaction, trauma-focused therapy would be recommended prior to other interventions. Several authors emphasize the difficulties involved in evaluating families with PCCPs; conflict has often been present for years, and reactions may be polarized and exaggerated. Fidler and Bala (2020) added that any failed interventions, either clinical or legal, should be examined in order to inform treatment planning, noting, “…often, our attempted solution becomes part of the problem and exacerbates the PCCP” (p. 588).

According to Johnston and Sullivan (2020), overall “best practices” in cases of alleged PA include:

  • Defining PA terms precisely and using them consistently;
  • Using the term “parental alienating behaviors” (PABs) and focusing on valid, reliable methods of observing and measuring such behaviors; and
  • Recalling that a child’s rejection of a parent can arise from multiple sources.

Deutsch, Drozd, and Ajoku (2020) indicated that the involvement of the court increases accountability. They suggest the use of a structured form, such as the Changes in Resist/Refuse Dynamics Checklist (CRDC; Drozd, Saini, Walters, Fidler, & Deutsch, 2020), in order to assess changes in the parent-child relationship. Fidler and Bala (2020) recommend single-judge case management for all high conflict cases, particularly those involving PCCPs. In their 2013 bench book, Austin and colleagues recommended that judicial orders include clear, detailed parenting plans and timesharing arrangements, and any orders for services should include specific referral reasons and questions.

Importantly, researchers acknowledge that not all cases of PCCPs or PA will result in the repair or restoration of a relationship with a rejected parent. Fidler and Bala (2020) stated that in cases of significant safety, mental health, or substance use issues, the termination of a parent-child relationship may be necessary. The authors indicated that although the assessments and decisions to be made in these cases require a significant amount of time, severe cases of PA or PCCPs “should not be allowed to drift through the courts without a judicial resolution” (p. 590). Unfortunately, researchers indicate that the complexity of PCCPs often makes conclusive findings and legal decisions exceedingly difficult (Fidler & Bala, 2020). Professionals must recognize the limits of legal interventions as well as the available resources for PCCPs, as well as the difficulty of grappling with the uncertainty and complexity of the problem.

Overall, PA and PCCPs are far more complex than is commonly understood, and their causes are multi-factorial. Evaluations must consider the many possible contributors to such problems, including traumatic experiences as well as untreated mental health and substance use issues. Legal and clinical professionals should consider the many recommendations for assessing and intervening in cases of PA or PCCPs; professionals must also remain mindful that such problems may, unfortunately, not respond to their best efforts.

Want to talk to someone about this? 

Contact Dr. Ludlam: drjulianne@kkjpsych.com or call 919-493-1975.

References

Austin, W. G.  (2018).  Parental gatekeeping and child custody evaluation: Part III: Protective gatekeeping and the overnights “conundrum.”  Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 59(5), 429-451.

Austin, W. G., Fieldstone, L., & Pruett, M. K.  (2013).  Bench book for assessing parental gatekeeping in parenting disputes: Understanding the dynamics of gate closing and opening for the best interests of children.  Journal of Child Custody, 10, 1-16.

Deutsch, R., Drozd, L., & Ajoku, C.  (2020).  Trauma-informed interventions in parent-child contact cases.  Family Court Review, 58(2), 470-487.

Drozd, L., Saini, M., Walters, M. Fidler, B., & Deutsch R. M. (2020). Changes in Resist-Refuse Dynamics Checklist (CRDC).

Fidler, B. J., & Bala, N.  (2020).  Concepts, controversies and conundrums of “alienation:” Lessons learned in a decade and reflections on challenges ahead.  Family Court Review, 58(2), 576-603.

Johnston, J. R., & Sullivan, M. J.  (2020).  Parental alienation: In search of common ground for a more differentiated theory.  Family Court Review, 58(2), 270-292.

Saini, M. A., Drozd, L. M., & Olesen, N. W.  (2017).  Adaptive and maladaptive gatekeeping behaviors and attitudes: Implications for child outcomes after separation and divorce.  Family Court Review, 55(2), 260-272. 

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