May 29, 2013
Release of Parental Alienation Study Group, International Task Force

Family unity took a major step forward at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco on May 18-22, 2013, with the inclusion of language that describes the serious mental health problem of parental alienation. For the first time, mental health professionals in the U.S. will have officially recognized concepts to diagnose children who experience parental alienation, strengthening the case against parents who strive to alienate children during divorce.

“This is an important advance for the psychological health of children and families,” said William Bernet, MD. Bernet is a leader of the Parental Alienation Study Group, the international task force that submitted the proposal to include parental alienation in DSM-5. Bernet, professor emeritus at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, said, “Including language that is specifically applicable to parental alienation empowers the mental health and legal communities to address this important problem more directly and with greater clarity. These revisions to DSM-5 will reduce the harm that parental alienation causes to families.”

Parental alienation is a mental condition in which a child – usually one whose parents are engaged in a high-conflict separation or divorce – allies strongly with one parent and refuses without good cause to have a relationship with the other parent. This process takes place when a parent or caregiver encourages the child’s rejection of the other parent. Parental alienation is driven by the false belief that the rejected parent is evil, dangerous, or not worthy of affection. When the phenomenon is properly recognized, the condition is preventable and treatable in many instances.

DSM-5 now includes the new diagnoses of “child psychological abuse” and “child affected by parental relationship distress.” Moreover, “parent-child relational problem” refers to the concept of parental alienation, although the actual words “parental alienation” are not in DSM-5. Depending on the circumstances, each of these three diagnoses can be used in cases of parental alienation.

  • Child psychological abuse is defined as “nonaccidental verbal or symbolic acts by a child’s parent or caregiver that result, or have reasonable potential to result, in significant psychological harm to the child.” In many instances, the behavior of the alienating parent constitutes child psychological abuse.
  • Child affected by parental relationship distress should be used “when the focus of clinical attention is the negative effects of parental relationship discord (e.g., high levels of conflict, distress, or disparagement) on a child in the family, including effects on the child’s mental or other physical disorders.“ That is a very good description of how parental alienation comes about.
  • Parent-child relational problem now has a discussion in the text of DSM-5. The discussion explains that cognitive difficulties in parent-child relational problem “may include negative attributions of the other’s intentions, hostility toward or scapegoating of the other, and unwarranted feelings of estrangement.” That is a very good description of a child’s view of the alienated parent.

The Parental Alienation Study Group consists of a highly credentialed group of mental health and legal professionals and other individuals who are experienced in identifying and treating parental alienation. The Parental Alienation Study Group initially proposed in 2008 that parental alienation should be included in DSM -5. Their complete proposal was published as Parental Alienation, DSM-5, and ICD-11 (Charles C Thomas Publishers, 2010). The Parental Alienation Study Group includes 130 individuals from 30 countries.

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