Parental alienation is illegal in some countries, but virtually unknown to psychologists in the UK

Parental Alienation, Attachment and Corrupt Law by Stuart Hontree

Reviewed by Dr Becci Owens, Lecturer, CPsychol, FHEA, School of Psychology, The University of Sunderland, Shackleton House, SR2 7PT

Parental Alienation, Attachment and Corrupt Law by Stuart Hontree (a pseudonym to prevent identification of the subjects of case studies) brings attention to the important issue of parental alienation. Parental alienation occurs almost exclusively as part of a child custody dispute, though child custody disputes do not inevitably lead to parental alienation. Parental alienation involves one parent (the alienator) systematically brainwashing and manipulating a child into showing unwarranted fear, mistrust, resentment and malice to the other parent (the targeted parent). This often extends into the child showing the same feelings and behaviours towards other members of the targeted parent’s family. Not only does parental alienation have clear repercussions for the targeted parent, whereby the alienator is able to exert extreme forms of control and influence over their life by their influence on the child, but there are dire consequences for the alienated child as well. An alienated child suffers from disrupted development due to the perception of being rejected by a parent and their extended family, as well as experiencing extreme control and manipulation from the alienating parent. This then increases the child’s exposure to, and experience of, stress and conflict in the developmental period. Alienated children often fare worse than non-alienated children of separated parents in terms of academic performance and life outcomes, and there is an increased likelihood of alienated children developing mental disorders. Parental alienation is therefore illegal in some countries, however it is still legal and prevalent in the UK.

The book provides a brief review of the literature pertaining to parental alienation, including the attachment system, as well as a history of parental alienation. The clinical disorders relevant to parental alienation that are included in the DSM are also described and are integrated with the notion of parental alienation, and the aspects of parental alienation these disorders do not cover are also discussed. The author then goes on to discuss factors that increase parental alienation in the alienator, and increase the susceptibility of parental alienation to the targeted parent and the child. The focus of the book then turns to describing the many different events that contribute to parental alienation, including gaslighting, followed by the many forms of support available for all parties involved. Finally, the discussion turns to the legal professionals and legal system, and how this affects the process of parental alienation and ultimately, the outcomes for the affected parties.

Throughout the history of research into parental alienation, there has been a reluctance from clinical specialists to regard it as a syndrome in its own right. It is difficult to make a case for diagnosing the child when the problem lies with the alienating parent. What is more pressing is the devastating consequences of this pathological form of parenting on vulnerable children as well as their extended family. The book does outline and discuss many of these psychological consequences of parental alienation in children, including child affected by parental relationship distress (where a child is affected by conflict between parents), separation anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and splitting, all of which are recognised in the DSM. This seems to support the reluctance of clinicians and related experts in not including parental alienation as an entry in the DSM in its own right. However, as the author discusses, the focus on the nuances of how parental alienation should or should not be defined has served as a distraction, which in turn has halted the progression of research in the area. The author outlines a cycle that has halted progress in the area as stemming from the inability for professionals involved to agree on a definition of parental alienation leading to a lack of further empirical research into parental alienation, which in turn leads to a reluctance in employing more robust research methods. More research into this area could explore the factors that contribute to a parent becoming an alienator, however the area instead has become stagnated, which only prolongs and contributes to the damaging effects of parental alienation for all parties involved.

Another factor that the author discusses as contributing to the stifling of progress in parental alienation research is the vested interests of the legal system in maintaining cases of parental alienation; specifically financial gains. The author provides a scathing critique of twenty-four case studies of parental alienation, which is a somewhat unique perspective the author brings. The author outlines two distinct strands relevant to the understanding of, and in making progress towards tackling parental alienation – the clinical and the legal implications. A large problem with advancing awareness of and reducing parental alienation seems to result from the difficulty in reconciling these two strands. We appear to be stuck in a cycle whereby relevant professionals in cases of parental alienation have different goals – increasing business in the courts versus increasing family harmony and mental wellbeing. These divergent goals mean that the legal and clinical strands of parental alienation cannot be easily reconciled, yet the consequence of this is the extreme psychological harm and reduced wellbeing experienced by alienated family members.

Parental alienation is not a well-known phenomenon, and the limited number of books in the area seem to reflect this. Parental Alienation, Attachment and Corrupt Law provides a much-needed update to good quality older sources. Other relevant books currently available include a series by Amy Baker. These books are pitched at the level of a general audience and aim to provide help and support for the victims of parental alienation, including the targeted parent, the child, and adult children of parental alienation. Dr Craig Childress is a clinical psychologist with substantial experience in the area of parental alienation. He has also worked to raise awareness of the issue and has produced some books on the matter, yet these books are pitched at a higher academic level. The author of Parental Alienation, Attachment and Corrupt Law is a psychology graduate (though is not a psychologist) with relevant legal expertise and experience of parental alienation. The book therefore seems to me to bridge the gap between these books currently available by providing a solid introduction to parental alienation as well as the relevant legal factors that contextualise parental alienation. The style of the book relies quite heavily on quotes from relevant case studies and other publications, which I feel brings some benefits, but also poses some problems. Whereas generally the book can appear under referenced, these quotes remind the reader of the legitimacy of the information included in the book and the argument the author presents. Conversely, it can make reading the book, following the development of the argument and integrating all of its components a little difficult as the quotes disjoint the flow.

Overall, the book provides a comprehensive introduction to parental alienation for an academic, non-specialist audience. In comparison to more specialist books currently available, it is well priced. Furthermore, it brings into focus the impact of the legal system on conceptualising, identifying, and the consequences of, parental alienation. Raising further awareness of parental alienation and its devastating impact on all parties involved can only be a positive step. However, by also highlighting and integrating the influence of the legal system in advancing awareness and tackling parental alienation, the book identifies a new challenge and avenue for professionals to explore. It is a very interesting read and certainly provides food for thought.

Parental Alienation, Attachment and Corrupt Law by Stuart Hontree can be purchased here

About the reviewer

Dr Rebecca Owens is a Lecturer at the University of Sunderland. Her PhD examined sex differences in competitiveness from an evolutionary perspective, exploring whether or not competitiveness in men functions to secure mating opportunities and resources. Stemming from this, her current research interests include examining the impact of stereotypical sex roles on mental health and wellbeing, the role of body image in identity and wellbeing, and variation in mating preferences and strategies in modern environments.

1 thought on “Parental alienation is illegal in some countries, but virtually unknown to psychologists in the UK

  1. Reply
    francesco - August 6, 2020

    regarding parental alienation in UK we are like in the medieval time as right fro children; probably the worst country in the world.

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