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How to identify cases of parental alienation: the four-factor model validated by Amy JL Baker

How to identify cases of parental alienation: the four-factor model validated by Amy JL Baker

In the course of marital separations, relational dynamics are often observed, characterized by a strong hostility that can affect the psychological well-being of the children. A phenomenon, currently of great interest to researchers and professionals in the psychological-clinical and forensic field, called parental alienation, is part of this area.

In recent literature the term parental alienation is used to describe a family dynamic in which a parent (referred to as the preferred or alienating denomination) engages in behaviors (alienation strategies) that can favor unjustified refusal in the child and feelings of disaffection towards the other parent (who takes on the role of target or rejected parent). Not all children exposed to such behavior give in to the pressure to refuse a parent, but when it does, they exhibit specific telltale signs (behavioral manifestations of parental alienation) and can be considered alienated children (Baker & Fine, 2014).

The empirical data on the consequences deriving from parental alienation are now robust and substantiate the need in the first instance to be able to recognize complex conjugal dynamics, fertile ground for the development of parental alienation, in the second instance to identify interventions that allow to reduce the effects of long term on children.

In literature it is possible to trace different definitions of parental alienation not necessarily in disagreement but characterized by an emphasis on different aspects of the alienation process (Verrocchio & Marchetti, 2017). Here we refer to the model that identifies and underlines four central elements for the definition and identification of the dynamics of parental alienation. Following this model recently validated by Dr. Amy JL Baker (2018), recognized worldwide as one of the greatest experts of the phenomenon, four factors must be present simultaneously in order to speak of parental alienation. If only some of these are traced, it will therefore not be correct to speak of parental alienation.

The first element to consider is the presence of an unjustified refusal of a parent. This means that there must be no abuse or neglect experiences perpetrated by the target or rejected parent. In these cases, in fact, it is not correct to speak of parental alienation, but of motivated refusal by a child that would fall within the dynamics of estrangement (Harman, Bernet, & Harman, 2019; Kelly & Johnston, 2001).

The second element is the finding that the child rejects a parent he previously loved and with whom he had a good attachment bond. To evaluate this factor, it is fundamental to analyze in an exhaustive way the quality of the parent-child relationship prior to the couple’s conflict. If elements supporting a normatively healthy relationship are found, the rigid change in the child’s attitude towards the rejected parent may constitute an element that will contribute to the identification of a case of parental alienation.

The third element derives from the observation of typical behaviors by the refusing son. Among these behaviors we can observe: the denigration campaign of the rejected parent; the presence of weak reasons given for the unjustified refusal of the target parent; the absence of ambivalence towards the preferred parent; the phenomenon of the independent thinker; the phenomenon of borrowed scenarios; the total absence of guilt; the unconditional support of the preferred parent; the spread of hostility to other family members of the rejected parent (grandparents, uncles, etc.). These behaviors have been identified and classified by Gardner (1992) and can be traced in the in-depth description proposed by Verrocchio and Marchetti (2017).

The fourth and final element consists of the presence of specific attitudes and behaviors implemented by the preferred parent. Alienation strategies are widely described in international and national literature (Baker, 2007; Bernet, Baker & Verrocchio, 2015; Verrocchio & Marchetti, 2017). We will therefore limit ourselves to indicating only some of the most frequent ones to provide useful examples. One strategy often used is to speak ill of or denigrate the other parent in front of the child. It should be noted that it does not refer to sporadic criticisms or observations made against the spouse or former spouse, but to continuous verbal and non-verbal manifestations of denigration of the other parent before the child. Another frequently encountered strategy is the implementation of behaviors aimed at limiting contact and communication between the parent and the child (for example, making excuses for not making the child available, limiting or avoiding phone calls, etc.) . These strategies can be accompanied by manifestations of emotional coldness and poor responsiveness if the child manifests the will to speak and / or see the target parent, thus showing affection towards him. These and other strategies undermine the parent-child relationship on several levels: These strategies can be accompanied by manifestations of emotional coldness and poor responsiveness if the child manifests the will to speak and / or see the target parent, thus showing affection towards him. These and other strategies undermine the parent-child relationship on several levels: These strategies can be accompanied by manifestations of emotional coldness and poor responsiveness if the child manifests the will to speak and / or see the target parent, thus showing affection towards him. These and other strategies undermine the parent-child relationship on several levels:

The importance of correctly identifying the presence of the alienation dynamic derives from a substantial literature that identified negative effects in those who reported having been victims of parental alienation. These consequences are manifested through low autonomy, anxious and depressive symptoms, insecure attachment style, psychological distress and low quality of life (Baker & Ben-Ami, 2011; Ben-Ami & Baker, 2012; Bernet et al., 2015; Saini et al., 2016 Verrocchio & Baker, 2015; Verrocchio, Baker & Bernet, 2016; Verrocchio, Marchetti & Fulcheri, 2015; Verrocchio, Marchetti, Carrozzino, Compare, Fulcheri, 2019). In addition, parental alienation is currently considered a form of psychological abuse. Various researches underline steadily that the more alienation strategies are put in place by the preferred parent, the more the child will feel victimized by abuse (Baker, 2010; Baker & Brassard, 2013; Baker & Eichler, 2014; Verrocchio & Baker , 2015). This form of violence is defined in literature as a reiteration of behavioral patterns or relational models considered psychologically harmful as they create in the child the idea of ​​being unloved, unwanted, unworthy of love (Binggeli, Hart, & Brassard, 2001) and includes acts of commission (emotional abuse) and omission (emotional neglect) (Verrocchio, 2014). 2013; Baker & Eichler, 2014; Verrocchio & Baker, 2015). This form of violence is defined in literature as a reiteration of behavioral patterns or relational models considered psychologically harmful as they create in the child the idea of ​​being unloved, unwanted, unworthy of love (Binggeli, Hart, & Brassard, 2001) and includes acts of commission (emotional abuse) and omission (emotional neglect) (Verrocchio, 2014). 2013; Baker & Eichler, 2014; Verrocchio & Baker, 2015). This form of violence is defined in literature as a reiteration of behavioral patterns or relational models considered psychologically harmful as they create in the child the idea of ​​being unloved, unwanted, unworthy of love (Binggeli, Hart, & Brassard, 2001) and includes acts of commission (emotional abuse) and omission (emotional neglect) (Verrocchio, 2014).

Recently, starting from the defining characteristics and the implications for health, the dynamic of parental alienation has been proposed as a specific form of family violence in order both to promote a wider recognition of the phenomenon, and to provide a theoretical framework that allows to conduct useful research for further development of treatments for alienated children and target parents (Harman et al., 2018; 2019).