Each branch of the mental health profession, including psychologists, marriage and family therapists, and social workers, has a code of ethics which outlines the values and standards which should guide the treatment they offer. For example, according to the Social Work Code of Ethics, “social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people (Code of Ethics, 2017).”1 Further, most exceptions to confidentiality are also based on the values of protecting the vulnerable in the population, meaning children and the elderly.
Within the arena of high-conflict divorce, there are children who are truly being subject to physical, sexual, and emotional/psychological abuse, and at the same time, there are also parents who make false allegations of child abuse in order to gain an advantage in court. When a professional becomes involved with these families, they need to explore multiple possibilities, and see the bigger picture of protecting the children against all forms of abuse. Reflexively denying contact between a parent and child in order to err on the “safe” side is not always the “safe” thing to do. Unnecessarily disrupting a healthy parent-child relationship actually enables psychological abuse.
First of all, therapists should take all claims of abuse seriously. Their obligation is to report it to the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). This agency will determine whether an investigation will be made, based on an assessment of risk factors. DCFS should be able to determine if the claim should be substantiated, whether it is a chronic problem or a one-time incident, or whether there is no evidence for the claim at all.
But when a parent makes false claims of abuse and unwarrantedly induces symptoms of anxiety or hatred in the child in order to destroy the child’s relationship with the ex-spouse, this is also an abuse known as parental alienation. It has been recognized as a form of psychological abuse, and is severely damaging to the child. A research article published in 2014, called, “Unseen Wounds: The Contribution of Psychological Maltreatment to Child and Adolescent Mental Health and Risk Outcomes,”2 examined the effects of psychological abuse. The lead author, Joseph Spinazzola, Ph.D., of The Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute, Brookline, Massachusetts stated,
“Given the prevalence of childhood psychological abuse and the severity of harm to young victims, it should be at the forefront of mental health and social service training,” (APA, 2014).3
The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC)4 defines psychological abuse as five parental behaviors, as measured by the PMM and CAPM-CV scales:
- Spurning(In parental alienation, a parent withdraws love from the child to punish them when they connect to the other parent.)
- Terrorizing(In parental alienation, one parent induces fear of the other parent in the child.)
- Isolating(In parental alienation the child is cut off from the other parent and most likely the whole side of the family.)
- Corrupting/Exploiting(In parental alienation the child is encouraged to engage in behaviors that are cruel, disrespectful, and immoral in order to benefit the “favored” parent.)
- Denying Emotional Responsiveness(In parental alienation, the child is punished for accepting love from the other parent.)
In the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical manual, psychological abuse is defined as:
“…non-accidental 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.” (DSM 5, pg 719)5
If our fundamental value is to truly protect children, who are the most vulnerable in the population, then we need to raise the level of therapeutic competency through education and training, and do assessments which consider all forms of abuse, including parental alienation. Children should never be weaponized, and intervening systems should never enable it.
2 Spinazzola, J., Hodgdon, H., Liang, L., Ford, J. D., Layne, C. M., Pynoos, R., . . . Kisiel, C. (2014). Unseen wounds: The contribution of psychological maltreatment to child and adolescent mental health and risk outcomes. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy,6(Suppl 1), S18-S28. doi:10.1037/a0037766
3 Childhood Psychological Abuse as Harmful as Sexual or Physical Abuse. (n.d.). Retrieved March 25, 2018, from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/10/psychological-abuse.aspx
4American Professional Society Abuse Children | APSAC. (n.d.). Retrieved March 25, 2018, from https://www.apsac.org/
5Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders DSM-5. (2013). Washington: American Psychiatric Publ.
Originally published in Utah Valley Wellness Magazine