Parental Alienation: Is This What Science Looks Like?

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Parental Alienation: Is This What Science Looks Like?


The psychology community said it wanted to move closer to science by providing evidence-based research and practices, however, it continues to permit its members to promote pseudoscientific theories and utilize pop-therapies which harm children. Dr. Amy J. Baker is one of those members.

Via her website:

Dr. Baker has a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College of Columbia University.

Her areas of research include parental alienation, child welfare, parent involvement in their children’s education, early intervention, and attachment. She is the Director of Research at the Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection.

She is the author or co-author of 3 books and over 45 peer reviewed articles.

Dr. Baker is available as an expert witness and for print, radio, and television interviews.

And you can find her all across the internet, especially on news publications that touch on, or allude to, parental alienation syndrome (see Every Child Has Parental Alienation Syndrome). She promotes her book heavily while expressing sympathy for victims…of PAS. She is touted as a major authority on the subject matter . With all the education she has received, you’d think that she recognizes what is, or is not, developmentally appropriate; and furthermore, that she recognizes the lack of science in her “research.”

According to Francoise T. Bessette’s thesis, The Social Construction of Parental Alienation Syndrome:

(emphasis mine)

In 2005, Amy Baker conducted a study of adults who self-identified as having been alienated from one of their parents during childhood. Thirty-eight adults (14 males and 24 females) were recruited by word of mouth and from over one hundred advertisements placed on the internet message boards for people who had been victims of parental alienation syndrome.

Through one hour semi-structured telephone interviews, Baker learned about the participants’ perceived relationship with their estranged parent. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and analyzed using a content analysis program coding for “impact of the alienation on the participant” (Baker, 2005:292). All but seven of the alleged alienators were mothers. The findings showed that the alienation perceived by the participants negatively affected several areas of their adult lives and relationships. The participants reported high rates of low self-esteem/self-hatred, believing themselves unlovable because of the alienation from one parent, which they interpreted as rejection (2005:294). This self-hatred accounted for the guilt they felt because of the role they played in the alienation (2005:294). Over 70 percent revealed episodes of depression that they attributed to the separation from their alienated parent, and the lack of opportunity to mourn this loss while children (2005:296). Thirty-three percent of the participants had drug or alcohol addictions that they associated with their childhood circumstances. Some of these participants confessed to having a conflicted relationship with their alienating parent during their teen years because of their mental manipulation; they had turned to drugs and alcohol as an escape (2005:297-298). Sixteen people talked of their difficulties trusting others as well as themselves and of falling into the same divorcing and/or alienating pattern as their parents (2005:294). Sixty-six percent of the participants were divorced and of the twenty-eight who were parents, half were alienated from their own children (2005:300). All the participants believed they had been victims of parental alienation syndrome.

Baker qualifies her study by stating it represents only a fraction of the data collected and that many of the 38 subjects reported having positive life experiences not included in her results. She only reported negative outcomes, presenting the subjects as unhappy, maladjusted individuals, and did not address possible confounding variables that could account for her results such as poverty and lack of opportunities. Instead, she presents the results as a package combining all the participants’ responses together under different headings such as “low self-esteem”, depression, and drug/alcohol problems, referring to the number of participants in the various categories as “some” or “many”. Baker based her study on the premise that parental alienation syndrome was a conclusive element in her subjects’ lives and drew on Gardner’s theory to analyze their retrospective stories. She does not volunteer the list of questions asked during the interviews and little information is provided regarding the content analysis of the transcripts. She does not offer any scale of reference to help the reader judge the extent of the impact on the subjects. The reader is expected to accept the author’s conclusions as “true”.
In order for adults to self-identify with the concept of parental alienation syndrome, you’d have to assume they had some knowledge of what the term means.

  * Who provided the definition to them?

  * What did that definition consist of?

This is the first error of parental alienation syndrome: You cannot use the definition of the syndrome to diagnose the syndrome. This is circular reasoning. (ie, with a stomach ucler: the patient describes the symptoms, the practitioner observes the signs through testing measures, the diagnosis is then given based on the evidence. The practitioner does not tell the patient what constitutes an ulcer, and then have the patient verify that THOSE particular symptoms are present, and then confirm the diagnosis.)

Furthermore, it would be unwise to have an adult make a judgement about a situation that occurred during childhood because that adult is able to process and rationalize things in a different manner, which will be influenced by other life circumstances that may or may not be revealed to the researcher. Also, hindsight is 20/20, and some adults may be looking for an escape or excuse for behaviors for which they are indeed responsible. Their current perception of what once existed is not necessarily proof that it did [exist].

  * How can this adult know the difference between a protective parent that alienated, and a malicious parent that is alienated unless all truth be known about what occured in the past?

  * And how do you verify this without including the parents themselves?

This is another error of parental alienation syndrome: it is based on the victim’s (just like the target parent) perception (although the victim of PAS is said to be the child) of what has occurred.

Is this moving psychology closer to science?


But it is moving many psychologists toward behaviors that mimic charlatanism. Pop-psychology has become a lucrative industry not so much concerned with helping people than it is with overgeneralizing mental illness to the public by medicalizing normal behaviors and soliciting its specific ideologies. Book promotions, speaking engagements, and massive self-promotion through e-mail campaigns is required. Dr. Amy J. Baker performs in this role very well:

  To: fathers-l@googlegroups.com

  >> Sent: Thu, 31 December, 2009 4:34:12 AM

  >> Subject: FATHERS-L News from Amy Baker on Parental Alienation


  >> Seasons Greetings,

  >> I hope this message finds you well. I am writing to share a brief

  >> end-of-year update on various parental alienation projects.


  >> 1) “I don’t want to choose” book and workbook were developed with Dr.

  >> Katherine Andre, designed to help middle school children resist the

  >> pressure to choose one parent over the other.


  >> 2) A school-based program “I don’t want to choose” was developed and

  >> will be launched in half a dozen schools this school year.


  >> 3) Media attention to custody battles, international abductions, and

  >> parental alienation has been high this past year including personal

  >> appearances on WABC TV, WPIX TV, Good Morning America, and in U.S.

  >> News and World Report. Most of the clips can be viewed from my

  >> website.


  >> 4) I have been hired to train New York child protection workers about

  >> parental alienation and to help develop the North Dakota custody

  >> investigation manual.


  >> 5) I have been invited to participate in a plenary panel discussion

  >> about parental alienation at the upcoming Association of Family and

  >> Conciliation Courts conference in Denver.


  >> I hope that the new year brings targeted parents everywhere closer to

  >> their children and that as a professional in the field I can shed some

  >> light on this tragic problem and help heal alienated children and

  >> their families.


  >> Best Wishes,


  >> Amy J.L. Baker, Ph.D.

  >> www.amyjlbaker.com

  >> Author: Adult children of parental alienation syndrome: Breaking the

  >> ties that bind

Parental alienation syndrome charlatans fuel the public’s need to feel justified in certain beliefs by introducing nebulous concepts to which a wide audience can seemingly relate. Yes, you’ve seen a child so angry that he/she hinders or refuses a relationship with one of his/her parents. No, you can’t possibly know the depths of what is causing such animosity without a full investigation of the complexities in familial relationships. And even then, you are limited by the what the observer happens to observe, what the participants choose to reveal, combined with the observers biased “objective” interpretation.

Parental alienation purports that this child is suffering from mental disorder– disorder meaning that when compared to a normal population, this behavior is abnormal. What its supporters fail to reveal upfront is that according to their research, this only happens in “high conflict” divorces (see Parental Alienation and “High Conflict” Divorce)–meaning you must compare this behavior to the behavior of others in “high conflict” divorce. Is it still abnormal?

Parental alienation syndrome is said to be caused by the child’s own parent (FYI–Its supporters also claim there is foster parent alienation, and grandparent alienation). The child is the victim. But what people do not understand is that parental alienation syndrome begins with the supposition that the child’s thoughts are not really his/her own–that the child is lying about his/her experiences. Are there any other medical diagnoses that can be made based off of the word of someone other than the victim? Let’s utilize this medical example:

You go to the doctor with a complaint of stomach discomfort. You tell the doctor your symptoms are stomach pain, esophageal burning, and nausea. The doctor gets a full history and does an examination. The doctor is able to verify the signs of vomiting, and weight loss, and test results of an increase in a certain bacteria in the lining of your stomach. The doctor rules out various illness according to your signs and symptoms. The doctor makes a diagnosis.

At no time does the doctor tell you upfront that you have _______ disease. He/she must rule out the possibilities. At no time does the doctor tell you that your signs and symptoms aren’t really your signs and symptoms–that another set of signs and symptoms are really your signs and symptoms. At no time does the doctor tell you that he must ask your parents, friends, or neighbors if they are able to verify what you reported. And at no time does your doctor force you to do something against your will. (Best case scenario!)

And so a parental alienation claim serves to obfuscate evidence of any intra-familial abuse that has occurred. Its purpose is to place blame on one parent and absolve the other. There is no resolution to the conflict, short of utilizing brainwashing to re-frame the parental alienation as the actual abuse and to marginalize the child’s feelings. Anyone who recognizes a dysfunctional family knows that the only party that deserves absolution is the child, although child and parents play the role in the dysfunction. And still, this is no mental disorder.

If psychology thinks that they are moving closer to science with nonsense like this, it is our responsibility to let them know that they are wrong. The teachings of pseudoscientific parental alienation syndrome from persons like Dr. Amy J. Baker have infiltrated our family courts, child protective systems, and educational systems. Would you trust any system which based its theories from the work of someone who defended child sexual abusers? This type of science is scary.