Jennifer Harman, Colorado State University – Parental Alienation

Parental alienation can have long term consequences.

Jennifer Harman, associate professor of psychology at Colorado State University, explores how greater awareness of this form of family violence can lead to better outcomes.

Jennifer Jill Harman, Ph.D. received her doctorate in Social Psychology from the University of Connecticut in 2005, and specializes in the study of intimate relationships. She also has two masters degrees from Teacher’s College, Columbia University in psychological counseling, and served as a family and substance abuse counselor for several years prior to her entry into academia. She is currently an associate professor of psychology at Colorado State University.

Dr. Harman is an accomplished and awarded teacher, and has published many peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, and has presented her research regularly at scientific conferences around the world. She has also co-authored numerous books such as  The Science of Relationships: Answers to your Questions about Dating, Marriage and Family and Parents Acting Badly: How Institutions and Society Promote the Alienation of Children from their Loving Families.

Dr. Harman’s areas of research expertise focus on the topic of power in relationships: power in how intimate partners influence each other for good or bad. As an applied social psychologist, her work has applied social psychological theories on intimate relationships to the study of public health problems ranging from STI prevention to domestic violence. For nearly the last decade, her primary focus has been on the study of parental alienation.

Parental Alienation

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Here’s the scene: a bitter divorce, and a custody battle over the couple’s 7-year-old son. Awarded full custody, the mother sets out to destroy the son’s relationship with his father. The mother tells the son lies about the father’s behavior. She plants seeds of doubt about his fitness as a parent. She sabotages the father’s efforts to see his son. The son begins to believe the lies. As he grows up, his relationship with his father is strained.

Like that fictional father, about 22 million American parents have been victims of behaviors that lead to something called parental alienation. I have studied this phenomenon for several years. Psychological, legal and child custodial disciplines need to recognize parental alienation as a form of both child abuse and intimate partner violence.

In a recent paper, my co-authors and I define the behaviors associated with parental alienation. We explain the long-term negative consequences for the health and well-being of children and adults all over the world.

We categorize parental alienation as an outcome of psychological aggression against a child. Alienating parents terrorize their children by targeting the other parent. They purposely create fear that the other parent might be dangerous or unstable – when no evidence of such danger exists. Alienating parents will further reject, shame or guilt-trip their children for showing loyalty or warmth to the other parent.

We also show that these behaviors are abusive to the targeted parent. They are similar to the intimate partner violence between spouses or dating partners, that we are all more familiar with.

More research into this particular form of family violence will bring greater awareness. Our hope is that our research will help better identify and stop such behaviors.

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