Examining Parental Denigration in Family Systems and its Association with Parent-Child Closeness, Interparental Conflict, and Psychological Well-Being

Rowen, Jenna, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Emery, Robertert, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia

Over the past 30 years, numerous researchers have documented that when conflict between parents is frequent, intense, and lasting, children in both married and divorced families are at an increased risk for emotional and behavioral difficulties. In contrast to the extensive research on interparental conflict and interpartner violence, very little empirical research has focused on extreme parental behaviors where parents continuously demean each other in front of their children and attempt to interfere with the child’s relationship with the other parent. The only reference to these behaviors in the literature are reports of what has been termed Parental Alienation (PA), the frequently discussed idea that some parents have deliberately alienated their children from the other parent, who has done nothing to merit a child’s rejection. Despite its impact and widespread use, PA and the behaviors it purportedly involves remain virtually without empirical support. In general, very little empirical literature exists on extreme forms of parental negativity, such as directly denigrating co-parents in front of children.

The primary aim of the current study is to gain a comprehensive understanding of extreme forms of parental negativity, termed parental denigration, and establish the reliability of denigration as a construct. I will examine data from multiple sources, such as young adults, sibling pairs, high-conflict parents, and parent-child dyads in order to (1) document the existence of parental denigration and provide data on its frequency across marital status, (2) establish the reliability and validity of a new measure, the Parental Denigration Scale, (3) link reports of denigration to reports of psychological outcomes, parental conflict, and parent-child relationship quality in young adulthood, and (4) compare PA vs. conflict perspectives on denigration by examining instances of one-sided denigration.
Results from my analysis of a sample of nearly 1,000 young adults from both married and divorced/never married families suggest that parental denigration occurs across marital status (though denigration frequency is higher in divorced families overall), denigration can be measured reliably, there is a high level of agreement between reporters within the same family about measurement, denigration is consistently associated with poorer parent child relationships and poorer child adjustment, and in the few instances of unilateral denigration, children feel less close with the denigrator parent, not the denigrated parent. “Parental Alienation” may occur in rare cases, but the overall pattern of the present results is inconsistent with alienation claims and suggests that denigration is a form of interparental conflict. Legal and mental health professionals should exercise caution in upholding claims of parental alienation in the courtroom, given the dearth of empirical evidence for its existence and the contrary findings regarding its proposed outcomes from this study.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Parental denigration, parental alienation, interparental conflict
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