As the American Psychiatric Association revises its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), there is much debate about whether parental alienation should be included and defined as a mental disorder. Parental alienation occurs when a child whose parents are going through a highly contested divorce or separation favors one parent and rejects the other for no significant reason.

Those who favor inclusion in the DSM claim that parental alienation is extremely harmful to children and families, and urge the association to recognize it as either a mental disorder or a relational problem. "This is a problem that causes horrible outcomes for children," said Vanderbilt University professor Dr. William Bennet.

Advocates claim that recognition in the manual would create fairer outcomes in family court, allowing children to get the treatment necessary to create harmony among all parties to a divorce. "This touches lives of more people than anyone imagines," said Joseph Goldberg of the Canadian Symposium for Parental Alienation Syndrome. "It's not just about a child turned against a parent. This affects grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends - all of them thrown out when a child rejects a parent."

Recognition in the manual is opposed by advocates for battered women and feminist groups who believe the movement for inclusion, which initially began as part of the fathers' rights movement, could allow abusive men to shift the focus from domestic abuse. "This is a fabricated notion," said George Washington University Law School professor Joan Meier. "You've got to assess the abuse first, without poisoning it with a claim of alienation."

Although the DSM won't be published until 2013, there is indication that the APA agrees. Dr. Darrel Regier, vice chair of the task force drafting the manual, said that "there is not sufficient scientific evidence to warrant its inclusion in the DSM," adding that parental alienation has not been selected for required field trials.

Whether the APA decides to include parental alienation may be a moot point, according to Debra Lehrmann, chair of the American Bar Association's family law section. Lehrmann says that the occurrence and effects of parental alienation are usually obvious without classification by a health professional. "Anyone who's in this business knows there are situations where that in fact is happening," she said. "Even if it's not in the manual, relevant evidence can still be brought in."

Source: Associated Press, "Psychiatric experts assess parental alienation", David Crary, 1 October 2010