This week I was on a late night panel (late for me anyway) via Skype to Toronto University Students for the Canadian Association for Equality. The subject was disappearing dads and parental alienation.  During the Q&A session afterwards, a targeted parent asked me a question relating to the ‘blog war’ as he termed it, between Dr Childress and me, over the article I had written for the Parental Alienation Studies Group, which I am a member of.  Leaving aside the fact that for me, at least, the batting back and forth of disagreement between Dr Childress and I, was less of a war and more of a mildish spat, the question this parent asked me was whether I thought that the scientific model of Pathogenic Parenting devised by Dr Childress, is the answer to the problem of parental alienation.

I felt frustrated by the question because the argument about whether there is one answer or many is not one which can be condensed into one snappy sentence (though I tried) and I left the panel discussion feeling that this man, like so many other targeted parents, deserves, at least an attempt at explaining why I (and many others in this field) do not accept the Pathogenic Parenting model as the answer to parental alienation.

Now before I begin let me say this.  I am a veteran in the field of family separation. In the two decades or more since I began work in this arena, I have been attacked publicly and privately, I have been undermined, abused, shamed and stabbed in the back. I have been complained about, sanctioned, publicly discussed and called many names, not all of them nice.  In a field which is often conflictual (and that is even amongst those who are supposedly working for the best interests of children),  I have been there, done that and worn the T shirts. So before anyone who is a follower of Dr Childress thinks this is a good opportunity to wade in and make his point for him on this blog, let me tell you this. It isn’t going to happen.  This is my blog, my space for thinking and if you don’t like what I have got to say, you are either going to have to stop reading now, or deal with it. I did not invite a war with Dr Childress, I wrote a considered piece in which I discussed the elements of his work which are useful at the Clinic. I am about to expand on that.

I have had some readers write to me recently with discombobulated discourses in which they allege that I only allow comments on here which chime with my own views.  To which I can unflinchingly and unremorsefully state that this is the truth. Here is the place where I get to think through my work and my practice, a place where, without fail, I get to choose who I listen to and who I don’t and in a world like mine, where I spend almost 95% of my working life listening to other people’s experiences, that is how this place is going to stay.

With those caveats in mind here goes.

I have in front of me the diagnostic checklist for Pathogenic Parenting as devised by Dr Childress.

In reading it I can see that it is, as I understand it, a scientifically based model for diagnosis of a parenting pattern which is harmful for children and which can be referenced back to the DSM V.

The supposition being that all parental alienation cases are identical to this parenting pattern.

Supposition means a belief held without proof or certain knowledge; an assumption or hypothesis.

Supposition is what many parents who come to the Clinic have about their own personal case in which their child is rejecting them.

Their supposition is that this is a case of parental alienation and it is our job at the Clinic to work out whether indeed it is, using a wide range of tools which allow us to categorise and differentiate the route to the child’s withdrawal and then devise the treatment route to support change.

Dr Childress wants parental alienation to be reconfigured and diagnosed using a three stage model of diagnosis which defines what he calls Pathogenic Parenting.  As I said to the parent who asked me the question this week, this group of families who fit this model, is one which I recognise as being a very small part of the overall cohort of families I would consider are affected by parental alienation.  Therefore, if the reworking of parental alienation as a spectrum experience is to be recategorised as Pathogenic Parenting, in which ONLY those families which fit this three stage model can be recognised as such, what are we going to do with the rest of the targeted parents and their children whose supposition is that they are suffering from parental alienation but who, on diagnosis, do not fit the model called Pathogenic Parenting?

Could it not be that Pathogenic Parenting could be the term which replaces the word Pure in the differentiation model used by the likes of Bala and Fidler in Canada?  When I look at Dr Childress’s three stage model and I consider the description of the category of Pure alienation and my own experience in working with families where this presents, it  would make a lot of sense to me.

Parental alienation is a wide spectrum experience and it has many manifestations in both children’s lives and those of their parents. Pathogenic Parenting is only one of them and a small one at that.  Though real, it presents itself far less regularly than those cases which involve cross projection of blame or high levels of conflict or sudden and traumatic splitting in a child due to external circumstances surrounding separation.

At the Clinic we treat alienation in many different ways and I am reminded of the work of people like Bessel Van Der Kolk in our approach. Using differentiation routes and matching intervention to need, we liberate children using whatever method most likely to work.  If the family fits the three stage model of Pathogenic Parenting we argue for separation from the unhealthy parent in order to restore normal range functioning relationships, if it doesn’t we offer therapeutic assistance which is a mix of psycho-education, therapeutic work and robust court management. What we know we have to do, right at the very beginning of our work with families, is sort out which category the family is in, because if we don’t, we know we will never get the outcomes that we are looking for, which is that every child is a liberated child and every child has healthy parents with whom they are able to be in relationship with.

The problem with arguing that what the world is missing out on is a new scientific model which is the answer to parental alienation is, in my view, that all Pathogenic Parenting IS parental alienation but not all parental alienation IS Pathogenic Parenting. The dangers to children are in supposing that one equals the other because in application of remedy, which for Dr Childress’s model of Pathogenic Parenting is separation protocols, that remedy does work for all cases of parental alienation.

It seems as clear to me as the nose of my face. I know that for many of you reading this it is not, but in writing this I hope you realise that I am doing so because I left that late night panel this week recognising that this targeted parent is searching for an answer (as you all are), and that feeling that a scientific, possibly revolutionary solution is being overlooked by the PA expert community is frustrating. So much so that in some discussions online I am already seeing the same dynamic which permeates other groups in the field of family separation – if there is an answer and you don’t subscribe to it, it must mean you are happy with the status quo (read – happy to make money out of us).  Which is nonsense, is not the truth and which completely ignores the hours of dedicated work that so many experts put in to help families and to create liberation routes for children.

Parental alienation is a problem with a human face which is caused by many issues arising in post separation family life and which results in children resisting relationships or rejecting them. Helping families requires many different tools and the three stage model of Pathogenic Parenting diagnosis is, for me, a clear outline of pure and severe alienation (and is one which I will use at the Clinic to evidence such cases when we see them).

But the scientific answer to the spectrum problem that is parental alienation it is not. And to suppose that it is will lead too many parents into difficult places where they will not fit the diagnosis and they and their children will lose out as a result.

It has its place at the heart of the problem but it is not the answer to the whole.