On the Perils of Therapy in Alienation Cases

I have been working recently on the reconfiguration of a differentiation route for the matching of cases of parental alienation in the UK to treatment. This work, which is one of our core concerns at the Family Separation Clinic, began for me in 2010 when I read the formulations of Friedlander and Walters in their excellent paper entitled ‘When a Child Rejects a Parent: Tailoring the Intervention to Match the Problem.‘  Now there is a new paper by the same authors, updating their work and setting out the way in which what they refer to as the Resist/Refuse Dynamic, should be worked with. This for me, is the only way that any case of parental alienation should be approached by the interlocking of the mental health intervention with the court process. Anything less, is, in my view, contributing to the heightened risk of harm to the child.

We are in a curious place in the UK in terms of how parental alienation is regarded. This summer has, for example, seen an extraordinary focus in the mainstream and legal media on the issue. Voices of people in the legal field have been heard on the matter and those of us working in the mental health arena have been able to speak up more than ever. And yet.  And yet……

In terms of legal approaches to dealing with parental alienation it seems that overall, the belief is that there is a soft way to deal with these cases and that what they really need is therapy. This generic approach, which seems to me to be down to the lack of education in the legal arena on the reality of what parental alienation really is, actually causes me sleepless nights. This is because in terms of our continued determination to bring to the UK the right way to intervene in cases of alienation, what we know about these cases is that generic therapy not only makes things worse, in child protection terms, it risks increasing the harm done to the child. Which is why the Family Separation Clinic will not offer generic therapy which is not under the scrutiny of the court when we are aware that it is a case of alienation. And which is why we will only offer our interventions for parental alienation when the dynamics of the court are right.

Let’s be absolutely clear about this. Parental Alienation is a form of child abuse. It is an insidious and particularly damaging form of abuse in which the child’s perspective in terms of their feelings for each of their parents is steadily eroded towards the phenomenon called psychological splitting. Splitting is an infantile defence mechanism which must be properly overcome in the early years of life in order that one achieves the ability to hold different feelings about other people. To force a child to return to that state of mind, either knowingly or unwittingly, through behaviours designed to encourage alignment, is abusive.  In fact it is emotional and psychological abuse which is so harmful to the child that it can take years to overcome. As many researchers around the world now demonstrate, the long term impact of forcing a child into a psychological split state is devastating. It is time that everyone involved in working with families affected by this problem were aware of this as well as the work which is happening internationally to protect children against it. Knowing a little about parental alienation is not enough because  knowing the reality of what  children face in these circumstances, it becomes imperative to act in the way that helps the child. Settling for generic therapy instead of arguing powerfully for the tailored interventions which we know are what work in these circumstances is not an option in my book, because to do so means to knowingly leave children in harmful situations, when the answer to the problem lies within our reach.

Friedlander and Walters have not only produced a blue print for what works, they have updated it and added to it and I am grateful to them for that learning because it supports our work at the Clinic and it encourages us to continue to argue for the right way to intervene when children are in an alienated position.  Additionally, when we are delivering our interventions in ways which are supported by the evidence and when we see the positive outcomes we achieve from that (21 children reunited with a rejected parent in the past twelve months), I can sleep at night. Just as a Clinician would not treat cancer with an intervention known not to work just to reassure some people, we are not in the business of offering interventions for parental alienation which are known not to work just to keep some people in the family courts happy. There is a proven, tested way of working with parental alienation and it is not generic in nature, it is not subject to the same rules of confidentiality as generic therapy and it is not managed by mental health professionals working outside of the court system. Working with alienation requires a specialist approach and it requires knowledge, capability and proven ability to bring children out of the psychologically split state of mind. It also requires a teflon coat and a bloody minded determination to do things the right way, not the way that keeps the status quo or some people safe in their comfort zone.

Despite the headlines there is a long way to go in the UK until we break through to an educated workforce who are skilled in the treatment of parental alienation. That is not for the lack of evidence and it is not for the lack of international research either. The issue of parental alienation is still not understood properly in the family courts, it is still regarded as controversial and it is not yet uniformly accepted. Until it is however, it is incumbent upon anyone working in the field to educate and inform and demonstrate the power of the right intervention tailored in the right way and held steady by the power of the court. Anything less is in my view, to risk collusion with the alienation dynamic and add to the risk of harm done to the child.

Now is the time for less talk and more evidenced outcomes.

Because when it comes to helping alienated children, actions speak a thousand times louder than any words ever could.

As part of the Family Separation Clinic’s drive to bring to the UK the interventions which are proven to work with children affected by alienation we will be producing evaluated case studies of some of the outcomes of our work with families in the last five years. Some of this work forms part of my doctoral thesis whilst others are being written up for peer reviewed publication. The next phase of work for the Family Separation Clinic is upon building the transparent evidence base which will contribute to the development of the right treatment routes for alienation in the UK. These are in line with all of the international research and as such they do not involve any kind of generic therapy outside of the court system.

In our view parental alienation in its true form is a serious form of child abuse which at present goes largely unrecognised in the family courts because of its location in the he said/she said landscape of post divorce and separation family life. Our aim is to excavate the reality of parental alienation and to demonstrate how to work with it to bring about successful outcomes for the children and families affected by it. We are not a generic therapy service and we do not wish to be seen as such. Our work is specialist in nature and it is focused only upon those cases of parental alienation which are diagnosed as such by clinicians, not those which are self diagnosed by parents. We do not offer generic family therapy and we only offer our services where it is either demonstrated that parental alienation exists or where the evidence points to a case being alienation via a child’s refuse/resist behaviour. We do not accept a case unless those things are present and we do not routinely view cases of conflicted dynamics between parents as parental alienation. Only in cases where a child absolutely refuses a relationship with a parent and where the clinical markers of psychological splitting are in place would we consider a case to possibly be that of parental alienation and accept it for assessment for our intervention. This is because when we intervene we do so swiftly and we do so on the basis of the court system being configured correctly around the child. It is very important that anyone considering using our services understands these core elements, because we turn down many more cases than we accept on the basis that not all cases of children’s difficulty with post separation relationships are that of parental alienation.


6 thoughts on “On the Perils of Therapy in Alienation Cases

  1. Child inclusive primary dispute resolution is vital in resolving hostility between ‘ conflicted Split parents’
    Child focused and inclusive work can be positive and coaching couples towards the best interest of the children can be rewarding tough work .
    Parenting plans need to be the outcome so that court orders which prevent costly back sliding can have teeth .
    This area of expertise is much needed and SSOPA and Karens work have the potential to prevent much emotional and financial hardship .

    As a long time person working with families and the courts. I commend you . It’s a tough job and someone’s got to do it .


  2. I would posit that the whole legal profession, which includes judges & magistrates, have a tendency to consider their own professional interests as much as the interests of their clients & as such SOME may be tempted to steer towards resolutions which involve the whole legal process being very, very well used.


  3. The he said/she said scenario has a lot to answer for. It is played out in various scenarios such as the usual “it takes two to create a conflict” but also more subtle ways. One more subtle scenario where is where contact between the children and usually the non-resident parent does seem to work for some time, sometimes even years, before breaking down with the children refusing all contact. The court system will then immediately without looking at the facts before them conclude that these parents can cooperate because contact has happened. This is somewhat contradicted by the fact that there is usually a court order in place and now an application for enforcement before them, but that does not seem to worry them. Contact has happened and that per definition means the parents can cooperate. A closer look at the situation would reveal a rather different story, maybe the alienating parent is using the children to continue to exert power and control over the other parent, a pattern established long before the divorce. Maybe the alienated parent has learnt to navigate the whims of the alienating parent and make things sort of work, but is now at the end of their tether. Whatever the real story the courts will not be interested, they will only see a he said/she said temporary breakdown of cooperation and hence do little or nothing.

    Much as I think the he said/she said conclusion of the court system, a lazy or ignorant conclusion, is guilty of much of the problem, it is not the whole story. What also hampers identification of PA is our belief that a victim must be believed. A child or woman who tells a story of abuse must not be exposed to questioning aimed at establishing the facts, that would be considered hostile and damaging to them. They must immediately be considered victims, not alleged victims. There seems to be very little understanding in our society that a person who comes telling a story of abuse is deserving of our compassion regardless of whether that story is true or not. We owe it to that person (as well as the person whom they accuse) to establish the facts because if the story of abuse they tell is not true then something else is terribly wrong in their life and we cannot not provide them with the correct help if we do not know what the problem is.


  4. so frightening to read when you know the child in your case is being seen by a counsellor who won’t consider anything offered to them (professional papers – considered opinions – case outlines – history summaries) that references PA as a factor – says the therapy is ‘child-centred’ and will only consider what the child brings to the sessions – alienated parent rendered impotent again – another gate-keeper standing between the child and the lost parent – having, again, to put trust in people who you just hope are professional enough not to look at what’s in front of them just from their own interested perspectives – further damage probably being done to the child – real truths being pushed further down – validation of harmful behaviours experienced – meanwhile the child has grown over a foot in height in the four+ years this has been going on at entrenched alienated level – photos of the child look unrecognisable – the child’s face (a young adult now) looks just like the alienators – all traces of the alienated parent features seem to be missing in that face – some days are just depressing – sometimes it feels better not to look


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