The Heart of The Matter: The Power and Control Variable in Parental Alienation

Following on from the last post in which we explored the variables of location, situation and transition, this post looks at the variable of power and control, which in parental alienation, is the very heart of the matter.

A variable, is something which exists in different measures and which affects the subject we are looking at.  If we do not take account of the variables in our consideration of a case, we are completely ignoring hugely important factors in a case, such as how a child became alienated.  When we understand how a child became alienated, we understand how to build an intervention route to help the child and it is that intervention, which currently in the UK, is the only route to assisting in these cases.

Assessing the child’s route into alienation allows us to go to the heart of the matter, which is how, when we meet the child, is he/she currently being impacted by the power and control dynamic in the case.  Put another way, what do we as practitioners need to do in order to free the child from the control the alienating parent has over them.

The way in which we are currently brought into a case in the UK is to be instructed as a ‘part 25 expert’ which means that our expertise is required by the court in a case where a child is resistant or refusing to see a parent.  Even in such circumstances as the court requiring our expertise, it is not a given thing that we will be instructed.  Many parents who are determined to control outcomes, recognise that appointing an expert in parental alienation is not what they want in their case and so simply refuse to agree to instruction.  Even writing this blog can be a reason for exclusion in a case, as can the use of information on the internet such as that which is written by other bloggers about me.  Being recognised as an expert in parental alienation and someone who has achieved a large number of successful reunifications in cases in the UK, is not a precursor to automatic appointment therefore.  In fact in some cases it goes completely against instruction, which means that writing this blog and working in court appointed cases is always a juggling act for me.  Parents can simply refuse to appoint someone with expertise in a case in the UK (although they must put up an alternative if they do) and so it is by no means as easy as ABC to get your preferred witness into your case in the UK.

The Systems Variable

And therein lies our first power and control variable, the adversarial nature of the court proceedings in which these cases are managed and the way in which a determined alienating parent can, if they choose to do so, exert power and control even at the point where the court recognises that there is something deeply wrong in the family.

All cases of parental alienation have at their heart an imbalance of power which leads to one parent taking control of the children.  This is something which I have been long interested in and  it is something which many supporters of a presumption of  50:50 shared care, believe will remedy the problem.  Unfortunately, because of my experience in working in cases where there is 50:50 shared care, I cannot agree that this alone is the remedy for the power and control imbalance in parental alienation.  I completely agree that the more time a child spends with a parent, the more protected against alienation they are.  But I do not agree that 50:50 is an automatic preventer of parental alienation.  Because it simply is not borne out by the evidence in our practice. Let me dig deeper.

In our work with children affected by parental alienation, what we see is that the biggest protection from parental alienation comes from the balancing of power and control between parents.  This not just about what the state sets in terms of what is fair and just but in what parents themselves bring to the table.  This means that a child is protected from the alienation reaction by the manner in which their parents are able to hold the power in balance so that one or the other cannot gain control over the minds of the children unduly.  Unfortunately, 50:50 care alone does not prevent that from happening.

This means that even in the scenario usually seen in the UK of 80:20 division of care, children are not swayed one way or the other if the power is held and maintained evenly.  Whilst I accept that 50:50 as a starting point is a fair and just principle, I have seen far too many families start at 50:50 and end up at 100:00 because the parent with the most control behaviours, managed to influence the child into complete rejection.  I have also seen cases where 10:90 division of care ended up 100:00 in favour of the parent who started with least care, because that parent was able and willing to exert control over the child and persuade them to reject the parent with the majority care. (These are cases where mothers begin with majority care but are edged completely out of their children’s lives via the determined campaign of denigration and control waged by the father).

Power and control therefore is a huge factor in these cases and can devastate a family even where equal care was the starting point.  In order to address this problem, 50:50 care plus education and support to the family throughout the establishment of this arrangement is a much better bet in my view.

What the Child Experiences Variable

The child is the location for the alienation reaction to take effect, therefore what the child experiences variable is a critical factor to take into account when analysing any case.  The child may, even in cases where a parent is making overt threats, prove to be resilient to them.  A child’s resilience depends upon many things, not least self esteem, critical thinking skills and attachment relationships.  A resilient child will not become alienated but will find a way to manoeuvre around the efforts to control in order to maintain the relationship with the parent being pushed out.

A child who is not resilient however and who is highly sensitive, who has perhaps been witness in the past to control behaviours from a parent and who has an insecure attachment, is not resilient and will, over time, respond to the control being exerted over them.  What this child experiences looks pretty much like the diagram below.  The large circle being the controlling parent, the small circle being the child or alternatively the parent being targeted for rejection.

Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 09.43.32

The child experience variable requires us to examine the case through the eyes of the child and to look at the resilience or lack of it in order to determine what needs to change in the situation to free the child. Once again, power and control dynamics can exist with a parent with a personality disorder or without a parent with a personality disorder and it can exist with systemic control or without systemic control.

Systemic Control Variable

The systemic control variable is the manner in which the family system as it moves from together to living apart, is influenced by the wider family members.  This variable, which can be wildly different in every case, (although some common fixed factors exist), is one which helps us to understand who in the family is the source of the power and control dynamic.  This may be a parent, it may be a grandparent, it may be an aunt or an uncle.  In such families, cross generational power and control dynamics are strong and what is happening here in the present can often be caused by drivers in people who are now long dead.  Picking apart the power and control variable in the family system, leads us to the source of the power and control dynamic and when we find the source, we begin to understand what we must do to free the child.

Parental Alienation as an Onion Variable!

A Strange thing to say but absolutely true in terms of how we understand a case of parental alienation.  The child at the centre of a set of concentric circles, all of which involve a layer of influence upon the child.  How the key players in each of these layers interact with each other, works to increase or decrease the pressure upon the child. And the more pressure upon the child, the more the child will cling to the use of psychological splitting.

Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 10.03.47

Each of the players in these concentric circles, has power and some have more power than others.  In assessing any case of parental alienation therefore, the first thing we do after recognising that this is a case of alienation (because we see that the eight signs of alienation are present), is assess where the power lies.  We assess where the power lies by understanding the characters in the concentric circle drama and analysing who has the most and who has the least power.

We do this because it is power we seek when we are liberating children from alienation.  Power over is the dynamic which is seen and competing patterns of power are woven into every case.  When I ask the question ‘who has the most power’ in our supervision sessions, what I am looking for is the practitioner’s capacity to understand where the power lies in a case.  In doing so I am looking at their capacity to understand that liberation of a child from alienation requires the practitioner to lever power where it is necessary.  Let me explain.

In the UK the person with the most power in a case in court should be the judge.  That is not however strictly the case if the judge is not conversant with the case as a power and control issue.  In such cases,  it is often the CAFCASS officer or Guardian who holds much of the power because the judge listens to what they say and acts upon it.  Therefore, as practitioners in this field we have to understand the judge and understand the understanding of the Guardian.

We also have to understand the skill of any other professionals in the case, the psychiatrist for example or the clinical psychologist.  And if there are social workers in the case because it is a public law not a private law case, we have to recognise that they, by default of holding the purse strings, hold the most power of all. Unless the judge is powerful, knowledgeable and determined, which is of course what we all want our judges to be in these cases.

Because stabilising a case of parental alienation and obtaining the power to rectify the power and control dynamics, requires us as practitioners to work under the power of the judge to hold the concentric circles steady.  Regardless of how good our differentiation is and how good our formulations are, how sound our theories might be and how definite we are in our diagnosis, if the judge doesn’t get it, the system isn’t stable and a fight will break out for power amongst the professionals.  When the alienating parent sees this, they will use that instability to manipulate unstable power dynamics, persuade bendy thinkers like social workers and snatch victory even from the jaws of defeat because of it.  I know because I have been there, as has anyone who really does this work.  In an unstable system, an unstable systemic system is always going to wobble.  Add in a dose of wobbly thinking professionals and what you have is really just a long big punch up of subjective beliefs and experiences.

Managing cases of parental alienation is not as easy as ABC.  If it were I would be shouting it from the rooftops and would spend all of my days working to get that simple formula into place in every single nook and cranny which exists in this field.  Sadly, from experience I know that it is not and that the variables in all cases cause it not to be so.

Science is built upon the work of the past and by testing, exposing and researching a model in different situations.  Which means that all of the elements, all of the variables and all of the remedies too have to be on the table and in my toolbox for use.

Because by any means necessary I want to free the child to live an unconscious experience of childhood.

It is all that being a practitioner in this field ever wishes to do.


11 thoughts on “The Heart of The Matter: The Power and Control Variable in Parental Alienation”

  1. Karen- I initially had 50/50 shared care. However, I would have to agree that 50/50 shared custody will not work if the alienator is determined to have full control over the children. It was a living hell of 50/50 shared care. The father did every single horrible act imaginable to break me. When the children were with me, he bought cell phones for the children and were in constant contact with them instructing them what to do. He instructed them to steel important documents from the file cabinet, he directed them to set the computer as server sot that he had access to everything I do. Three children going in three different directions, that i could not keep up with what they are after he sent them in three different directions to acheive and conquer. He instructed to be spy to whom I speak with and listen to all calls and messages. Steel the phone numbers to people whom i spoke with. He sent them to destroy my notes for my lawyer. He coached them many many times to call the police and claim I am abusing them. He was determined to have abuse neglect, physical emotional title hanging on my head and he went after me full strength. The police would come to the house and tell me that my husband was goading and gas lighting me, however the process of children claiming abuse had to be followed and child support services (CPS) were contacted and the children were returned to the father. The next day CPS determined false abuse claim and children were back in my care. But that was not that easy because it had to go through lawyers because the father refused any communication with me. He tricked them into calling CPS, the children thought they were calling counselors and speaking with them when in fact they were calling CPS and putting in a claim. I found this out after seeing the youngest child talk to someone on the house phone and when I redialed the number it was CPS. The child had no idea what was happening. He forced the children to send me information and they knew way too much. They were very empowered over me and were willing to hit me. He directed them to leave the home and not tell me where they were at. After all, a mother should know the whereabouts of her children, and that must be neglect if she does not know where they are. They would come over and say cook and feed us, because if you don’t that is abuse so get up and do it. If I said help me cook and clear the dishes after dinner, they would say that is abusive do it yourself we are not your slaves. If I said you can’t play video games until your homework is done, that is abusive we will do our homework when we want. He sent them to steal things and spy on me and destroy things in order for him to win the case. The lied to lawyers, the judge, the social worker, CPS and therapists. Power and control indeed is a huge factor especially if the other parent is out to destroy any way possible without leaving marks on you.

    The court system variable-How could the children be resilient in this situation? The father was manipulating them and using them as pawns. They had no choice. Further, he won over the court system. And the children thought well if the court system is on my father’s side then therefore all he is telling us must be true. Mom is this monster he claims her to be. The lack of skills and competency of the lawyers and all court officials debilitates a case. And their bias destroys the family and the children end up with an unwell parent that they cannot escape from for decades to come if ever. The court system determined the children should be with the father and I should have no custody what so ever only if the children “wished” to see me.

    What is recovery for such a case? Or hell should I say.



    1. Anonymous I too know all about the power and control dynamic. In my case it happened within an intact marriage where our daughter was living with both of us in the family home. He decided he preferred her to me and set about destroying my relationship with her by raising her far above me. From age 15 onwards I was the tiny circle in the diagram above and every time she was downright rude to me and critical of me he backed her up and agreed with her. It left me with no power at all as a parent. I stayed for 19 years knowing that if I ever left him I would never see her again because she would choose him every time. When she was almost three years old her elder sister died age five. I went to pieces but struggled through each day while he carried on as normal. When I complained that he never helped he told me “If you ever leave me I will fight for custody and I WILL WIN”. So even before my daughter was 15 and became my husband’s puppet, he had thought about pushing me out.

      The main point of my post is to repeat that it can and did happen within a long standing marriage. If one parent wants to get rid of the other parent ( or punish them) by alienating the child/ren they will do it no matter how much “shared” time they have. Once the other parent becomes powerless the game is over. The alienating parent has won and achieved what they set out to do.

      When I left my husband three years ago, my daughter was 33 years old. When I told him I was leaving he told me “Good, I won’t have to share her with you anymore”. The more I hear his words in my head the more I think HE was crazy. Many of the things he said and did were unbelievable for a grown man to say and do.


  2. How I wish that ALL professionals involved in a PA case understood that it is NOT automatic that the parent the children spend most of their time with MUST be the alienating parent (as you make clear in this post Karen). The control exerted by the least present parent can be considerable, if not overwhelming …….. modern day technology makes it easy for the absent parent to infiltrate the children’s time with the majority carer……..add this to an existing unequal power to influence between the parents (irrespective of how time is divided up between them) to the time the more dominant influencing parent IS physically with the kids and the resident parent becomes a sitting duck.

    Parents really need professionals in these cases to understand and stop assuming so easily and quickly where apparently blame must lie if they are truly committed to protecting children. Life is rarely so simple.


  3. You gave the example of the mother having majority of care , only to be nudged out by the father leading to him having 100% care . For me this happened the other way round : the wife left then for months , I gave her unrestricted access , however she then love bombed the teenagers , manipulated them told them lies , twisted circumstances , finally resulting in her “ collecting” them whilst I was out , then making further false allegations to the police , only to now being unable to have absolutely no contact in any form at all and neither my side of the extended family .


    1. Anon, I don’t know what ” love bombing” is….. would you be kind enough to explain this term please?


      1. Love bombing can be used in a positive way in normal parental relationships , however it can be used in a negative way too . It’s the bombardment of attention and affection to promote attachment to influence the targeted person or often a child , Suddenly the child is faced with affection and attention they previously longed for from a parent , this parent , is enticing the child’s devotion to them from the other parent.
        Sometimes in an adult relationship one partner targets the other :ione is love bombed and also sex bombed at the start of a relationship, only to find that once a commitment is made by the target , ie to a commitment of marriage or kids or both , suddenly the love and sex disappears , only to be replaced with domestic abuse of some kind and later followed by the alienation of the children within the marriage by the same person who initiated the love bombing . Your loving dream partner turns into your living nightmare. Sometimes the situation is even generational ,.
        If only I knew years ago what I know now .


      2. Thanks for the explanation…. wondering where the term comes from/ who initiated it…..or is it a term you have created yourself?

        It’s just a fact of life that love doesn’t always last, that what initially looked like love can turn out not to be a healthy idea of love at all……’s not unusual surely for romantic encounters to be very loved/sexed up in the early period only for this to die away as time goes on, perhaps simply because as time goes on and one’s understanding of another deepens we realize that they are not right for us/too many things aggravate etc………a good reason for humans not to rush into procreation with someone they don’t know beyond the heady initial stages of romantic entanglement!


      3. Re love bombing………… Searching on line found out that this concept for use by a parent with a child came from the well known psychologist Oliver James and was conceived as a positive aid in parenting.


    1. Dwayne Houston. When you can leave a comment which does not simply repeat the behaviour of Dr Childress and project onto me the things you cannot see for yourself, I will be happy to let your views through. I disagree with you fundamentally and feel that you have a distorted view of what is being said here and are purposefully promulgating the idea that I am somehow opposing your beliefs and somehow preventing you from getting what you want. I am not. I am not black and white about PD at all and I understand how it is diagnosed. I am simply not able or willing to be forced into saying that your belief is the absolute truth. It is not. I am sorry if you believe that this means I am somehow stopping the solution from being enacted, it is untrue but I cannot stop you believing it.

      I have set out my views. I do not intend to spend my time having debates on here about why my views somehow mean I am preventing change from happening.

      Change happens when scientific testing occurs. New things build on old things. Just because you believe something is true, does not make it true.

      I wish you well. I wish yours and Dr Childress’s campaign well. I wish everyone and anyone affected by this horrible problem well. Now I must go to work and do another stint with families in the UK court system. Where I cannot use Dr Childress’s model – no matter how much people believe that is untrue – because it does not work in the UK legislative framework and I cannot refer to it in my reports because of the lack of evidence base in terms of how it could work. The last time I attempted to use it the Judge told me he was not interested in rigid diagnostics.

      Simple answer to this problem – peer review. Scientific testing and bingo – the answer is in your hands. Doesn’t take long. I will help to do it.

      Best wishes



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